A couple of years ago, John and I visited the battle-grounds at Gettysburg. I had been there as a child but didn’t really remember it. And I love history and historical sites, so I had expected to stop by and have a couple of hours of exploring. But what I didn’t expect was to be so emotionally and spiritually moved by it. It was such a profound experience to be there in that place where so much suffering had happened. For me, it represented the whole of the Civil War, the confusion and animosity, the sacrifice and profound hardship. There were no bones there like in Ezekiel’s vision, but somehow there was still spiritual sadness in those fields. And there was still grief and pain in the stories that were told, stories of bravery, of useless sacrifice, of broken families or lost lives. Stories that probably weren’t too different from an ancient war like Ezekiel’s, of ridiculous loss, of physical and emotional suffering.
In our Ezekiel reading the valley might have been only a vision or it might have been a real valley, a contested field between nations where armies had met over and over again to fight. The losses and the overwhelming grief are emphasized in that the bones are still there. They have been abandoned in this valley. They are very dry, suggesting they are very old and have been neglected. They are completely without hope.
And the Lord asks Ezekiel, “Mortal, Can these bones live?” And he replies, “O Lord, you are the one who knows.” Then there is a dramatic scene, a rattling, the raising of the dead. It’s a symbolic raising of people of Israel from the valley of the shadow of death. It’s not all at once. It’s a rebuilding, from bone to bone, to sinew to muscle to skin.
Recreated. Re-formed as the prophecy of the Lord returns their bodies whole and the breath of the Lord swirls around them until it fills them with life.
What we see described is a physical rising, but also spiritual one. Israel has been beaten down by too much exile and grief. The people are too tired to hope. They say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” Those dry bones are the loss of hope that there is any future for Israel. They have resigned themselves to their fate. But the Lord says, “I will bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord.” Hope is recreated, re-attached and connected, covered and breathed into life, with the breath of God.
This is a hope that still speaks to us today. It tells us that even our oldest and most neglected grief can be put back together and that we can rise from our own fields of sorrow. Our future rebuilt from bone to bone, to sinew to muscle to skin. Covered – made whole and rise again if we believe the that the breath of God can accomplish it.
In our gospel we have a similar story about resurrection life. Can the dead live again? Or has God abandoned the disciples? Abandoned Mary and Martha, and their friends to all dry out in their grief? Let us die with him Thomas says. If you were here you could have done something Martha says to Jesus. All are weeping. And Jesus also begins to cry. Even though he knows what he is going to do in the future, he still feels for his people now. He still knows that this is a physical and spiritual loss.
Mary wonders why he did not come sooner. Martha is not sure he understands that Lazarus has been gone for too many days to be simply healed. And yet he tells them to remove the stone. Jesus asks Martha, “Do you believe in the resurrection?” Yes, she says, it will be in the last days when all are raised. It will be Ezekiel’s prophecy fulfilled.
Then Jesus says, “No, It is now. I am that resurrection. I am that life.” And in a loud voice, Jesus calls Lazarus out from death. And he is unwrapped from the graveclothes, unbound from the power of death, and lives.
It is a sign of new life that still speaks to us today. We are unbound, not abandoned. Death is no longer the final answer. There is always a future for us. Even when we die, we begin resurrection life in Jesus.
These two stories express the hope that gives meaning to the season of Lent. In Lent we examine ourselves so that we more deeply realize, how much we need Jesus’ resurrection life.
Next Sunday is Palm Sunday. Then we enter into Holy Week. We enter further into the place of Jesus’ own sacrifice and the field of his own abandonment where the stories still express the sorrow that remains so long after his own battle. But we also enter into Holy Week because Jesus knew what it was to feel cut off, to experience violence and to have no hope. And he takes those experiences on the cross and brings them to new life in his resurrection. We experience Holy Week so that we don’t neglect Jesus in his own valley of the shadow of death.
And then we can rise with him in joy on Easter morning.
Because of Jesus we have an eternal future. We experience the joys of heaven. But I don’t get so excited about heaven simply because I fear the alternative, eternal punishment. I don’t get excited about heaven simply because I fear my own mortality and need an insurance plan for the next life.
I get excited about heaven because heaven is also about seeing our lives right now through the perspective of eternal life in Jesus.
Jesus goes to prepare a place for us, a home with many rooms in the next life. But he also says to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life right now.” He is also the one who gives us hope in this life, when we are broken or abandoned on our own fields.
So the cross and the resurrection, the gift of new life in Jesus, tell us something about who God is for us. They tells us that it is the character and practice of God to take dry bones and build them back into new life. It is the character of God to take scattered and broken lives and renew them with the breath of his spirit. It is the character of God that he heals us because he weeps for us, that he saves us because he loves us, that he offers us resurrection in the next life because of his great compassion and mercy for us in this life.
This does not obviate what it means for us to be human. It does not stop the battle fields of war and violence today. It does not stop our own hardships and neglect. There are still stories of grief and pain that we could tell today, as there were at Gettysburg, as there were with Lazarus, as there were in Ezekiel. There are stories of bravery, stories of useless sacrifice, stories of broken families or lost lives.
We say God has ill-used me. We say we are dried up. We are cut off. We are destitute. We, like Mary, say if you had been here Lord, this would not have happened.
But then the question comes to us in our own valleys: “Mortal, can these dry bones live?”
We reply, “O Lord. You are the only one who knows.”
And then we hear a rattling. A rebuilding, a reconnecting, bone to bone, to sinew to muscle to skin. The breath of God returning. And we rise again.
How will we answer that same question as it comes to us again on Easter morning:
“Martha, do you believe in the possibility of resurrection?”
We reply, yes I believe, but it is so far away.
And then we find that answer.
No, it is now. Right now. Because Jesus is the resurrection and the life.
And through him that breath of God can rebuild us. And the love of God can give us a future. Once more.