Sermon preached by the Reverend Anna Matthews
Ezekiel began prophesying in the closing years of the sixth century BC. He was in exile, like many of his fellow Judeans forcibly removed from his homeland when the Babylonians captured Jerusalem. It is to a people bereft of temple, land, king and hope that he speaks, in prophecies both of judgement and salvation. In the vision we heard as our Old Testament reading, the dry bones serve as an allegory for Israel’s life. It’s a vision of death: the scattered bones have long since lost any semblance of human form. Bleached by the sun, they have been picked clean by vultures just as surely as Israel’s life has been picked clean of hope.
This is where humanity’s history has been tending. Adam and Eve were warned not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, ‘for in the day that you eat of it you shall die’. This is where the history of human disobedience to God’s will leads: to the valley of death. It is a vision of the end.
Or is it? ‘Mortal’, asks God of Ezekiel, ‘can these bones live?’ And as Ezekiel surveys the scene, the only ground he has for hope lies in the God who breathed life into his creation once before. There is no other source of life in this dusty, desiccated valley. And God acts. The God who spoke his creation into being in Genesis, who breathed life into the human beings he had made, speaks life once more through Ezekiel, whom he commands to prophesy to the bones.
And with a great clanking and groaning the bones take human shape, knit together with muscle and sinew. And just as before, as God created Adam from the dust of the earth and then breathed his spirit into him, so here, the human bodies are brought to life through the gift of the same breath of God.
It’s a vision given to sustain hope, in a situation where hope seems absurd. The people know that they have no power of themselves to help themselves. They are at the whim of a foreign king, aliens and exiles in a strange land, and all the signs of the covenant have been ripped from them. They have begun to sing their own funeral song. But the God who brought them from slavery to freedom, who made them a people for his own possession, will not abandon them. ‘I am going to open your graves and bring you up from your graves, O my people’, says God, ‘and I will bring you back to the land of Israel’.
At the time of Ezekiel, the vision was for a revived Israel. There was no general belief at this time in the resurrection of the dead. That came later – as we hear on the lips of Martha in the Gospel reading: ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ That was the common belief of many Jews at that time. But the God who would not abandon his people to death in sixth century BC Babylon will not let the grave claim them forever.
‘I am going to open your graves and bring you up from your graves, O my people’, God had promised. And as Jesus summons Lazarus from the tomb, he does just that. Already in John’s Gospel Jesus had told his disciples that ‘the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live… all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out’ (5.25, 28). That hour has now come.
And as Jesus stands at the tomb of his friend Lazarus, whom he loved, he weeps. Our English translation tidies it up: this is no demure expression of sorrow but a gut-wrenching, shuddering convulsion of grief – and not just of grief, but of anger, too. This is unusual for the way John’s Gospel usually presents Jesus, who even in death remains serene, calming saying ‘it is finished’ as he bows his head and dies. It’s not in John that we get the agony in the garden, the sweat like drops of blood, the anguished cry of forsakenness. But we do get this scene at the grave of his friend, where grief and anger spill over as Jesus bawls into the tomb, ‘Lazarus, come out.’
Attempts to sanitize this scene, to smooth over the rather embarrassing public display of emotion by Jesus, miss the point. He weeps at the grave of his friend, whom he loved. It’s a scene of ordinary human grief in the face of death. But it is also more than that: Lazarus stands for us, all of us who, until we’re summoned to life by Jesus, are caught in the grip of death. If the valley of dry bones was where Israel’s history of disobedience to God led, then the grave is our destiny without Christ. ‘The wages of sin is death’, says St Paul, and this is why Jesus hollers into the tomb: it is to reclaim what is his. He’s angry that death and sin, those trespassers in God’s good creation, have claimed for themselves what rightly belongs to God. And Jesus has come to get us back.
That’s why we hear this Gospel reading now, as we enter Passiontide. It’s not an attempt to rush to resurrection without the passion – indeed, the raising of Lazarus to life is what will precipitate Jesus’ death, as the plot to arrest and kill him spirals towards its bloody end. We hear it now because it helps us make sense of what is about to happen. Jesus stands weeping and defiant at the tomb and utters a cry that echoes through the graves of the dead and summons them to life with him. The raising of Lazarus anticipates Jesus’ own death and resurrection as he vanquishes death to bring us to life.
Ezekiel’s vision and Lazarus sealed in the tomb both present us with scenes of apparent finality. Death has won the day. They are scenes of lifelessness, bereft of hope. Until God speaks new life into being. The Lord who is resurrection and life will not let death have the final word. New creation is possible as God makes even dry bones live.
2500 years after Ezekiel had his vision, those dry bones took on new life once more, as the knee bone connected to the thigh bone, the thigh bone connected to the hip bone, and the hip bone connected to the back bone, in the words of the Negro spiritual Dem dry bones. The setting was different: the song sung by African Americans facing segregation and the legacy of slavery, but Ezekiel’s vision remained powerful enough to sustain hope and build solidarity, with its repeated refrain ‘now hear the word of the Lord’, as the Lord speaks words of life that quicken the dead.
And still the power of God to summon to new life can sustain our hope. In the ruins of Aleppo or the drought plains of Ethiopia, in the divided societies of the West or in the arid regions of our own lives that make us question whether there is any ground for hope at all, God’s answer, shouted into the face of death and destruction, is that these bones can live.
And for that hope to take root, to flower in place of despair, we have to respond to the voice that summons us to life. Sometimes it will seem implausible and naïve to believe and act as though violence and division are not the necessary conditions for human existence; it will seem impossible that the dry bones of a relationship gone wrong or a faith grown cold can once more be quickened to life. But the voice that brought creation into being, that prophesied through Ezekiel and in Jesus brought Lazarus stumbling out of the grip of death and into life promises us that these bones can live.
Whatever it is that feels dead or deadly in our life, in our world, that’s where we need to attend to God’s voice. Whether it’s sin or guilt or habit or despair or fear that keeps us imprisoned in our own tomb, cut off from the source of life, then today’s readings tell us that the voice of Jesus can reach us. There is nothing, finally, that can separate us from the love of God in Christ. So with Lazarus, bound in the tomb, we pray ‘raise me Lord, me also.’