Passion Sunday - Breathing life into dry bones

A sermon preached by Fr James Heard in the United Benefice, 6 April 2014

Last week, I found myself looking at some sketches someone from the parish had been drawing. The subject matter was of a skull of an animal. It was a fascinating still life study. Damien Hurst, of course, also has a piece of work in which he uses a human skull - entitled ‘For the Love of God’. But he beautifies it by overlaying it with diamonds. Viewing this piece during Hirst’s exhibition at the Tate Modern a couple of years ago, I found myself looking closely at the skull, and it sort of stared back at me, as if to say, “One day you’ll be pared down to this; forget about the photographs of you with a smiling face. I’m what you really are, under the skin.”

It’s the sort of thing that made one shudder, and want to protest and say, “But that’s not me – my life has texture, and tenderness, and beauty, and relationships, and sound, and flesh.” But the skull stares back and says, “Not for long.” And you wonder if you hear a little smirk, or chuckle. TS Eliot describes this poetically: "I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker, / And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker; / and I am afraid."

This is what Ezekiel wants us to face up to. The prophet has a vision in which God shows him how things are and talks to him. The setting is a valley, the valley of death. There are bones everywhere. This is the wreckage of the once mighty people of Israel (Ezekiel 37:1-14).

It’s even more chilling because the bones he sees there are dry, which means they’ve been there for a while. Israel is dead; it’s been dead for a long time; and there’s no escape. That’s what the valley of the dry bones means. And God asks Ezekiel an absurd question – a question that sums up the Hebrew Bible, the story of the heart of God being yoked to the children of Israel, and the folly of those children and the breaking of that heart. This is the question: “Can these bones live?” (Ezekiel 37:3). Israel’s bones. Humanity’s bones. Creation’s bones. Your bones. This is the knife-edge question at the heart of the Bible: “Can these dry bones live?”

Using dramatic and vividly graphic language, the prophet describes how the dry bones live: how the dry bones in the desert are brought back to life. God causes a ‘great noise’ and ‘rattling’ as skeletal bones come together with sinews and muscles and cartilage and flesh and skin. But the bodies remain lifeless. Why? Because, we are informed, ‘there was no breath in them’ (v.8). The crucial ingredient that makes life happen is the divine ruach, the breath of the Spirit of God who had breathed over creation in Genesis. The divine breath that comes from the four winds of the cosmos – north, south, east, west. With the rush of wind, the breath comes into them and they live.

In our Gospel reading Jesus gets the news that his friend Lazarus is dead. While not yet dry bones, there is a lifeless body and a family in the midst of the darkness of grief. And Jesus says, “Let’s go to Judea again” (John 11:7). The disciples say, “But Judea’s full of people who want to kill you.” Let’s call them Romans and religious leaders. Thomas is the only one who realizes what Jesus is really saying to the disciples. Thomas knows his answer. He declares, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11:16). Thomas has a clear sense of the hostility, failure, frustration, and anxiety this journey is going to entail.

Upon arrival at Bethany Jesus meets Mary and Martha. They say identical things to Jesus - had Jesus arrived earlier, their brother would still be alive. Jesus responds quite differently to them. In the midst of Martha's grief, Jesus had a theological conversation with her about rising from the dead. This led to her affirmation of faith that Lazarus would rise in the resurrection at the last day. Jesus responds with these wonderful words, often used at funeral services: "I am the resurrection and the life; those who believe in me, even though they die, will live".

Jesus then meets Mary. She said exactly the same thing to Jesus, and yet elicited a totally different response. Jesus wept with her, sharing the pain of death and loss. In creating us God has, as it were, hardwired us for friendship and love and so, when friendship is severed by death, grief is a natural response. It’s not indicative of lack of trust in God, but of bereavement, and bereavement can be a situation where we meet God most profoundly. Jesus knew the intensity of human loss. The account affirms that nothing we experience is alien to God; even in our loneliest and most forlorn places, we are not beyond God's reach of compassion.

Jesus knew the reality of death. It’s not, as one poem puts it, "nothing at all". In God's hands, however, death is the raw material of resurrection; of transformation and new life, which is what happens to Lazarus. In what seems rather like a Monty Python sketch, Lazarus's emerges from the tomb bound from head to toe in strips of cloth, hopping out of the tomb, unable to see where he was going. It seems that everyone was paralysed into inaction, and it took Jesus to break the stunned silence with practical instructions.

The story of Ezekiel and the valley of the dry bones is the story not just of the Hebrew Bible but also of the New Testament, because Jesus is the one who finally enters the deepest valley, and prophesies to our bodies and our spirits with his body and his Spirit, and makes these bones shake and rattle and roll. And this same question, the question at the heart of the Bible, is the question facing us today more than any other. Can these dry bones live?

Look at your life. Look at this valley of dry bones. Are parts of you dry – really dry, neglected, abandoned, left for dead? Have you given up believing God will ever bring you to life? Have you been dragging this sack of dry bones through the valley for longer than you can remember? Why pretend any longer? Feel the Ruach of God – the Divine Spirit – come upon you. Hear the Spirit of the Lord whisper in your ear. Listen to this question the Lord is asking you. “Beloved child, can these dry bones live?” Am I willing to let the Spirit bring a transformation out of my dry, fragile flesh?

Just as the Lord whispered to Ezekiel, he’s whispering to you: “I am going to open your grave, and bring you up from your grave. I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live.”
Holland Park Benefice