St Andrew’s Scots Kirk Lent 5 Theme: We Shall Overcome
Readings: Ezekiel 37.1-10 and John 11. 17-44.
Prayer: Wherever we hear the words may we also receive your word, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Our readings today are the reading that Christians are hearing around the world in the churches today in the midst of the C-19 crisis and they are extraordinary! The first reading is set in a valley of bones, dry bones.
It is like a cartoon, with a splash of humour as the dry bones, sign of death, emptiness and hopelessness are miraculously animated by the Breath/Spirit of God mediated by God’s word. Amazingly a scene of utter desolation becomes one of life and hope.
37 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. 2 He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3 He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” 4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5 Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath[a] to enter you, and you shall live. 6 I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath[b] in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”
7 So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8 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. 9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath:[c] Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath,[d] and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” 10 I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.” This is the word of the Lord. Amen
Ezekiel lived after the fall of Jerusalem, around 593-563 BC. At this time the people of Israel were in exile, living with some limited freedoms, but on the whole, their existence has to be seen against a background of disaster and a crisis of faith; they had lost the land promised to their ancestors, having been banished. The Temple had been destroyed; the holy city sacked; and the soul of the people of Israel had withered on the vine. They recognise their plight at v.11: “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.”
The story is one of a valley of dry bones. If you can imagine it, it would be like something out of an Indiana Jones film – struggling through to a hidden valley, covered with bones and skulls strewn everywhere, as far as the eye can see. The curiosity of looking out on a landscape full of dry bones, in hot, arid, sunshine, in eerie silence, doesn’t exactly inspire the listener to imagine new possibilities: the vision that things may turn out differently, and, as we wrestle with what may be a familiar story, we look for new learnings, and wonder about dryness and exile in our own lives.
Ezekiel was both a prophet and a priest, so even though the bones are stripped, and completely dried out, the reader has to remember all the ritual prohibitions of being near death. A whole range of ritual prohibitions existed to prevent priests going near human corpses, so going into this valley was no small feat.
The story begins in silence, with Ezekiel being led to this valley, and then becomes a word event. It is in response to the words of Ezekiel that the bones take on flesh and life; it is in response to Ezekiel‘s words that the bones rattle, that bodies begin to breathe, and noise, beyond the dialogue of Ezekiel and the Lord, occurs.
Ezekiel is the smooth diplomat in his interaction with God and is almost coy in his utterances. God says to Ezekiel, “Mortal, can these bones live?” and Ezekiel responds – recognising God’s place – says, “O Lord God you know”. It is then that Ezekiel prophesies to the bones; then to the breath; and then God acts.
The last verses are about God’s prophesy to the people of Israel; about the great return from exile. God explains that these bones are the whole house of Israel, and the prophesy is made that the people will return to Israel: “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil” (v.14). It is a symbolic story with depth and hope!
George Burns, the American comedian is quoted as saying – “Where the world places a period, God introduces a comma.” – Suffering does not have the last word. This could certainly be true of our second reading.
In this reading two sisters had sent for Jesus. However, he arrives just too late to help them. This second reading is from the New Testament as Jesus visits the most familiar family in the whole of John’s gospel. The family of the sisters Martha and Mary. This is the Mary who will later shower Jesus with expensive perfume, then dries him with her hair. These are the sisters who choose two different ways to welcome Jesus to their home, one by quietly listening to his every word and the other hurrying to prepare food. Jesus knows this family well, but enters at the worst possible time for Lazarus their brother has just died. Jesus weeps. Let us listen for God’s word from John chapter 11 verse 17,
“When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
Continuing at verse 33,
“When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
This story ultimately prepares us the readers for the rising of Jesus himself. This family who were distraught are amazed and comforted, no wonder Mary pours the most expensive perfume all over Jesus head, later in the gospel. For today’s church in the midst of fear and dramatic changes in the medical and economic landscape what do these two vivid stories impart for us, here in Colombo?
These dead, dusty, dry bones being animated points up for us the saying of Jesus, “with God all things are possible”. It gives us hope and encouragement of a good outcome when we are facing a fearful situation. It is likely worldwide that many of us are facing some frightening scenarios even if we don’t have the C-19 virus, so this is a helpful text. The Lazarus story points out that with Jesus by our side we should never be afraid. Through Lent Jesus tells us he will suffer. Yet he reveals that he is more than a suffering Messiah. He masters the waves, cures diseases., why in Lazarus case even death is overcome. It is a comfort that saints and martyrs across centuries have followed this Saviour into the most horrendous situations, while retaining their confidence that with him in the words of the Spiritual, “We shall overcome.” Yes, with this Jesus alongside in our homes and our hearts, “We shall overcome.” Thanks be to God. Amen.