Based on Ezekiel 37:1-14, Psalm 130, Romans 8:6-11, John 11:17-27
Some of you are probably aware that the religious movement that ultimately became The United Methodist Church began as a revival movement within the Church of England (now the Anglican or Episcopal Churches). John and Charles Wesley were concerned that the Church of England had wandered too far from biblical teaching and they wanted to stimulate a return to a true living of the gospel. They also wanted to see their priestly colleagues get out into the community to connect to and address the social injustices of the day. Thus, the Wesley’s and their Oxford associates began to do visitations at the Oxford jail, the “poor houses”, workhouses and other places that everyday people lived their lives. At the urging of George Whitefield in the late 1730’s, John Wesley began to preach outdoors to coal miners and others who would gather. This “taking the message to the masses” characterized this revival movement in England.
In the latter half of the 1700’s the English revival spread as Irish Methodists brought their religious views to the American colonies. The Methodist Episcopal Church formed outside of Baltimore during Advent in 1784. With the coming of bishops Asbury and Coke, the Methodist Episcopal movement spread out with the expansion of the U.S. A Second Great Awakening occurred in the mid-1800’s and was characterized by Methodist “camp meetings” and “revivals” which sought to bring more people to Christ and to awaken a stronger faith based on fiery preaching, exuberant singing, and a strong experiential component to worship and faith development. People would come in droves to these revivals – some of which lasted a full week. This fervor has died down to the point that revivals are only done sporadically nowadays. Some within Methodism, myself included, have the opinion that it is time for a Third Great Awakening. The Church seems to be in need of reviving.
Our scriptures today speak to us of being revived. The texts from Ezekiel and the Gospel reflect actual reviving of the dead. Paul’s letter to the Romans speaks about life lived in the Holy Spirit and the Psalm reminds us to cry out to our loving God who knows our suffering and will redeem us. Let us go to God in prayer seeking revival…
Psalm 130 is known as one of the “Songs of Ascents” – possibly a song that was sung by believers as they “ascended” the hill leading to the Temple (built on what was Mt. Moriah). It is a song of patient and persistent hope and trust in the LORD who will redeem Israel and forgive her sins, both communal and individual. It is a cry from “out of the depths” for God to hear and to act. That cry resonates with us in this time of separation, anxiety and fear of death. This song calls for us to be persistent in our prayers and our hope that God will revive us and return us to right relationship with God and each other.
Paul is continuing the rhetoric of the conflict between the sinfulness that the world and its deadly wisdom conveys to the hope of life and peace when we live in and through the Holy Spirit. Verse 5 (right before our reading for today) states, “…For those who live according to the world (Paul’s “flesh”) set their minds on things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on things of the Spirit….” He ends our scripture reading with a similar message of hope as the Psalm, “…If the Spirit of God who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the God who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through this same Spirit that dwells in you….” In other words, trust that God will revive us as God has done in the past!
Ezekiel and Jesus give us two compatible stories of revival. The prophet is led by God in a dream to a valley filled with the dried and fleshless bones of the dead of Israel. This is not a huge leap as Ezekiel had seen the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and had been sent into exile in Babylon with the rest of the leadership. All that Ezekiel had known had been removed from his life – and he was floundering in his grief and disoriented by his dislocation. Similarly, the family of Jesus’ friend Lazarus were beset by grief over their loss. Jesus had been asked to come but had not arrived in Bethany until four days after Lazarus had died…four days! Martha scolds Jesus for not saving her brother, and yet also signals that she trusts that God will “give you what you ask”. She knows that Jesus is the long-awaited Christ and puts her hopes in a revival of life in and through Him.
I saw a posting in Facebook this week that stated, “This is the Lent-iest Lent ever!” I just had to chuckle at the truth and pathos of that statement. On Ash Wednesday I challenged you all to empty yourselves, that is to practice kenosis during Lent, so that you could be filled by the Holy Spirit. I certainly did not expect that the ensuing month would bring the kind of emptiness of “social distancing” and work-at-home/school-at-home/worship-at-home reality that we have all come to embody. This enforced emptying of our usual social routines and hyperactive lifestyles, has left many searching to fill this new, uncomfortable and unfamiliar emptiness. We are not used to having to spend so much time within our homes, neighborhoods and families without the distractions of the world. Truly this Lenten season has been one that has compelled us to live in ways that few of us would have adopted if we had a choice in the matter.
We are searching in our Lenten exile for where God is in all of this suffering. We are looking for God to revive us and to set us on a path of renewal for God’s sake. Ezekiel and Jesus are both dealing with God in revival mode. Both are seeking the Almighty power of God to counteract the power of death. In a dream, Ezekiel sees the remains of the people of the house of Israel who have been killed by the army of the Babylonians. Their dried bones lie scattered in the middle of a valley – there is no life in them. God asks Ezekiel, “…Mortal, can these bones live?…” Ezekiel replies wisely, “…O LORD God, you know….” God tells the prophet to speak God’s words so that the bones might live. Likewise, Lazarus has died four days before Jesus arrives and has been placed in a tomb to rest until the “last day”. The usual process of decay has set in and the proximity of the tomb bears the stench of it. Jesus speaks aloud to God and thanks God for hearing his prayer to revive Lazarus, before calling Lazarus to come out. Revival it seems requires a deep trust and faith in the power of God to act in ways that are not humanly possible.
It is indeed a Lent-iest of Lents – even the oldest of us cannot remember its like. We are beset by a force that has overrun our defenses and has brought our ways of living to a standstill. People have already suffered and died from this invasion, and more people will suffer and die before it is all through. It is a dark time indeed across the U.S. and the world. However, as members of the Body of Christ, we must understand that the day we lose our ability to envision a better tomorrow is the day we deny that we really believe that God is Almighty and is able to revive and resurrect us. Therefore, in this time where we are exiled from our work, school, worship and social spaces, let us seek after the reviving power of our Almighty God. Let us take heart in the narratives of how God has acted in mighty ways in the past on behalf of believers, and trust that God is acting even now to bring good from bad and to answer our cries out of the depths of this situation. As Paul wrote presciently 2000+ years ago, “…If the Spirit of God who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the God who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through this same Spirit that dwells in you….” God will revive us – let us trust in the Word of the LORD! Amen and amen!