Sermon Seeds: Breath of Hope/Raised Up
Fifth Sunday in Lent Year A
Additional reflection on Ezekiel 37:1-14 by Karen Georgia Thompson
Additional reflection material and conversation on our Facebook page.
Breath of Hope/Raised Up
by Kathryn Matthews Huey
We are so near to Jerusalem. To Jerusalem, and Calvary, and the cross. In fact, the text says we are “two miles away,” in this place of death and mourning, at the grave and with those who gather nearby, troubled in spirit: the family and friends of Lazarus, including Jesus. And we are, in church time, only two weeks away from the empty tomb. How fitting, then – and how challenging – to read, on this Fifth Sunday of Lent, this text of the raising of Lazarus, set firmly within, even entangled with, the controversy and plots that swirl around Jesus.
There are those who see in the words and the works of Jesus – even in the healings – a blasphemy that deserves death. But Jesus claims to be doing the works of “the Father,” so even the worries and warnings of his disciples do not keep him from making his way not only to Lazarus’ tomb, but also to his own place of suffering, death, and, eventually, resurrection. In fact, the controversy (and notice) this incident brings is part of the plan, Jesus says, because it’s all “for God’s glory.” Frederick Niedner, in his beautiful reflection in the February 26, 2008 issue of Christian Century, explains that, “in John’s Gospel, glory and glorified are code words for the crucifixion,” so Jesus’ “crucifixion is the hour of his glorification.”
But first, there is his own grief over the death of his friend. In this story, there is so much of the human experience of loss: receiving word of a loved one’s illness and need; decision-making, timing, and complications, even risks and dangers to be considered; frustrations, questioning, and lack of understanding on the part of those closest to us; grief and mourning by loved ones, and the community encircling them, perhaps not all with the purest of intentions; hope, and the profession of faith and “what might have been”; limited understanding of what we ourselves are saying, of the potential of what we are saying; courage, anger, and weeping; familiar, powerful echoes of other moments in the story we share; “Where have you laid him?” and “Come and see”; mixed motives and responses, for some saw how much Jesus loved his friend while others, in the face of physical evidence (the tomb), cynically questioned his power and its political effects; the trust of Mary and Martha, even in the face of physical reality (the stench); and finally, most powerfully, release, glory, and Jesus’ own gratitude to God.
We do not hear a single word from Lazarus or know of his response to his extraordinary experience. But we’re not surprised by the response of the “ordinary” people who witnessed the extraordinary that day: again, a range of reactions, from faith and following to fear and fretting. If we read just beyond today’s passage, we find the report of those who went to the religious authorities and speculated on the dangers of having such a powerful man “loose” in the midst of the people, who turned to him in hope. The raising of Lazarus is not just a nice little story of friendship or an amazing miracle; it is set in the context of the journey to the cross (and the empty tomb). This great work of raising Lazarus from the dead sets things in motion in the hearts and minds of those who feared Jesus, and these things led to his own death. There is a good reason we read it today.
We hear the words of Jesus, “Unbind him, and let him go.” Again, Frederick Niedner recognizes the baptismal implications: “Like Lazarus, the baptized also rise and respond to the call to head out for some place in space and time where we can give away our lives.” But Niedner sees us held back and “bound by the old habits that the fear of dying has taught us so well,” just as Lazarus was all wrapped up in grave clothes. Niedner counts on the community, the Body of Christ, which “assists us daily in stripping off the binding remnants of the old life in death’s dominion” (Christian Century, February 26, 2008). How many of us have known the feel of those strips of cloth, the grave’s apparel, the shroud that wraps us up in a leaden existence this side of physical death and makes us long for release, for the light of day and the feel of fresh air in our lungs? What are the “strips of cloth” that bind us, the addictions and fears, and the feelings of hopelessness and loss?
Perhaps grief, anxiety, financial troubles, hatred, resentment, or a lack of faith has put us in our own tomb of despair. A long time ago, in a far-off land, Jesus stood outside that tomb and called out, “Lazarus, come out!” God is still speaking to us today, calling us out from our tombs of despair, denial, and death to new life, right now, right here. What are those tombs for you and your congregation? In what ways do you participate in what God is doing, today, in your midst, when God brings new life in the face of death? How are you “unbinding” and “letting go” those who have been put into such places of death? Perhaps there are some in your congregation standing around and watching, formulating their judgments and deciding what they’ll believe and how much they’ll believe it, or maybe they’re moving to the center of what’s happening, pulling back the “stuff” of death, the things that surround death, and releasing the new life that God has granted, the new life that lies just beneath the surface of what appears bleak and beyond hope. Perhaps there are some among us who are calculating the costs and the possible unpleasantness of giving ourselves over to the power of God, even, ironically, to healing and new life.
Martha’s great profession of faith – from a woman in the Gospel of John, certainly worth noting – is also an interesting moment in this beautiful and complex story. How do we move from just saying what we believe to giving our selves and our lives over to transformation and the new life that God brings? How often, in fact, we do say we believe but live as if we do not? Where does our religious imagination fail us, stop, refuse to move to places of new life and possibility? What does the world tell us about “real life” and how does that contrast with a gospel vision of being truly alive? What do we think we need to do in order to “achieve” or “accomplish” new life, as if it were our doing, and not God’s?
“Jesus began to weep.” More often than not, we fail to experience Jesus’ humanity. These words strongly suggest that he knew anger, and grief, and deep spiritual pain, just as we do. He was moved to compassion and sadness even as he knew that all this had happened for the glory of God. Can we imagine the tears of Jesus, and do they transform our understanding of who he is? What is God speaking to us today, in the tears of Jesus?
How and when have we been Lazarus in this story? Perhaps just as important: how and when have we been part of the crowd, which moves around in the background, trying to figure out what’s going on, drawing conclusions, not wanting to miss anything, helping to release the dead man…and then going back to our lives, transformed, believing, experiencing new life – or being critical, suspicious, cynical?
For further reflection:
Mary Karr, 21st century
“If you live in the dark a long time and the sun comes out, you do not cross into it whistling. There’s an initial uprush of relief at first, then–for me, anyway–a profound dislocation. My old assumptions about how the world works are buried, yet my new ones aren’t yet operational. There’s been a death of sorts, but without a few days in hell, no resurrection is possible.”
Arthur Schopenhauer, 19th century
“Every parting gives a foretaste of death; every coming together again a foretaste of the resurrection.”
Aberjhani, The River of Winged Dreams, 21st century
“Hearts rebuilt from hope resurrect dreams killed by hate.”
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, 19th century
“Life [had] replaced logic.”
Dennis Hopper, 20th century
“In a world where the dead have returned to life, the word ‘trouble’ loses much of its meaning.”
Jorge Luis Borges, 20th century
“It must be that I am not made to be a dead man, but these places and this discussion seem like a dream, and not a dream dreamed by me but by someone else still to be born.”
Voltaire, 18th century
“It is not more surprising to be born twice than once; everything in nature is resurrection.”
Eugene H. Peterson, 21st century
“It is not easy to convey a sense of wonder, let alone resurrection wonder, to another. It’s the very nature of wonder to catch us off guard, to circumvent expectations and assumptions. Wonder can’t be packaged, and it can’t be worked up. It requires some sense of being there and some sense of engagement.”
Two Sundays before Easter, on this fifth Sunday of the Lenten season, we find two resurrection stories in the Lectionary: here in Ezekiel, and in the book of John, with the account of the resurrection of Lazarus. Both stories of resurrection point us toward Easter from different places. While John recounts Lazarus’ resurrection from the dead, the mystery of the resurrection in Ezekiel centers on the resurrection of a valley of dry bones. This resurrection story is about a community that considers itself lifeless, beyond hope and is filled with despair. Writing on this chapter of Ezekiel, Ronald E. Clements states: “It is a description of an act of resurrection, although we must recognize that is not about personal resurrection and life after death but about the resurrection of a nation” (Ezekiel, Westminster Bible Companion).
Ezekiel’s visit to this valley of dry bones is framed in context of the economic and spiritual challenges of his day. According to Walter Brueggemann, the prophet’s words concern “the crisis of 587 B.C.E. in Jerusalem and the consequent season of displacement and disarray in the exile” (An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination). Ezekiel himself was in exile, taken from the land of his birth following the Babylonian siege of Judah. After years in which the nation and particularly the city of Jerusalem were under siege, the first wave of exiles was sent from Judah.
In that first wave, there were the elite of the day, including Ezekiel, who was a priest and a prophet. The Babylonian siege was a time of devastation and despair. The city was decimated and the temple was destroyed. “It is difficult to exaggerate the seriousness of the Exile as a national disaster and a crisis of faith,” Gene Tucker writes. “The Judeans had lost the land promised to their ancestors and granted in the time of Joshua. The last of the Davidic kings was a captive, first in prison and then at the court of the Babylonian monarch (2 Kings 25:27-30). The temple, where the Lord made his name to dwell and where his glory was known, lay in ruins” (Preaching through the Christian Year A). From his place in exile, Ezekiel heard of what had transpired at home. What was once a vibrant, thriving economic and spiritual community was laid to waste – left in ruins, with its former residents scattered.
The people in exile were full of despair. They were no longer economically viable. They were no longer at home. They were living in a strange land, with spiritual practices that were different from what they knew. From this place of despair and woe, the prophet Ezekiel is visited by the spirit of God and is taken to this valley of dry bones.
These bones had no life and had been lifeless for some time. While they speak to lack of life, the bones have additional significance for this religious community where dead bodies were considered to be impure. In a spiritual context so taken with the pure and the impure, with the reality of being in a foreign land there is a blurring between the pure and the impure. Dennis T. Olson reflects on the reality of this vision in the life of Ezekiel: “Remember that Ezekiel is a priest. Thus the vision of chapter 37, which puts Ezekiel down in a valley ‘full of dry bones,’ is not only a matter of the severest condition of ritual impurity and contamination. There is a level of repulsion in the vision, and we moderns may need some help to sense the extent to which this repulsion was experienced by Ezekiel and his audience (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament). As a priest, Ezekiel would have shunned being around dead bodies. Yet here he is in a valley full of bodily remains. The impure also has now become a symbol for the people who are seen as apart from God – contrasting once again the Holy and the unholy, the pure and the impure, God present and God absent. Where does God reside? With the temple destroyed where is the Divine to be found for a community for whom the worship center was the Temple and that was now in ruins?
Brueggemann contemplates the implication of the loss of the Temple: “The initial vision of God reported in chapter 1 is exceedingly enigmatic. Very likely it intends to testify to the mobility of YHWH who is not confined to the Jerusalem temple, but who can come and go in a way that permits YHWH’s presence even among exiles in a foreign and impure land” (An Introduction to the Old Testament).
The visit to the valley of bones is partly in response to Ezekiel’s own concern about the presence of God with this community. Does the presence of disaster mean an absence of the Divine from the people? According to Gene Tucker, “Ezekiel envisioned defeat as the departure of the glory of the Lord from the temple (Ezek. 10-11). Small wonder that the exiles asked if the history of Yahweh with his people had come to an end” (Preaching through the Christian Year A).
The dry bones themselves immediately draw our attention, a large valley of dry bones. Or, as Eugene Petersen translates in The Message: “There were bones all over the place – dry bones, bleached by the sun” (Ezekiel 37:2). These were bones long dead. Later we are told in the text that these dry bones were the house of Israel. These people in despair said, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely” (v.11). Hopelessness had removed all signs of life from this community.
What is there to be done for a people, for any community that loses hope amidst pain and suffering? Where are the words to help the community find God in the midst of their grief and loss? For Ezekiel’s community these conditions were further exacerbated by the linking of their economic downturn and spiritual decline to God’s judgment against them. “Can these bones live?”
The visit to the valley states the condition of the people, but is not the sole reason for the visit. God identifies for Ezekiel what the problems are with this community. They have lost faith. They have lost hope. They see themselves as this valley of bones. They see themselves as long dead. It is they that see themselves as the unholy, as set apart from God in a far place. The hope that comes comes in a word from the prophet. The prophet is told to prophesy the words that the Lord God tells him to speak.
The hope for the people is in Divine promise for the life of this valley of dry bones, Walter Brueggemann writes: “The promise is cast in a series of first-person, powerful verbs: I will cause breath, I will lay sinews, I will cause flesh, I will cover, I will put breath. The text gives no hint about how this happens. It is the power of God. God intends it and clearly will do it” (Texts for Preaching Year A). Eugene Peterson translates verses 4-5 this way: “God, the Master, told the dry bones, ‘Watch this: I’m bringing the breath of life to you and you’ll come to life. I’ll attach sinews to you, put meat on your bones, cover you with skin, and breathe life into you. You’ll come alive and you will realize that I am God” (The Message).
This is a tall order. This is no ordinary miracle. These words bring new possibilities in the midst of the impossible. Where are the places of hopelessness and despair among us? What is the word we bring to communities that are devastated and seem beyond repair? What are the conditions that exist for communities today? Is there room for life among us? Can these dry bones live?
The hope for the people points them to a new way of thinking and a new way of doing that which they have always done. This place of newness is found in many ways in the text. Newness in this context is not a sign of all things being well. The people are in a new place. They are experiencing significant change that is debilitating to their existence individually and corporately. They are experiencing God in new ways – even as they are experiencing life in new ways.
Again, Brueggemann writes: “The prophet is led to the valley by the hand and spirit of God. In that valley the prophet experiences two stunning newnesses – first a vision of God’s utter sovereignty, and second the newness of life created by God’s sovereignty. Both God’s sovereignty and newness of life are impossibilities as judged by the conditions of the valley, which is filled only with dry bones” (Texts for Preaching Year A).
Faced with impossibilities there is the need for imagination. Imagine the possibilities, God invites the prophet to ponder. If you can imagine life in these dry bones and see it happen, what are the other possibilities for this community? Ezekiel was not alone in pointing to the possibilities for these people in exile and in asserting that God would respond in new ways to their situation. The newness and possibilities are reminiscent of other places in the prophetic literature where new is envisioned. Second Isaiah is more explicit in owning this newness: “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (Isaiah 43:19).
The promise of new life means accommodating a new way for God to be at work in the world. New life is the place where hope transforms what is into what can be. The gift of new life is fully attached to the breath of the Divine. The prophet prophesies as invited, using the language given by God. With the words of the prophet “there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 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” (v.7-8). Words are powerful and the words do have an impact on the ones in the valley. They move. They come together. They are covered. All parts of the promise are fulfilled except one. In that, the miracle of this promised resurrection is incomplete.
The words of the prophet can get the people and the restoration only so far. Essential to the recovery of these dry bones is the spirit of God. It is the very breath of God that makes a difference in the life and death of the community. Dennis T. Olson emphasizes this important moment in the narrative: “The how of this amazing skeletal resurrection will be through the ‘breath’ (ruah) – spirit, wind, breath of the Lord which will enter these bones and give them life. And that breath of God will come through a human priest/prophet speaking the word of the Lord in ordinary human language” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament). Are there valleys of dry bones around? What do these communities need to live? What will they offer when they are alive?
The prophet is told to “‘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 life.’ I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude” (vv. 9-10). New hope. New possibilities. New life. New ways of thinking. New ways of being in the world. New ways of living in community. New way of embracing God. New ways of understanding God’s presence. All facilitated by the presence of the spirit, the ruah, the very breath and Spirit of God.
Brueggeman summaries the text: “It is to be noted in 37:14 that the ultimate promise of YHWH is to give life by divine gift of the spirit (= breath). The news of the book of Ezekiel is that YHWH wills life and has power to grant it (see 33:11). Finally, however, it is to be noticed that the gift of new life is for the enhancement of YHWH who thereby establishes YHWH’s own prestige and credibility” (An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination). The very essence of God in the breath of the Spirit is not to be ignored. The filling of the Spirit is essential to new life for these people and for the life of these bones.
The latter verses of the text provide an interpretation of the vision. The understanding that this valley of dry bones is the nation of Israel in its hopelessness is plainly stated in the interpretation provided in vv. 11-14. We find there the plan for full restoration of this people. Gene Tucker points us to the interpretation, “The vision is an announcement, a promise of life, not a general resurrection, but of the revival of the people beyond the Exile. The vision stresses that this revival is corporate; it is the restoration of the people of God. It is accomplished by word and spirit, the word of God through the prophet and the life-giving spirit as a divine gift” (Preaching through the Christian Year A).
In the midst of hopelessness, new life can be created with the word and the spirit. How can congregations that hear the word today become alive again? What will the breath of the Spirit accomplish in and around congregations today? Brueggemann provides a word of caution, noting that the text should be owned for communities and not just be seen as a private spiritual place for interpretation. “The preacher must take care that this text is kept focused on historical possibility, on the power of communities to function, and not reduce the text to ‘spiritual,’ private matters. The issue posed in the text is whether powerless communities can again participate in the power of public life. The answer is, ‘Yes!'” (Texts for Preaching Year A).
Communities are in need of new hope and new life, there are many that are broken and in despair as life changes around them in drastic ways. Congregations are themselves communities where hope has long departed, where the presence and possibilities of God are but fleeting thoughts. “‘Our bones are dried up’ expresses the sense of physical weakness and hopelessness that was an understandable reaction to the situation,” Ronald Clements writes. “It is the saying of men and women at the end of their tether. Yet standing against this hopelessness is the ability of the prophet to awaken belief in hope, established on an awareness of God’s reality and power. What seems impossible in human terms is possible to God” (Ezekiel, Westminster Bible Companion). Can these dry bones live? Imagine the possibilities!
The Reverend Karen Georgia Thompson serves as Minister for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations with the Office of General Ministries of the United Church of Christ.
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. He led me all round them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 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.”
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. 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. 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.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
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.’ 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. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 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.”
Out of the depths I cry to you, O God.
Oh God, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
to the voice of my supplications!
If you, O God, should mark iniquities,
who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with you,
so that you may be revered.
I wait for God, my soul waits,
and in God’s word I hope;
my soul waits for God
more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning.
O Israel, hope in God!
For with God there is steadfast love,
with God is great power to redeem.
It is God who will redeem Israel
from all its iniquities.
To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law — indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 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.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus 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. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow-disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
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.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 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. 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.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 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 for four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I no