Can These Bones Live?

Fifth Sunday in Lent
April 2, 2017

1The 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. 2He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” 4Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6I 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.”
7So 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. 8I 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. 9Then 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.” 10I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
11Then 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.’ 12Therefore 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. 13And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14I 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.” – Ezekiel 37:1-14

1Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4But 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.” 5Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
7Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 8The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Judeans were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” 9Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” 11After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” 12The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” 13Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
17When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19and many of the Judeans had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
28When 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.” 29And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31The Judeans 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. 32When 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.” 33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Judeans who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35Jesus began to weep. 36So the Judeans said, “See how he loved him!” 37But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
38Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39Jesus 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.” 40Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I 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.” 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44The 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.”
45Many of the Judeans therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. – John 11:1-45

God asks, “Can these bones live?” At what point do we look around, no longer with a sense of wonder and possibility, at our own valley of dry bones and simply say in response, “No. These bones cannot live.”? At what point do we give up hope?

At some point I stopped praying for a miraculous cure for my father’s Parkinson’s disease or for a quick medical breakthrough and just started praying for the grace to handle what came next. It took a few years, but eventually I gave up expecting something to change.

When we pray for an end to war and violence and injustice, sometimes, they feel like empty words, because I know that words like them have been prayed for millennia and the transformation has not come. Breaking through all the other news of the day I’ve been noticing the deaths, soldier and civilian, that are piling up in Syria, a result of our own nation’s attacks. Can these now-dead bones live? No, I do not expect them to come back to life.

When we work so hard for so long for something, holding out hope until the bitter end. Then the end comes, the decision is made, and we know there is no changing it, the options are exhausted and now we must live with what has been decided. Can that dried up hope live again?

When our loved ones die, we may have moments when we forget and expect them to walk around the corner or to be waiting for us at home, but in the moments when we remember, we do not actually expect them to come back from the grave.

“Jesus said to Martha, “Your brother will rise again.” And Martha said to him [thinking that she was supposed to pull it together and affirm her belief in God’s power] “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” She trusts in God’s promise of life, but she has stopped hoping, stopped expecting the miracle that she had hoped Jesus would do before he died. The finality and irreversibility of Lazarus’s death has made her resigned to the facts as they stand. He is dead and there is no going back.

Now at this point in the story, Jesus hasn’t exactly been on his A-game. He dawdled a bit while his friend was sick, then shows up several days too late to even say goodbye, and the best he can muster in comforting the grieving is a theological statement. This is pastoral care 101 – while we boldly and unapologetically proclaim resurrection at funerals, it’s rarely the first thing said when meeting with the grieving. In the moment, it almost sounds like Jesus is saying the churchy equivalent to, “There, there. Everything will be alright in the end.” Which though true does very little to relieve the sadness and loss that we experience when we grieve a loved one. The resurrection on the last day is one kind of comfort but it doesn’t put our loved ones back in our arms. When we are staring down our own valley of dry bones, our own losses and grief, and wondering if these bones can live, an assurance that has to do with some long and distant place and time, isn’t always comforting.

But of course, that’s not what Jesus is getting at with Martha. He continues, “No, no, Martha. That’s all well and good about the resurrection on the last day, but I am the resurrection and the life, and I’m standing right in front of you, here, now.” And she can’t possibly yet know what he means by that, though she’s about to find out.

And in this story it means at least three things. First, and in some ways the most striking, Jesus goes and stands at the tomb to weep. It means that the enfleshment of resurrection and life can feel and express the sadness of death. The one who lives both in our time and connected to the eternal, experiences with us the depth of the pain we feel. The God of life knows what it is to look out on a valley of dry bones and feel the impossibility of transformation the impossibility of something new and living emerging.

Second, it means that Jesus can do the impossible right in front of us without waiting for the last day. It doesn’t mean that that every loss we’ve ever experienced is suddenly going to reverse itself before our very eyes. But it does mean that on this side of the grave and the next that resurrection is possible. There is room for renewed life to emerge that is entirely unexpected – to emerge from death and loss and pain and sadness and grief. It means that we can’t always be certain what God is up to but that we can be certain God is going to do the unexpected for the sake of life.

It means that when we say “This is the body of Christ given for you,” that it’s like we are saying the feast of resurrection isn’t in the future, but right now, here, for you. We can touch and taste the one who is resurrection and life. And when that’s true nothing is off the table. The dead can rise, the bones can live, and our grief can be transformed. And at this table we feast our way into resurrection along with all those who have died.

And then, finally, what it means to have the resurrection and the life present here and now is an invitation to participate. You’ll notice in our texts today that in neither the first reading nor the gospel is the work complete without our participation. The vision of dry bones does not require Ezekiel’s knowing whether or not the bones can live, but it does require Ezekiel’s speaking God’s word of life to them. And Lazarus is called out of the grave not walking and talking and celebrating, but still wrapped in the shrouds of death. And so Jesus’ words to the crowd and to us: “Unbind him, and let him go.”

Friends, neither you nor I can raise the dead. None of us can even know fully what it means to do so. None of can fully know what God has in store for our dry and dusty bones. But God invites our participation in resurrection anyway. God gives us the words to speak life to one another. God hands us resurrected bodies to unbind and set free. God gives us the opportunity to participate in the renewal of all things. We are invited to be God’s mouth and God’s hands, to speak life and unbind death in this world where we cannot even always maintain hope.

Can these bones live? Only God knows. But as we stare down death and loss, the resurrection and life weeps with us, brings forth the unexpected, and invites us to participate in the miraculous transformation of death into life. Let us set the table and welcome again the one who is the resurrection and life, present with us now in our valley of dry bones.

-Pastor Steven Wilco

One Response so far.

  1. Ed says:

    I had an opportunity to listen to/read all of the sermons posted since Ash Wednesday. They are elegantly profound yet simple and extremely nourishing.

    Thanks Pastor for a job well done. And thanks for our blessed God for sustaining us during times of good and bad!