Can these bones live?

Lent 5                     April 2, 2017

Ezekiel 37:1-14               John 11:1-45

Two stories today that look forward to Easter, two stories that hint at the Resurrection. Two stories about the power of God to give new possibilities when we think all hope is at an end – even in the face of the utter ending and hopelessness of death.

First we heard that powerful vision from the prophet Ezekiel of the valley full of dry bones. A chilling image, if we stick with it for a moment – just heaps of bones, as far as the eye can see. It is something out of a nightmare – is this how humanity will end?

What happens next is harder to visualize: the coming together of the bones sounds like something out of a corny horror movie with terrible special effects. Perhaps it’s hard to take seriously: we recall that old song, “Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones.” The disturbing strangeness of the picture gets in the way of the promise of the passage: this is about the possibilities of God where we see no possibilities.

As always, context is key. Ezekiel was speaking to a shattered people. The whole sorry history of the kings of Judah has come to an end in a catastrophic military defeat. The Babylonian Empire has captured the Holy city; Jerusalem has been burned to the ground, its walls torn down, its Temple looted and profaned. The people have suffered unspeakable violence: slaughter, rape, captivity; their homes destroyed, their possessions taken, their children starving, their livelihood gone, their dignity taken from them; they have been herded into camps, and then marched off to a foreign land to serve their new masters. It is a fate repeated a thousand times in history, a whole nation stamped out. The miracle is that Israel survived to tell the tale.

Ezekiel is speaking to a people who have been completely broken; a people with no hope, no vision for the future, no faith in a God who cares about their fate. The image of the valley of dry bones speaks of what they are living; it is the stuff of their nightmares, which follow them into their waking life. The question “Can these bones live?” is probably one they have stopped asking themselves. And when Ezekiel is asked, his only answer is “God knows.”

In the Gospel reading we hear of the death of Lazarus. A much more everyday disaster – people die all the time. Except for those close to the deceased, for those who live with and love and rely on this person, there is nothing everyday about it: it is a catastrophe every bit as painful and overwhelming as the sack of a city. For Martha and Mary, their world has fallen apart.

It is all the more painful because this has happened after Jesus has come into their lives, and has made them feel the closeness of God’s kingdom in his care and his healing power. One hears it in the sisters’ bitter cry, the first thing each of them says when they see Jesus: “Lord, if you had been here, he would not have died.”
Here again, the context is helpful. Because John is of course telling this story to the early church; and we know from a passage in the epistles that this was a cause of considerable confusion and anxiety in the early church. They had accepted Jesus as God’s promised Messiah, raised from the dead in God’s final victory over death; and they were expecting him to come again soon, to bring God’s kingdom to fulfilment. But in the meantime, their loved ones kept dying; they continued to have to deal with bitter fact of our mortality. So the sisters’ cry must have been close to their hearts: Lord, if you had been here, they would not have died.

When Jesus arrives, his presence brings two things. First of all, he has come to share their grief. “Jesus wept” – the shortest verse in the Bible, and one of the most important. Why did he weep? After all, if he has just come as the Saviour with supernatural powers to make everything alright, there is nothing to weep about. He can just get around to raising Lazarus and they can have a party.

Apparently, it is not that simply. Apparently, Jesus’s coming, his healings and miracles, even this one, are not just about fixing everything that is wrong. John refers to miracles as signs – they point to something bigger than themselves, something yet to come. They are promises. As promises, they affect the reality we are living, they place it in the light of hope. But they don’t make that reality go away. There is still much to weep over in this world – and Jesus came first of all to weep with us.

When he does raise Lazarus, he does so as a sign. This is not the promised resurrection, even for Lazarus. He will live a few years, and die again. The fullness of life that is promised beyond the grave, that remains only a promise. It is about hope, not reality. But hope is important, too, hope is also real, perhaps more real than the reality we can see around us.

Again, the question has come up in our midweek discussion groups, both on Tuesday and Friday this week: “Do I believe in the resurrection to eternal life?” No doubt it is a question we all ask ourselves from time to time; it’s the point at which the creed hits home for us.

Well, so much depends on how we understand the word “believe”. Usually, in our scientific culture, we think that believing something is about thinking that this is a fact. This kind of believing is something we do with our heads, with that rational faculty of our mind we use to make practical sense of the world. Well, if that is how we think of believing, then we may very well come to the conclusion we don’t believe in the resurrection of the body. It is not part of the reality we see around us, it is not a fact alongside the other things that are facts. Can these bones live? Well, no.

And that may be very well as far as our rational mind is concerned. But where does it leave the rest of us? Do we live only by our rational minds, which leave us no hope?

But that is not what the Bible and the Christian tradition understands by the word belief. Believing is not something we do with our heads, it’s not about the facts of this world. It is done with our heart, it is about the basic love and trust we bring to God.

When Jesus tells Martha, “Your brother will rise again,” she responds, “I know that my brother will rise on the last day”. But Jesus’s response is interesting: “I am the resurrection and the life.” Jesus is the resurrection. So believing in the resurrection is not so much about believing in facts, as trusting in Jesus.

The question around the resurrection of the dead, then, is this: do we love and trust God in the face of our own death, and the death of those we love? Does our love and trust of God only go as far as death; is death a greater reality that marks the end of belief? Or do we trust in God’s love for us as the most basic reality, even stronger than the facts of death? Because if we do, then there is room for hope that God’s faithfulness extends even beyond the grave. What that looks like – well, we can’t really know, as we only know what the facts of this reality are. For what is beyond our experience, we have only pictures, pictures like the raising of the dry bones or the raising of Lazarus, signs that point to the faithfulness of God, even when we don’t see a way forward.

It is a question about the possibility of hope. And that points to our context. Hope is a rare commodity for many of us these days. For people, caught in minimum wage jobs, and not seeing a way out of the cycle of poverty. For people worried about the fate of the earth, and depressed and hopeless as our leaders dig us in ever deeper. For those who have been bereaved – how do you rebuild your life after half of your heart has been ripped away? For those struggling with depression. And for so many of us, faced daily with the decline of our health and strength, what do we hope for? Can these bones live?

In the face of life’s dead ends, in the face of situations where we see no way out, in the face especially of death, can we find space for hope? Our minds tell us, no, there is no way forward. But our hearts, set on the love and promises of God, built on that trust, they need and deserve the gift of hope. That is why we are not done with the resurrection, with that question “Can these bones live?”

I will conclude with a poem, by the German theologian Dorothee Sölle, which better expresses what I am trying to say:

On the Resurrection

You ask me about the resurrection.
Well of course I’ve heard about it
that a person is no longer racing towards death
that death can be behind you
because love is ahead of you
that fear can be behind you
the fear of being forsaken
because you – I’ve heard of it –
have become so whole that there is nothing
left that could get up and leave you forever.

O don’t ask me about the resurrection
an old fairy tale
you’ll forget that soon enough
I listen to those
who shrivel me up, who cut me down
I am making my arrangements
for the slow task of getting used to being dead
in my heated apartment
the big stone in front of the door.

O ask me about the resurrection
O never stop asking me.