April 10, 2011
A Sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian, Boise.
Our passage from Ezekiel’s prophecy is full of evocative language and imagery. We can picture a valley where life is nowhere to be seen. Cracked and parched earth, piles of bones wherever you look.
And what can we do in such a situation?
We could maybe truck water in and hope that something would grow in the seemingly dead earth. We were just in Death Valley over spring break. And down in the valleys, life was hard to find. But as spring progresses in the valley, life emerges. Wildflowers appear. But in Ezekiel’s scenario, even spring wildflowers wouldn’t change the image of death and desolation.
We humans can do lots of things. Science, technology, and human ingenuity make our lives better. Just think about advances in medicine—prenatal care, cancer treatments.
But there’s nothing that human ingenuity can do with a valley of dead bones. We could stack them up. We could clear them away. But when God asks Ezekiel the question, “mortal, can these bones live?”, our answer has to be, “only you know that, Lord. There’s nothing we can do here.”
This feeling of hopelessness is strong some days.
What can we do when the world around us is dead, dry, and desolate? From the killing fields of war and civil unrest around the world, to the dry bones in our own souls, we feel helpless and hopeless.
We’ve done everything we know how to do, and we can’t fix the lives of our kids or our own lives.
We can’t heal a terminal illness.
We can’t knit back together some broken relationships.
We attempt to use our voices to speak out for justice in our community and in our world, but it is as if we have no breath in our bodies. And when you are breathless, it is hard to cry out for justice.
Oh mortal, can these bones live?
“No,” we cry out in our despair. “They can’t. They are remnants of life that used to be. They are reminders of what we’ve lost.”
Thankfully, Ezekiel has a better answer than we do. Ezekiel doesn’t look around at the despair he sees and then decide that all is lost.
“O Lord GOD, you know.”
Ezekiel acknowledges that he doesn’t have the solution to this problem. No amount of his gumption will fix this by itself.
“O Lord GOD, you know.”
Sometimes that is the only statement of faith that we need to utter. Acknowledging that things are beyond our control and we surrender them to God.
“O Lord GOD, you know.”
Ezekiel’s reply also makes it clear that God’s imagination is better than ours.
God can imagine life where we can only see death.
God can imagine solutions where we see wreckage.
God can still cry out in a loud voice, creating life, creating justice, when we fall mute before the desolation.
Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live…
Ezekiel’s Prophecy of the Living Dead should call us to rely on an imagination other than ours—we are to rely on God determining where life can be. We are to suspend our disbelief and trust that what we can see is not all that can be seen.
Mary and Martha had plenty of reasons to despair. The illness and death of their brother Lazarus certainly transported them to a valley of dry bones. He died. He was buried. He was in the tomb 4 days, and every good Jew knew that the soul never stayed with the body after 3 days. So he was dead, dead, dead.
And Jesus arrives on the scene.
Martha rushes to him and said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”
She acknowledges that she can’t see any life in this situation, but she also seems to acknowledge a willingness to rely on God’s imagination instead of her own.
“Even now, I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”
Their conversation continues, and it is clear that Martha can imagine some of the good news—resurrection of the dead and eternal life. But that good news is not for NOW. That good news is for the future. “I know he will rise again on the last day,” she tells Jesus.
Mary also comes to Jesus and they have a similar conversation. She too, believes in Jesus’ eventual power of death, of good news for some point in the future.
But it is clear, when they get to the tomb and Jesus tells them to roll away the stone, that they aren’t ready for resurrection and new life quite yet. Eminently practical Martha, with no need of imagination says, “Lord, minor detail here, if I may. But already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”
Failure of imagination alert!
“Yes, Martha. Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”
And so they roll away the stone, choosing to disregard everything they knew to be true about the way the world works, choosing to trust that God could see life where they only could see death. It must have seemed more like a zombie apocalypse than a moment of good news, though, waiting to see what Jesus was going to do with an open tomb.
“Lazarus! Come out!”
And Lazarus hears the voice of the shepherd, and gets up from his tomb and walks out into the light, still wrapped in his grave clothes.
“Unbind him”, Jesus commands to the crowd.
Jesus is the one who calls Lazarus to life. But the crowd has to respond.
Now, I don’t know how comfortable you would be with this task, but no law abiding Jew would touch a dead body casually. And I suspect they were all trying to figure out how the law applied to formerly dead bodies.
But again, like Ezekiel before them, like Mary and Martha, they trust in the Divine instructions and believe that these bones can live again.
And they unbind Lazarus, freeing him of the trappings of death.
Yes, there is eternal life and resurrection at some point in the future. But both of these texts call us to proclaim that there is NEW LIFE right NOW.
Our faith compels us to unbind people and call them into life today.
To let go of their belief that death, war, and corruption have the last word.
We need to unbind people so they can work to rid their lives of addictions and despair.
We need to unbind people so they can believe that they are beloved children of God, deserving of new life today.
But, sadly, new life isn’t always easy.
The community is called to the somewhat indelicate task of unshrouding the formerly dead Lazarus, so that he can return to life. How well do we do with that task? It is great to talk about new life and all, but how do we do when formerly dead Lazarii (is that the plural of Lazarus?) show up in our midst? How well do we obey the command to unbind them, ushering them back into life?
Or do we, instead, push them back inside?
I know we’d never admit to doing that. But consider addiction. When someone climbs out of the tomb of addiction, it is often the people who love them the most who have trouble with their new life. We have learned how to deal with the death of addiction. Sometimes it is life on the other side of it that makes us the most uncomfortable.
And this new life isn’t even easy for the formerly dead Lazarus.
How do you walk back into life once you’ve comfortably settled in a tomb? What must it have been like for him, who once was certain that there was no future for him, to discover that there was, indeed, a future with hope? Would people invite formerly dead people over for dinner? How would he fit in the community?
And his very life was testimony to the power of Jesus Christ, which also made Lazarus unpopular with the religious leaders. When your life is testimony to the Good News you’ve received, things can be risky.
We are in the depths of Lent. And ice on the car windows make us wonder if winter will ever really end.
But these texts command us to trust that Easter is coming. We are called to trust that the Divine imagination is at work, creating life in dead places.
And when we look around at the valley of bones, at the tombs of our despair and brokenness, we are called to trust in new life NOW.
And when we see people who are called to new life, as Lazarus was, we are called to unbind them, bringing them into new life that they can’t even imagine as they take those first steps out of the tomb.
Friends, on Easter, we will see a sign far greater than the sign of Lazarus. Jesus will walk out of his tomb, discarding un-needed grave clothes, and walk into life eternal.
The Divine solution to the valleys of dry bones around us is greater than we can begin to imagine!
When we sing the joyous refrains of “Christ is Risen! Hallelujah!”, remember that Christ brings you new life now, in all of the dry and desolate places in your life. Thanks be to God.