John 11:1-45, Ezekiel 37:1-14, Romans 8:6-11, Psalm 130
When I have read, or heard this passage from Ezekiel (the dry bones) I think I have typically envisioned of something like Halloween. It’s not that I have much experience in this subject—my family lived far from town with a driveway as long as two city blocks back into a wooded area. No kids could walk there and if they could we would probably be the place that was either too scary or not allowed by parents unless they knew us. And we rarely did Halloweeny things. It may have been a bit too pagan—but of course the Christmas tree is a pagan symbol—but also a bit to gory or bent on unpleasant things. Of the one or so documented times when we dressed up and drove to go trick-or-treating we dressed up as David and Goliath. I being the older sibling got stuck with being Goliath—which is of course no less gory than any movie. A teenager is overly confident and kills a giant on a battlefield that is poised for annihilation and slavery and then cuts off his head with a giant sword.
So, though I am far from an expert on Halloween when I have read this passage I think I tend to envision something like a semi-creepy Halloween cartoon or the bones looking something like one of the paper skeletons that people hang on their front door. When I re-read this passage on Friday (after having read it most days for a week or so) a much different image seemed obvious. This time it was much more horrifying—the aftermath of a genocide or a mass grave. Not a funny Halloween but a terrifying scene. In these passages, we are graphically confronted with death. A valley of bones and a dead friend.
While in Hebron, in the West Bank of Palestine two weeks ago, I first heard of the kidnapping of MJ Sharp. He was a good friend of Sarah Thompson, the Executive Director, of Christian Peacemaker teams. He was a 34-year-old Mennonite who had worked with rebel groups in the DRC and was presently there with the UN. He and several others were kidnapped while going to investigate a mass grave. The significance of this was intensified because of being with Sarah who had close connection to him and our work with a peacemaking organization that intentionally is near sites of violence and several times had a team mate kidnapped and killed. As the week went on she became more convinced he wasn’t coming back. Earlier this week his body was found with a colleague in a shallow grave.
In between meetings on this trip on behalf of Churches for Middle East Peace I visited Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial site and museum. I believe reflecting back on this experience also shaped how I saw this passage. Not only does a valley of bones look like a genocide but such events, and the ongoing historical memory and trauma bear down on a community. This was also present in visits to Holy sites that bear the marks of another religion’s control. The Temple Mount, which is the holiest site in Judaism can only be visited as a tourist site for non-Muslims. In fact, they even kept my Bible in security so that I couldn’t use it for a religious purpose while visiting. But there is also a stone cross from Crusaders next to the Dome of the Rock (which is the third most holy site in Islam). And on the hill above a large Menorah stands indicating the desire to reclaim the Temple Mount.
I also met with Palestinians, both Christian and Muslim, who were displaced by the creation of the state of Israel and are still living as refugees and now under military occupation. This displacement is called the Nakba—the catastrophe. Many homes still have original keys from homes which were locked on the assumption that they would quickly return after the war in 1948.
There is also an Armenian quarter in the old city of Jerusalem. While leaving a restaurant there I saw a banner by Armenians who seek to remember their own experience of genocide 100 years ago.
The presence of a valley of bones seemed to press in. The ongoing trauma of history and ongoing violence weighed down. And of course, this is not only in the Holy Land; we experience it too.
The valley of bones pressed in.
When we read these verses, however, we also see clearly that there is a thematic focus on life. The significance of life heightened by the presence of death. In Ezekiel, there is a vision of a valley of dry bones which then are reanimated and life breathed in. In John, there is both death and then the bringing back to life but also Jesus teaching about how he brings life and is life. In Romans, the life is more spiritually focused. To be filled with the Spirit (note the big S) and live in the Spirit is life and peace. So, the first is prophetic and focused on a people who are in some way not living. The second is material but seems to point to broader implications. And the third, is a matter of the spiritual. Very thoroughly focused on life—all aspects. Additionally, this is still part of Lent which is preparation for Easter with its post-suffering resurrection. Not only is Jesus raised in power but we will participate in this. In preparation for this we consider these passages on life. In the face of death God brings life.
In the face of death God brings life.
We had notable set of verses in our scripture readings this week. Typically, the passages are much shorter but this lengthiness also happened last week. Jeff, who was struggling with losing his voice joked that next time we would try to have the shortest verse—“Jesus wept”—as his text. Incidentally, my passage includes this shortest verse….its just that it is surrounded by 44 other verses for context. Jesus wept—which in this version is translated “Jesus began to weep.” Jesus weeps because of the death of a friend and witnessing the sorrow of his family. “Jesus wept” is a sign of compassion and the experience of sorrow.
If you remember though, it seems that Jesus could have prevented this. Martha, the sister of Lazarus, notes this saying “Jesus you could have taken care of this—it’s the sort of thing you do! Jesus, what were you thinking?!
The passage begins when Jesus hears of the sickness of Lazarus. Jesus is informed, with the intent that he would do something. Rather than rush, however, Jesus waits, inexplicably. He says in this God’s glory will be shown. Though the action is rather slow one can imagine the felt urgency. He is informed by alarmed family… but he waits… when he says that he will go his followers remind him that his life is in danger—that folks would like to stone him. More tension and urgency. His disciples say “let us go so that we might die with him.” Presumably not said lightly. They face death willingly. As he gets close, after Lazarus is already dead, Martha jumps up to meet him.
Along the way Jesus gives a few short teachings here and there. One of the substantial life-themed teachings is this. In verse 21 we read.
21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
We should remember that her brother still has just died at this point. He has died and Martha has enough familiarity with Jesus to say—if you had just hurried up, things would be better. Additionally, Jesus—who she obviously has much confidence in—makes a big theological statement—which though theologically significant does not feel immediately comforting.
He says if you believe you won’t die (again remember her brother has just died) and then pushes her by asking if she believes. Interesting she says “yes” but rephrases what she is affirming. Now literarily this might be a form of explanation or expansion on what Jesus said. It is certainly much more interesting reading than if she simply said “yes.” Or if she had repeated back exactly. Or it could be that she believes he is the Messiah but isn’t quite sure about the “never dying part.”
After the teaching (about being the resurrection and the life) and the weeping Jesus calls to Lazarus and he emerges from the tomb.
The power of God brings life to that which should not be able to be raised. Lazarus was in the grave 4 days—which means he was considered definitely dead. The power of God brings life to that which should not be able to be raised.
The power of God also brings spiritual life
To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.
He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.”
7 So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, …
“Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.”
In the face of death God brings life.