We have spent the past few weeks looking at our needs. The first Sunday in Lent helped us to better understand that temptations may draw us away from the will of God. In the second week, we heard Nicodemus and, through his struggle to understand who Jesus is, we discovered our need for rebirth. We visited with the woman at the well in the third week and noticed our personal thirst for living water. As we explored last week’s scriptures, we encountered the blind man and perhaps recognized our own blindness, our own need to see that we have been cleansed and are now sent to be witnesses to the light. These texts all throughout Lent draw us into a deeper understanding of our human needs and God’s divine provisions for us in those needs.
Today’s Gospel lesson from John moves us more intently into our needs – actually introduces us to our own mortality – and focuses our gaze on God’s saving grace through the story of Lazarus.
The raising of Lazarus from the dead shows continuing life just as Jesus’ own death and resurrection leads to eternal life. In his conversation with Martha, Jesus makes clear that not only Lazarus will live after death, but also all who believe in him. Jesus assures Martha (and us) saying: “I am the resurrection. I am the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
That’s the same theme woven into the text of Ezekiel’s vision, and both readings call for our Christian response to God’s grace as we are drawn toward a reconciled relationship with God.
You know, at this point in the Christian year, we are eager to see the Scriptures through the lens of the cross – as if we are looking back and have already moved past the point of examining Jesus’ suffering and passion. In this season of unrest and uncertainty, we long for the hope that comes after all the crucifixion stuff. With all the information we are getting that only feeds our doubt and insecurity, we want happy; we want comfort. And with Holy Week and Easter approaching so rapidly, we are tempted to leap toward the resurrection.
It going to take some great restraint to rein in those urges and plant ourselves firmly in this Lenten season. We have to be really intentional right now to face the things which separate us from God – our temptations, our struggling, our thirsting, our blindness, our very death – really intentional to prepare our hearts to return to God. Really intentional and firmly grounded in this season of preparation when we turn from the physical raising of Lazarus and look back to the spiritual visioning of the Ezekiel passage. Right now we are seeking a better understanding of the new life that is made available to Israel and continues to give us hope today.
Looking at Ezekiel, it is in the first verse of chapter 37 that the prophet experiences the hand of the Lord leading him in a powerful way. You see, Ezekiel is a Hebrew who has been captured by Nebuchadnezzar. His tribe of Levi, as well as the tribes of Benjamin and Judah, have all been seized. Remember, we are only talking about the ten Northern tribes here. The two Southern tribes are down in Judah with their capital of Jerusalem. The ten tribes of Israel (north of Judah) are scattered to the wind – they are all over the surrounding nations – and it’s looking as if they will never return to their promised land and be joined together as one people again. The exiled people of Israel have lost their hope in the future. They cry out that their “bones are dried up… hope is lost” (v. 11). They had hoped that Jerusalem would be their forever home, but they had found that to be a false hope as they were exiled from their land. Their identity and their destiny as God’s chosen people, as a nation, seems lost forever.
In Ezekiel’s vision, the prophet is shown a valley of bones, and he is asked whether the brokenness before him can live. The prophet replies that: God alone knows. Think of a broken piece of clay – like a pottery vase – once it is broken, then the one who made the vase is probably the best one to decide whether or not it can be put back together. So can the bones and the brokenness live? Ezekiel answers well: God alone knows. Only the creator knows.
Ezekiel is then instructed to prophesy to the bones before him, and he witnesses the bones being covered in flesh. He is instructed to prophesy again and the spirit of life is breathed into them. The imagery is hard to miss. This is Israel. This is God’s church. Israel is scattered all over the place like dry bones across a valley – spiritually they’ve been removed from their promised land from their hope – this is a spiritual death. Can Israel escape this death and live again? Is this coming up out of graves a metaphor of the restoration of Israel?
For Jews today, this chapter of Ezekiel is the one of the traditional readings during Passover. This is the traditional prophetical reading for the Sabbath during Passover, [probably] because being brought out of Egypt, out of their spiritual death, was a sort of resurrection. The people of Israel are free to live again. Perhaps the life which enters the dry bones indicates that new life is being offered to God’s people, that they are being rescued from a dead past. Perhaps being again placed on their own soil suggests that they are being returned to the way of life that was God’s original intention.
In both the Ezekiel vision and the Lazarus story, it is obvious that death has occurred. Lazarus has been in the tomb for days. His sister balks at the notion of removing the stone seal and opening the grave. “Lord! He’s been in there four days – he’s going to smell!” For Ezekiel, the valley is full of dry bones. And not heaped up bones in a great pile, but strewn out bones as if some great battle has occurred and the remains of the dead have been left to be ravaged or to rot.
These images are anything but pleasant, and the resulting understanding is that death has obviously occurred. Our own impending death may not be quite as obvious. We tend to look for those physical signs of decline or decay; maybe we have in mind a bloody battle that strips us of our humanity.
But today’s reading from Romans reminds us that “to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit* is life and peace” (Rom. 8:6). And we acknowledge that, by being brought into the Body of Christ, we are given new life. Through the work of the Spirit of God, we experience victory over death in our own lives – victory over both physical death and spiritual death.
This is from where our hope comes. We cannot act for ourselves, but we can turn to God for action. We see hope as God acts in Christ at Lazarus' tomb and Lazarus is called to life. We see Lazarus emerge from the tomb still in his grave clothes – truly dead but brought up alive so that we may believe in the power of God Almighty. We experience hope in the valley of bones as the Spirit of God acts on those bones. Flesh and tendons and muscles form, and life is breathed into the dead – truly dead – but brought up alive so that we may believe in the power of God Almighty.
Even those of us who have been dead a long time – when we become a part of the Body of Christ – when we accept Jesus into our hearts and promise to live in a renewed way – that’s when we hear God call for breath and our hearts are changed and the Spirit brings new life!
This is from where our hope comes! From the new life that God makes available to us through Jesus Christ and the work and breath of the Holy Spirit. And in this hope, the most important thing for us to remember is that no matter who we are or where we come from or what we have done, this new life through Jesus Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit is available to every single one of us. Every ONE – regardless of what we look like or who our parents were or even if we have hearts that have been dead. Regardless of anything.
By looking at a bone, you cannot tell what kind of person it was that bone belonged to. Was it a good business person? Maybe. A hard working person? Maybe. A Christian? Maybe. A person that looked just like you? Maybe. But maybe NOT. What we do for a living or how we live our lives or even what color our skin is really has nothing to do with the reality that God is available to bring life to every one of us. EVERY one of us. That’s the wonder and the glory and the mystery of who God is – that regardless of who we are, God loves us enough to offer us life! Everlasting life! Forever life where we are loved in our forever homes!
Even when we are nothing more than bones. Even when we are dead. We are often swept up in whatever is going on in the world. We all understand that right now. And when that happens – when we get caught up in the worldly – often we fail in our calling to be God’s holy people, a people set apart for God’s divine purpose.
We live more in indifference than in passion, more in a spirit of death than in that born of hope. We are moved more by private ambition than by social justice. We dream more of privilege and benefits than of service and sacrifice. We try to speak in God’s name without relinquishing our own glories, without nourishing our own souls, without relying wholly on God’s grace – when in reality we should be crying out: O God! Help us to make room in our hearts and lives for you. Forgive us, revive us from being nothing more than bones, and reshape us in your image. Nourish us right down to the bone. Nourish your Church right down to the bone so that we all experience victory over physical AND spiritual death.
Remember the children’s song: “Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones – o hear the word of the Lord?” People of God, hear the word of the Lord! Hear God’s voice in these stories and then reply in your own voice. How will you move through these last few days of Lent? Will you recognize that even when you feel hopeless, God offers hope?
We offer our sorry, dried up, worthless, boney lives, and God breathes life into us… and our faithful answer is to be a living, breathing, hands-on, active member of the Body of Christ where the foot bone is connected to the ankle bone and we are the feet of Christ… and the hand bone is connected to the wrist bone and we are the hands of Christ.
We are living members of Christ’s Church!
 Solomon B. Freehof, Book of Ezekiel (New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1978), 212.
 William Neil, Prophets of Israel (2): Jeremiah and Ezekiel, edited by William Barclay and F.F. Bruce, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1964), 85.
 Freehof, 211.
 www.umcworship.org, downloaded February 2008.