April 6, 2014

Ezekiel 37:1-14
Romans 8:6-11
John 11:1-45

“Prophesy to These Bones!”

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 several 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.”

The last time I preached on this text, I remember that I invited us to think of ourselves as those dry, dry bones. Most of us have experienced some difficulties and disappointments in our lives… perhaps the deaths of loved ones, broken relationships, failures, job losses, illnesses, injuries, or even deep depression. And in the midst of those challenges, I invited us to wait and trust in God for healing and hope.

But as I reflected on the text this week, I found myself drawn to the character of Ezekiel. I imagined myself as Ezekiel, and I want to invite you to do the same.

The hand of the Lord comes upon you, and brings you out by the spirit of the Lord and sets you down in the middle of a valley; and the valley is full of bones. God leads you all around them; there are very many bones lying in the valley, and they are very dry.

As you look around at the valley full of dry bones, other images flash through your mind:

□       a homeless person huddled under a thin blanket and a piece of cardboard for warmth;

□       a hungry child with a distended belly staring blankly;

□       a woman weeping at the bedside of her husband who has just died;

□       a single parent with a calculator and a pile of bills, anxiously trying to figure out which ones she can pay and which will have to be set aside for now;

□       a senior who has lost mobility and balance and cannot leave his home alone, turning on the television for company and waiting for the phone to ring;

□       a successful business person sitting at a bar after work, wondering whether she should go home or just sit there all night, wondering what it’s all about;

As you continue to look around at the bones, more and more images come into your mind, more and more hurting and broken people, looking for meaning, looking for hope, or giving up because none seems to be found.

But then you hear a voice calling out to you, asking you a question: “Mortal, can these bones live?” Is there hope for these people? Are meaning and purpose and fullness of life possible for these people who have given up hope, who have been cut off completely, whose bones have dried up?

“I don’t know,” you think to yourself. “I don’t think that I can do anything to help them?” But then, from some deep resource of faith, you hear yourself answering the voice, “O Lord God, you know… you know if they can live or not.”

And the voice of the Lord says to you, “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.”

Most of us are not preachers, and probably none of us would claim to be prophets. And yet, as God’s people, God is calling us to prophesy to the dry bones that we see all around us in our families, churches, communities, and world today.

As God’s people who have, at one time or another, experienced the new life and hope that comes from knowing Jesus, or felt the movement of the Holy Spirit in our hearts and lives stirring us to greater courage and generosity and joy, God is commanding us to “Prophesy to these bones!”

With words of encouragement and consolation, and with acts of kindness and love, we are called to proclaim to all those who are hurting, or hopeless, or confused that the God of the universe is a God of love who has the power to bring new life and possibility into whatever circumstances and struggles they may be experiencing.

All you need to do is turn on the television news to become overwhelmed with the size of the valley and the very many dry, dry bones that need God’s breath and spirit to give them life and hope.

But if you want to take on one more spiritual discipline for these last couple of weeks of Lent, I want to encourage you to open your eyes and look for just one situation, one person or one family, one place of dryness or despair, where God’s voice is calling you to “prophesy to these bones.”

And even if that situation seems impossible, and even if you can’t imagine what you could do to help, when God asks, “Mortal, can these bones live?” have the courage to answer, “O Lord God, you know.”

And then have the courage to speak words of comfort and encouragement, to be present with someone who is alone or suffering, to give from the abundance you have received – whether in time, talent, or money, and to trust that God can bring new life and hope in the midst of dryness and death, both in your life and in the lives of those around you.

Thus says the Lord God: “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live… then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act.”