Trick Questions

Heritage Presbyterian Church

March 29, 2020
Fifth Sunday in Lent
Scripture readings – Ezekiel 37: 1-14 and John 9: 1-41

Throughout our lifetimes, each of us will encounter someone who enjoys asking trick questions.   Sometimes these are clever or funny; usually they either make us feel dumb or make us laugh.  Trick questions on big tests are seldom the kind that make us laugh…

But others are the sort that almost feel unfair because we don’t know something, or we just can’t see it for that moment, or we are too distracted by whatever is going on.  In those times, trick questions can be extremely frustrating because we might be missing something important.

In the familiar reading from Ezekiel, we hear that old story of the “Valley of the Dry Bones.”  Most of us know a few choruses of that old song that is based on that reading.  Also, most of us cannot name a single thing we know from the rest of Ezekiel – but we know this part well.  In any case, the valley of the dry bones is actually a horrifying, depressing, incredible visual image of the destruction that had come to the people of Israel leading up to Ezekiel’s time.  We are told that “hand of the Lord” was on Ezekiel, and he was transported to this terrifying sight: miles of old, dry bones scattered as far as the eye could see.  

After Ezekiel was shown this vision, he was given his trick question from the Lord: “Son of man, can these bones live?”

THERE IS NO ANSWER TO THIS QUESTION!  It is a trick question.  Ezekiel was not equipped to answer it, and he knew it.  So, Ezekiel turned it around and humbly said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”

Good answer, Ezekiel!  There is no way the Lord brought you to this place so that you could give him your best answer to his trick question; there is something else going on.

The Lord showed Ezekiel this scene that was full of not only old, dry bones, but also bones that were not buried, bones that were disgraced because an unburied body in the days of the Old Testament was disgraced; a proper burial was called for, but it had not been done in this scene.

This was a scene of disaster, a scene of despair, a hopeless scene…yet the Lord asked his trick question anyway.

After Ezekiel answered, the Lord told him to prophesy to the dry bones, and they came together, formed human bodies, and stood as an unbreathing army – not exactly the correct answer to the Lord’s trick question, was it?

But then, the Lord goes one step further: he says that the nation of Israel will come back, it will be restored, and he uses the word “spirit” to describe that return.  The same word in Hebrew – “ru-ah” – is the word for “spirit” and “breath.”  So Ezekiel saw and understood the answer to the Lord’s trick question:  “Can these bones live?”  Yes, and live fully…not just come alive again.  Live the way the Lord intended them to live, not just exist as all other countries have done for centuries.

The nation of the Lord will live.

The next set of trick questions comes from another very familiar reading: the raising of Lazarus from the dead in the Gospel of John.  

Jesus was told that his friend, Lazarus, was very sick.  Jesus delayed going to see him.  The Apostles wondered why, and Jesus posed his first trick question:  “Are there not twelve hours of daylight?”  But Jesus was not asking a literal question.

Then Lazarus died and the situation changed.  

Jesus and the Apostles arrived in Bethany where Lazarus and his sisters lived.  Jesus was confronted by both of Lazarus’ sisters, Martha and Mary.  Both of them told him the same statement; whether they were angry, despairing, accusing, or something else, we do not know for sure.  But both of them said, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  Both women believed that statement.  Both women believed that Jesus would have made the difference.  Both women were correct when they said this.

But when Jesus is told this statement, he asked his next trick question: “Do you believe this?” when he told them he was the resurrection and the life, and that anyone who believed in him would never die.

The obvious answer for Martha and Mary – and for all of us – is “Yes, Lord, we believe that.”  But did Jesus mean eternal life at that moment or Lazarus resuscitated now, or both?  Again, we can only speculate.

Then we get to one more very familiar passage in the Bible, the shortest verse in the entire book:  “Jesus wept.”  

Next trick question from me:  “Why did Jesus cry?”

There are several good possibilities:

  1. Jesus was frustrated with his Apostles, Martha and Mary, and the whole crowd for having absolutely no faith in him at all.  If you have not ever cried with frustration, then you have never really been frustrated at all.
  2. Jesus was overcome by the outpouring of emotion of the moment.  All that weeping and wailing, all those people wondering the same things that Martha and Mary said to him, all that sadness.  Human beings can often be overcome by the sadness of others if they really care.  We know that Jesus was a unique human being, but we also know that Jesus really cared about everyone there in that scene.
  3. My favorite theory and my favorite answer to my trick question is that Jesus forgot himself for a few moments.  He had returned to Judea where he knew the religious officials were out to get him; if you keep reading after the story of Lazarus, you will immediately see a section called “The Plot to Kill Jesus.”  In the very next chapter, John’s Gospel describes the beginning of the betrayal of Judas.  The end for Jesus was very near, the death of Lazarus reminded Jesus of the death he would soon face for himself.  And it was so emotional that Jesus forgot himself for a moment and cried.

I can believe that.  My Savior crying for his friend as he also remembered what he came to that area to do: die a rejected, humiliating criminal’s death.

Who wouldn’t cry?

The questions posed here are designed to make us think.  Loaded questions, difficult questions, trick questions always do this.  But thinking more about our Lord, what He did, what He wants us to do, what will happen, and especially what each of us will have to face once we truly tackle some really tricky questions is what makes strong believers out of those who stand and wait for the Lord to tell them what to do next.

Like Ezekiel.

Like the Apostles.

Like Martha and Mary.

Like us?

The nation of Israel that Ezekiel saw has not been raised just yet.

Lazarus was raised by the Lord, but he died again at some point.

But the trick question involved in both readings is the same one that Jesus asked Martha and Mary:  “Do you believe Jesus is the resurrection and the life?” 

Because if you do, there’s a lot more to come.