Sunday, March 09, 2008

Fifth Sunday in Lent

Ezekiel 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. 2He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” 4Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.” 7So 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. 8I 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. 9Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” 10I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. 11Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ 12Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord.

Looking outside, I feel chilled to the bone
On a warmer day, we might be soaked to the bone
I may need to learn more, to bone up on it
Perhaps we disagree, a bone of contention
Maybe you have a bone to pick
Now I’m weary, even bone-tired
You look thin, all skin and bones
Help me out here, throw me a bone
I can’t change, it’s bred in the bone
You feel slighted, or cut to the bone
There is little doubt, make no bones about it
That’s quite an assortment of phrases, a real rag and bone shop
Now for a sermon, where some are dry as a bone

Any others?

We seem rather bone-conscious. Maybe this is owing to the fact that we live in what some call a “bone house,” a body that is literally framed by bones. And many of us remain non-vegetarians, where bones are part of our reality.

Bone-consciousness has a larger context too, surrounded as we are by death. This may seem less pointed in our present death-denying culture, but in the days that gave birth to these phrases, death was ever present.

During the golden age of Dutch painting, the still life came into it’s own. Bowls of fruit, a fish, some fresh flowers, and maybe a walnut: all set out to display the new wealth of the age. Then the discord: some where in the painting is a reminder. In a family portrait a beggar appears. Near the side of another painting there is an hourglass, time passing. And just in case you need something less subtle, perhaps a skull sits there on the table among the fruit and nuts. Enjoy you life now, these artists say, but remember the reality we all face. Bones are a reminder of something few need help remembering: “you are dust, and to the dust you shall return.” Bones are just the middle step.


“Mortal, can these bones live?”

In a season of famous questions, we meet Ezekiel. He is a prophet to those in exile, those forced from their homes and compelled to live in Babylon. He has visions of a nation restored, and from this we enter the valley of dry bones.

Famous questions, of course, come from famous conversations. In this case, it is Ezekiel’s conversation with God that prompts the question. “Can these bones live?” A wise prophet says “only you know this LORD, only you.”

Then the LORD says “Prophesy to these bones,” Mortal, “and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.” And then a promise to the bones: “I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.” God adds sinew to bone, and flesh to sinew, and causes breath to enter them and they shall live.

And just in case the symbolism was lost on the reader, God adds these words: "Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, 'Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.' Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel.”


If pressed to find a name for the last century, we might be tempted to look to technological advances, such as the birth of flight, to define the age. Perhaps we might look at ideology, the century long struggle between communism and capitalism. Or we could be more honest, and recount Great War, Second War, Cold War and call it, along with most historians, the Century of War.

And unless you have the good fortune of being born after 1989, the date historians peg for the end of the century, you were reared in the context of this warring century. And with all shared experiences, there are common motifs, elements of our reality held in common.

This leads to the other defining characteristic of the last century, and one that may well sadly continue: the mass grave. There is no greater sign of human failure than the mass grave. It belongs to a century of war and the madness that humans visit on each other.

At Yad Vashem, the State of Israel’s memorial to the Holocaust, there are many inscriptions and plaques in and around the museums. But the starting point, the place where this reminder begins, is a long set of arches inscribed with Ezekiel 37.14:

“I will put my breath into you and you shall live again…”

We long for the day when the world is truly bone-tired of war, and the causes of war are resolved, and God’s children, all of God’s children, shall know peace.


Lazarus was dead. There is no doubt whatever about that. Lazarus was as dead as a doornail. Four days in the grave, in a place where burial remains a next day affair, meant that there could be little doubt that Lazarus was dead.

The circumstances of his illness, and death, and the eventual arrival of his friend Jesus, occupy most of the eleventh chapter of John’s gospel. The delay in coming, intentional or no, the caution about travel, the bitter recrimination: all of these elements become little more than background in this Judean still life.

The tableau includes the obvious signs of death: the tear-stained faces of Mary and Martha, the crowd looking in, some with empathy and some with curiosity, and the seeming finality of the stone, rolled firmly in place. There, amid the portrait of suffering and death Jesus shouts "Lazarus, come out!" Lazarus is no longer dead.

We are confronted by the power of God. The “little resurrection” of Lazarus cannot be explained away, nor should we try. The mystery of God’s power confounds us, filling the valley of dry bones with sinew and flesh and breath, filling the putrid cave with a life, filling our lives with daily reminders of God’s desire that we live. Jesus said, “your brother will rise again.”

But he said more. There, in the middle of this still life with Lazarus, Jesus says perhaps the most important words to frame this Lenten season, to point to the days that will surely come. Jesus said, "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

The skull and the hourglass remain, tangible reminders of the death that none of us will escape, but the defining motif of this painting is the promise that “those who believe in him, even though they die, will live.”

In this season of conversation and questions, Jesus speaks through the text, past the characters in the story, beyond chapter and verse, down through the ages and directly to us. He frames the painting and places it in an important gallery for all to see. We see it among the other great works. We are drawn to the colour and outline, and cannot help but move in. We regard the elements and composition, we begin to interpret the work and find some meaning. We are reminded that death is gone and the power of God surrounds us.

Then, off to the side, we see a small note, the kind that every curator places beside an important canvas. We lean in, and we read the fine print beside this tableau of resurrection and life, and the find the title of this painting simply this: “Do you believe?"


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