“Can these Bones Live?” A Sermon for Lent 5


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


Perhaps you’ve heard this one? A taxi passenger tapped the driver on the shoulder to ask him a question. The driver screamed, lost control of the car, nearly hit a bus, went up on the footpath, and stopped centimetres from a shop window. For a second everything went quiet in the cab, then the driver said,

“Look mate, don’t ever do that again. You scared the daylights out of me!” The passenger apologized and said, “I didn’t realize that a little tap would scare you so much.”  The driver replied, “Sorry, it’s not really your fault. Today is my first day as a cab driver – I’ve been driving a hearse for the last 25 years.”

“Can These Bones Live?”

Death is the context of both our Old Testament and Gospel readings.  The prophet Ezekiel is given a vision that represents the sorry state of God’s people.  Israel had been unrepentant – a telltale sign that suffering was to follow.  They were conquered by the Babylonians and dispersed across the Empire.  The prophet gazed out into the valley the Lord showed him.  It was littered with bones.  The bones are dry, very dry, which means they have nothing of the power of life in them.  God sees the somber gaze of his prophet and opens the door to possibility: “Mortal, can these bones live?”

“Can these bones live?” That is the question…that is always the question. Can a rescue be worked? Can the people be brought home? Will empires tumble? Will justice and peace rule? Can the blind see and the lame walk? Will there be an end to poverty, despair and destitution? Will the cycle of drudgery, hopelessness, and cynicism ever come to a halt?  Can the dead be made to live?

“Even Now…”

This is also the underlying question in the gospel story.  Jesus is met by profound grief before he is even able to arrive at Lazarus’ home.  Martha meets him at the road, and we can sense her anger and regret: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  The desperate long to re-write the past.  We mourn not just the loss of a loved one, but of conversations we will no longer have, and regretful decisions we made while they were with us.  We wish to go back in time and do things differently, say what needs to be said, do what we think we ought to have done.  But the past is no place for the living.  Even in her grief, Martha’s regret turns to hope: “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”

Even now…even now after her brother has been dead four days…even now though all had lost hope…even now…

“Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb.”  Jesus isn’t just feeling compassion for those who are mourning, he is not simply sad.  The word used here implies he is also angry at the effects of the power of death still at work.  That power that seeks to end life and possibilities, that festers violence and corrupts beauty, and distorts relationships.  Resolved in his mission, Jesus begins to enlist the help of the people gathered with him and commands the stone to be removed.  He turns to the heavens to pray.  And then, with a loud voice, he speaks: “Lazarus, come out!” At his Word, life emerges. 

“Lord, You Know”

Can these bones live? Ezekiel answers his God, “Lord, you know.” God does indeed know the future of the bones. And God will give an affirmative answer. Yes, God knows. Yes, the bones can live. Yes, newness is possible.

Ezekiel is commanded to prophesy to the bones and proclaim God’s Word to them so that God may bring life to them. “…Suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.”

Four Things

That which was dead has been made to live.  The people, dispersed across a vast empire, are to be made whole again.  The hopeless are given hope, the lifeless, life.  In this prophetic word we learn at least four things:

(a) It is God, only God, who creates new life. (b) The speech of the prophet is the means whereby God’s newness comes. This speech is concrete, human speech. (c) The command of God and the speech of the prophet evoke a resurrection to new life. This is indeed a resurrection event. (d) The narrative account of the resurrection is cast as a retelling of the creation story—first the forming of the body, then the breath of life (cf. Gen. 2:4b–7). This is a powerful moment of creation when God’s sovereign purpose for life overrides the threat of nullity. Ezekiel’s prophecy was a word for the people of God dealing with a concrete socio-political situation. The issue posed in the text is whether powerless communities can again participate in the power of public life. The answer is, “Yes!”

“God Helps”

Some commentators believe that the story of the raising of Lazarus is also a message to people feeling cut off from their communities.  John’s gospel was written primarily to Jewish Christians who were feeling the sting of stigmatization for turning to Jesus as their Messiah.  They were kicked out of the synagogues, the centre of their religious and social life.  They would have endured sneers and scoffs, cut off from those they once deemed friend.  Lazarus’ very name means, “God helps” and the story of his resuscitation would bring validation to early Christian’s hopes and claims that Jesus is Lord. 

Yet his story also presents the harsh truth that many do not welcome the life God wishes to give.  “There is not much rejoicing at the raising of Lazarus. Since the giving of life projects a future full of surprises, it turns out to be a menace to those who think they control the future. They respond the only way they know, with violence. They even plot to do away with Lazarus (12:9–10). But the larger story confirms that life will not be overcome by death. What remains beyond the raising of Lazarus is not only Jesus’ death, but his resurrection and his persistent giving of life.”

How Will We Respond?

How do we respond to resurrection surprises? How do we respond to the noise of children, or of strangers to church unsure of our protocols and practices? Do we complain, insist that people be and act like us? Do we become angry and resentful when we realize we are not in control? People respond with violence to what we do not know.  Negative speech can have a kind of violent power.

Both texts today remind us that we are charged to proclaim words of life.  It was Jesus who commanded the dead to come forth.  But he also involved the community gathered to participate in his miracle: they rolled away the stone, and unbound Lazarus from the death garb.  It was God who did the re-creating in Ezekiel’s vision, but it was Ezekiel who was charged to proclaim God’s Word.

What Words Will We Use?

Many in our world, even in our midst, feel like dry, dry bones, without hope, without purpose.  Many feel entombed in their own feelings of worthlessness, trapped by circumstances beyond their control, paralyzed by grief and fear.  Many hear only the death voices that accuse them of failing at life.  What words will we use? What kind of people are we to be?

As we grieve, as we feel the sting of death and recognize the voices that bring us down, as we see the powers working in the world against the flourishing of the human family, we must ask ourselves, will we be people of the resurrection?  Will we see new possibilities in situations that are out of our control? Will we embrace change as evidence that God continues to bring newness to this world? Can we discern the Lord’s voice, calling us out of our tombs of self-destruction and despair?

May the Word of God’s resurrection life sustain us and enable us to journey with our Lord, wherever that may take us…even as we are led closer to the Cross let us cling to hope that our Lord is the Lord of life.