Ezekiel 37:1-14 | John 11:17-27
Not long before, the people of Israel had been part of something exciting, something vital; they had been part of the people called to be the people of God, and it had really meant something. They’d been a nation that worshipped God, a nation that identified with God, a nation in which each generation taught the things of God to the next generation, in which children grew up practicing the faith of their parents, and grandchildren the faith of their grandparents. They’d been called by God to show the love of God to the whole world, to be a light to all the nations, a wellspring of hope and faith and all that is good and true and godly.
But within the span of a generation – less than a generation – it had all vanished. Suddenly they were a minority, surrounded by people who did not know their God, did not value their faith, did not care about their understanding of good and evil, right and wrong.
The community had been broken, families separated. The people were scattered like the bones of Ezekiel’s vision. Worship, instead of being the vibrant heart of the community, had become a thing mocked by outsiders.
And the question that had to ask was “what is God doing?”. Or, even more so “what will God do now?”
Everywhere you go at the moment there seem to be billboards for the new blockbuster, Noah. In the story of Noah God is faced with a broken world, and chooses to wipe the slate clean, to starts again with one loyal family.
And perhaps in Ezekiel’s vision God might have done the same, looked out at the bones and said “I will start again. I will find a new people. I will create a new nation. There is no life here.”. Perhaps God might have done that – or perhaps the people feared God would, or felt as if God already had.
But of course the story of Noah ends with the rainbow, the promise that never again would God choose that solution, choose to discard what was broken and start again with something new. In fact, the story of Noah really reads like God recognising a divine mistake, realising that this was not the way. And perhaps that story marks the start of the idea of redemption; of God taking the broken, the sinful, the lost, and fashioning something new from them. An idea we explored last week, an idea that is at the heart of Ezekiel’s vision.
God does not cast dry bones aside.
Instead, God declared “I will bring you back, and you will live”. And the prophet spoke to the bones, repeating God’s promise to them.
And the bones came together, bone joined to bone, there were sinews and flesh, and skin covered them.
Where before the people had been scattered, now they were one. They had looked random; a broken, meaningless collection of bones, now they looked like a people, a community.
But still there was no life in them. Still they lacked the spark of life, that indefinable something that separates the living from the dead, the makes a body into a person, a group of people into a community. They lacked something, something for which there is no good word.
And God spoke again. “Speak to the wind, speak to the breath, speak to the spirit, and command it; it is time – come, blow, breathe, be in these bodies and make them live”. There is something here that is impossible to capture in our English words; breath, wind, spirit are all the same word, the same idea, in Hebrew. The wind blows, God breathes, the Spirit comes.
And the breath – the wind – the spirit of God came into them, and they lived, and they stood, together.
Here is redemption. Here, the redemption of a whole a people, a community who believed that God had forgotten them, perhaps wondered whether God had ever been with them, perhaps wondered whether there was a God at all. Drawn together by the words of the prophet, and enlivened by the spirit of God.
Redeemed, so that once more they might take their place in the world, blessing the world, challenging the world, redeeming the world.
In our gospel reading, we find another image of redemption; of the dead living – this time, quite literally. But it’s not so much the miracle of Lazarus rising that interests me, as the conversation that proceeds it.
Martha gives voice to both her feeling that Jesus has let her down – “if you were here, he would not have died” – and to her hope that something, she knows not what, can still be done – “but God will give you whatever you ask”. And when Jesus replies that Lazarus will rise again, she demonstrates that she has hope for the future – the distant future, the final resurrection – she has hope of heaven for her brother. What she lacks is hope for now.
And isn’t this often a good description of us, in the Church? Faced with the hard realities of life – with friends and family who get sick, with relationships that break up, with stress and depression and addiction, with the consequences of bad decisions, both ours and others, we fall back on hope beyond, hope of heaven.
And in so many ways it is right that we do so. For all those times that the pain and wrongness and tragedy of the world would rear up and overwhelm us, and all we can do is hold on and say “this is not the final word. In the end, even if not in this life, God’s love will triumph. God’s love will carry us through”. Our tradition is rich in this imagery, our hymns full of this poetry – “he will keep me till the river rolls its waters at my feet; then he’ll bear me safely over, where the loved ones I shall meet”. It’s a faith that holds us in the darkest time – though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death…
But the story of Ezekiel’s vision, and the story of Lazarus, remind us, that good and right though this faith is, it is not all; that we have more even than that to hold on to. That our hope is not limited to the final end of all things; but that our God brings that hope – brokenly, perhaps, partially, certainly, into the present.
That God takes the dry bones – people used up and cast aside by life, people who feel that they have nothing left – and draws them together. Alone, a bone is nothing more than a snack for a dog – but together, they take shape. God calls broken people; and that, in the end, is all any of us can claim to be; into a community, and calls it “Church” – and then breathes the Spirit of God into them, so that they might live again, hope again, dream again.
That is us – a bunch of bones who have been called by the voice of God into this place; who find some strange way to fit together, to support one another, to make up for one another’s weaknesses and feed off one another’s strengths; and on whom God then breathes the Spirit of life, of love, of hope, of power, and brings us to life.
Look around you. Look at those you share a pew with. Look at those with whom you will chat over coffee. Look at the other bones in this body. And as you look, don’t forget those you can’t see – those in this community who cannot be with us, and those who are with us in another room, our children and their leaders.
These are the bones that God has drawn together in this place. These are the bones that have come together to form the body of Christ, the body which, with the breath of the Spirit of God in it, lives again, to the glory of our God.
Amen. Let it be so. Amen.