Lent 5A

March 31, 2014

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    John 11:1-45

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary

    Ezekiel 37:1-14

    Author: Scott Hoezee

    Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider

    It is a sad statement on the last hundred or so years that we can rather easily imagine the scene Ezekiel describes in his famous 37th chapter. Whether or not the people in Ezekiel’s original audience had ever seen such a valley full of bones, we now have.

    We’ve seen the mass graves of Auschwitz and Kosovo. Our minds cannot erase, much though we’d like to, the carnage of Rwanda and particularly of that one photo of a church sanctuary littered with the skeletal remains of those who sought refuge in God’s house but who found instead swift death at the hands of macheté-wielding thugs. Perhaps most dramatically we’ve seen the killing fields of Cambodia with bones and skulls stretching to the horizon.

    We know what Ezekiel saw and we know that such a scene represents death in all its finality, intensity, and horror. And so we also know what we would say if someone asked us, “Do you see any life in all that carnage? Can those emaciated victims of Hitler’s Final Solution live? Can Pol Pot’s legacy of murder lead to life?” We know what we’d say and we know that from just the human side of things our answer would be a resounding,

    “No!”

    Son of man, can these dry bones live? No, they cannot. From our human side of things the bones cannot live. From our human side of things death is the end. We cannot bring anyone back. Even with the wonders of today’s medical technology there is nothing that can be done for even a body that has been dead for more than five or so minutes, much less for a body as far gone as to be a skeleton.

    Ezekiel saw skeletons–lots and lots of them. These were people who did not receive burial for some reason. The sheer number of bones seemed to indicate some kind of mass carnage or catastrophe. The dry condition of the bones lets Ezekiel know that these people have been dead a long time. Can these bones live–these long-dead, desiccated, jumbled-together remnants of people who are long gone from this earth?

    No, they cannot.

    Verse 2 tells us that Yahweh gave Ezekiel a pretty thorough tour of this terrible place. They walked back and forth, through and among the bones. Ezekiel saw no life.

    Can these bones live? The question was ridiculous. So much so that Ezekiel was savvy enough to realize that it is more of a rhetorical question. Perhaps that is why Ezekiel is bold enough to swat the ball back into Yahweh’s court. “Son of man, can these bones live?” “You tell me, O Sovereign Yahweh. You tell me.”

    In the face of such a scene of death’s finality, people of faith have no choice but to throw it back into Yahweh’s hands. We know the answer to the question insofar as our human perspective and ability is concerned. If there is more that can be said in this situation, God will have to be the one to say it. If there is anything to be done to or for these bones, God will have to be the one to do it. “Can these bones live?” The suspense of faith is holding our collective breath to see what Yahweh says in answer to his own question.

    Speaking of breath, the Hebrew word for “breath” is ruach, and it pops up fully ten times in just these fourteen verses. Clearly it is the key word for this context. It starts in 5 when Yahweh tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones that God would indeed restore the breath of life to them. But before we consider that any further we need to notice the silliness of what Yahweh asks Ezekiel to do. Ezekiel needs to stand up, clear his throat, and preach a sermon to the skeletons! Imagine going to a cemetery as a pastor, standing on a bench, and then saying to all the headstones stretched out before me, “Good afternoon. You’re probably wondering why I called all of you here today . . . well, that is, what I have to say to you . . . .”

    Nobody is listening! There is no one to hear! Ezekiel has had to perform his share of wild and crazy things in this book but earnestly preaching a sermon to this valley of bones is far more outlandish than most of the other prophetic signs he had to perform. Yet this spectacle is less ridiculous than we might at first think. Preaching to the obviously dead is actually not so rare after all–not within the context of Ezekiel and not even yet today.

    In verse 11 of this passage we hear Yahweh quote a saying or a sentiment that had been circulating among the exiles in Babylon. With Jerusalem destroyed, the Temple in ruins, many of their children and loved ones dead, it seemed to most Israelites like the end of the world. So they’d gather together in little clusters of lament and say to one another, “Our bones are dried up! Our hope is gone! We are cut off from all joy!” The Israelites had become the living dead. Their spirits were shriveled up within them.

    This entire book was written in the shadow of what Walter Brueggemann calls the Nullpunkt, which is a German word for “zero point.” The Nullpunkt of faith is that moment of crisis when all seems lost and when, humanly speaking at least, all really is lost. For Israel all of her prior understandings of covenant had been shattered. The belief that Jerusalem was inviolate and the Temple indestructible proved hollow.

    What was next for Israel? Was there a “next” to anticipate? Out of this time of profound spiritual crisis emerged the distinctive voice of the prophets. The job of Ezekiel, and for that matter of Isaiah and Jeremiah and the others, was to declare that God was not undone by the catastrophe of recent days. God remained sovereign and what’s more, Yahweh was determined that he would never be “Israel-less” in the world. Yahweh would always have his Israel! But from the crises of history, from the death that surrounds us, and from the ways by which the bleakness of our human situation can so easily make us spiritually dead on the inside, this hope is something that completely and utterly depends on the gift of God.

    Everything depends on whether or not Yahweh will return the very breath of life itself. We are powerless even to summon this breath, much less to grant it to ourselves or anyone else. In other words, from the human side of things there is the undeniable reality of death, and there is not a thing we ourselves can do about it. We are finite. There are limits. The universe itself cannot continue forever.

    Any hope that we have cannot be based on any trends or possibilities that we see within this physical sphere of life as we know it. We cannot expect that science or medicine will break through with the news that we’ve found a loophole, a way to escape death, a way to keep the sun lit forever and the universe to stop expanding itself to the breaking point. No, the hope we have has to take square account of death and its inevitability. We also cannot base our hope on the Greek belief that there is something inherent within our human souls that is death-proof all of its own accord.

    But Yahweh is the God of resurrection! Can these bones live?

    No.

    Even if somehow sinew and tendon and flesh could be put back onto them, as happens in verses 7-8, can they breathe and be whole and complete living souls again? No–not unless Yahweh himself picks up these dead folks and, as he did in the beginning with Adam and Eve, personally blows the breath of life back into their nostrils! It is all of God.

    As a prophet it was Ezekiel’s task to pluck the strings of the people’s imagination with lyrical descriptions of things and possibilities beyond what we can attain on our own, and in this way to foster a thoroughgoing hope. He succeeded. In this universe of death and decay, Yahweh’s question still rings across the broken landscape of our history: Can these bones live? The answer of Immanuel, who is the resurrection and the life, the alpha and the omega, the great shepherd of the sheep and the firstborn of all us dead and dying folks–his answer to this question is simple, clear, and redolent of hope: Can these bones live?

    Yes!

    The Sovereign God in Jesus Christ our Lord has spoken it.

    Illustration Idea

    If you’ve ever toured one of the Nazi concentration camp memorials you know of the almost choking sense of death and finality you sense in those places. When years ago I visited Buchenwald, I was struck by what a glorious place of natural beauty it is. Located near Weimar in what was then East Germany, Buchenwald overlooks a broad vista of rolling hills and valleys. Even in the dead of winter when I was there the view was lovely.

    And yet it wasn’t lovely to me. Buchenwald, like the other camps I’ve seen at Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, and Plötzensee, hangs so heavy with a sense of mass extermination that all else is eclipsed. By the time you’ve viewed the memorial plaques, glanced at the grim photos of corpses stacked like cord wood, and passed by the crematorium onto which is now engraved the words, “Remember How We Died Here,” there is little left in your mind than the overwhelming sense of death’s tragedy and of its apparent absolute finality. There is no beauty there and often very little sense of hope.

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 130

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • Lectionary Epistle +

    Romans 8:6-11

    Author: Stan Mast