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Whoever Believes Will Never Die
Ezekiel 37:1-14; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:17-45

Someone once said that if you could convince a man that there is no hope, he would curse the day he was born. For hope, after all, is an indispensable quality of life.

There is the story of how, many years ago, a U.S. submarine was rammed by another ship and quickly sank. The entire crew was trapped beneath the water. Ships rushed to the scene of the disaster, just off the coast of Massachusetts.

We don't know what took place down in the sunken submarine, but we can be sure that the men clung bravely to life as the oxygen slowly gave out.

A diver placed his helmeted ear to the side of the vessel and listened. He heard a tapping noise. Someone, he learned, was tapping out a question in the dots and dashes of the Morse Code. The question came slowly: "Is . . . there . . . any . . . hope?"

This seems to be the cry of humanity: "Is there any hope?"
A well known pastor tells the story of how while he was attending college, back in the '30's, he visited a psychiatric institution with a group of students in order to observe various types of mental illness. The experience proved to be very disturbing. He tells of one man he met who was called "No Hope Carter." He was a tragic case. A victim of syphilis, he was going through the final stages when the brain is affected.

Before he began to lose his mind, this man was told by the doctors that there was no known cure for him. He begged for one ray of light in his darkness, but had been told that the disease would run its inevitable course and end in death. Indeed, with time, the man's brain deteriorated and he became more and more despondent.

When he was observed in his small, barred room about 2 weeks before he died, he was pacing up and down in mental agony. His eyes stared blankly, and his face was drawn and ashen. Over and over he muttered these two forlorn and fateful words: "No hope! No hope!" He said nothing else.

Our scripture passages for today, on the other hand, tell us that there is hope. Our Old Testament lesson, for instance, tells us that even after a whole nation of people has been defeated and has even begun to lose its identity and cohesiveness there is still hope.

Indeed, this is what had happened to the people of Israel. They were being forced to pay tribute to other outside powers. They were losing their sense of national identity. The morals of the people were decaying. No longer was the majority of the people concerned for religious things. In Ezekiel's eyes, Israel looked very much like a valley full of old dry bones. And deep down in his heart, Ezekiel wondered if there was any hope for the people of Israel. And he began to wonder why God had even brought Israel into existence if all Israel was going to do was fade away into history and be forgotten for the rest of time.

But God told Ezekiel to preach to the old dry bones of Israel. And, indeed, as Ezekiel prophesied and preached to those old dry bones, he saw something happen. As Ezekiel says, "There was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone." And then flesh covered the bones. And, finally, breath came into the people of Israel. Where there was no hope, where there didn't seem to be any sign of life, God's Spirit came in and brought an abundance of life.

I once preached a sermon called, "How Bad Can Things Get?" In that sermon I was asking a question that I have heard in churches from time to time, especially as they have wondered about their decreasing memberships and increasing financial hardships. Looking at their situations, they have wondered, "How bad can things get before we're no longer a church?"

And the answer to that question is that it can get about as bad as we let it. The Sunday School can die, the Conference Claims can go unpaid, there can be dissention and divisions. But, even then (yes! even then), when a church opens itself to the power of God's Spirit, when people are endowed with the life which comes from God, when we decide to fully dedicate ourselves to the ministry God has for us wherever it is that we may live, there is no point on that progression to death, from which we cannot return in strength and vitality.

But, in order for that to happen, we need to feel God's Spirit calling us and moving within us. In order for tendons and muscles and flesh and skin and breath to come back into those tired, dry, old bones, we need to be open to whatever it is that the Spirit would like to do with us. And to be open to God's Spirit means to pray. To be open to God's Spirit means to get involved with Bible Study. To be open to God's Spirit requires a willingness to be devoted to God.

I am reminded of that old gospel song that is now in our new hymnal, entitled, "I Surrender All" The first words are:

All to Jesus I surrender,

All to him I freely give;
I will ever love and trust him,
in his presence daily live.

You know, it is easy to sing any song casually, without really internalizing the words. But, saying something is certainly different from actually doing that thing. The second verse of the song actually tells us what surrendering to Jesus really means:

All to Jesus I surrender,

humbly at his feet I bow,
worldly pleasures all forsaken;
take me Jesus, take me now.

One of the worst things that has happened to the church in the United States is the affluence of the American way of life. Worldly pleasures are at the very fingertips of anyone with a television set. That which would take us away from our devotion and concern for our community and the covenant type of relationship God wants us to experience with God's people is as close as our automobile and the lure of the freeway.

As I grew up in Michigan I learned that there were two words that Michigan people say, more than any other two words, to describe what they like to do with their spare time. And, yet, those two words have probably done more to hurt community and remove valuable resources from what people ought to be calling "home." And what are those two words? "Up North." They're simple little words, really. And they seem harmless enough. But they stand for something that may be doing more than we realize to hurt our local schools, by taking away tax money, our churches and other organizations, by taking away the people, and our homes, because people have chosen to invest in other things that do not enhance the beauty of the local community.

Indeed, the words of that hymn may require more from us than we are willing to give. Is it possible for us to be really serious when we sing:

"All to Jesus I surrender;

humbly at his feet I bow,
worldly pleasures all forsaken;
take me, Jesus, take me now"?

And, yet, it seems that even Jesus had a penchant for impossible situations. And sometimes the more impossible it looked, the better.

Take our lesson from the gospel of John as an example:

The bible tells us that Jesus' friend, Lazarus, had died. In fact, Jesus had known that Lazarus was sick. But, as much of a great physician as he was, Jesus didn't go to Lazarus' bedside to heal him. And even when Jesus knew that Lazarus had just died, he didn't rush to the scene to bring him back to life, like doctors can sometimes do in the emergency room, today. Instead, we are told that Jesus waited four days. And only then did he go to where Lazarus had been laid to rest. And, as impossible as it may have seemed, Jesus ordered that the tomb be opened up. And as the tomb was opened, the people had to stand back because of the stench of Lazarus' decaying flesh.

Nevertheless, in spite of the apparent impossibility of the task, Jesus called forth, "Lazarus, come out!" And life came into Lazarus' body and he walked out of the tomb.

How bad can things get before God can no longer heal our bodies?

How bad can things get before God can no longer repair the brokenness of our relationships?

How bad can things get before God can no longer bring our churches, or our communities, or our selves back to life?

Of course, the answer is that it can never get too bad. For with God all things are possible. And it remains only for us to be open to the renewing, creating, and empowering love of God in our lives. Amen.

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