The Rev. Andria Skornik
March 29, 2019
Ezekiel 37:1-14; Romans 8:6-11, John 11:1-45
“Can these bones live?”
As we reflect on our readings this morning, it’s interesting how both the Ezekiel and John passages begin with images of desolation.
In Ezekiel, it was during the time of the Babylonian exile — a low point in the people of Israel’s history. Some of them had been taken captive. Others left behind. The temple had been destroyed, so that place of their coming together wasn’t available to them. They don’t have autonomy, but were under foreign rule.
And during that time, God takes the prophet Ezekiel to a valley of dry bones, which the prophet learns are actually the fallen armies of Israel. Not only are they the remains of sons, husbands, fathers; all lives taken too soon. But that their bodies were left there would’ve been especially painful for their families. In the ancient world there was great importance placed on burial, so much so that the Torah required that even thieves get a proper burial.
And in the middle of this scene of death and decay, God asks Ezekiel, “Can these bones live?
It’s an odd question. Because, although there were biblical precedents for restoring life to a person who had just died — like the widow’s son whom God raised through Elijah, or the Shunammite woman’s son who was brought back to life through Elisha — in each of these instances, the death was recent. Never had it happened for someone who’d been dead for a long time. And so the obvious answer to God’s question would’ve been “No.” These bones represent ultimate hopelessness.
We see something similar in the story in John’s gospel, where in this case it is Jesus’ friend Lazarus who has been dead for four days. Four days was an important number, for in their tradition it was believed that the spirit hovered near the body for three days before transitioning over into the afterlife. So that it had been 4 days — like the dry bones — also represented that they were beyond hope. Which is perhaps why Mary and Martha were so upset by Jesus’ delay.
But, as we know from reading on in these stories, all hope was not lost. In a surprising upset of logic and expectation, Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb, and, in the Ezekiel vision, he prophecies and the bones form back together, sinews and skin and life is breathed into these men once again.
Though it is not yet Easter, these are both stories of resurrection. They proclaim that God restores life and that where there is death there is also the promise of resurrection. And yet I wonder if we miss some of what’s being conveyed here and how it applies to us and what we’re going through.
I know that for some of us we miss its truth because we get caught in the literalism — of did it or didn’t it happen. We turn it into yet another thing to wrap our minds around, rather allowing ourselves to be transformed by it. Or, some of us look at these stories as something that happened to Jesus and Ezekiel because they were special. But certainly all of this is not part of our calling.
And if we’re looking at it in either of these ways, we miss the crucial part. That these are not just nice stories about them. They are stories about us. They are stories that speak to our calling as disciples. Showing that in fact, resurrection is part of our God given power.
If that seems too good to be true, just look at our reading in Romans. Here, Paul says, “The Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you.” Do you hear that? The Spirit whose power raised Jesus from the dead is in you. Meaning that life restoring power is in us also. I have to confess, I never saw that before.
We can see it as the same Spirit that gives life in Ezekiel. But notice how in this story — for the bones to be brought back together and life to be restored — it is Ezekiel who must prophesy to put God’s work in motion. This is why God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the breath. To call forth the life of God in those places of death. Or, as Ezekiel says, “I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.” We see something similar in the gospel, when Jesus says, Lazarus, “come out!” Much like Ezekiel prophesying to the bones, Jesus speaks life where there is death, igniting God’s work.
God raises what is dead to life and instills that same resurrection power in us. Meaning the power of resurrection is not just for us it is in us — the full implications of which are astounding. And no more so than in this very moment.
Right now we are living in a valley of dry bones. We look out and the losses are great. More than 2,000 Americans have died from the Coronavirus. Millions have lost jobs. We’ve lost in person, public gatherings that have been always so much a part of our sense of meaning and purpose. Some have lost access to important services. And though we know that some of these things are temporary, other parts may seem beyond hope. Our question might be also, Can these bones live?
And that’s where we need to see the power that stories proclaim. That the spirit of God is within us — the same spirit that raised Christ from the dead dwells in us. Which means that wherever we see death in its many forms — loss, grieving, absence of life, decay — that is where we need to be speaking life.
I will never forget seeing this in someone I know and admire. Unexpectedly, and unrelated to anything she did something terrible happened and— what looked like her perfect life — began to fall apart. Everything that hung together so well was now in disarray, and there was nothing she could do to stop or change it. The heartache was overwhelming. And as I listened to her in that lowest point, recounting it all through tears, she said, “But I believe in resurrection.” I remember being surprised by what she said — because, honestly, I wasn’t sure if I had that same faith for her in that moment. It all looked so bleak. But sure enough, resurrection came. Years later her life is a radiant vision of restoration and she is thriving. In the midst of death she spoke God’s life and life came.
We too can speak God’s life where we see death. We can prophesy to the bones. We can do this to our situations, like my friend did. We can do this for our friends and people we love when we encourage them in their moments of hopelessness. We can do this to people we mentor people or children who are in our care when we speak future and potential over them when other influences in their lives are telling them the opposite. We humans do this in our darkest hours as when we declare it’s not over and that we will rise up.
This is something we even do in our funerals. When we speak resurrection life over our dead. When we proclaim that in death life is changed not ended. That there may be death. But death doesn’t get the final word for them or us.
The power of resurrection is in us. Whatever is troubling us. Wherever we see loss. These are our places to speak life and prophesy to the bones.