Fifth Sunday in Lent
“Mortal, can these bones live?” This is the question posed to Ezekiel in today’s Old Testament reading. Is this a trick question? Ezekiel is looking out over a field of bones. Dry bones. An ancient cemetery. Surely those bones once lived, but that was a long, long time ago, when they were covered with flesh, with muscles and sinews, when a network of veins surrounded them and pumped hot, red blood. But not now. Now the only plausible answer to the spirit’s silly question is, “No, these bones cannot live.”
Similarly, the writer of the Gospel today invites us to peek at another graveyard, and takes great pains to tell us that Lazarus has been dead for four days. Why? Because in Jesus’ time, it was understood that a person’s spirit left the body after it had been dead three days. The author points out more than once that Lazarus is really, really dead. Can those bones live? Martha’s answer—that her brother would be raised on the last day with all the faithful—is a more optimistic answer than most people could manage under the circumstances.
What about your dry bones? I know some of you are asking how much more life yours have in them. How much more of a future can you expect when you notice new aches and creaks every day? Not to mention how many of you have mentioned serious illnesses and even deaths you’re processing in your own circles of family and friends. And that is just the literal form of death.
In a metaphoric sense, I know that some of you feel like your soul has dried up. It’s as if you’d cried every last tear you had inside you because a relationship, a job, or a dream has died. Sure you can still walk around, but your bones no longer live in any significant way. Or maybe you are taking the broader view, and looking around at the rapid increase in global warming, at daily reports of violence and disease and social unrest reported on the news. Can the bones of this planet live? And if so, for how much longer?
The obvious answer always seems to be “no, these bones cannot live.” At least, not as we’ve come to understand life. Lazarus is deader than a doornail. The bones in Ezekiel’s valley are very, very dry.
But in both stories, I want you to notice that the graveyard is just the setting for the story. It is not the point of the story. What happens in these desolate places, when human answers fail and God’s spirit intervenes? Ezekiel, whose only answer to the question “Can these bones live?” is a helpless but diplomatic, “Oh Lord, you know” is instructed to do the strangest thing. He is asked to look head-on at death and to say, “This isn’t the end.” He is told to prophesy to the bones, to tell them that they will once again live. Centuries later, Jesus stands at the grave of the man who’s been dead for four days and tells the group of mourners to roll away the headstone and commands Lazarus to come out. And now, two centuries later, your pastor stands in front of you, called by God to prophesy to the bones, to call all you Lazaruses to emerge from your tombs.
Can these bones live? Let’s begin to answer that question the same way Ezekiel does —”O Lord, you know.” Let’s start by acknowledging that God alone knows how to make an impossibility become reality. If the dry bones of your life or relationships, of Trinity or the ELCA, of the Christian church, of this planet Earth are to live again, it will not be because we’ve implemented the right program, hired or elected the right people, sung the right songs, or produced the right strategic plan.
Dry bones come to life and a dead man walks because God makes it so! God is hard at work in wondrous and mysterious ways, even now. It is God, not Ezekiel, who connects the knee bone to the thigh bone and the thigh bone to the hip bone, etc. as we remember from that old song. We do not create new life; God alone can do such a thing. But while God makes life, we are called, like Ezekiel, like Martha and Mary, to do whatever God requires of us in the meantime.
In Ezekiel’s case, it was to prophesy to the winds. In Martha and Mary’s case, it was to roll away the stone. Such commands seem ridiculous, trivial, pointless. But to those who long for new life for ourselves, for the church, and for the world, we know we cannot simply sit by idly while God is at work. We are Christ’s body in the world, and we are privileged to be called to participate in preparing for resurrection.
When Lazarus emerges from his grave, he is not yet fully restored to community. He is not completely able to celebrate his new beginning. He’s bound up in his burial shroud. Jesus turns to those who are standing around him, the same ones who have wept and begged for such a moment as this, who now stare in disbelief. Jesus commands them: “Unbind him and let him go!” THIS is the job of the Church! Unleash the power of new life! Release the captives! Cut the bonds that keep people hopeless! Likewise, the spirit of the Lord does not call to the dry bones to stand up and become walking, talking witnesses of God’s greatness. The spirit tells EZEKIEL to do it! Prophesy! God commands.
It is our duty and delight to nurture to wholeness any and all who have been tossed aside like dry bones, who have been cast into the shadows and left for dead. Following Jesus, we embrace God’s desire for life, life, and more life. Search the Scriptures and you will find that never once does Jesus perform a miracle for any reason other than to bring about life, and life abundant. When he meets hungry people, he feeds them. When he encounters the sick, he heals them. He converses with the lonely and forgives the guilty. He even raises the dead.
In baptism we were sealed by the Holy Spirit. In both Hebrew and Greek the word for Spirit is the same word as the word for breath. Ta pneuma. The same wonderful power that moves across vocal chords or through an instrument to create song is what God blew into dust bunnies to create the first living human beings. It is that same ephemeral, invisible, but indispensible life force that we received in our baptisms. Spirit. Breath. Life. The essence of God.
Sealing us with the Holy Spirit is God’s way of bring life out of death, hope out of despair, and Easter after Good Friday, every single time. Although only God knows how it could be possible, our dry bones, too, have been infused with holy yearning for the health and wholeness of all creation. So unbind it and let it go! Prophecy to the breath, people of Trinity! Wherever there is hopelessness and despair, anxiety and worry, prophesy to the breath! Wherever anyone strains toward life, but is still bound in the graveclothes of fear or prejudice or isolation or shame, unbind them and let them go! Trust that God is already at work there, knitting the bones together in secret, loving care, preparing for a full-blown, miraculous resurrection! We are not over when we think we are. This is most certainly true!
~Pastor Susan Schneider