“Grief and Hope”
Ezekiel was a prophet to the People of Judah and Jerusalem when they were in Exile in Babylon in the 6th century BCE. He experienced many visions from God, and preached to the people in dramatic ways with signs and symbols. He preached God’s judgement, calling the people to change their ways and return to God. And he preached grace, proclaiming God’s desire to save and restore God’s beloved people and to return them to the land of promise.
This morning’s vision from Ezekiel is one of the good ones – a message of hope and restoration that will be accomplished through God’s power and love. But it begins with a vision of destruction, death, and despair.
Ezekiel explains that the hand of the Lord came upon him, and God brought him out and set him down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. God led Ezekiel all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.
What he sees is the site of a long-ago battle. Thousands of soldiers, or perhaps just regular people, have become caught up in some conflict and they have fought one another to the death. If anyone survived, they’ve long since fled the area, and the dead were left to be scavenged by wild animals and decompose under the elements. It’s a horrific and very sad scene that speaks to violence, death, and destruction.
And it brings to mind other scenes of destruction that are not just part of an ancient prophet’s vision, but the reality that we see in our world today… in Ukraine, in Malawi, in Ecuador.
Even from across the globe, from the comfort of our safe and secure homes, schools, and workplaces, these images can fill us with despair and cause us to wonder if such chaos and destruction can be overcome. We feel helpless in face of such devastation, and wonder if we should just give up.
Likewise, many of our personal lives have been touched by tragedy too. Even if our part of the world looks neat and tidy, our hearts may be battered, bruised, or simply worn out from one terrible loss or many smaller ones compounded: The death of a dear loved one or the many deaths of friends and relations over the past few years, the end of a relationship, loss of a vocation, or death of a dream.
And although we’ve regained much of what we lived without during the pandemic restrictions and lock-downs, our lives have been significantly changed, and new challenges like the rising cost of living mean that some among us have lost a sense of safety and security.
There’s no doubt that most of us have experienced some figurative “valleys of dry bones,” with some of those being serious times of depression and despair when hope for life, health, and wholeness have been absent.
The circumstances that arise for the family at Bethany in our Gospel reading today are familiar to many of us. Lazarus has become seriously ill, and without the health care and hospitals we have today, his sisters Mary and Martha send a message to their friend Jesus, asking him to come and help their brother.
And it’s a big ask, because Jesus has recently left the area of Bethany (which is near Jerusalem) because the religious authorities were threatening to stone him or arrest him. He has gone away across the Jordan River to the place where John had been baptizing earlier, and he remains there.
Even after Jesus gets the message about Lazarus’ illness, he doesn’t get up and go back to Judea right away. He stays there for two more days. The logical reason for this would be that he doesn’t want to get killed, and his disciples object to him returning for that very reason. But Jesus’ reason seems to be that he’s waiting for Lazarus to actually die so that he can perform the greatest miracle yet – raising him from the dead.
In fact, the traditional belief was that the soul lingered around the body for three days after death; by the fourth day, it was thought, the soul had left the corpse for good. So Jesus’ delay may be to show that Lazarus is really, truly, completely dead.
Jesus has already been revealing God’s glory through the signs and wonders he’s been performing along the way. But this final miracle will be the clearest one yet. Some of those present to witness it might well have thought of God’s words expressed by the prophet Ezekiel: “And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people.”
But before the miracle, there is the illness, the pain, the struggle, and the death that Lazarus goes through. And there is the worry, the desperation, the disappointment, and the grief that his sisters experience.
We don’t know how awful Lazarus’ death was for Mary and Martha. Perhaps they were close, and they would miss him terribly. It’s also likely that they relied on Lazarus for their livelihood, and they could be in a precarious situation without him as the head of household.
What we do see is their intense grief, expressed a little differently by each of them when Jesus finally arrives. They both believe that Jesus could have helped if only he had arrived a little sooner. But Martha hopes that Jesus can still do something for him even now.
When Jesus says, “Your brother will rise again,” she expresses her faith that her brother will be resurrected on the last day. But Jesus says he’s not talking about the end of time, but Lazarus rising up again to live today.
On the Myers Briggs Personality Inventory that I mentioned last Sunday, I expect that Martha probably would have been a T for “thinker” whereas Mary was an F for “feeler.” So after the calm theological discussion with Martha who came out to meet Jesus first, he finds Mary who kneels at his feet and pretty much just weeps.
In that moment, regardless of whether or not Lazarus will be raised and go to heaven, or even if Jesus has the power to call him out of his tomb, Mary is simply devastated. What she is experiencing probably feels like that valley that is full of dry bones, like the bombed-out cities of Ukraine, or the flooded and washed-out villages of Malawi. It’s just awful, and it calls for no other response than to weep and wail.
And I think that Jesus was probably a “feeler” too, because when he saw Mary weeping and the community weeping with her, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. And he began to weep also.
I believe that when we are in the middle of our valleys full of dry bones, Jesus is with us to share in our tears and our cries as well. Not only does he allow us that time to grieve, but he weeps with us as he feels our pain and loss as if it was his own.
And then Jesus brings hope that defies expectations – like the breath of God blowing onto dry bones and bringing a vast multitude of people back to life. Jesus speaks, and the man who was very definitely, most certainly dead, is suddenly alive and walking around.
Perhaps Jesus did the miracle so that those watching would believe and understand that he was the Messiah. Certainly, the author of John’s Gospel tells this story so that his readers will believe that Jesus is God’s Son and the Saviour of the world.
But today, as I retell this story, I am just hoping for two things. First of all, that no matter your circumstances, you might know that Jesus loves you and is with you where you are standing.
And second, that you might have just enough faith to look for where and how God is breathing new life and hope into your life and into the struggling communities of our world. Because God is doing just that through helpers, through faithful friends, through kind and generous neighbours, and through ministries and other organizations that are focused on serving.
And I guess there’s a third thing that I am hoping for as well. I’m hoping that each of us, and our community as First Church, will recognize the ways that we are called to be present with one another and with our neighbours around the world when they are facing devastation and death.
We are called to come along side those who are suffering, to share in their pain and grief, and to breathe life and hope into each situation – perhaps by our gifts, by our service, by our advocacy, and most especially by our presence and care.