Rattling Bones, Living Body
Spring is in the air – though in my neighborhood the birds have started to come back, but other signs of spring have been delayed by a long winter. The flowers have been struggling to emerge and the trees still aren’t showing much life. Still, there’s enough life here to give us hope that winter will give way to spring, death to life.
As for our journey with the lectionary, Easter has yet to make its appearance, but there are signs that it is close at hand. These signs include this week’s set of texts, which have a strong sense of familiarity – especially the story of the valley of dry bones and the raising of Lazarus. The first story would seem to lend itself to the handiwork of Spielberg and Lucas to bring to film, while when it comes to the story of Lazarus, my imagination is colored by its portrayal in The Greatest Story Ever Told, where Jesus (played very Germanically by Max Von Sydow) raises Lazarus from the tomb, after which the crowd runs to Jerusalem to spread the good news, accompanied by Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus. It’s difficult for the short reading from Romans to stand out in the midst of these two dramatic stories, but it too speaks to the matter of life out of death.
While it might take Lucas and Spielberg to bring Ezekiel’s vision to the big screen, we really don’t need the artistry of the animator to imagine this scene. Ezekiel’s descriptions are vivid and dramatic in themselves. If we’ll let our imaginations loose for a moment, we can go with Ezekiel as the Lord takes him to a valley filled with very dry bones. As we look around at this valley filled with bones that once provided the foundation for life, but now are dead, we hear the question: “Can these bones live?” The obvious answer is: no, they are beyond hope. But, God knows differently, and Ezekiel is told to prophesy to the bones. That is, Ezekiel is told to speak the Word of the Lord to the bones so that they might have life. This command and this scene should send us back to the opening lines of Genesis, where God speaks the world and all it’s inhabitants into existence. The Word brings life, but not only is there the Word, but there is also the Spirit, for the Lord says through Ezekiel: “I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live.” With these words we’re reminded that the Hebrew for breath – ruach – is also the word for Spirit. God says to Ezekiel, let these bones know that I will breathe the Spirit into them and therefore they will have life. And then they will know that “I am the Lord.” With that, the process of bringing life out of death begins with the rattling of bones, and as the bones join themselves together they are joined by the sinews and the flesh and the skin. All is well, but this body is not yet alive. It has all its parts, but it lacks one thing – the breath. And so the Prophet once again speaks, calling for the winds to come from the four corners of the earth to bring life to the body. Might we hear in this a reminder that life – breath – comes to us as a gift of God? We live because God has chosen to provide us with the Spirit.
This word is given to Israel, a nation that has lost its way and its home. It has no hope and no future. It is merely a collection of dry bones scattered across a valley floor. But now things will change. The broken and lifeless nation is given new life. What was dried up and lost and cut off is now once again full of life. Ezekiel then adds a word about the graves, which God has promised to open. Even those in the grave will receive the Spirit and thus will again live on their own soil. And the promise is this: “Then you shall know that I the Lord have spoken and will act.” There is a word here for the church, even the church that struggles for life. The Lord has spoken life back into our dry bones and is ready to put the breath of the Spirit back into this body that was once dry and brittle, so that we might return to the Land and once again stand before God and worship the Lord and bring glory to God.
Ezekiel speaks of dry bones coming to life, whereas Paul contrasts the reality of death versus the reality of life. Death is related to flesh, which the Common English Bible translates as selfishness. Now this simpler translation may reduce the nuances available for our use, but it makes the point we need to hear – selfishness or self-centeredness leads to death. It’s the cause of spiritual dryness (dry bones). The flesh, Paul says, is hostile God and resistant to God’s law. It does its own thing. How often does this define our own lives? But Paul says – that’s not who you are. Because the Spirit (Gk. pneuma, Heb. ruach) dwells within you, you have life. Our hope, Paul suggests, is to be found in Christ who dwells within us (through the Spirit?) And thus, even though the body might be dead, there is life in the Spirit. But if the Spirit of God raised Jesus from the dead, then we can also find hope in the promise that God will give life to our mortal bodies through the Spirit who dwells within us. Of course, isn’t that the promise of Ezekiel? God puts the breath of life back into our bodies – whether that is Israel, the church, or own individual bodies of flesh.
As I noted in my opening comments my perception of this passage is colored by that scene in the Greatest Story Ever Told. How can you picture the raising of Lazarus without the sounds of the Hallelujah Chorus ringing in our midst? Of course, there is more to this story, which appears only here in the Gospels, than simply the aftermath of this miraculous event of death turning to life. There are a number of elements to this story that are intriguing. For one is the fact that this story, which is so powerful, is found only here. The second has to do with the relationship between Jesus and Lazarus – who only appears in this particular story. In this passage we see Jesus get emotional – he weeps and he’s disturbed in his spirit. And he loves this family, especially Lazarus. Considering the fact that the story of Jesus in this gospel seems to be told from the vantage point of the “Beloved Disciple,” could Lazarus be that person? Any answers to this question will be, of course, pure speculation, but it’s intriguing nonetheless.
Now, once again, we’re in a position to see God be glorified in the life and ministry of Jesus. In the course of the conversation about what is about to transpire – whether they will experience opposition and even death (Thomas seems to think that this is going to happen to them). But Jesus says, don’t worry, because while there is day, then they will experience the “Light of the World.” Another way to put this is – don’t worry because you travel in the company of the “Light of the World.” When they arrive in Bethany, just a few miles outside Jerusalem, they find a large crowd who have come to help Mary and Martha mourn, since Lazarus has been dead four days. Jesus first encounters Martha, who berates him for not coming in time – you could have saved him, she says. But Jesus – Your brother will rise from the dead, to which Mary responds – yes I know he’ll be resurrected at the end of time, but what about now. You could have saved him. In answer Jesus makes another self-revelation: First he is the “Light of the World,” and now he is revealed to be the Resurrection itself: “I am the Resurrection and the Life, whoever believes in me, will live, even though they die” . . . “Do you believe this?” (Vs. 25-26 CEB). To which Martha offers her version of the Good Confession: “I believe you are the Christ, God’s Son, the one who is coming into the world” (vs. 27).
And it’s from there that Jesus moves to the tomb, asks that the stone be rolled away, even though Lazarus is four days dead and in the words of the King James Version: “he stinketh.” But, Jesus ignores the common wisdom and demands that Lazarus come forth, and Lazarus complies, though his feet and his hands are bound, and his face covered with a burial cloth. He is then unbound at Jesus’ request. The response is two-fold. Some believed, and others reported the events to the authorities who begin to plot against him. Yes, from here we go into Jerusalem, where the future holds both death and life.
In three texts we hear a word about death and a word about life. In each of these texts there is a promise – death need not be final. Life in the Spirit will overcome death’s hold on our lives. The question is – are we ready to embrace life? Are we ready to life with boldness and grace? Are we ready for the presence of the Spirit who brings breath to dry bones and dead bodies – including the church!