First Reading: Ezekiel 37:1-14
1The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. 2And he led me around among them, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold, they were very dry. 3And he said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” And I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” 4Then he said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord.” 7So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I prophesied, there was a sound, and behold, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8And I looked, and behold, there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them. But there was no breath in them. 9Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.” 10So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army. 11Then he said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.’ 12Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. 13And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. 14And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the Lord.”
1Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice; let your ears consider well the voice of my supplication. 2If you, Lord, were to note what is done amiss, O Lord, who could stand? 3For there is forgiveness with you; therefore you shall be feared. 4I wait for the Lord; my soul waits for him; in his word is my hope. 5My soul waits for the Lord, more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning. 6O Israel, wait for the Lord, for with the Lord there is mercy; 7With him there is plenteous redemption, and he shall redeem Israel from all their sins.
Second Reading: Romans 8:1-11
1There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. 3For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. 5For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. 8Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. 9You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.
Gospel: John 11:1-45 [46-53]
1Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. 3So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” 5Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. 7Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 8The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?” 9Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. 10But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” 11After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” 12The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” 13Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. 14Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, 15and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” 17Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off, 19and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother. 20So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary remained seated in the house. 21Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” 23Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” 27She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” 28When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary, saying in private, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29And when she heard it, she rose quickly and went to him. 30Now Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still in the place where Martha had met him. 31When the Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary rise quickly and go out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. 34And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35Jesus wept. 36So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?” 38Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. 39Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” 40Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” 41So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” 43When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” 44The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” 45Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him, [46but some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. 47So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council and said, “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. 48If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” 49But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all. 50Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” 51He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, 52and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad. 53So from that day on they made plans to put him to death.]
Death and Life
Overall, evidence suggests that our society is fascinated with the subject of death. Yes, we fear it, yes, want to avoid it, but we also want to find ways to conquer it. In what my older brother liked to call “First person shooter games”, that is, video games that pit the player against computer generated opponents in battle situations, the player attempts to eliminate their opponent before they get eliminated. And if they do get killed, the player will respawn, or come back to life, and are able to continue playing. These games are so popular, that researchers project that by 2026, that market will be a $390 Billon industry. And for those who watch TV, it’s difficult not to notice the number of crime dramas that fill the schedule.
For example, take the fact that there are, or have been, four CSI or Crime Scene Investigator shows, the original CSI, CSI Miami, CSI New York and now CSI Las Vegas. There are four NCIS or Naval Criminal Investigation Service shows; the original NCIS, NCIS New Orleans, NCIS Los Angeles, and NCIS Hawaii. There are two Criminal Minds, and, at last count, there are three FBI, or Federal Bureau of Investigation shows, not to mention numerous other shows like Blue Bloods, Law and Order, and East New York, all of which focus on major crime scene investigations, including murder.
One of my all-time favorite crime dramas is appropriately named Bones. It’s a show about an FBI Special agent and a forensic anthropologist who solve murders for the FBI. In these shows, murder or other heinous crimes are committed and the good guys find and bring the violent offender to justice. I’m sure everyone has their favorite, that’s why there are so many. The one thing that almost all these shows have in common is that the central theme usually deals with death.
Furthermore, if we were to turn our attention away from the entertainment of TV crime dramas, to the media’s coverage of disease, poverty, natural disaster, and war, this seeming obsession with death is only amplified further. Perhaps our fascination with death is simply a result of the human condition. The Bible is clear that death came as the result of sin, and then judgment comes following death. So, in part, our fascination with death has to do with our fear of the unknown, and our fear of ultimate punishment.
As Solomon suggests in Ecclesiastes: “Moreover, the hearts of all are full of evil; madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead” (Ecclesiastes 9:3). Perhaps we’re pursuing the ancient quest to conquer death as chronicled in stories as ancient as Gilgamesh or as new as Star Trek Pickard. Maybe this is the reason that our Old Testament reading for today is so well known.
The book of Ezekiel tells some of the most macabre tales in the Bible. Yet, when you mention the prophet Ezekiel to some folks, they may think of Samuel L. Jackson wildly paraphrasing the book in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, or of television documentaries “reporting” references to aliens in the Bible. In Christian circles, however, the name Ezekiel almost universally invokes the story of a valley filled with dry bones which is the reading for this fifth Sunday in Lent.
It’s no wonder that Christians often reduce the book of Ezekiel to this one passage, given the strange, violent, almost incomprehensible, and even offensive nature of much of the book. I invite you to read chapters 16 and 23 to see what I mean. And I’m no different. I too am guilty of this offense. Oftentimes, in Confirmation classes, I use the story of the Valley of Dry Bones as the example for how to remember the book of Ezekiel. And in my defense, this is understandable.
The Valley of Dry Bones vision is much more palatable, as a way to grasp the hope of the resurrection–or even the lush picture of new creation in chapter 47–than to dare to confront some of the book’s darker imagery. But we’re not alone in our feelings. It appears that Ezekiel’s audience also misunderstood his melodramatic ranting as much as we do. In chapter 21 verse 5 we find his exasperated response to God; the prophet himself laments: “Ah, Lord GOD! They say of me: He is just a riddle monger”. And in light of today’s reading, it would seem that his complaint is justified.
It only takes 3 verses before God Himself offers a riddle of sorts for His prophet: “Mortal, can these bones live?” Surveying the valley filled with dried, disjoined bones, the prophet meekly responds, “O Lord God, You know.” But for us to fully comprehend the magnificent hope in the latter verses of this passage, we must first pay attention to Ezekiel’s response. Before we can watch the wind swirl the bones back together and marvel at the newly formed humans breathing the breath of life again, we really need to ask ourselves a few questions. Why is the valley full of bones? What caused the visions of death that the community faced? And what has brought Ezekiel to the point of near speechlessness and despair?
Because we so often fail to read the chapters preceding this vision, we tend to have a myopic view of the prophet’s own desperation and the plight of the Hebrew people to which this story attempts to give hope. We forget that Ezekiel himself was taken into exile in 597 BC, just after Jerusalem was overrun by the Babylonians. We fail to consider that he had heard reports of his religious institution’s corruption, the lack of proper oversight of the priesthood, and that his status had been reduced from a prominent position as a future priest in Jerusalem, to that of a temple-less priest in exile. We also forget that he suffered the loss of his wife, and that God’s had command him not to mourn her, as an example for the exilic community, not to mourn the loss of the Temple (24:16-24). Too often, we forget the historical trauma that accompanied this exile.
We overlook the fact that the Babylonians tortured the inhabitants of Jerusalem with siege warfare for almost two years, which lead to famine, disease, and despair (2 Kings 25:3). We pass over the details of how Nebuchadnezzar’s army destroyed Jerusalem, razed the temple to the ground, killed many of its inhabitants, and forced the leadership and the majority of the citizens to move to Babylon. In our refusal to read the passages from Ezekiel, we miss the prophet’s God inspired imagery that testifies to the multiple traumas that the community faced, under the realities of ancient Near Eastern warfare. So, it only makes sense that most people have a narrow understanding of the events that surround the vision we read about in our first lesson. It’s also reasonable to see why many read this passage in a positive way, without acknowledging the negative.
While many of us read Ezekiel 37 as a beautiful passage, it can also be understood as horrifying. It’s disturbing because it calls the reader to visualize, confront, and testify to the devastating events that led to the valley being filled with dry bones in the first place. On the other hand, its beauty manifests itself with the possibility that even in this landscape full of death, a hope for renewed life remains.
Ezekiel prophesies to the bones that soon reanimate, with newly formed sinews and muscles knitting the bones together as living flesh and skin envelop them. In a scene that recalls the breath of God entering the first human in the second chapter of Genesis, the prophet then commands the four winds, and the same breath of God enters the reanimated bodies that live once more. But the miracle of this vision doesn’t simply lie in its theatricality.
The true miracle is that it occurs after the community, now in exile, has faced such devastating loss. Yet, the familiarity of this text can tempt us to reduce the miraculous to cliché. We can, and often do, turn this vision into a promise for new life on an individual and communal level without taking seriously the circumstances and situations that have led to the initial death. As is our temptation, in every Lenten season, we look past the passion of Jesus, and look forward to the reanimation of the body. We want to rush forward to the glory of resurrection Sunday, without considering the trauma of the night in which He was betrayed.
While celebrating the victory over death, we refuse to evaluate the systems, patterns, and consequences of our sin as we walk through the valley of its shadow. As Christians, we’re called to see all three facets, life and its struggles, death, and the hope of the resurrection. But this is often difficult because of the mystery that enshrouds death which, in turn, seems to heighten our fascination with it. And this captivation isn’t limited to people living in the 21st century; death is a subject that people have struggled with from ancient times. In what is probably the most recognizable Psalm, David wrote, “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death”. And in our gospel reading appointed for today, this walk through the valley of death also leads us to the tomb of Lazarus and the gift of life out of death.
Although our story from the New Testament is a retelling of the death of Mary and Martha’s brother, the account climaxes with the raising of Lazarus. And again, as was our shortcomings in Ezekiel, we often fail to see the other details of the story, that this text is also about Martha and Mary’s experience of grief and absence. Add to this the fact that Jesus didn’t immediately come when they called, and they both tell Him that their brother would be alive if He had come without delay. Therefore, this is as much a story of lament, as it will ultimately be a story of joy, of resurrection, and of life. But more than that, this is also a story about love.
The Bethany family, along with the unnamed “disciple whom Jesus loved” of the second half of the Gospel, are the only individuals in John whom Jesus is specifically said to love (11:5). In chapter 13 St. John records that Jesus loves “his own” (1, 34), and in chapter 14 that the Son loves the Father (31), and Jesus loves Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. So this story is also about that–what it means to be in relationship with Jesus, and what it means to love Him and be loved by Him.
Love is also inseparably linked to death in John’s gospel; in chapter 15 verse 3 we hear Jesus say, “No one has greater love than this then to lay down one’s life… and in 3:16 He says, “For God so loved the world that He gave…, and this is also true in the story of this family. Their relationship with Jesus doesn’t mean that bad things don’t happen. Jesus doesn’t prevent Lazarus from dying. But He is ultimately present to them, and God is glorified even in something that feels initially un-redeemably painful, and this beloved family is part of God’s glory.
Martha and Mary also appear in Luke chapter 10 (38-42) but with no mention of their brother Lazarus. In John’s narrative, they appear again at the opening of the next chapter when they give a dinner for Jesus at which Martha serves, Lazarus is alive and well and at table with Jesus, and Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with costly perfume and wipes them with her hair in an act of extravagant love, which Jesus identifies as preparation for His burial. John provides us with details of the relationship that Jesus has built with this family and for this reason they call on Him when Lazarus becomes gravely ill.
Our narrative for today begins with Jesus in retreat across the Jordan after the second attempt to stone Him in Jerusalem, at the end of the last chapter. When Jesus tells His disciples that they are returning to Judea, they object on the basis of the danger to Him and them as well. Even Thomas had his concerns and fails to comprehend the situation in verse 16 where he suggests to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with Him”. This of course isn’t the firstHim misunderstandings typical of Johannine dialogues, because the disciples also fail to grasp what Jesus is saying when He tells them that He will awaken Lazarus. They think Jesus is referring to normal sleep and protesting that if he is asleep, he will be all right.
The disciples misunderstanding forces Jesus to say plainly that Lazarus is dead, and for their sake, it was good that He had not been there. John further adds the reference to walking during the day in the light of this world which is reminiscent of last week’s passage in which Jesus says that they must work the works of the One who sent Him while it is day and Jesus, the light of the world, is present. So, with His reluctant disciples, Jesus heads to Bethany, to the tomb of Lazarus. The next scene occurs near Bethany as Jesus approaches.
Martha comes to greet Jesus and immediately laments His delay in coming, because she knows that He could have saved her brother’s life. Their conversation culminates in one of Jesus’ most comforting “I am” statements. Jesus gives us an assurance of the future when He says, “I am the resurrection and the life”. Here Martha acknowledges that her brother will rise again in the resurrection on the last day, but that she is, in fact, face to face with, and beloved by, the One who is in Himself the embodiment of life. Martha here responds with a confession of faith, after which she returns to summon Mary.
Upon her return, Martha finds and informs Mary that Jesus has arrived and is asking for her, and Mary leaves quickly and meets Jesus on the way to the tomb. Mary’s lament echoes that of Martha’s, however, unlike her sister, she doesn’t reason with Jesus; she simply weeps. Jesus, at this point also weeps, as He is greatly disturbed in spirit. Even the one who is Himself the resurrection and the life, is deeply unsettled by human grief and death. This is the point in which the story shifts from death to life.
In the final scene the sisters lead Jesus to the tomb and, and after voicing sensible concerns, which reveal their lack of understanding of what’s about to happen, they remove the stone, and Jesus calls Lazarus to come out. This is where other lectionaries end the reading. And it’s for this reason that I included the next 9 verses. We really need to consider these next verses since what happens next, is essential for understanding the passage and indeed the whole of the Passion narrative.
Although some of the bystanders believe as indicated in verse 45, others go and report Jesus to the authorities, and it’s on this basis, that the religious leaders decide He must be put to death. The immediate way to the cross and Jesus’ own tomb starts here, where Jesus is most loving and life-giving. They will also plan to kill Lazarus as well, once the word about him gets out (12:10-11).
This passage reveals that being in a relationship with Jesus means facing death and grief with Him and learning that still, despite death and the dryness of the grave, in Him is life. Nothing is ever so dead that Jesus cannot restore life. And according to St. John, that life is not only a future hope, it means abundant life now.
For us to fully understand these texts, we must pay attention to the boundary between life and death. We must recognize and bear witness to the despair of the world around us while also inspiring hope for a seemingly impossible future. And our task, like Ezekiel’s, isn’t an easy one. If we’re able to shed our cynicism and despair, if we’re willing to discern and testify to the death that surrounds our communities, and if we’re prepared to obey God’s call to minister to others even in the face of death, then perhaps the Church can and will fulfill its role, to inspire new life in the darkest valleys.
As we approach Holy Week, having Jesus at our tombs, also means that we must follow Him to His. We must endure the silence of His Saturday even as we endure the silence of our own. But we endure this silence knowing that Resurrection Sunday will surely come, even as we walk in the garden of our grief, knowing also that He walks there with us. God’s promise is sure, in Christ, death does not have the final say, because we have the assurance of a future hope in the promise that Christ gave; Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life.”