It is the fifth Sunday in Lent. We are still two weeks away from Easter Sunday and the celebration of the resurrection of Christ. But today we have heard a couple of wonderful scripture texts that point towards the joy of the resurrection. They proclaim the power and love of God to bring hope where there is despair, to bring joy where there is sadness and grief, to bring life where there is death.
The prophet Ezekiel uses the striking image of a valley full of dry bones. And he tells about how God will raise them up, and put them back together, cover them with flesh and skin, and fill them with breath so that God’s people will live again.
The author of John’s Gospel tells the amazing story of the raising of Lazarus. This friend of Jesus had been dead for four days. He was already in the tomb. His family were grieving. But Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” And the dead man came out. He was still wrapped in his grave clothes, but he was alive again!
And the Apostle Paul reminds the Roman Christians, and he reminds us also, that as God’s people we have the gift of the Spirit within us. The Spirit of God that lives within us is the same Spirit of God that raised Jesus from the dead. And so we can trust and believe that God’s Spirit will give us life also… abundant life today, and life everlasting.
For those of us who know these biblical stories so well, it’s easy for us to jump to the end of the stories and the celebration of life and joy winning out over death and despair. We know that the bones will come back together and rise up and live again. We know that when Jesus calls, Lazarus will indeed come out and he will live again. But today is not yet Easter. We’re still in the season of Lent. And though we may know what is coming, we are invited in this time to wait for a while in the earlier part of the stories. We are asked to hold back our rejoicing, to refrain from singing “hallelujah,” and to be in the desert place that was a part of Jesus’ journey.
And so I invite you to consider the vision of Ezekiel: “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 around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.” God asked the prophet, “Can these bones live?” And Ezekiel must have been thinking, “Um… I don’t think so.” But he said, “O Lord GOD, you know.” I guess God had surprised him before.
As the text later makes it clear, the bones represent the whole house of Israel. They are all of God’s people who are as good as dead. You see, Israel had been conquered by the Babylonians. Jerusalem had been destroyed. And God’s people had been sent into exile.
They’d been there for a long time now, and most of them had given up any hope of returning to their land. They’d concluded that God had abandoned them, and they’d turned to other gods, and other ways, and they’d blended in with the other people in Babylon. They had ceased to be the people of God.
Ezekiel describes their utter despair and hopelessness by saying that they have become like a pile of dry, dry bones in a deserted valley. They are dead. They are long dead and without any hope. They say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.”
I hope that you have never felt quite like the Israelites did during that difficult time in exile, but I imagine that most of you have felt like that at one time or another in your life. And it’s likely that most of us will feel like that again at some point in the future. For some, bouts of clinical depression are part of the reality of life. But even for those with good mental health, there are times when the troubles and trials of our lives can become overwhelming…
When our plans and hopes don’t seem to work out right…
When we get tired of working so hard and never seeing the results we hope for… When the daily grind seems to have no meaning for us anymore…
When illness or injury makes every day more difficult for us, even basic activities becoming exhausting…
When we experience breakdowns in relationships and we don’t know how to fix them…
When our families or friends are in trouble, and we feel powerless to do anything to help…
When we get frustrated with the politics and power struggles in our society, and our workplaces and communities…
The valley of the dry bones is not an unfamiliar place to most of us. We’ve been there before. And we’ve stood in the middle of the valley too… kicking at the dusty bones in frustration… shaking our fists at the stale air in anger… letting the tears roll down our faces in despair. And in those moments, those hours, or those days, we have not been able to imagine the bones rattling and coming together. Our bones were dried up, and our hope was lost. We were cut off completely.
Or perhaps like Martha or Mary, your most difficult time has come with the loss of someone that you deeply loved. And just as the sisters of Lazarus sent a message to Jesus asking him to come and help them, you sent up many prayers to God for healing and help as well. And then you waited, as they did. And you said goodbye, as they must have done. And then you mourned.
Like Martha, your faith may have given you strength and hope through that difficult time. Like her, you may have told yourself or even others, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” But like Mary, you may have also thought or even said to God, “Lord, if you had been here, my loved one would not have died.”
Unlike the Gospel story though, Jesus did not show up four or five days after you called for him, and proceed to bring your loved one back from death. As difficult as that wait must have been for Lazarus’ family, we often have to wait much longer. And the new life that we most often experience is not our loved ones back with us again, but rather the slow process of healing and hope and purpose that begins to grow within us when we start to come to terms with our loss.
The words of the anthem that the choir sang this morning are appropriate. God says to us, “Come unto me and wait, for my time is not your time.” These are difficult words to accept in the midst of the desert places of our lives. At least, the “wait” part is difficult to accept. In the fast-paced rush of the world and our busy lives, waiting is not something that we’re very good at or very willing to accept. We hate waiting in lines. We avoid waiting in traffic. We get annoyed when we have to wait for each other. And so when God asks us to wait, we wonder if God is with us at all, or if God must be busy paying attention to someone else.
But during this season of Lent, I wonder if we can focus on the first part of the line in the anthem: “Come unto me.” Because that’s where we are invited to wait… not on our own, not abandoned by God, not alone. God invites us to come into God’s very presence… to be still and know that he is God, that God is with us, that God’s Spirit lives within us, and around us, and between us.
And God promises, “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.” God promises, “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.”
Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD. Lord, hear my voice!
I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning.
In the presence of God, with the Spirit of God within us, and around us, and between us, let us keep a time of silence together. Let us wait for the Lord.