Bones and Believing

“Christ accepted and bore upon the cross a death inflicted by others, and those other His special enemies, a death which to them was supremely terrible and by no means to be faced; and He did this in order that, by destroying even this death, He might Himself be believed to be the Life, and the power of death be recognised as finally annulled. A marvellous and mighty paradox has thus occurred, for the death which they thought to inflict on Him as dishonour and disgrace has become the glorious monument to death’s defeat.”

-Athanasius of Alexandria

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One of my favorite parts about being a youth pastor is getting to eat together as a little community. Joining together around a meal is one of the best ways people can get to know each other better, and it is definitely modeled for us by Jesus who, the Gospels tell us, spent a lot of his time simply eating with those around him.

The more comical part of eating together [particularly with a group of teenagers] is getting to see different people’s eating particularities. Some people can’t eat if their food is touching. Some people can only eat if their food is piping hot. Some people use a napkin after every bite. Some people [like me… my parents used to call me Mandy Mess] get food everywhere.

Most people are particular about the way they eat in one way or another. But, one of my eating habits is admittedly strange.

I will not eat meat off a bone. I can’t eat ribs, or chicken, or steak that has any sort of bone still in it. Now, I can cut that meat off and eat it. But if the bone is still attached to the meat, I will not eat it. As strange as that is, there is some part of my brain that cannot reconcile eating off of a bone.

You may not have ever given it much thought before, but it’s true: bones are weird. In our bodies, they come together to form our skeleton, where they give us shape and strength and support. The soft tissue called marrow on the inside of our bones helps to synthesize our red blood cells. In that context, bones are totally normal. Healthy human beings (and some other animals) have strong bones.

But outside of the human body, bones become something else. Instead of a sign of life and health, bones outside of bodies become an indication of death and decay. In the Texas hill country, there are many beautiful hiking trails on which it is not uncommon to come upon the skeleton of a dead animal, whether that’s a bird, or a rabbit, or sometimes even something bigger, like a deer. A pile of bones that is not attached to a living thing mean something has died; they point to death.

This is likely why I can’t bring myself to eat meat off of bones. It is also why in almost every culture, bones symbolize death. In medicine, a skull and crossbones means a substance is toxic. And I’m sure you can think of plenty of scary movie scenes where one of the characters has discovered a dark place covered in cobwebs where no one has been in a long time, and they stumble across a skeleton and freak out. The ancient Jews even had a law that prohibited contact with bones (or bodies) of animals that were not used for sacrifice.

So when this ancient Jew named Ezekiel stumbled onto a valley full of bones, he was unsure of what to do. Ezekiel was a prophet in the time of Israelite exile, after they had been captured by the Babylonians and forced to move away from their homes. This is what Ezekiel had to say about this valley of bones:

The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”

I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath[a] enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’”

So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.

Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’”

-Ezekiel 37:1-14

With God’s help and direction, Ezekiel does something amazing. He comes upon this valley which must have once been the site of a great battle. Given the bones lying everywhere, the nation that won the battle did not even do their slain enemies the justice of giving them a proper burial. Instead, their bodies were left, exposed to the elements to slowly decay over time.

When God instructs Ezekiel to prophesy to a bunch of bones, Ezekiel is probably very confused. Prophecy is meant for living people, not the dusty remnants of people’s dead bodies.

But he listens to God. And as he prophesies, these bones begin to take shape, to grow flesh and blood and to have life breathed into them. Out of a field of dry bones, through Ezekiel, God brings a whole army of people back to life again.

And God tells Ezekiel, “As you have seen me do for these bones, so I will do for the whole nation of Israel.” God promises to bring God’s people up from the grave.

That’s a pretty big promise, if you ask me.

But that’s why the story of Lazarus is so important. We come upon Jesus in the Gospel of John, and he has been told that one of his closest friends named Lazarus is gravely ill. Instead of rushing to his side like his disciples expected him to do, he continues going about his business. Then they receive word that Lazarus had died. Only then does Jesus decide to go to where Lazarus and his sisters lived, where they were no doubt grieving his death. It says:

On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.

“Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”

Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”

Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

“Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”

After she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary aside. “The Teacher is here,” she said, “and is asking for you.” When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. When the Jews who had been with Mary in the house, comforting her, noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn there.

When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked.

“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.

Jesus wept.

Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”

But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. “Take away the stone,” he said.

“But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.”

Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”

So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”

When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.

Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”

-John 11:17-44

Like Ezekiel, Jesus does an amazing thing, too. Jesus does an amazing thing AGAIN, actually. The Gospel of Luke tells us that Jesus has done this before; Jesus actually raised a little girl from the dead.

But this time is different. The little girl had only just died, and although Jesus really did raise her from the dead, it was so soon after her death that the people still doubted his ability. There was enough room for the people there to doubt he could bring people back from death, and even if he did, the ancient Jews believed that someone might be brought back to life within the first three days after their death. This is often why they would take their time preparing a body for the tomb, because they hoped some magician or prophet might come along and heal the person who had died if less than three days had passed.

But this time is different because Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days. It seems strange, doesn’t it, that the story is so specific. But that was to emphasize the fact that Lazarus was not just dead. He was really dead. He was beyond hope of new life again.

That’s why Mary and Martha are both so upset. They wanted Jesus to heal Lazarus when he was still alive, but even after he died they likely held out hope for three days, believing that Jesus could come back and wake him up.

However, Jesus waited. Intentionally. And that’s a hard thing to hear. Jesus waited to act even when someone he loved very much needed him immediately. We, who are Christian, the supposed beloved ones of Jesus, believe that he should always be working miracles when we tell him to, when we need him to. But Jesus is subject to no one. Jesus has the authority of God, and works and heals as he pleases.

But Jesus never turns his back. He comes to Lazarus’s grave after four days, after everyone was certain he was really dead. There he weeps, because his friend suffered and died without him there. And then he says “Take away the stone” and calls out to the really dead body “Lazarus, come out!” And he does.

See, when Martha says she believed everyone would be resurrected at the last day, she was thinking back to Ezekiel. She was thinking about God’s promise to raise the Israelite people from their graves.

But did you hear what Jesus says to her? He says, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

Jesus doesn’t say, “I am a really great metaphor for the resurrection and the life.” He doesn’t say, “I perform the resurrection and give life.” He doesn’t even say, “I am like the resurrection and the life.”

No, Jesus says, “I AM the resurrection and the life.” Jesus fulfills that promise that God made to Ezekiel nearly 600 years before. Jesus brings people out of the grave. He takes people who were dead and broken and makes them new and whole again. He pays for our sins so that we can be forgiven by God instead of killed for what we have done. In his own resurrection on Easter, he gave us the gift of eternal life by defeating the power of death.

Then comes my favorite part of the story. Jesus says to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. Do you believe this?” That IS the question, isn’t it, friends? Do you believe this? Do you believe that Jesus does not just perform, resemble or represent the resurrection and the life but that he is the resurrection and the life?

My hope is that we can be like Martha, and so many others since, who have said “Yes, Lord, I believe.”

Grace and peace,

Amanda

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