Sermon: Breathe On Me, Breath of God
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Ezekiel 37.1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8.6-11; John 11.1-45
Breathe on Me, Breath of God
In the Holy Scriptures, we first encounter the breath of God in Genesis 1.1-2: “When God began to create the heavens and the earth, the earth was complete chaos, and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind (ruach) from God swept over the face of the waters.” We need to remember that the Hebrew ruach means breath, spirit, or wind. In the second creation account, we again encounter the ruach of God: “Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath (ruach) of life, and the man became a living being” (Genesis 2.7; NRSVUE). We become living beings only through the breath of God. On Ash Wednesday, many of us received the imposition of the ashes and were told, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” While that is true, we need to remember that is not all of the story. God formed us from the dust of the earth, then we received the breath of life. For a brief period we are more than dust – we are inspirited dust.
Ezekiel 37 contains numerous references to the ruach of God. In Ezekiel’s vision, he sees a valley filled with dry bones, perhaps a long-abandoned battlefield. God tells the bones that God will cause his breath to come upon them and they shall live. When Ezekiel prophesied to the bones, they came together, were joined by sinews and flesh, and covered with skin, but there was as yet no breath in them. God then told Ezekiel: “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” Ezekiel then tells us, “I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, a vast multitude” (Vss. 9-10).
God then reveals the meaning of the vision: The dry bones are none other than the whole house of Israel; as Babylonian captives, they felt they were dead and in the grave. But God promised to deliver them, to bring them back to the land of Israel. Note God’s word: “And you shall know that I am the LORD when I open your graves and bring you forth from your graves … I will put my spirit (ruach) within you, and you shall live” (Ezekiel 37.13-14; NRSVUE). Their figurative graves were opened through the edict of Cyrus the Great; the people were allowed to return.
Now, let’s move from the figurative to the real! Jesus had a special friendship with Lazarus, Mary, and Martha. When Lazarus fell ill and was near death, Mary and Martha sent word to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” No doubt about it – they expected Jesus to drop everything, to come and heal Lazarus. But Jesus stayed two more days before suggesting he and his disciples go to Judea again. The disciples reminded Jesus that things had not gone so well in Judea when they were last there – people tried to stone them! Initially Jesus told them their friend Lazarus had fallen asleep and he was going to awaken him. The disciples understood Jesus literally; they noted Lazarus would wake up and be all right. Jesus finally told them Lazarus was dead, but note what he then said, “For your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. Let us go to him.” Thomas then said to the disciplines, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” We do not know if that was a statement of despair or a confession of loyalty. Both interpretations have merit.
Upon arriving, Jesus found that Lazarus had lain in the tomb for four days. There is a significance to this, for it was commonly believed that one’s spirit remained in proximity for three days. The fourth day assured death was final! When Martha met Jesus, she told him if only he had been there, Lazarus would not have died. Jesus said Lazarus would rise again. Martha acknowledged Lazarus would rise again “in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus then made an astonishing claim: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” Note how Martha responded: ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
Martha then returned and sent Mary to see Jesus. Mary deeply loved Jesus – she had previously poured perfume on Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair. This was an act of intimacy most would have condemned. Mary also told Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Mary, and those who had accompanied her were weeping; Jesus was “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” The Greek work for this is “splanchnoi” which conveys a gut-wrenching feeling. Jesus also wept and asked where they had laid Lazarus.
When they came to the tomb, Jesus commanded the stone be rolled away; Martha warned him of the stench but Jesus replied, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” Jesus then prayed, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” Jesus then cried, “Lazarus, come out!” Lazarus came forth even though he was bound in strips of cloth. Jesus then commanded them to unbind him and let him go. Ezekiel’s prophesy was realized: ”You shall know that I am the LORD when I open your graves and bring you forth from your graves … I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.”
What a story! Lazarus, a man dead for four days was resuscitated. Note I did not say resurrected, for Lazarus would have died again. But this resuscitation showed Jesus’ power over death; it foreshadowed, and precipitated, Jesus death and resurrection a few days later. Remember, Jesus was the first fruits of the resurrection.
When we first meet Jesus, we too are wrapped in burial clothes. But Jesus, and God’s people, invite us to come forth that they may unwraps us. Jesus comes breathing new life into us; Jesus longs for us to have an abundant life – a life filled with joy!
Clark and Elsie, in a few moments you will receive the sacrament of baptism. What is a sacrament? A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. Pouring the water over your head is the outward and visible sign; this act signifies your death to the old life. We will ask if you desire to renounce your old life and commit to a new way of life.
The inward and spiritual grace comes to you through the power of the Holy Spirit; the Spirit comes bearing the gift of life in God’s kingdom. This day is your spiritual birthday! After your baptism, you will be sealed with holy oil and marked as Christ’s own forever and you will be given a lighted candle which represents the new light in your life. You are to keep this candle, and you are to light it each year on the anniversary of your baptism. You are to remember what your baptism means to you.
When one is baptized, one becomes a member of God’s family which consists of all who follow the way of Jesus. Now turn around and look about you; the people you see here are just a small part of your new family. They rejoice in your adoption. Your baptism is a joyous occasion!