Sunday’s sermon: Dead Ends and Dramatic Comebacks

dead end sign

Texts used – Ezekiel 37:1-14 (read in the context of the sermon) and Romans 8:6-11

  • Last Sunday marked the 3rd annual Philadelphia Love Run – a half marathon in the City of Brotherly Love that was started as a gathering for those who simply love Philly and those who just love running so much they can’t contain themselves.
    • Description from the race website: “It is time to ‘get your run on’ because this is going to be the most fun you’ve had running a half marathon in a long time! … From the great perks to the finish line festival … this is the race that loves you back!”[1]
    • Sounds like a good time, right?! Okay … maybe not the running 13.1 miles part, but the support and the party sound pretty good, right? But there was a really incredible moment[2] toward the end of this year’s Philadelphia Love Run.
      • Just feet from the finish – woman started to struggle → And I’m not talking about just slowing to a jog or even walking. I’m not even talking about that thing that runners do when they’re tired – you know, when they put their hands on their head so they can open up their chest cavities and get in more air. This woman was really
        • Seemed like her legs just stopped working
          • Couldn’t move forward
          • Couldn’t coordinate with each other
          • Couldn’t hold her up anymore
          • She literally could not go another step. Her body just. Wouldn’t. Do it.
    • Now, anyone who’s run a marathon or a half marathon talks about the various physical and emotional phases of such an endurance race. – include things like:
      • Anxiousness/nervousness (before starting)
      • Confidence at the starting line → “I’ve totally got this!!”
        • Partly mob mentality – “We’re all in this together.”
      • “Runner’s High” → “I feel great! I am awesome! I am rocking this race! When I get to the finish line, I’m just going to do this all over again!”
      • INEVITABLY: hit The Wall → that point when all your excitement and enthusiasm melt away and you suddenly realize that you’re just running … and running … and running … and running … and you’re out of breath and you’re sore and you could still be in bed right now!
        • More often than not it’s a mental wall
        • BUT woman at the end of the Philadelphia Love Run had hit this wall physically → her struggle was a physical manifestation of a very real and very unrelenting challenge
          • Lots of names for it: hit the wall, plateau, dead end
          • No matter what we call it, it was a road block – something in the way of her realizing her goal of finishing that half marathon.
  • Throughout Lent – talking about Lent as boot camp for the soul
    • Boot camp as a means to effect serious and drastic change
    • Boot camp as a way to step up into a new phase of our lives and ourselves
    • Necessity of hydration – of being replenished and renewed in midst of a boot camp experience
    • How boot camp experiences reveal more in us than we may have even though possible
    • That’s all pretty positive – pretty encouraging. Today, we’re going to talk about that inevitable moment in a boot camp experience when we hit the wall – when we feel so depleted, so challenged, so exhausted (physically, emotionally, spiritually) that we cannot go on. Because as much as we hate those times and what they do to our spirits, we cannot ignore the reality that they exist.
  • Actually going to start with a story that we didn’t read this morning – part of the lectionary but not one of the Scripture readings that I chose → today’s Gospel reading = story of Lazarus’ death/resurrection[3]
    • Found in John’s gospel
    • Lazarus = brother of Martha and Mary, friend of Jesus’
    • Lazarus falls ill
    • Sisters send word to their friend, Jesus: “Lord, the one whom you love is ill.” → reading between the lines: Their expectation is that Jesus, their friend, the great Teacher and healer, will fly to the side of his beloved friend and heal him posthaste.
    • BUT Jesus doesn’t immediately run to Lazarus’ aid à instead:
      • Downplays Lazarus’ illness with his disciples
      • Stays a few more days where he is
      • Drags his feet on returning
    • By the time Jesus returns to Lazarus’ home, Lazarus is dead
      • Not even recently → It’s not like Jesus just missed him by a few hours. Jesus enters the scene to find that Lazarus has already been in his tomb for 4 whole days!
    • Martha and Mary are (understandably) distraught – Martha (always the one ready to speak her mind) to Jesus: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. Even now I know that whatever you ask God, God will give you.”
      • Accusation
      • Challenge
      • Raw and real plea: Bring my brother back!
    • As Jesus makes his way to Lazarus’ tomb → sees Mary’s and Martha’s distress, sees all the other mourners, sees the distress of his disciples, and was “deeply disturbed and troubled,” even to the point of Jesus himself beginning to weep
    • Scripture story includes some of the side conversations of the mourners: “He healed the eyes of the man born blind. Couldn’t he have kept Lazarus from dying?” → Friends, I’m bringing up this story this morning because it shows us that even Jesus had his moments of challenge, his moments of despair, his moments of feeling at a loss – like he’d hit the wall. In some of the things that Jesus says to his disciples before he even sets out for Lazarus’ house, Scripture makes it clear that Jesus wanted to use this as a “teachable moment” – as one of the signs scattered throughout the book of John that he was indeed the Messiah come to set all people free. But knowing that in his head and encountering all that “teachable” pain and grief with his own eyes and his own heart were two different things.
      • Whenever you hit that wall …
      • Whenever you feel at a loss …
      • Whenever you are struggling under the weight of all that you carry …
      • Know … believe … that Jesus has been there, too. Jesus knows how hard it is, how uncomfortable it is, how painful it is.
  • OT reading begins as another story of depletion and desolation this morning
    • READ Ezek 37:1-3
      • A valley full of bones
      • Dry, dry bones
      • He asked me, “Human one, can these bones live again?” And I said, “Lord God, only you know.”[4] → LOTS of discussion among scholars about how this could be read
        • Sense of being overwhelmed
        • Sense of frustration
        • Sense of wholehearted trust
        • No matter how we read it, we cannot deny that in this vision, Ezekiel finds himself face-to-face with a staggering scene of depletion and challenge and apparent dead ends.
  • But the good news is that that desolation – those dry bones, that feeling of being utterly overwhelmed, that plateau, that dead end – that is not the end of the story. Once upon a time it was … but then Jesus came.
    • Came to bring healing
    • Came to bring grace
    • Came to bring new life
      • End of Lazarus’ story: Jesus calls out to Lazarus in his tomb, “Lazarus, come out!” And the dead man came out, his feet bound and his hands tied, and his face covered with a cloth. And Jesus said to them, “Untie him and let him go.”[5] → New energy. Resurrection. New life. All at the call of Jesus.
      • Renewal and resurrection in the rest of Ezekiel’s story, too
        • READ Ezek 37:4-14
        • This is one of my favorite stories in the whole Bible because of the imagery in it. Imagine this scene: a valley full of dry bones – lifeless and dusty, broken and disconnected, bleached by the sun and smoothed by the desert sand. But then the Word of God comes.
          • Great noise – quaking and rumbling, rattling and clattering → bones coming together
          • Out of nowhere
            • Sinews wrapping around bones
            • Flesh covering sinew
            • Skin covering flesh
          • And finally … BREATH → And not just any breath, but the breath of God Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth, Alpha and Omega, I AM THAT I AM. The breath of the Most Holy One. [INHALE … EXHALE] – text: I will put my breath in you, and you will live. I will plant you on your fertile land, and you will know that I am the Lord. I’ve spoken, and I will do it. This is what the Lord says.[6]
    • Goes along with Paul’s declaration in Rom – text: If Christ is in you, the Spirit is your life because of God’s righteousness, but the body is dead because of sin. If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead lives in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your human bodies also, through his Spirit that lives in you.[7]
  • Sometimes we can find the strength inside ourselves to get through those plateaus … to overcome the walls that we hit … to circumvent the dead ends and find a new way. But sometimes we need help.
    • Purpose of faith → God is always there to breathe new life into us again
      • New energy
      • New hope
      • New imagination
      • New purpose
      • New faith
    • Purpose of community → Sometimes, we get to be that boost, that reminder, that re-invigoration for one another.
      • Woman running the Philadelphia Love Run half marathon à other runners around her stopped to help
        • At first, took her hands and helped her along
        • Supported her under her arms
        • Encouraged her by pointing out how close they were to the finish
        • But when she still just couldn’t do it – when her body hit that dead end that was just too much to overcome – do you know what they did? They picked her up and carried her. They kept on running, but they carried her with them – physically, to be sure, but I can guarantee you that support and that relief was more than skin deep. They carried a few more yards, put her down just before the finish line, and helped her cross it on her own. And that, my friends, is what the kin-dom of God is all about.
          • I will put my breath in you, and you will live. I will plant you on your fertile land, and you will know that I am the Lord. I’ve spoken, and I will do it. This is what the Lord says.

CHARGE & BENEDICTION: Being a child of the 90s, I was listening to music while I was working on my sermon, and this song popped up. So today’s charge and benediction are brought to you by Savage Garden: 


[1] “For Runners” section, Accessed Apr. 1, 2017.

[2] “Watch: Exhausted half marathon runner helped to finish line” from Dallas News, Posted Mar. 27, 2017, accessed Apr. 1, 2017.

[3] Jn 11:1-45.

[4] Ezek 37:3.

[5] Jn 11:43-44.

[6] Ezek 37:14.

[7] Rom 8:10-11.

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