Ezekiel 37:1-14; John 11:1-45
Hopeless. Bereft. Defeated. Heartbroken. When I read both Ezekiel and John this week, a feeling of resigned sadness comes over me.
When God asks Ezekiel, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I can almost hear Ezekiel’s tired sigh, “O, Lord God, you know.” (Or maybe I hear a different version of his response that is angry and terse. “Oh, Lord God, how am I supposed to know?!”) Ezekiel strikes me as a burnt-out religious leader. He has seen too much to be sanguine about the behavior of the faithful. He has been disappointed often. He understands God’s judgment because, from time to time, he judges the people, too. “Mortal, can these bones live?” “Likely not,” thinks Ezekiel, “but, hey, you are God, not me.” Ezekiel, tired and jaded as he may be, at least doesn’t rule out the possibility of God’s power to act in miraculous ways.
Kudos to Ezekiel for that. His fatigue hasn’t totally exhausted him of all faith in God’s life-giving powers. Kudos to Ezekiel, too, for following God’s command – as ridiculous as it appears to be. When he might have rightfully protested that calling out to not just the dead, but the long- dead, is a waste of time and energy, he steps up and starts preaching. We could learn a lot from Ezekiel. We could learn that even in our disappointments, doubts and cynicism, God is still busy sending the Spirit. We could learn to be foolishly dutiful, more concerned with following God’s commands than assessing their chances of success. We could focus on the Word given to us to proclaim rather than the status, receptiveness or state of the congregation God’s put us before (or put before us). We could honestly say, “O Lord God, you know” (and I don’t) and allow that rock bottom truth (about a lot of things) to propel us to humble faithfulness rather than condemn us to silent despondency or self-righteous indignation.
O Lord God, you know people’s hearts (and I don’t). O Lord God, you know who is righteous (and I don’t). O Lord God, you know if reconciliation is possible (and I don’t). O Lord God, you know the hurts that any given person is carrying on any given day (and I don’t). O Lord God, you know why and what and how and where and when (and I don’t).
And yet, in all our unknowing, God says, “Prophesy.” Preach, speak, prophesy about God, God’s ability and will to bring life from death. Tell of God’s power to resurrect flesh long past rotting, making fragments whole and graveyards places of reunion and homecoming. Do you believe this? Even if you aren’t so sure on days when all you see is a valley of dry bones and your brother has been in the grave four days, prophesy anyway.
God’s ability to bring life from death, whole, breathing bodies out of shards of shattered bones, belief in the bereft, hope to the hopeless, isn’t contingent upon our confidence or abilities. Mary and Martha both lament that if Jesus had been present, then their brother would not have died; neither imagine Jesus can be of help now, after Lazarus is dead and buried. Ezekiel can’t envision bone coming together with bone and sinew and flesh and breath until the valley of the shadow of death has been transformed to the valley of the spirit-filled living. We can be as defeated and as disillusioned as Mary, Martha and Ezekiel, and as disturbed and heartbroken as Jesus and do God’s bidding anyway. Our role is to follow, however haltingly and hopelessly, God’s directions. Prophesy. Take away the stone. Unbind Lazarus. Wait. Watch. Repeat.
In our culture, it may feel inauthentic or even disingenuous to follow God’s commands without conscious, whole-hearted belief. Should we roll away the stone if we don’t believe anything will be set free except a bad smell? Is it right to preach life to a place so utterly consumed by death? Isn’t that untruthful? Many of us have known those who remain silent for portions of the Apostles’ Creed or the prayer of confession because they simply don’t belief the words before them. They think: I don’t believe in the resurrection of the body. I did not sin in this particular way this week (or ever). Therefore, I will not, cannot, profess or confess in that way. I would contend that these two texts offer us a word about such sentiments.
Both the Old Testament and the New Testament readings for this fifth Sunday of Lent call us to focus less on our personal assent and more on God’s powerful acts. This is not to say that our assent doesn’t matter or that our feelings are unimportant. (Look at how vividly Jesus’ emotions are described in John. He weeps. He is greatly disturbed. He is moved by the pain of Mary and Martha.) However, it is to say that, alleluia (whoops, leave that out until Easter), God acts even when we are beyond our own ability to imagine any possibility but death.
James Baldwin, quoted in James Cone’s remarkable book, “The Cross and the Lynching Tree,” says the following in an interview that took place shortly after the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four African-American little girls: “Racial prejudice … is endemic to human life. … I don’t care whether Senator Eastland [of Mississippi] or Barry Goldwater [of Arizona] likes me. … I do care that they have the power to keep me out of a home, out of a job, and to put my children on a needle. … I don’t care what they think or feel; I care about their power.” Perhaps this is the case for those dry bones in that valley and Lazarus in the tomb. Did they care what Ezekiel or Mary or Martha or the disciples or the scoffing onlookers felt or thought about them or even about God? What mattered, I suspect, was the God-given power of their prophesy, their stone moving, their faithful following of the commandments to feed and tend, set free and unbind.
I do not know the mind of God. I do not know if dry bones can live or if those who stink in the tomb will show up for dinner tomorrow. Most of the time, I imagine that dead people stay dead and hanging out in graveyards makes for quiet contemplation uninterrupted by breath and bone rattling. Truth be told, often I don’t feel like preaching to those who by all appearances are not just deaf to the Word, but dead. Rolling away heavy stones is not my favorite pastime. Unbinding rotting bodies, not listed on my spiritual gifts inventory. However, I did promise to follow Jesus Christ, love my neighbors and work for the reconciliation of the world and there was no asterisk that said *when you really believe such love and reconciliation is likely or will be reciprocated or is convenient or when you feel up to it, or, or, or.
So, I am going to try to learn from Ezekiel and prophesy about life and breath and spirit no matter the state of the hearers. I am going to try to be like Mary and Martha and roll away stones and unbind those fresh from the grave, smelly as they are. I am going to try to focus less on my belief and more on God’s acts, less on my feelings and more on God’s power, less on my expectations and more on God’s instructions. Then I will wait and see what happens.
- When have you felt like you were in a valley of dry bones? Were you the bones? Were you Ezekiel? Did God speak a word to you there? What was it?
- How do we prophesy life to dry bones without dismissing the reality of pain, loss and suffering? How can we proclaim resurrection while acknowledging that death often has the last word in this lifetime?
- Notice the different aspect of the promise God makes in Ezekiel 37:11-12. What does God promise? Does this sound familiar? How does this promise relate to God’s promises elsewhere in the Bible?
- Notice how Mary and Martha (and the disciples) understandably are in crisis with a keen sense of urgency. How does Jesus react to the news of Lazarus? Where in the story does Jesus seem to have a sense of urgency? (Or does he?)
- What do you make of Jesus saying Lazarus has “fallen asleep”? Where else do you find this phrase in the New Testament?
- Where else in the Gospels is Jesus described as being disturbed or troubled in spirit? What causes his distress?
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