First Congregational Church, UCC
March 29, 2020
"Reflection on the Scriptures"
Ezekiel 37: 1-14 “The Valley of Dry Bones”
1 The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3 He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” 4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5 Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6 I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”
7 So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8 I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. 9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” 10 I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
11 Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ 12 Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14 I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.”
John 11: 1-7, 17-45 “The Death of Lazarus”
1 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3 So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4 But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” 5 Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6 after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
7 Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.”
17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18 Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
28 When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29 And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
45 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
Reflection on the Scriptures
Even for people of faith and good will, these stories of resurrection can take us into our own valley of dry bones--valleys of doubt, uncertainty, even spiritual distress. What are we really claiming to believe when we celebrate such stories of resurrection? To answer such a question in any meaningful sense is to answer with what we love about these stories, and what we do not love; it is to dwell not only in mystery, not only in our dependence on God for life, but also to dwell with regret, with suffering, with anger and confusion. To answer adequately is to answer with how we live in relationship with God and each other. Because our whole sense of self is implicated in our affirmations and observances around such an otherworldly reality--a reality where God raises a nation, a man, from death.
The prophet Ezekiel gives us a rich sense of this, that our whole lives and relationship to God and the earth is bound up with the belief--rather with the love--of hope and new life. Because, Ezekiel does not just say the valley of bones was instantly transformed; he does not assert a resurrection simply of the spirit. Ezekiel goes to great lengths to witness--to see and hear and feel--life returning, in the rattle of bones, in the sinew and flesh, in the sensation of God’s breath. For Ezekiel, the resurrection of these dry bones from the past is the resurrection of a nation in the future. Ezekiel stands amid history, in the presence of God, and God’s act transforms our relationship to past and future; it imbues the present with an undaunted faith, throwing open the doors to a vast multitude of possibilities--to redemption, to forgiveness, to liberation, even to peace upon the soil, now sacred ground.
Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones given new life reveals the hope of God for Israel. Do we believe this really happened? That is a very modern question, but it is not a religious one. Do we love what this means for Israel, for our relationship to God, and for how we live in the face of death? That gets us a little closer, I think, to the scene; that brings us more into the valley and shadow, and into hope and light. In the Gospel according to John, Jesus is called to visit Lazarus. Again God will act in the present moment--raising Lazarus from the dead--to transform our relationship to God. But this time, what is revealed is not only hope for new life. It is, for so many who worship Christ as God with us, also a revelation of God’s compassion. For me, reading this passage, I am not only in the valley, I am not only brought to the tomb to see a resurrection; I am among the people witnessing--seeing and feeling--that Jesus--that God--weeps from compassion, weeps from the depths of our humanity, the depths of our love for our brother Lazarus, for another of our community.
If Ezekiel’s prophecy promises resurrection as something like deliverance for a nation--something like liberation from past trauma--Jesus’ tears promise resurrection as something like siblinghood to our suffering. Seeing Mary cry, seeing his community cry, Jesus begins to weep. In the face of distress, in the face of death, God draws closer; God comes into our very hearts, into our shock, our grief, our despair, coming so close, in fact, that God enters into the same emotions, the same distress, the same condition. God becomes human.
Do we believe in these resurrection stories? I’m not even sure what is meant by such a modern question. Do we love that God seeks us, transforms us, gives us new life? Do we love that God hurries into our hearts when we grieve, when we are distressed--that God is with us?
Through the love of God--with this relationship to God--truly we can not die. We can experience terrible hardship and terrible loss, but we can not step outside God’s presence; from death, we are resurrected. Amen.