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 they valued, socially, religiously and culturally, had been assaulted and threatened. Many believed that the oppressive Babylonian empire would force them to commingle with foreign nations and exile, diminishing the Hebrews’ core identity to extinction.
The exiles despaired, lamenting that their bones were dried up and their hopes had perished. They felt cut off from the Promised Land, the holy city Jerusalem, and from God.
Amidst this dejected situation, God sends the prophet Ezekiel, who experiences a series of oracles including the vision of the valley of dry bones. Prior to seeing these oracles, God told Ezekiel of his desire to offer the House of Israel a new heart and spirit to revive and give them hope by relaying 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 this particular vision, Ezekiel sees an arid valley full of dry bones. The valley appears to be a former battle site, with unburied bodies of dead soldiers left to rot and be eaten by carrion birds and animals.
God asks the prophet, “Mortal, can these bones live?” Ezekiel answers, “O Lord God, you know.” God tells him to prophesy the bones. As he does, the bones slowly come together until they are covered with skin. God then breathes life-giving spirit into these bodies. “And the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.”
God says these bones are the people of the House of Israel. God tells them, “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 . . . O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.”
It’s an awe-inducing yet impossible vision to believe. For the Hebrews in exile, the good news was difficult to hear and more impossible to visualize.
By relaying his vision, Ezekiel challenges the Israelites to view their dire circumstances through God’s eyes rather than through their limited vision. With human eyes, can dry, desiccated bones live? Of course not!
If we see through God’s eyes, bone suddenly comes to bone. One commentary states, “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 for us. If we can see through God’s eyes, envisioning His hope for this world and us, then there is no limit for our being revived from the most desperate and hopeless circumstances.
God’s opening the graves of the dead and putting His spirit back into them also occurs in the story of Lazarus. This story, in John’s Gospel, was written by a community of early Christians recently exiled – or if you will, excommunicated - from the Jewish faith. At its inception, this community considered themselves a Jewish sect.
By the turn of the first century, institutional Judaism determined that Jewish expectations of messiah had not been fulfilled by Jesus, whom the community of John proclaimed as the authentic Messiah. So they were cast out, no longer welcome as fellow brothers and sisters of the faith, even despised. They were considered as good as dead.
This caused considerable despair and hopelessness. In the context of this situation, the author of John tells the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the grave. Whether we believe this is an actual bodily resurrection or not misses the point. It does not matter if Jesus literally raised a corpse to life or not in the fourth decade of the first century, although he could have done so.
It does matter that for the despairing and entombed Johanine community that Jesus –who of course sees everything through God’s eyes - offers them hope and raises them from despair. That hope is centered in the statement Jesus made to Martha when he 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.”
In that theological statement, we find that whether in literal or metaphorical death, God’s love for us and the world defeats death in all its insidious forms if we believe in the way and truth of Jesus, who saw everything with God’s eyes.
Ezekiel shared God’s optimistic vision for the defeated and “as-good-as-dead” people. Looking through the eyes of God, Israel would soon be freed from exile and restored to Judea, and the Temple and Jerusalem would be rebuilt. Bone came to bone. Sinew, flesh and skin grew, and God’s life-giving breath was breathed in them. God’s vision of salvation for the people materialized.
In the community of John, the death and entombment of excommunication was transformed by Lazarus’ resurrection. Jesus did this because he loved Lazarus and in that love he conveyed his love for the despondent Johanine community.
In both instances, God gave despondent communities a new heart and spirit. Love is resurrection and life; to love is to see with the eyes of God.
The entire purpose of Jesus’ life was to teach humanity how to see through God’s eyes, which are the eyes of love. The hymn, My Song is Love Unknown, states, “love to the loveless show[n] that they might lovely be.”
The incarnate God always gives us a new heart and spirit so that when our bones are dead and dry, we may find hope to live through that love-filled sight. When we see through Jesus’ eyes, we are released from the graves that entomb us, and he becomes for us resurrection and life.
In those times 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 think of no greater life–giving message than this one. This is true for us individually and corporately as we encounter social and political shifts that threaten us.
If we do, we have hope and it will propel us to testify to God’s power, and resurrected life will be ours.