By Amy Peterson
Pray with me.
God, you give life to the dead and call into being things that were not. Enliven our spirits and open our ears to hear only your words today. In the name of the Father, Son, and HS: amen.
Today is the last Sunday of Lent, though I’m not sure the lectionary realizes it. Our texts today want to jump us ahead to resurrection, don’t they?
Romans is talking about the Spirit who — spoiler alert — raised Jesus from death to life.
In John’s gospel we see that Jesus has power over death – he brings Lazarus back to life!
And in Ezekiel’s vision — the vision we will sit with today – some very dry bones join together — and the spirit fills them with life again.
These are the scenes the lectionary invites us to carry with us as we look ahead to a week which we know will be difficult to endure – the glorious entrance, the betrayal, the kiss, the moonlit garden, the blood and sweat and tears – the death – maybe the lectionary gives us these texts now as a reminder of what God can do.
So that we don’t enter this harrowing holy week blind. We don’t walk through it wondering if God is mighty to save. The texts allow us look full into the face of betrayal and death and suffering and know that God will prevail. Perhaps these texts were chosen to bolster us up here, to let us know that we will not walk through it alone; we walk through it with the Spirit who brings life from death.
But if these scenes are intended to give us hope, or to soften what is ahead for us in Holy Week, I have to admit that the longer I’ve sat with Ezekiel’s vision, the more it has disturbed and unsettled me. It’s not a vision of new life that jives easily with pastel baskets and fluffy bunnies and easter bonnets.
Ezekiel was a priest in Jerusalem when the Babylonians entered the city, and began deporting the Israelites to Babylon. It helps me, when I think about Ezekiel, to picture Syria— to imagine the prophet as a Syrian refugee who had to watch as bombs destroyed his home and then had to flee for his life. To picture those before and after scenes of Aleppo.
Ezekiel had lived through that kind of devastation, and now he’s living as an exile in Babylon, waiting for word, waiting to hear if his besieged homeland might survive, or if it would fall. It seemed as if the religion of this tiny tribe on the fringe of a great empire had reached its end. Scattered, separated, without a place to worship…
It’s in this context that God calls Ezekiel to preach to the exiles. And the message God gives him to preach is not a happy one. For thirty chapters, it’s a message of judgement, with few if any glimmers of hope; and then, in chapter 33, it’s reported to the exiles in Babylon that Jerusalem has totally fallen. The temple has been destroyed. And the exiles say to God, “How can we then live?”
And then the hand of the Lord comes upon Ezekiel, and brings him out by the spirit of the Lord and sets him down in the middle of a valley.
Maybe, if you’re Ezekiel, you’re expecting a hopeful answer here. But this is not the first time the Spirit has brought Ezekiel into a valley for a little word. The first time God brought him to a valley, God told him to let himself be bound with cords, and that he would be struck mute, and that he would lay on his left side for 390 days, and then on his right side for 40 days, as a living symbol of God’s punishment to Israel.
So Ezekiel might not be feeling great, as the Spirit brings him out to a valley. He might be feeling a little trepidatious, on his guard.
The language here of the Spirit bringing him out is the same language we saw at the beginning of Lent, when the Spirit brought Jesus out into the wilderness to be tested. And putting these two stories together, I think about all the times I’ve prayed, Spirit, lead me, show me what to do — and, well, I’m beginning to think that this may be a prayer I’ve prayed too lightly. We think that having the hand of God in our lives directing us will bring us security, clarity, sure-footedness. But here the hand of the Lord — the Spirit of the Lord — brings Jesus to the wilderness to be tempted, brings Ezekiel to this frightening valley filled with dry bones. Bones that may have brought back painful memories of what he’d seen before he was deported, the corpses of his people in the ruins of his homeland. And God asks him to believe — and to preach — the impossible.
God says, “Mortal, can these bones live?”
“O Lord, you know.” That’s about the most hope Ezekiel can muster. Whatever you say, God.
And God tells him to speak to the bones, and to prophesy to them, to tell them that God will cause them to live again, and a noise, a voice of thunder, a rattling, an earthquake, a shaking tumult, a rushing, tumbling, commotion fills the valley, sensory overload for the already traumatized prophet; and he looks, and the bodies stand, bones clicking together, sinews snapping, flesh wrapping — but there’s no breath.
He has to prophesy again. He has to persist in asking for new life.
He has to persist in asking for new life.
So Ezekiel – whom God calls mortal, ben-Adam, son of Adam, son of dust, – prophesies to the breath. The dusty one, son of one who once was given the breath of life in the first garden, he preaches to the breath of life, and says come here, make these bones live, make this place from the valley of our death to the garden of our life, where God gives God’s spirit and covers our nakedness with sacrificial skins.
This, God says, is the message for Israel. Israel’s asking “how can we live, with our temple gone and our homeland destroyed, our families scattered, all this death all around us?” God says: you will live because I will make you live again. I will give you a new heart and a new spirit and I will place you on your own soil.
We are not yet in a moment of devastation like Israel’s. But their question resonates almost too much in this moment, doesn’t it? How can we live, with our churches closed and our schools closed and our restaurants closed? With our lost jobs and our loneliness and our economy falling to pieces and our hospitals at capacity and our death count rising… How can we live?
Might God be saying to us, as we walk toward Holy Week this year: you will live because I will make you live again. And that new life may be frightening. It may look different than we expect. It may be something we have to persist in asking for.
Even as we walk with Jesus toward his death — even as some of us walk through our own valley of the shadow of death right now — the lectionary is reminding us that resurrection is coming. Whatever that will look like — we don’t have to worry — because we serve a God who is always, always bringing life from death.
And we don’t persist in asking for this new life alone.
Those dry bones in the valley become a multitude – a vast and noble army, the text says – standing shoulder to shoulder, ready to live together.
Lazarus was returned to Mary and Martha; they will care for each other.
And in Romans 8, the new life we’re promised is new life for the whole cosmos, new life the whole creation has groaned for together. Cosmic resurrection is on the way.
Even in this dark and confusing moment, we have each other, and the Spirit of God, helping us follow Jesus into newness of life — helping us to live, no matter how long we wait in quarantine, no matter how many deaths we face. We are knit together through the Spirit. We become new together.
In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.