Title: Double Vision
Texts: Ezekiel 37.1-14, Psalm 130, Romans 8.6-11, John 11.1-45
Date: April 9, 2011
Author: Nathan Rauh
Prayer: Merciful LORD, thank you for giving your prophet Ezekiel his vision, and us your Scripture. Holy Spirit, go beyond my words to speak your Word to us, and point us to Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh and resurrected in the flesh. Amen.
First off, let’s admit that we have just heard some incredible texts. They feature images of night and death and depths, of sin and grief, of tombs and skeletons and grave linens. But these images are contrasted with others: of morning and redemption, of flesh and unbound skin, of animation and new life. They are resurrection texts. And so they put us in a paradoxical place: here, in the thick of Lent, we are nudged to look towards Easter. That is exactly where our passage from Ezekiel puts us.
Ezekiel’s text, at first glance, takes us where we do not want to go. To enter it, we must leave a lush springtime in home sweet Carolina and find ourselves, with Ezekiel and his Israel, in exile; far, far from home. In EXILE. Most of us here do not know what this feels like, though many in our culture who do. EXILE. Jerusalem, the Holy City, and the Temple, God’s dwelling-place on earth, have fallen, and by all appearances, fallen for good. Babylon has swept away the people of Judah. Living in Babylon, Ezekiel has a vision in which he is taken by the LORD to a bleak and desolate wasteland where he sees a “a valley, filled with bones. And they were very dry.” The image is of a battlefield, where the bodies of the fallen litter the valley floor like old cut grass. Ezekiel sees the “the whole house of Israel” in the pile of bones – not only the southern kingdom of Judah, but Israel’s northern kingdom, long ago wiped out by a different empire and lost. To Ezekiel’s Israel, the dry bones are an image of their hopeless situation. And, as a person born in and now looking back on the 20st century, I cannot help but read this passage and think of the Holocaust, of skeletons and shallow mass graves. This is Israel in the valley. God’s chosen, God’s first-beloved, lies in a lifeless heap. Does the promise made to Abraham long ago now count for nothing? Has God really abandoned the chosen people? This is not the way it is supposed to turn out for the people of God.
Similarly, when Martha wails to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” I imagine her meaning: ‘this is not how it was supposed to go for us and for our brother Lazarus.’ Paul joins all of creation in groaning, ‘this is the not the way things are supposed to be.’ The disciples watched their Messiah’s mission end in Roman crucifixion and must have thought, ‘this is not the way things were supposed to end.’
And we, who are not of Israel, nevertheless stand there with Ezekiel: we, with Ezekiel and all of Israel, are addressed as “mortal” (or, “you who are fully human”). In this address, the truth about us, too, is laid bare: we are dust, bones drying out and returning to the earth. This is the word we receive on Ash Wednesday.
As Ezekiel looks out upon the hopeless scene, God speaks. “How can these bones rise again?” Ezekiel, the prophet, stands there without anything to say but to entrust the answer to the LORD: “oh LORD, you know.” We who are mortal can’t answer this question; we who lose loved ones and are overcome with grief, we who carry deep wounds and do not find healing, we who ache and who see no healing in sight, we who find our lives unraveling and see no light on the horizon – we cannot answer this question. Only God can give an answer. Yes, in every way, this vision reminds us that we live in Lenten time.
But the vision does not end with exile and death, with the bones lying on the ground. This is not where the story of exiled Israel ends. And this is not where our lives end. As it turns out, the only thing not dead in Ezekiel’s vision is God’s spirit, the ruach. Ezekiel suddenly finds himself in the middle of a reverse motion film sequence – really, try picturing this – as the Spirit reverses the process of bodily decomposition: first bones leap up and connect to another again, sinews grow between them, flesh is added, skin covers it, and finally, the structure is re- animated, as if the heart and lungs are shocked back into rhythm with a defibrillator. Real bodies, bodies like ours, are remade and reanimated by the LORD’s Spirit.
This is a powerful re-enactment of Genesis 2, where the first human body is formed and then life is breathed into it. In re-enacting the act of creation, it is as if to say: Israel will not be left alone to pass away, but the LORD’s promises will be accomplished. God will not leave God’s people bereft. God will remain faithful to God’s intentions and promises. The LORD, as Psalm 130 says, is ever attentive to cries for mercy; with him is unfailing love. It is death, after all, which is not the way it’s supposed to be – not if God’s spirit, God’s life-breath, has anything to do with it. This vision is a reminder that we live in Lenten time, but that God wills Easter time.
In Ezekiel 37, the LORD shows Israel that he will do something about death and exile, will breathe God’s people back into life out of sheer love and faithfulness to God’s promise. The LORD does not deny that the exile is real or that death exists, instead, the LORD shows a preview of what will be done to transform the situation. Israel has never read this as a resurrection text. But Christians believe that there was one who so thoroughly entered into the condition of Israel that he transformed our understanding of Ezekiel’s vision in the most paradoxical way possible – by being one of Israel and becoming subject to human death, and blowing it open from the inside by the work of the Spirit. In Jesus, God has already done something about death: by undergoing it completely in the cross and exploding it totally in the resurrection. Jesus of Nazareth, Israel’s promised Messiah, is God’s answer to sin and death and exile and captivity.
I am reminded a scene in C.S. Lewis’ children’s story, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The creatures of the kingdom of Narnia have been turned into stones and are frozen in place all around Narnia. They are no more alive than stones (or bones, for that matter). And it is always winter, with no chance of the land thawing. However, with the long-awaited return of Aslan the Lion, the rightful ruler of Narnia, there is the beginning of spring, the blooming of the earth, and the end of this death. He bounds through the kingdom, awakening his chosen critters – and how? By breathing on them. Everything from squirrels to centaurs is re-animated and invited to join Aslan’s reign.
Christians believe that the Holy Spirit gives us a preview now of what is ultimately going to be. The ruach raising these bones before Ezekiel’s eyes is the same Spirit that was on his fellow prophet but Nazareth, who testified, “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” This is the same Spirit who creates a new people in John 22.2, where Jesus breathes upon the disciples and says, “receive the Holy Spirit.” And this is the same Spirit who guarantees redemption of both our bodies and the mending of all of creation. The same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead raises us up from the dust and inbreathes us with life.
During Lent, the simple words Isaac said to us on Ash Wednesday have stuck with me: yes, we are dust, he acknowledged, “but God loves dust.” (I have it taped on my bathroom mirror, so I don’t forget – as often). This is the paradoxical place in-between Lent and Easter. Dust, yes, but beloved dust. Bones, yes, but Spirit-raised and fleshed-covered bones. Death is real, yes, but it does not endure. Exile is real, yes, but it does not prevail. We live our lives smack-dab in the middle of the Yes-But. We live, like Ezekiel’s vision and like Mary and Martha and Paul and the psalmist live, right in the Yes-But of Lent. We live in Lenten time, but God wills Easter time. What does that mean for our lives?
This (first of all) means for us new ways of seeing. Biblical visions like this ask us to probe behind what we see, and to ask ourselves, “what is really going on here?” Ezekiel sees something he doesn’t expect to see: through God’s eyes, he sees dry bones becoming a people raised from the dead. The prophet’s inspired vision helps her generation to see newness amidst the old. And God knows we need such prophets in our midst, for valleys full of dry bones, like closets full of skeletons, are ever present, but not always obvious. They keep hidden, or they can be made normal and easy to overlook, if this serves their purposes. We can’t pretend skeletons don’t exist in the closets of our lives. And we can’t allow our society to hide its skeletons in the closet. We who were formerly dead and have been made alive must have the courage to look death and evil and destruction right in the face – in our lives and in the world – and see them for what they are. Prophets are those who help us see the realities of sin and death among us and take them utterly seriously. But we also need them to see the resurrection promised us in Jesus, guaranteed by the Spirit. We are called to live according to this double vision of Lent – the reminder of exile and cross; and of Easter – the promise of resurrection.
What might Ezekiel’s vision mean for how we proclaim? Do we, with our words and actions, proclaim that, as the African-American spiritual puts it, ‘dem bones gonna rise again?’ To proclaim God’s new life in places of death is to proclaim something extremely political – and I am confident examples will come to mind for us to share with one another in a few minutes – for to believe in the resurrection without seeking to escape the world is a threat to those powers that want the bones to lie undisturbed. More personally but no less politically, how do we think about and speak about our bodies? Do we live as if we believe that all of us has been lovingly created and is worthy of God’s very breath entering us? Do we believe that God’s breath animates even our material bodies?
I think about how we lament, or learn to “cry out from the depths” with Israel. The shortest verse in the Bible and perhaps the most profound is when Jesus the true Israelite weeps when he comes to his friend Lazarus’ tomb. If he had seen the valley of dry bones which Ezekiel saw, he would have wept. We know this because he looked at Jerusalem and wept thinking about his people’s fate at the hands of yet another empire, Rome. Life incarnate looked sin, death, and suffering squarely in the face and lamented it. The one human who had more reason to trust God’s vindication than any other in history still cried out with Israel over the reality forces of sin and death. We are called to follow this human in our witness.
And so we live into Ezekiel’s vision in our be-ing. However we approach it, Ezekiel’s vision – as is so often true of life – puts us in our place. If we think ourselves invincible, it reminds us that we are mortals, dry bones, dust. If we are ready to despair at what we encounter in this world, it reminds us the truth about ourselves: that our lives are not determined by simple cause-and-effect, the works of impersonal forces and the Babylons and Assyrias and Romes of the world, of death and decay. We can persist neither in reading history innocently, nor in seeing the world as determined by a series of causes-and-effects, of a cycle of empires. We can neither flee the world’s sufferings nor slide into despair, neither a superficial happiness nor a grim paralysis. The text presents us with neither of these options. Our lives are instead determined by the resurrection of a God who is full of loving-kindness and who keeps promises to her people. Our lives are determined by the work of the Spirit who breathes new life. The LORD of Israel has promised to make good on his word, and he will do so for all creation one day.
In a few weeks, we will remember Good Friday and celebrate Easter Sunday. In between those two days, however, is a day Christians call Holy Saturday – the day that stands between Lent and Easter, between cross and resurrection.
Holy Saturday is a time of waiting. And this is the kind of time from which all four of today’s texts speak to us. This is where we live our lives. The Saturdays of our lives come in all shapes and sizes. They are not the way things are supposed to be. But our lives don’t let us simply move on to resurrection. What we don’t see in our passage today is what Ezekiel does after he receives his vision. We must remember that he is left just standing there, with the rest of his people, waiting in exile for a far-off vision to come to pass. He never sees it in his lifetime. He waits. And as Gentile believers in Jesus, we are called into a life of waiting for God to make all things new. We are called into the tenacious hope of Holy Saturday. And it this kind of hope that enables the waiting body of believers to say with Paul, “if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you” (Rom. 8.11). It sounds like Paul has read his Ezekiel…
When I think about what it means to be in the in-between place of Holy Saturday, I can’t help but think of the words of Lesslie Newbigen, the English missionary and pastor who was known for answering tough questions on the spot. When Newbigen was asked whether he was optimistic or pessimistic as he looked to the future, his response was simply, “I am neither an optimist nor a pessimist; Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.”