Grace Presbyterian Church
March 26,2023, Lent 5A
Psalm 130; Ezekiel 37:1-14; John 11:1-45
Can These Bones Live?
You might be caught off guard by the tone of that psalm we read earlier.
It’s a psalm, at least until those last two verses, that is about as frankly bleak and despair-laden as anything you might see in scripture. That opening phrase – “Out of the depths” – has proven awfully alluring for many kinds of artists seeking to portray a state of despair or darkness. It shows up on four different Sundays in the Revised Common Lectionary, has been set to music many times (sometimes under its Latin heading “De profundis”), and has inspired poets such as Elizabeth Barret Browning, Oscar Wilde, Federico Garcia Lorca, and C.S. Lewis.
It’s probably not an accident that this psalm is paired with these two scriptures offered up for the church on this fifth Sunday of Lent, readings that come a little bit like a slap in the face (or maybe a slap in the faith) at this time of the liturgical year. 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. “Out of the depths,” indeed.
The obvious move, the one most pastors I know are likely making, would probably 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, and he gets a bit of what-for over that – “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” You get what was in the KJV the shortest verse in the Bible – “Jesus wept” (every kid I knew was quick to claim that as one of their “memory verses” in Sunday school). You get the warning that if Jesus really goes through with having the tomb opened after four days, it would, well, smell, as un-embalmed bodies do after a while, even today. You get, above all, Lazarus coming out of the tomb. If you push later into John’s gospel, you find that his raising of Lazarus is part of why the religious authorities are so intent on getting rid of Jesus. There’s so much possibility in this account, and I have no doubt that a lot of those sermons getting preached today are going to be about the best sermons that those preacher friends of mine are going to preach this season.
But I still can’t look away from Ezekiel’s story, the one that prompted James Weldon Johnson to create the song “Dry Bones” and get his brother to set it to music. (More about that later.)
Ezekiel is, to put it in modern vernacular, one messed-up dude. 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 such 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. Some biblical scholars have concluded that Ezekiel was most likely, in modern terms, a victim of psychological trauma, most likely resulting in what we would call clinical depression. The outlandish nature of some of his visions (including this one), some of his prophetic 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; this is destroyed, desiccated, disassembled, dehydrated kind of death, way beyond any kind of haunted house or Hollywood horror movie. And before this scene of absolute lifelessness, God asks old messed-up Ezekiel, “Mortal, can these bones live?”
There’s a lot of wisdom in Ezekiel’s answer: “O Lord God, you know.” God was clearly up to something, and Ezekiel (perhaps all the more because of his trauma) 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: just bodies, bodies that 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. They aren’t just dried-out old bones anymore, but there is still no life in them.
So, of course, God tells Ezekiel to “prophesy to the breath.” Ezekiel obeyed (what else was he going to do at this point?), 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.
Waiting. Is that where we are?
Verses 11-14 bring Ezekiel’s bizarre experience home. In this vision, for that is what all this has been, those dried-up bones are nothing less than God’s people, the ones conquered and exiled and occupied and crushed and living without any kind of hope whatsoever. All that Ezekiel has been commanded to do before the valley of the dry bones, God will do for God’s people, says God to Ezekiel. It’s not just about the bones taking on flesh; it’s about the breath, the spirit, being placed within them. It’s about being brought back to life again.
That message of hope has come through across the centuries, not least as that famous song that connected to the still-developing civil rights movement in the United States in the early twentieth century. In the early 1920s the great poet and dramatist and author James Weldon Johnson seized upon this story to evoke a movement that was itself still coming together, complete with lyrics about the foot bone connecting to the heel bone and the heel bone connecting to the ankle bone and you know how the rest of it goes. His brother Rosamond Johnson created the tune, and the rest is history.
So, where are we in this pair of stories?
Are we Lazarus, newly alive again but waiting to be freed from the bonds that keep us from moving and doing? Are we the ones complaining that Jesus didn’t come quickly enough? Are we the dried old bones, without hope? Are we the reassembled bodies made physically whole but without breath, without spirit? Are we the newly breathing and living, standing ready, waiting for whatever God calls us to do?
Or, maybe, are we Ezekiel? Seen too much, been broken too much in too many places by too many things? Are we too broken to hope even a little bit, and yet so broken that we have nothing left to do but hope? Are we so broken that the moment we see or hear any little thing, any sign or word from God, we’re going to cling to as if our lives depend on it, because maybe they do? Can we respond, along with the old prophet, with that kind of obedience to the most ridiculous or insane-sounding commands (I mean, really, “prophesy to these bones“?)? Are we desperate enough for that?
Or are we still too sure of ourselves, too much in control, too “sane” to think that any such outlandish (and kind of gruesome) command of God could be real? Are we too much “good church folk” to find a thing to hold on to in such horrific scenes, to hear God, to hear any word from God in such bizarre circumstances?
“Mortal, can these bones live?” “O Lord God, you know.” Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise indicated): #307, God of Grace and God of Glory; #286, Breathe on Me, Breath of God; #—, Rise Up
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