The Fifth Sunday in Lent: March 29, 2020
Year A: Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45
At the time of this posting, there was no audio recording of this sermon.
Today we hear about death and new life, about the end of some things, and, perhaps, the beginning of others. Death is always a topic close to home, one that seems to get closer every year. With what’s happening in the world around us, and on the eve of Palm Sunday and Holy Week, this theme of death and life take on an urgency and immediacy.
Think of the bones that Ezekiel is looking at. They’re not representative of individuals like Lazarus, but of the great nation that God had raised up to be a blessing for all the world. It’s gone. That’s what the bones represent in Ezekiel. Israel was dead.
So, too, was Lazarus. Lazarus was really dead. Graveyard dead. In fact, Lazarus was dead and we hear about the stench. In other interpretations it’s put even more plainly, “he stinketh”.
Dry bones are knit back together and infused with life-giving breath. Lazarus is brought back to life after four days in the tomb. These are stories of death and resurrection, and foretell in a way, the death and resurrection of Jesus.
In neither case is resurrection pretty. To be sure resurrection is not new life like a cute, sweet, newborn baby. Resurrection is renewed life, life forged from death. You can’t help but wonder how the disciples felt after Jesus’ resurrection – did they have an aversion to putting their hands into the bloody wounds?
In our reading from Ezekiel today, we hear that God has given Ezekiel a vision of a valley filled with a great many dry bones all in disarray. What was that like? These bones that Ezekiel saw were bones of all kinds: presumably human arm bones, leg bones, back bones, skulls. Bones piled so deep you had to shuffle as you walked through them. The valley in which they lay may have been a battlefield, for victors stood on the heights and chased their enemies downhill where they could entrap them and then leave their bodies buried. Living in the Shenandoah Valley has allowed me the opportunity, for good and for bad, to more fully understand the terrible human cost of the Civil War. I drive by part of the New Market battlefield almost every day. To understand the human lives lost there is incredibly sad.
Israel was called to prophesy, to speak to the remaining Israelites, to exhort them to hear his warning to repent and return to the Lord.
When Ezekiel looked at those dry bones, he couldn’t imagine, I think, the new life that would come together. When Jesus stood at Lazarus’ tomb, he may or may not have foreseen the future.
Here’s what I think both Ezekiel as a prophet and Jesus as Lord saw: death is real and it is powerful and it hurts and it destroys. They saw that.
But they saw something much more. They both knew that God can do the impossible and give us new life. God alone could call Israel back, and give it new life, and a new direction.
The wonderful part of the story isn’t that dry bones could move – the wonderful part is that the spirit of the Lord would not be stopped.
That’s true of Lazarus as well. The real point of this story is not that Lazarus comes back. Lazarus doesn’t become a celebrity and go on some first-century celebrity tour talking about tunnels and bright lights.
Before too long, Lazarus died again, and Jesus wasn’t there, and Lazarus stayed dead. The real point is that Jesus is Lord of the living and the dead.
God has done the impossible.
I’m sure we have all had times when we’ve felt life was so overwhelming that we’ve felt hopeless. Perhaps someone was critically ill and in a bed beyond the doors to the ICU. Families of people with coronavirus must feel particularly vulnerable right now. Not only do they worry about their loved one and whether he or she will recover, but they also worry about themselves and whether they will be next. Worse yet is they can’t be with them – they can’t touch them or hold their hand. They can’t touch their loved ones and be with them as they take their last breath.
As someone who lived in New York, went to school in New York, as a priest, I have to tell you I’m feeling what is happening in the northeast part of our country, in New York City especially, very deeply. I can’t imagine what it is like. I look and say, why? Because darn it, I want details and guarantees, some power and some control in all of this. I don’t have an answer for what we face in the world around us.
The question for me becomes: can these bones live? Can these bones live?
I know that nothing can separate me from the love of God. The dry bones raised by Ezekiel became something very different, something less powerful, and less successful, but truer to God’s plan.
I know that the promise of new life is not a promise that we will get what we want.
The promise is that God, the Father, God, the Son, God, the Holy Spirit is with us.
And God gives us the power to despair or to trust; to give up or to go on; to abandon hope, or to let go in faith. That choice is not made for us, but it is offered to us. And that choice can be terribly hard. More than at any other time, the times we face right now – we face a call to trust in the love of God.
Dry bones, even our dry bones, can live once more if we live in the light of Jesus Christ. “Come out” the Lord calls. “Come out” into different life, into new life. “Come out” into life unknown and unexplained. “Come out” in trust and in hope.
I end today with this prayer: Jesus Christ, stay with us as we endure and mourn, persist and prepare. In place of our anxiety, give us your peace. Amen.
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