Ezekiel 37:1-14; John 11:1-15
Rev. Peter Faass
The capture and destruction of Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple in 587 BCE was an apocalyptic event for Israelites. Everything treasured – socially, religiously, culturally – was assaulted and seriously threatened. The oppressive Babylonian empire appeared to purposely destroy the core identity of Hebrews through forced exile and forced co-mingling with foreign nations.
Exiles anguished in despair, lamenting that their bones felt dried up and their hopes perished. They felt utterly cut off from the Promised Land and Jerusalem – and from God himself.
In the midst of this despair, God sends the prophet Ezekiel who experiences a series of oracles. The most famous prophecy is the vision of the valley of dry bones. Just before Ezekiel sees the oracles, God shares his desire to offer the House of Israel a new heart and spirit to revive the Israelites and restore their hope.
God then relayed visions of Israel’s future. In the opening verses Ezekiel proclaims, “I was among the exiles by the river of Chebar, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God.” (Ezek. 1:1)
In one vision, Ezekiel is brought to an arid valley of dry bones. It was the site of a former battle, with the unburied bodies of armies left to rot and be eaten by carrion-eaters.
God asked the prophet, “Mortal, can these bones live?” Ezekiel answers, “O Lord God, you know.”
God tells him to prophesy to the bones. As Ezekiel does, the bones slowly come together; bone-to-bone, sinew binding them, flesh upon them and covered with skin. God then breathed life-giving spirit into these bodies. “And the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.”
God said these resurrected bones were the people of the House of Israel. “I am going to open your graves,” God tells them, “and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel . . . O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.”
It’s an awe inducing vision, nearly impossible to believe. For the as good-as-dead Hebrews in exile, good news was difficult to hear – and even more impossible to visualize.
As he relays his vision, Ezekiel challenges the Israelites to view their dire circumstances past their visions of despair and through God’s eyes.
With human eyes can dry, desiccated bones live? Well, of course not!
But see them through God’s eyes, and suddenly bone comes to bone. As one commentary I read stated, “Watch as ligaments bind them together, flesh blankets them, and skin seals them tight. Watch as God’s spirit, which heals hopelessness, infuses them, so that they rise up – a great army testifying to the power of God . . .
[Through human eyes] can corpses be brought forth from graves and become living beings again? Absurd! But look through God’s eyes, and watch them come up, receive God’s spirit and return home.”
If God can restore the desiccated bones of a hopeless people back to life, then there are absolutely no limits to God’s power to do the same in our lives. If we can see hope through God’s eyes, then there is no limit to the possibilities of hope for our being revived from even the most desperate and hopeless circumstances.
God’s opening the graves of the dead and putting his spirit back into them is exactly what occurs in the story of Lazarus. This miracle occurs in John’s Gospel, which was written by a community of early Christians who had just been exiled (or if you will, excommunicated) from the Jewish faith. At its inception, this community considered itself a Jewish sect. Around the turn of the first century, institutional Judaism determined that Jewish expectations of messiah had not been fulfilled in Jesus, whom the community of John proclaimed as the authentic Messiah. So they were cast out, no longer welcome, even despised. They were considered as good as dead.
This denial caused considerable despair and hopelessness. From the context of this situation, the author of John presented the story of Jesus raising the dead man Lazarus from the grave.
Whether we believe this is an actual bodily resurrection or not misses the point. We are seeing through our own, limited eyes and not God’s. It does not matter if Jesus literally raised a corpse to life or not, although he could have done so.
It mattered for the despairing and entombed Johannine community that Jesus –who of course sees everything through God’s eyes - offered them hope. With that hope, they were raised from the graves of despair. That hope is centered in the statement Jesus makes to Martha when he tells her, “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.”
In that theological statement, we find that whether death is literal or metaphorical, God’s powerful love for us and the world defeats death in all its insidious forms if we believe in the way and truth of Jesus. We’ll see as Jesus did, with God’s eyes.
Ezekiel shared God’s vision for the “defeated and as-good-as-dead people, giving them hope. Looking through God’s eyes, it was only a matter of time before Israel was freed from exile and restored to Judea, with the Temple and Jerusalem rebuilt.
Bone came to bone. Sinew, flesh and skin grew, and God breathed onto them. God’s vision of salvation for the people became reality.
In John’s community, the death and entombment of excommunication was transformed by Lazarus’ rising from the grave. Jesus did this because he loved Lazarus, also conveying this love for the despondent Johannine community.
In both instances, God gave dead communities a new heart and spirit. Love is resurrection and life; to love is seeing with God’s eyes.
The entire purpose of Jesus’ life was to teach humanity how to see through God’s eyes – the eyes of love. As the hymn, My Song is Love Unknown states, “love to the loveless show[n] that they might lovely be.”
The incarnate God’s desire is always to give us a new heart and spirit so that when our bones are dead and dry, sealed in the tomb of death, we may find the hope to live. When we see through Jesus’ eyes and see as God sees, we are released from the graves that entomb us. Jesus becomes resurrection and life.
When we feel as if our bones are dried up and our spirits gone, when we feel like the tomb has been closed over us and the stench of death grows ever stronger, I can’t think of a greater life-giving message than this one. This is true for us individually in our own struggles and challenges and corporately, as we encounter social and political shifts that threaten us.
Can we believe that God has power over the course of life and death, that God can raise the driest of bones and the deadest of bodies? Can we envision a way of life that sees our lives and the world around us through God’s eyes, with love? If we do, we will have hope. Hope will propel us to testify to the power of God, and a new resurrected life will be ours.
The Reverend Peter Faass
The Reverend Peter Faass was born in Delft, Netherlands. He is a graduate of the General Theological Seminary in New York City and has been at Christ Church since 2006.