Written by Pastor Ed
Restore Us, O God. We Breathe
April 2, 2017 Lent 5
Ezekiel 37: 1-14
John 11: 1-45
What do you do when you come to the end of the rope? When despair seems to be the only emotion you have left? When you are shown a valley full of dry bones and asked, “Can these bones live?” Ezekiel knew what that felt like.
37 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.”
I mean, how are you supposed to answer a question like that? And God wasn’t just talking about dry bones, God was talking about the exiles in Babylon. God even said so.
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.’
The children of Israel had been through a lot. Before being hauled off into exile they had undergone two years of siege warfare which led to widespread famine and disease. Then the Babylonians destroyed the city of Jerusalem and the temple, killed many of its people, and hauled the rest off to a foreign country. Ezekiel himself had been forced into exile, his wife had died and he was told by God not to mourn, and he was forced again and again to deliver messages of doom and destruction to the people. Yes, the bones felt dry and dusty. And now God wanted to know if he thought these bones could live!? It’s amazing that Ezekiel didn’t laugh in God’s face.
And Mary and Martha must have felt somewhat the same way at the death of their brother, Lazarus. Generally when we read this passage we don’t put a lot of emotion in the voices, but I suspect that when Martha said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” there was at least a touch of anger and accusation in her voice. And probably even more so with Mary. I know how some people have reacted when I haven’t shown up at the hospital right away, and I can’t cure anyone.
It was generally understood in those days that there was a possibility, however slight, of someone resuscitating within three days. And clearly in the Bible three days has some significance. But this was four days later. All hope was gone. Decomposition was setting in. The grief was readily apparent, and even Jesus is noted as weeping.
And clearly the disciples were confused. Why would Jesus wait to go when he got the news? And what’s this about sleeping? And Jesus was glad that Lazarus had died? What kind of friend was this anyway?
All too often when we read these passages we jump right to the good endings and forget about the trauma and grief that comes before. I don’t know how many of you knew about or followed the news regarding Michael Sharp, but I have many friends on Face Book who knew him and I have some acquaintance with his father, John. When news of the kidnapping broke, my feed was full of hope and prayers for a safe return. That hope turned to despair as no word was forthcoming, and then Michael’s father posted words that he said he had hoped never to post, that two Caucasian bodies had been found and although no positive identification had been made, Michael and his Swedish companion were the only Caucasians known missing in the area. And then came confirmation and grief.
We are all faced with those moments and times in our lives. Whether we call them “dark nights of the soul” or “the valley of the shadow of death” all of us experience them, and if you haven’t, rest assured that you will at some point. It is part of our human existence, no matter how much society and others around us try to cover it up or deny it. We come up with all kinds of phrases and ways that suggest we shouldn’t feel the way we do when we are in that pit of despair and things look hopeless.
But scripture doesn’t gloss over that reality. If you read the book of Ezekiel prior to chapter 37, the prophet again and again offers imagery and descriptions of the despair of the people. John is clear that the grief of Mary and Martha and even Jesus was real and felt deeply. The Psalms are full of cries of despair. Psalm 130, the psalm assigned for this 5th Sunday of Lent begins with the familiar and haunting words, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice!”
In fact, we might even suggest that we need to go through those experiences in order to appreciate what comes next. That we can only experience the mountaintops after we have walked in the valley. For the stories don’t end in despair.
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[a] 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[b] 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.
(Sung) “Foot bone connected to the ankle bone, ankle bone connected to the leg bone, leg bone connected to the hip bone, hip bone connected to the back bone, back bone connected to the shoulder bone, shoulder bone connected to the neck bone, neck bone connected to the head bone – now hear the word of the Lord.”
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:[c] Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath,[d] 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.
Jesus, after telling the people to take the stone away, “cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’” And he did, wrapped in the clothes of burial.
In this season of Lent we first have to go through Good Friday before we get to the joy of Easter. But the good news is, we know that Easter is coming even while we acknowledge the pain and loss of those dark valleys. So even while we walk through those valleys, we know that there is hope for a renewed life. That doesn’t always mean that things turn out sunshine and roses. Michael Sharp did not suddenly reappear, whole and hardy. He was killed by his kidnappers and the grief is real.
But his parents and friends have all spoken of the hope for peace that Michael worked for, and that somehow his death, which he knew was a possibility given the kind of situations he worked in, would lead to new life for people of East Congo. Resurrection and hope come in many forms.
At the end of Ezekiel’s vision his thoughts turn once again to the exiles.
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.”
Although they had felt like dry bones, they were promised a return, which we know happened some years later. But more importantly, they were offered a glimpse of hope that the God who had rescued them from slavery in Egypt, was still with them and would continue to be with them. And that’s often all it takes for hope to survive, to know that someone is walking with us, whether that someone is another person, or ultimately, God.
I’m pleased that at the end of May we will be hosting a seminar sponsored by the Christian Pastoral Caregivers Association entitled, “Love at Last Breath: Companioning at the End of Life.” I’m hoping that a number of people will consider attending, because the skills learned at such a seminar are practical not only for dealing with the end of life, when we are faced with those feelings of dried up bones, but also at many other times in our lives when walking with someone can give them the hope that is needed to carry on.
And sometimes, whether we care to admit it or not, sometimes death has to occur in order for new life to begin. Jesus spoke about it as the seed falling in the ground and needing to die in order for something new to sprout. I’ve seen organizations, and even congregations, that have floundered and it was only when they were at their end, seemingly dry bones, that something new was allowed to begin. We can hang on so tightly at times that we never allow something new to spring forth.
As we approach these final weeks of Lent, let us contemplate and live through the pain and suffering of Christ, and of the world around us. Feel the grief of loss, the oppression of those who are kept under foot, the alienation of the marginalized, for those are the burdens that the prophet felt. And then, when we can truly appreciate the valleys, we will be all the more ready to release ourselves to God who laone knows if these bones can live or not, and to the spirit which can come from the four winds and breate life into even the driest of bones.
Confession and words of assurance
Leader: God, we confess that when we look into the valleys of our lives,
we are tempted to fix our gaze on the remnants of our past.
We see the dry bones, and we doubt in our minds—“Will these bones ever live?”
People: But in the midst of our doubt,
we proclaim that you are the life-giving Spirit.
You breathe new life into all that is dead.
Leader: For you, O God, raised up the dry bones in the valley.
Your Son, Jesus, brought Lazarus out from the tomb,
and your Spirit lifted anew the hearts of the disciples.
Leader: Teach us, O Lord, to wait for your breath.
All: Blow your mighty wind into the hollow chambers of our hearts,
that we may never settle for death
but rise again as your beloved people.
(Pause for silent confession)
Leader: God, holy Breath,
All: restore us.
Leader: But with you there is forgiveness, so that we can, with reverence, serve you, once more. Our whole selves waited for you, O Lord, and you answered us. In you there is unfailing love and full redemption. You redeem us from all our sins. Amen.