I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.
Many years ago I wrote a novel for children called Beyond the Door. As soon as I finished it I began writing a sequel which I slogged over for many months. After a while, though, I gave up because my heart wasn’t in it.
It’s a strange expression that, isn’t it, “my heart wasn’t in it.” It means that you’re not interested in or enthusiastic about something, and it’s a surprisingly common phrase. You often hear people talking about a task they had to do, or even a job they once had, which they stopped doing because their heart wasn’t in it. It suggests that there is connection between enthusiasm and passion and our heart, as if in order to find something worth doing there needs to be some deep and unseen connection with our heart.
The heart is often referenced in scripture; the verses from Ezekiel above are certainly not exceptional in this respect. In these verses, God gives Ezekiel a message for the Israelites. God tells Ezekiel to tell the Israelites that he will “give them a new heart” to follow him. God will give them a new passion for him and a new desire to follow his teachings. He will replace their hearts of stone which were closed to his word and instead give them hearts of flesh so that they will be receptive to all that he says to them. God also promises the Israelites that he will put his Holy Spirit in them and through the Spirit he will give them new enthusiasm for following his teachings and living to serve, honour and glorify him.
We find here, in the Old Testament, an indication of how we might “walk by the Spirit,” as Paul urged us to do in Galatians 5:16-17. Let us pray to God and ask that, as he promised the Israelites, he will take away our hearts of stone and replace them with hearts of flesh, so that we might be willing to listen and receptive to the teachings of his word. Let us thank him for sending us the Holy Spirit that dwells within us and ask that the Spirit will move us to live according to God’s plans for us. Let’s pray that our hearts would be in following God, and that we would do so with passion an enthusiasm.
1 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. 2 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. 3 He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”
I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”
4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! 5 This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. 6 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.’”
7 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. 8 I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.
9 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.’” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.
11 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.’12 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. 13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 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.’”
Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 (This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.) 3 So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.”
4 When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” 5 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6 So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days, 7 and then he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.”
8 “But Rabbi,” they said, “a short while ago the Jews there tried to stone you,and yet you are going back?”
9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Anyone who walks in the daytime will not stumble, for they see by this world’s light. 10 It is when a person walks at night that they stumble, for they have no light.”
11 After he had said this, he went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.”
12 His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.” 13 Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep.
14 So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, 15 and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”
16 Then Thomas (also known as Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
17 On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18 Now Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, 19 and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.
21 “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
24 Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
27 “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”
28 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.” 29 When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 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.
32 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.”
33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. 34 “Where have you laid him?” he asked.
“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.
35 Jesus wept.
36 Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”
37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
38 Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. 39 “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.”
40 Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”
41 So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 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.”
43 When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”44 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.”
45 Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
What follows is the text of a sermon I preached on April 10th 2011 at Effingham Methodist Church in Surrey.
What fantastic weather we’ve been having! All week we seem to have been blessed with warm and sunny days, evidence that spring is finally here. Yesterday I drove through the Surrey hills and after the cold bleakness of winter it was wonderful to see dandelions in the verges, the horse chestnut trees coming into leaf and the bluebells starting to appear in the woodlands. Everywhere we look we see signs of new life. We couldn’t even miss it on television, with BBC 2 showing ‘Lambing Live’ all this week. It’s hard not to be in a good mood with all of this happening around us.
My week came crashing back down to earth on Friday, though, when I received a letter in a brown envelope. Straight away my heart dropped. Brown envelopes are never normally good news! I was right to be concerned. When I opened the envelope I found a letter instructing me that I need to complete a tax return. What a way to put a downer on an otherwise great week! As I put the letter down, I was reminded of the words of Benjamin Franklin, who famously remarked that there are only two certainties in life; death and taxes. I might have been thinking joyfully about new life, but here was the confirmation that none of us can escape paying tax!
In our readings today, we’ve heard a lot about life and death. We saw the dry bones in Ezekiel that came to life. We saw the death and resurrection of Jesus’ close friend, Lazarus, in our gospel reading. We’ll return to this crucial idea shortly, but first there are a couple of other things in our passages that our worth reflecting on.
Firstly, the idea that God acts in his own time, and in his own way. This is perhaps the most striking feature of the first part of our gospel reading. Lazarus, Jesus’ friend, falls ill and his sisters, Martha and Mary waste no time in sending word to Jesus that the one he loves is sick. We might expect on hearing this that Jesus would straight away dash back to Bethany to be with his friend, and, bearing in mind all that he has done so far during his ministry, heal him. Actually, Jesus does nothing of the sort. He stays exactly where he is for another two days before heading back to his friends.
Why does Jesus leave his friends to wait? Why doesn’t he respond to their implicit plea to return quicker?
This is something that we might have felt at times too, this waiting for God to intervene in our lives or to help us. The truth is, though, that the Christian life is often one of waiting. It can look to us, humans so obsessed with time and seeing things done when we want them, that God is being neglectful. There are some big questions that we can ask that seem to suggest that God neglects us.
Why did it take so long for God to address the fall?
Why did it take so many years for the messiah to arrive?
Why hasn’t Jesus returned yet?
Why hasn’t God answered my prayer yet?
Why has my best friend still not turned to Christ despite my constant praying?
The truth is, of course, that God is not neglecting us, he is just not responding to us quite as quickly as we might wish. God takes a different outlook on the trials and tribulations that we are going through. We are largely unaware of the circumstances that surround the events in our lives and the lives of others, as well as the consequences of them. God, on the other hand, has a totally different conception of time. Whilst we want things done right now, God, who has a broader perspective, might take a different view. It might seem that God is exposing us to real hardship by not responding right now, but perhaps that is all for the best. We cannot know the true impact of what we are doing or not doing, saying or not saying, on the lives of those around us. What might seem like an incredible hardship to us might be a real blessing to someone else. If we believe that God works through all things for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose, as Paul states in his letter to the Romans, God works through our hardships and uses them for the good of all his people. He is not ignoring us or abandoning us, he is working through our lives for the benefit of his kingdom.
The consequences of Jesus delaying his return to Bethany are clear in our reading. Lazarus dies, and, when he does return, Martha and Mary are distraught. We might even be able to see a little anger in their words when they both say to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” even if they follow this statement up with a really striking example of faith, “but I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
If we track back a little, Jesus explains to his disciples why he is delaying his return. In verse 14, John records Jesus saying, “Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so you may believe.”
Jesus is not ignoring his friends, but he is not going to be browbeaten into acting in someone else’s time. He intends to act in his own time, in a way that will give maximum glory to God. He doesn’t intend to heal Lazarus, he has something even more significant planned, that will lead to many more people accepting that he is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God.
When we pray, it is worth bearing this in mind. Jesus did not neglect his friends, and he won’t neglect us either. He might not respond to our demands straight away, but we can be confident that he will respond, just in his own time, and at a time that brings maximum glory to the kingdom.
The second point to observe in both our Old Testament and Gospel readings is the extent to which God is a God of action. On Ezekiel 37, the prophet was taken to a valley full of dry bones. The miracle that ensued demonstrated that God was not just a God of words, but is also a God of action. Many Jews were getting despondent around this time and beginning to lose faith in God, but this miracle showed that their trust in God was well placed. If he could restore life to a jumble of dry bones, how much more could he do for his people! God also has good news for the Jews, he will open their graves and “bring them up from them.” Coming on the heels of this incredible miracle, there was no reason whatsoever to doubt in God’s ability to follow through on his promises!
Jesus was undeniably a great teacher, but if that was all he was, then it’s unlikely that we’d still be talking about him today. It’s also unlikely that Jesus would have ruffled so many feathers in first century Palestine. We can see in verse eight that Jesus had already been angering the authorities; the disciples say to him, “but Rabbi, a short while ago the Jews there tried to stone you.” Clearly Jesus had already made his presence felt, and it seemed risky to return. The disciples seem unhappy about letting Jesus head back into a place where he could encounter violent opposition once more. Jesus knew the cost, however, and returned anyway. He knew the miracle that he was about to work, and he knew the consequences of it: ultimately it would lead him to the cross and his own death. He also knew, however, that it would be the sign that many who doubted Jesus’ identity needed to convince them of his divinity. How could anyone fail to believe that Jesus was the Son of God after witnessing this miracle? As we’ve already established, Jesus was completely correct; verse 45 records that, “many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.”
It’s often said that actions speak louder than words, and in the case of Jesus, this is indeed the case. Many people at the time would have been most shaken by Jesus’ actions, the big miracles like the healings, but also the way he lived his life, choosing to eat with tax collectors for example. Teaching can be ignored, but these actions always prompted an enormous response. The same is true today. Stop someone in the street and ask someone about Jesus and they’ll almost certainly tell you about the feeding of the five thousand, or Jesus walking on water.
It’s true of us, too. We can tell all our friends about our faith, but what will provoke the greatest response is our actions, the things that we do that set us apart from the rest of the world. Perhaps we dedicate our lives to charity work. Maybe we adopted children. Perhaps we are generous with our time. Whether they’re large or small, it’s these actions that grab people’s attention, and make them reflect on why we live our lives in this way.
Of course, it is the resurrection of Lazarus, a man who had been dead for four days that drew the most attention to Jesus in this passage, and that has the most significance for us today. One of the first things that Jesus says to Martha on his arrival in Bethany is to tell her that her brother will rise. Martha, like many Jews at the time, believed in a resurrection on the final day. She trusts that Lazarus will rise again at that time. Jesus, though, has something much more immediate in mind. He follows up Martha’s statement by telling 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?”
This is an incredible statement to make. Martha responds by saying, “yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”
Martha’s faith appears unshakeable. Even at this very difficult moment, whilst she is mourning her beloved brother, she believes completely in Jesus.
But what about us? What if Jesus asked us this question?
I’m sure that we’re all thinking, of course I’d answer yes, of course I’d answer the same way that Martha did. But what if we’re completely honest to ourselves? If we were responding completely privately, to no one but ourselves, could we still say yes? Or would we answer, well, probably, maybe, possibly, perhaps. I’d like to believe but there are so man things that are preventing me from saying yes.
Perhaps it’s worth looking a little more closely at this statement. The first thing to note is that Jesus doesn’t say that he will resurrect or give life. He says that he is the resurrection and the life. He is the embodiment of it. It is the word of God that brought creation into being, and, the Gospel writer John makes it clear at the beginning of his Gospel that Jesus is that word, the word made flesh. Jesus is life; it is he who gave it, and it is he who continues to give it. All he needs to do to resurrect Lazarus is to call him out of his tomb, and he came to life.
It’s also interesting that Jesus draws a distinction between resurrection and life in his statement. In chapter five of John’s gospel, Jesus says, “an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.” Jesus makes it clear here that everyone will be resurrected from the dead, not just Christians. The difference comes in what happens after the resurrection; all those who have done good and followed Christ will be given new life, whilst all those who have done evil and neglected Christ will find themselves subject to judgment.
Returning to Jesus’ statement in today’s reading, Jesus tells us that those who believe in him will live, even though they die. Physical death is something that comes to us all; it is, after all, one of the two certainties of life according to Benjamin Franklin. The life that Jesus is talking about is spiritual life. This is the life that we gain as soon as we place our trust in Christ, the life that comes when the Holy Spirit fills us. This is the life that comes to is when, as some Christians like to say, we are “born again.” This is the life that will never die. Our bodies might expire, die and be buried, but our spiritual life will never die.
Can we really believe this? It all just seems too fantastical to be true.
We can believe it because of what we read in the Bible. We saw in Exekiel how God restored a jumble of bones to life. We see in our Gospel reading that Lazarus, who was dead, was raised to life at the word of Jesus. And we can believe it because of what the resurrection of Lazarus foreshadows, the resurrection of Christ. If we believe what we read, and we accept the testimony of people like Martha and Mary, and of course Lazarus himself, then we can believe that even though we die, we will live. If we believe that God brought creation into existence, and gave life to the very first humans, then why should we not believe that Jesus can give us new life too?
We’ve barely scratched the surface of this incredible story today, but there are three points I’d like us to take away today:
Firstly, that God acts in his own way, and in his own time. God does not neglect his people. At times we might get impatient with waiting, but God always comes to those who love him and who call to him for help. Just as Jesus did not immediately rush to be with Martha, Mary and Lazarus, however, God might not rush straight to our aid. God responds to his people in the way that is most beneficial for his kingdom, but he hears us, and delights in coming to our aid.
Secondly, Jesus is best seen through his actions, as are we. Jesus made the greatest impression on those who knew him by what he did. Similarly, what we do has the power to have a tremendous impact on those around us. We therefore need to ensure that we are being active in our faith, and strive to live out the gospel practically.
Finally, we saw the amazing miracle of Lazarus’ resurrection. We know that Jesus is the resurrection and the life, and by believing in him, we are given new life. Jesus tells us that those who believe in him will live, even though they die. We might physically die, but spiritually we have been reborn, and will never die.