Standing in a valley full of dry, dead human bones. God had brought Ezekiel to this grim graveyard as the prophet balanced himself on broken skulls and sharp ribs. God took him by the hand and led him around as if to make sure he didn’t miss a bone. Death filled all his senses as Ezekiel surveyed the desolation.
It had been over ten years since Ezekiel, his family and others had been marched off into exile from Judah to Babylon. He watched his whole world and his whole culture unravel under the rule of Babylon. Life in a foreign country, cut off from religion and familiar customs, must have been a lonely and hopeless experience. Yet Ezekiel’s role as a prophet was to remind his people that God was still at work.
God’s voice broke the silence. "Mortal, can these bones live?" Standing knee deep in dry white bleached human bones, Ezekiel is asked this question. As we hear this Scripture, there is a sense of empty nothingness. A white bland canvass of despair, covered in colorless paints, fills the scene. For where there is death, there is nothing. There is no smell, no color, no movement, and no breath in this place of hopelessness. What it must have taken for Ezekiel to muster his answer, "O Lord God, you know."
God tells Ezekiel to prophesy and tell the bones that God’s breath will come into them. These brittle dead bones will live and be covered by sinew and flesh. In response to God’s living breath, Ezekiel hears a rattling noise as bone is joined to bone. Next, God tells his prophet to call upon the four winds from where God’s breath will come to bring these bones to life as the restored people of Israel. This life giving breath of God will even open the graves of the dead. God’s breath brings life out of death.
Our Gospel reading this morning leads us from a valley full of dried dead bones to a freshly stinking corpse of a man.
This time it’s not the nation of Israel that grieves without hope but two sisters: Mary and Martha. Their brother Lazarus was sick and dying when they sent word to Jesus, "Lord, he whom you love is ill?" Yet, Jesus did not arrive until four days later after Lazarus had been put into the tomb.
No wonder when Martha met Jesus she told him that if he had arrived sooner, her brother would not have died. For death seems so powerful and permanent when you find yourself hopelessly touched by its cold hand. Mary echoes her sister’s same feelings when she meets Jesus too. "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." Death has convinced the sisters that where Death is, God has no power.
The question raised by Ezekiel and the sisters is, "Was God present in Israel’s exile or in Lazarus’ death? If you had asked the Israelites, many would have answered "No!" God had abandoned them to their enemies. Their lives were over, and Israel was nothing more than a pile of dead dry bones. Or the sisters, Mary and Martha, who went home knowing Jesus never bothered to show up at their brother’s bedside. If you were to ask exiled peoples in the world today or relatives at a funeral, "Is God here?” many would respond, "No!"
It is clear that in times of crisis many people feel the absence of God. There is pain, loss, brokenness and death in all of our lives. Human beings get hurt and often times struggle to sense God’s presence in a death-filled world. God doesn’t casually drop by and pat us on the back and tells us everything is okay. Ezekiel was really in exile and captivity and his nation had been destroyed. Jesus was really late and did not arrive in time.
Most of us, at some time in our lives, have looked over a valley of dry bones or waited anxiously for a Jesus who didn’t arrived on time. These dry bones may be a dream never fulfilled. You pleaded, worked, struggled and prayed for God’s help and intervention, yet you still fell short. These dry bones represent the brokenness in all of our lives.
Our dreams which were so full of promise have been shattered. The expectation that everything will turn out better has been dashed. The possibilities were so wonderful, only to become brittle and broken. Little by little, death began to consume your dream. You called out for Jesus to come to you, but he was too late as you walked away from dry bones. Where is God in the midst of our pain? Why doesn’t Jesus hurry to make it in time?
The Scriptures are very concrete in their understanding of hopelessness and despair. But painful as this may be, healing begins when we take a long hard look at our bones and stinking graves. For unless we acknowledge the dry bones of our lives and the stench of death’s power, there will always be an empty rattling in our souls as Death laughs his way through our lives. But we proclaim that Death has not won, and his laughter will be silenced by God. God’s breath brings life out of death!
With God’s breath, these dry bones will be brought back to life. God will see to it that one day Israel will return to her own land. The people of God will resurrect into a new creation as the new Israel. "Thus says the Lord God, `I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel.’" Ezekiel saw that God’s breath brings life out of death.
When Jesus stood at the graveside of his friend Lazarus and wept, he too felt the pain of loss and despair. But we remember God’s promise to 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." As the Son of God breathed his divine breath and spoke to the dead man; as when God created Adam by breathing life into his nostrils, Jesus commanded Lazarus to "Come out." Lazarus struggled to step out into the blinding light of new life and Jesus told them to unbind the burial bandages and set Lazarus free.
God does not necessarily remove the pain of death or the discomfort of exile, but the promise of God in Jesus is that death does not have the last say, God does. For God’s breath brings life out of death.