Grace Presbyterian Church
March 29,2020, Lent 5A (livestreaming)
Can These Bones Live?
I don’t know about you, but this necessity of social distancing and quarantine and staying out of reach of one another has really driven home for me the, well, Lent-ness of this particular Lent.
I mean, I’m an introvert, but not the “burrow in at home and never leave the house” type. You know how I like to start my days off on Fridays? Grab a book I’m working on – one for my enjoyment and edification, not job-related – it could be a novel or biography or anything but a biblical commentary. Go find someplace – a coffee shop, a café, whatever – where I can get breakfast or a decaf mocha or something. Settle in with whatever I get, and alternate between reading and watching the other folks. Not interacting any more than necessary, mind you, just being by myself out there. Key word: out there. So despite my introverted-ness this isolation thing is causing major stress.
Given this state of being, these two scriptures offered up for the church on this fifth Sunday of Lent come a little bit like a slap in the face (or maybe a slap in the faith). Both of them have the temerity to offer up, two solid weeks before the observance of the Resurrection on Easter Sunday, stories of new life being brought to that which was dead.
Perhaps the obvious move would be to go to John’s account of Jesus’s raising of Lazarus. After all, that’s a whopper of a reading, both in terms of its sheer length (forty-five verses!) and the impact it has on the story of Jesus’s earthly ministry. Honestly, one of these years I might be tempted to take this story and break it up over the first five weeks of Lent; I honestly think there might be about five sermons in there.
You get Jesus dawdling about going to see Lazarus. You get both of the sisters, Martha and Mary, kind of giving him what-for over that. You get what was in the KJV the shortest verse in the Bible – “Jesus wept.” You get Martha warning Jesus that if they really go through with opening the tomb after four days, it would, well, smell, as unembalmed bodies do. You get, above all, Lazarus coming out of the tomb. So much possibility.
But in this time, I can’t look away from Ezekiel’s story.
Ezekiel is, to put it in modern vernacular, messed up. He was a priest in Jerusalem who got carried away in the first wave of exile to Babylon, when the occupying forces chose only to “cut off the head” of Jerusalem – that is, take away its leaders, including its religious leaders. The puppet king installed after this turned out not to be quite a puppet after all, and when he stopped paying tribute the Babylonians returned and destroyed the city.
This experience seems to have taken a particular toll on Ezekiel. Biblical scholars have increasingly begun to consider that Ezekiel might, in modern terms, have been a victim of psychological trauma. The outlandish nature of some of his visions (including this one), some of his behaviors that make even Jeremiah look tame by comparison, and his sometimes extreme tone in calling out his people and their kings for their sinfulness and rebellion suggest a man who would at minimum be deep into therapy in modern times, if not something more intense.
And it is to this broken, traumatized old priest that God brings this deeply creepy, and yet deeply hopeful, vision of death being raised up into new life. Actually, that’s not totally right. This isn’t Lazarus still more or less in one piece just waiting for the call. This is not mere death but destruction, dessication, disassembling, dehydration kind of death. And God asks old messed-up Ezekiel, “Mortal, can these bones live?”
There’s a lot to be said for Ezekiel’s answer: “O Lord God, you know.” God was clearly up to something, and Ezekiel had the wit not to get in the way. God gives Ezekiel the command to “prophesy to these bones,” and maybe only someone who had seen too much, someone as broken and hurting as Ezekiel could take such a command seriously enough to carry it out. He does, and behold, the bones find their way back to each other, they take on all the tissue and flesh that had long ago dried up and rotted away, and there are…bodies.
Not people, not yet: bodies were reconstructed and whole, but “there was no breath in them” – no wind, no spirit. It’s not quite like in the account from John, in which after Jesus called to Lazarus he was indeed alive, but still all bound up in the burial cloths in which he had been wrapped. Lazarus needed release; he still needed to be cut loose from the old trappings of death that still clung to him. These bodies in front of Ezekiel still needed breath, spirit, life itself.
So, of course, God tells Ezekiel to “prophesy to the breath.” Ezekiel obeyed, and from “the four winds” came the breath that breathed life into these lifeless bodies. As Ezekiel recounts it, they stood up, a “vast multitude,” waiting.
Where are we?
Are we Lazarus, newly alive again but waiting to be freed from the bonds of death? Are we the dried old bones, without hope? Are we the reassembled bodies made whole, but without breath, without spirit? Are we the newly living, standing ready, waiting for whatever God calls us to do?
“Mortal, can these bones live?” “O Lord God, you know.” Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God unless otherwise indicated): #307, God of Grace and God of Glory; #—, Rise Up