Ezekiel 37:1-14, NIV
I don’t think I’m a control freak, though my wife may disagree. I just like to know what is going on so that I can plan ahead. Give me a little heads up so I can plan accordingly.
That’s why the last week or so of my life has been a little stressful for me.
First of all, thanks to everyone who helped make our visit from the Eastern Mennonite High School Touring Choir go so well. We had about 125 people in our small church, filling every pew, spilling over into the fellowship hall. We parked people up at the middle school, we brought in extra food, and I have heard nothing but words of gratitude and praise for our church.
But now it is confession time: that was extremely stressful for me. We did not know how many people to expect. We didn’t know where we would put everyone for worship or the meal. Something as simple as taking an offering requires that we think on our feet and respond quickly. Decisions must be made that will affect the entire worship experience! That’s why my stress levels were elevated!
At least I could relax after that experience, right? Our children were on spring break this past week, so we planned a few outings with them. They had never been to see the monuments in Washington, DC, and all Hadley wanted for her birthday was to go to a hotel with a swimming pool. So we combined those activities for an overnight trip to the nation’s capital.
Being the planner that I am, I booked a hotel with an indoor pool. I printed off maps of the DC mall, and planned visits to the Smithsonian, the Washington Monument, and Lincoln Memorial, to name a few.
What I failed to do was to account for the extra traffic that was in the area for the annual cherry blossom festival. Let’s just say that parking was an issue. And how was I supposed to know that the hotel pool didn’t open until 10:00?
Let’s just say that for this fellow who likes to plan ahead, who likes to know every step that he is going to make in advance, that this has been a stressful week.
Today is the fifth Sunday of Lent. Lent is a time to reflect upon sacrifices, death, and mortality. It can admittedly feel a bit depressing. Yet this week’s texts aren’t just about death, they are about resurrection. These texts are about new life coming from death. And though it isn’t always easy to see it in the middle of death and suffering, in today’s text we are reminded that death does not have the last word. We get a taste of a mini resurrection in the middle of our stress, frustration, and we are reminded that it will all work out in the end.
Our first text for this morning comes to us from the book of Ezekiel. If I asked you to name a story from Ezekiel, the valley of the dry bones would probably be the most popular one. This is perhaps because we know the song about “dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones.”
God takes Ezekiel, perhaps through a vision, to a valley filled with dry bones. Many have suggested that these were the bones of the Israelites who tried to defend the Promised Land when they were overtaken in the battle that led up to the Babylonian Exile. The valley is filled with bones, and we are told that they were very dry. They were very dead.
God speaks to Ezekiel in verse 3, “He asked me, ‘Son of man, can these bones live?’” The NRSV says “mortal” rather than son of man. Each translation has its issues and strengths, and I prefer the literal Hebrew. God calls Ezekiel “bin Adam,” son of Adam. If you are familiar with CS Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series, the human beings are referred to as “sons of Adam” and “daughters of Eve.” The point is that Ezekiel is just a human being, but by calling him a son of Adam, we are taken back to the creation narrative where God breathed life into a lump of clay.
Son of Adam, can these bones, these very dry, dead bones live? Ezekiel replies, “You alone know, Lord.” This is Ezekiel saying, “No they cannot” on the inside, but also not wanting to say that anything is impossible for God. Remember that this is before the Israelites had an official theology on resurrection. So Ezekiel isn’t thinking, “Sure, one day at the resurrection, they will live again.” The question is can God do what is impossible. Can God take these very dry bones and put them back together again right here and now.
Now notice that God does not just do it. God could have given life to these bones, but instead God tells Ezekiel to get involved. God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones that God will breathe new life into them, that God will attach ligaments and vessels and skin.
But Ezekiel isn’t just to prophesy to the dry bones. He is to prophesy to the breath. You know, because it isn’t weird enough to talk to bones, now to he has to speak to the breath. Come breath, breathe into these dry bones that they may live.
Yes, that is very weird. But then you remember that the same words in Hebrew and Greek are used to refer to breath, wind, and spirit. Just as God breathed his very life spirit into the lump of clay that would become Adam, now God’s spirit was entering these lifeless bones at the direction of a son of Adam. There would be new life in that which appeared to be too far gone to save.
And we are told that these bones are Israel.
Israel, God’s chosen people. In the middle of the Babylonian Exile, it looked like Israel was too far gone to be saved. But God promised to breathe new life, new spirit, into these dry bones.
Let’s make some take-home points from this story. 1. In hopeless situations, God can still act. 2. God often acts through human beings, sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. 3. This must be a Spirit-led initiative.
While our OT text seems to lack any human emotion, we see just the opposite in our text from John’s gospel. I didn’t have our worship leader read all of this text, but notice how Jesus is informed about Lazarus’s sickness in verse 3, “So the sisters sent word to Jesus, ‘Lord, the one you love is sick.’”
Jesus has a strong interest in the wellbeing of Lazarus and his family. Lazarus’s sister, Mary, is the one who anointed Jesus’s feet and wiped it with her hair. He frequently stopped by their house to visit with this beloved family. So when Jesus gets word that Lazarus is sick…he waits a couple of days and then goes to him.
When Jesus finally gets to Bethany, Lazarus has been dead for four days. Everyone is sad, crying, weeping. Some blame is placed on Jesus. If only he had acted sooner, Lazarus would still be alive. And Jesus weeps, too.
It seems so strange that Jesus wept. Everything in this chapter points toward Jesus knowing what was going to happen. It wasn’t a surprise that Lazarus died and Jesus knew that he would bring him back to life. So why did he weep?
Maybe he knew that Lazarus would have to endure suffering again here on earth. Maybe his eyes were just watering because, as the King James Version reminds us, after Lazarus spent four days in the tomb, “He stinketh.” But I think that the most likely reason for Jesus’s show of emotion was because he felt for the sisters. This was an act of empathy. They had lost a loved one, they were hurting, and Jesus hurt for them.
Let’s look for a few take-home points from this story as well. 1. Jesus didn’t do things when others wanted him to do them. But that didn’t mean he didn’t love and care for them, or that he didn’t have a plan. 2. Jesus knew that he would bring new life to Lazarus, but he also understood that in the current reality, there is suffering. 3. In that current reality, Jesus suffers along with humanity.
So let’s start to make sense out of all of this and put it into our contemporary context. It seems like at least once every year I have to preach a sermon on the state of the church. It has been a very hard year for Virginia Mennonite Conference. We currently have two pastors whose ministerial credentials are suspended for very different reasons, and I consider both of these men to be my friends. As some of you may know, I have some leadership responsibilities in our conference. It is my prayer that nobody here ever has to learn what it feels like to be a part of an organization that has taken away the ministerial credentials of one of your friends.
At our Winter Delegate Session in February, we officially released one church who requested to break off affiliation with our conference because they saw us as being too liberal, particularly on issues relating to the LGBTQ community. Since that meeting we have received letters stating the intention of two different congregations to withdraw from our conference because we are too conservative on issues relating to the LGBTQ community. I usually joke that if you are offending people on both sides that you are probably in a pretty good place.
But I can’t joke about this. It hurts too much.
Do you recall how I said earlier that I find it really stressful to not be able to plan for the future? Well, I would take the stress of not knowing how many visitors we will have, or not being able to find a parking spot, over not knowing if there will be a thing called the church in the near future. Remember, the church is my employer. The church is my social circle. The church is my home. And I love the church dearly.
So I look out on the church, the broader church universal, and I ask God, “Can these dry bones live?” Because right now, I think it stinketh.
Let’s look at those take-home points again, first from Ezekiel. 1.1. In hopeless situations, God can still act. And 1.2. God often acts through human beings. 1.3. This must be a Spirit-led initiative. 1.3.
And from John: 2.1. Jesus doesn’t always do things when we want him to, but that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t love us and have a plan. 2.2. Though he knew what he would do, Jesus also understood that the reality of the day included suffering. And 2.3. In this current reality, Jesus suffers with us.
My friends, I do not know what the future of the church holds, but I know who will hold the church in the future. And that’s good enough for me. When Ezekiel looked out at the dry bones, God said that they were Israel, and that God would breathe new life into them. And I believe that God will breathe new life into the church as well.
No matter how badly we may stinketh.