Sermons from St
Fr Dennis Smith, Sunday, April 2nd,
Picture the scene – a valley bottom, hills rising on each side; a vast landscape stretching as far as the eye could see; the valley floor deep in human bones; very dry bones. In the midst a lonely figure, Ezekiel, wandering through the desolation and hearing a voice asking “Mortal, can these bones live?” and, with surprising confidence responding “O Lord God, you know.” This visionary exchange opens to the very heart of Ezekiel’s theology of Israel’s current situation. How could a people, crushed by defeat and deportation, weeping by the rivers of Babylon as they recalled Zion, devoid of spiritual direction, how could his people Israel become once more the people of God? Ezekiel knew there could be only one way.
He was a complex character, at one and the same time priest and prophet – roles often considered to be opposites, the latter berating the former for their faithlessness. Ezekiel was among those taken to Babylon in the first of two deportations. There he experienced strange visions of winged creatures and wheels full of eyes, described in detail in chapter one. As prophet he condemned the wickedness of those left behind in Jerusalem and predicted its destruction. Commenting of the political machinations of neighbouring states he anticipated their future downfall when God would “gather the house of Israel and execute judgements upon all their neighbours.”
And, notwithstanding his doom-laden earlier prophecies, by the end of the book, and as priest, he looked forward to the restoration of Israel, a rebuilt Temple at its heart and a reformed liturgy expressing God’s faithfulness to a repeatedly disobedient people. Herein lay Ezekiel’s theological insight. In his vision Ezekiel witnessed the coming together of the scattered bones, their being clothed in sinews and flesh and, finally, given new life by divine breath, “They lived and stood, a vast multitude.”
There are echoes here of God breathing life into the lifeless human being at creation, and of the Psalmist - “O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love.”
The exiles had suffered a triple whammy. They had lost God’s gift of the Promised Land; they had lost the Temple in Jerusalem, the sign of God’s presence, and their emasculated monarchy was a far cry from God’s promise to King David and his descendants. Parallels between Ezekiel’s vision and Israel’s future are inescapable. The restoration of his people was possible, not by a King, however faithful, but by God breathing new life into Israel through the Prophetic action of Ezekiel the Priest. This powerful allegory demonstrates his conviction that an Israel, even as lifeless as a valley full of very dry bones could be revived and restored through obedience to and by the grace of God.
Breathing new life into a moribund religious and therefore social, culture seems also to have been a central feature of Jesus’ mission. Setting out “not to destroy the law but to fulfil it” the picture painted by all four Gospels in that of unswerving challenge to those in authority and of endless compassion towards those whose lives were shrivelled by an indifferent elite and the impossible demands of apparently self-serving religious leaders.
But a nation that was nonetheless capable of redemption through the grace of God. As always when reading scripture, context, in this case John’s Gospel, is very important. Only John includes this episode in his Jesus story and, unlike the Synoptics, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, for whom the cleansing of the Temple was the pivotal moment in Jesus’ ministry, when his opponents resolved to kill him, John places that event at the outset of Jesus’ ministry and instead places the account of the raising of Lazarus at the “day on which they planned to put him to death.” It’s also important to remember that in John’s Gospel miracles, always referred to as “signs”, are performed in order to demonstrate God’s glory, rather than simply in response to a perceived need, as is the customary usage in the other three Gospels.
The significance of this particular miracle is both in the miracle itself and the consequences for Jesus.
But perhaps, its significance goes even further. John was writing for a church in the latter third of the first century. Martha’s reply to Jesus’ question “Do you believe?” is a concise expression of the early church’s developing understanding of Jesus’ nature and ministry; he is at one and the same time Messiah, Son of God and Prophet, the one coming into the world. Not that Martha would have understood this fuller meaning, but her confession of faith was the means for John’s later confession.
At the time of this particular miracle we are told “many… believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees…” The tantalizing question posed by John’s account was: would the people, who saw God’s glory in the raising of Lazarus, also be able to recognise God’s glory in the coming death and resurrection of Jesus? Would those who believed survive the challenge of the cross? Would their faith continue in the new life beyond the tomb when this particular miracle had become a graphic but fading memory?
The leaders in the early church knew the answer but in the context of this episode, as was so often the case during Jesus’ ministry, the crowds were divided. Once again parallels, this time between the raising of Lazarus to new life and the renewing of Israel and her religion, are too obvious to have been unintentional. After Calvary, after Pentecost, John seems to be telling his first century readers the good news that death will not have the last word for them as individuals nor for the faith by which they lived.
Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones and John’s account of the raising of Lazarus both testify to the new life that transforming death can also revive and renew the here and the now. And in our times we needn’t search for long before we too are confronted by valleys of dry bones – all too literally in places – of wars and civil unrest; of grinding poverty and dripping wealth; of lives diminished and stunted by social and economic systems. We too are confronted by people waiting to hear the good news “Unbind him and let him go.”
We need not search for long before we are confronted by the dry bones of religions, including our own, that appear to be concerned more about internal disputes than by a world crying out for unambiguous expressions of God’s love for all humankind, notwithstanding our hesitating commitment to those ways of justice and peace so eloquently expressed in the life and teaching of Jesus. If, with Ezekiel, we truly believe that dry bones can indeed live, and with John that Jesus is indeed the resurrection and the life, let us be encouraged by today’s scripture readings coming from people of the past, to find more and more ways in the present, beginning in our own lives, to express that same faith.