On this fifth Sunday of Lent, our scripture passages explore the dimensions of death and affirm the ways that God empowers life. The dramatic oracle (vision) in Ezekiel vividly evokes the image of a battle scene, with dead bodies of the defeated lying grotesquely on the ground. All that remains of the bodies are the dry bones, with no possibility of life. In poignant, unforgettable words, the dead bones receive all of the tissue they need, and the breath of life. The oracle assures the dejected, devastated community that God can restore them to vitality.
In 586 B.C. the Israelites had been exiled to Babylon (modern Iraq) before and after the complete destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Many of the exiles’ family members were killed, wounded or missing. They wondered if God had abandoned them forever? Would they cease to exist as a people so far from home? Would they ever be able to go home? How could they survive in a strange land?
The Lord, directly or through a vision, set Ezekiel down in a valley of dry bones. It was as though a vast army had been slaughtered, their armor and clothing stripped, and their bodies left unburied for scavenger birds and animals to pick clean and scatter, and for the winds to scour and the sun to bleach the bones. Ezekiel must have shuddered when God asked him if the bones would live. An astonished Ezekiel must have responded, “How should I know, Lord? Only you could possibly know that.” God told Ezekiel to speak to the bones on God’s behalf and God would cause the wind of the Spirit to blow and enter them; to breathe life into them. Ezekiel did as he was told and rattling, rumbling and shaking of seismic proportion could be heard like an earthquake. The bones came together with muscles and skin, and Ezekiel prophesied that the breath of God should animate them, and they lived. The bones are identified with the whole house of Israel and reminded them of the covenantal relationship they had with God, who had put his spirit within them to give them life. He calls them “my people.”
This account in Ezekiel has been fodder for many years, inspiring thrill rides at theme parks like Denver’s Elitch Garden Water Park, with rides like the Tower of Doom, the Mind Eraser, the Half Pipe ride and others. Sixty years ago a singer named Big Joe Turner gathered with a group of rhythm-and-blues musicians in New York City. In the offices of Atlantic Records, they pushed the furniture to the walls, and recorded a song called “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” which was quickly picked up and recorded by Bill Haley and the Comets, and then by Elvis Presley to become an international rock ‘n’ roll hit. It was Bill Haley’s first gold record and best seller for Decca in 1954. Even earlier, James Weldon Johnson, credentialed as a lawyer in 1894 worked on Theodore Roosevelt’s presidential campaign, was appointed as U.S. Consul in Venezuela, and later, Nicaragua. He became an early civil-rights activist and served as head of the NAACP. He is best remembered for his poetry and song writing ability creating “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” His most widely known composition was inspired by Ezekiel 37: “Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones (3 times). Now hear the word of the Lord.” When my brother was seven years old, my mother was a Cub Scout den mother and we had eight little boys in our basement meeting every week. The Scout Pack had a talent show and I remember my mother coming up with costumes and an act for the boys. They wore jeans, white t-shirts, my Dad’s sailor hats and their faces were blackened for their vaudeville rendition of “Dem Bones.” They sang and danced and won first place. I do not know if my brother remembers that event, but I can still see it in my mind.
More recently, “Schindler’s List” was a movie of a true story about World War II, focusing on the heroism and self-sacrifice of Oskar Schindler, a Christian from Krakow, Poland. Schindler went from being a wanton war profiteer to a conspirator who worked at freeing condemned prisoners from Hitler’s concentration camps. I was reminded of his life-saving work when I got on an elevator in Israel with the name of a prominent elevator company stamped over the control panel. It was not OTIS, no. The name was Schindler. In one scene of the movie, Jews were herded like cattle onto freight trains, hungry, hot, and very thirsty. The train was destined to various death camps. The German soldiers were lolling about and enjoying the suffering they were witnessing. Schindler appeared in a white suit (the “Good Guy” suit, like The Lone Ranger, riding up on his horse) and the Colonel offered him a refreshing drink. Schindler had a bright idea. “Let’s hose down the cars!” He convinced the Colonel to give him a soldier to man the hose, and they began spraying the cars. The captives entrapped in the cars could drink and be cooled. Schindler pretended to be having so much fun with the fire hose, he even got the Colonel to order another length of hose to be able to reach the last car. The prisoners were squealing and reaching for the much needed water and the Colonel said, “Oh, Oskar, you are too cruel! You are giving them hope.” In that scene people on the trains were condemned to certain death, and had no hope, while Oskar desperately wanted to save them and to give them as much hope as he could (not unlike a prophet trying to bring hope to God’s people).
Ezekiel was a temple priest carried off to Babylon in 586 B.C. and called by God to prophesy in great mystic visions to the people of the Exile. He wrote to those back home about God’s judgment, and of restorations and promise. Ezekiel asked God if the bones could live and God proves, “Yes, the bones can live.” Asking if bones can live is like reaching the point of the rebirth of faith –or the birth of a new faith. It is out of the death of hope that the hope of life springs. Hope and joy can spring from loss and pain–it only takes a willingness to step away from the apparent loss and grow with the situation. Ezekiel’s message brings hope for people who have lost all grounds of hope. There is a God who can achieve the impossible. The human end of it is to continue in the knowledge of that God.
The account of Lazarus’ resurrection to life in Bethany sets the scene for Jesus’ coming resurrection at Easter. Martha was distraught that Jesus had not come running to prevent her ailing brother from dying–he purposely arrived days later to call him out of the tomb, so that new life could be breathed into him. Imagine the testimony (not mentioned in Scripture) that Lazarus would have given to any and all who would have listened about the power of God to give life, hope and joy. We live in faith that we have eternal life. Life is lived here and now, and we have eternal life here and now. That is the truth that makes us free. The most amazing thing about eternal life in the here and now is that we can live each day in faith, no longer in fear of dying. In the midst of the uncertainties of life, the Christian has one great certainty: God loves you, whomever you are. God has shown the depth of his love by giving his Son for you, whatever you have done. The greatest act of God lies not in the creation of the world, but in the giving and raising of his Son as the Savior of the fallen, sinful world.
Ezekiel has his eyes opened by the knowledge of God. We have the grave opened by the knowledge of Jesus Christ. In him we know the grace of God,” God’s answer to the tragedies of life. That is our hope. Can these bones live? Shake, rattle and roll. Easter is the best answer we can have!