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Sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA on April 6, 2014.

Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year A (RCL): Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45.

I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

      My father Derrill is 90 years old. Prior to his ordination as priest at age 54 (like me), he was a Navy pilot, and successfully executed, conservatively speaking, over 2,500 landings of his plane or jet on the deck of an aircraft carrier that was pitching to and fro on the ocean. Expectations are for Navy fighter pilots navigating hard deck landings in rough seas were that over time; there would be adverse affects to shoulders, backs, spines and pelvis. For Dad, couple that long term wear and tear with two recent falls during this New England winter. My father is really broken in some ways, is hurting in a great many ways, and consequently is discouraged in a major way. He has been primary care giver to his wife and was very able-bodied until this turn, so this is a huge change for my Dad.

        Thinking about a sermon early last week, I expected I would preach on Johns account of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. But my father being hospitalized required I go to New Hampshire as fact-finder and to lay eyes on him for my older sister and brother. Being in Peterborough, NH quickly became my own Ezekiel experience of being set down in a 'valley of dry bones.' The difference was that these bones, those of my father, have sinews, muscle, skin and breathe still in him.

        In todays Old Testament lesson, the prophet Ezekiel prophesies about God breathing new life into dry bones. To those in exile or living in the shadows of death, this story proclaims Gods promise of resurrection. In Baptism, this story comes to life because we know that we die with Christ so that we might be raised with him to new life.

        Ezekiels vision of the valley of dry bones was a promise that Israel as a nation, though dead in exile, would live again in their land through Gods life-giving spirit.

        This vision speaks of Ezekiels spiritual transportation to a valley filled with skeletal remains of a fallen army slain long ago. These remains represent Israel in the years after the fall of Jerusalem. What he sees happen is a source of great hope for Gods people; for Ezekiel says the resurrection of the bones is nothing less than the revival of Gods people.

     

The date of this vision is probably the 580s, when hope for the restoration of Israel was, from a human point of view, quite
low. Israel was a defeated nation. It had been crushed militarily, its people had been separated from one another in exile, and it suffered the inevitable result of its abandonment of the Lord. I
ve said before that should you ever feel separated or apart from God, the first question is: Who moved? Indeed, Israel had turned from God, and alone, exhausted, discouraged, and impoverished, Israel was indeed as good as dead.

        But God had other plans. The controller of history has something in mind for Gods people that they couldnt have imagined possible, especially since most retained little knowledge of the promise of the law of Moses that they would one day be brought back from exile by the mighty hand of God. Really, it didnt matter that they had forgotten, because God had not; God would accomplish the purpose of glorifying God by reviving Israel.

        It might be helpful to know something about how burials were done in ancient Israel, as well as how Israelites expected the resurrection of the dead to occur. The dead, in effect, were buried twice. First, after death, the body would be placed in a large family tomb, typically hewn in rock, in one of the chambers lining the walls of the tomb. This was not the final disposition for burial, but actually was more preliminary. The tomb would be sealed and left alone, perhaps until such time as another family member needs to be buried. Upon reentering the tomb, they would eventually find the body desiccated dried up, with skin, flesh, and sinews gone leaving a skeleton. Those skeletal remains would be gathered up and placed in a common coffin called an ossuary which held the bones of many people. The bones would be combined to facilitate storage.

        The purpose of the ossuary was to group everyone as a family awaiting the resurrection, which would take place in reverse order of the desiccation. Rather than beginning with a full body of flesh and ending with bones, the resurrection would begin with bones and end with a full body of flesh.

        What Ezekiel saw when Gods Spirit carried him to that valley was the equivalent of a giant outdoor ossuary. Here were bones of people long dead, buried together like a huge family. They were like the remains of a whole nations army slain in battle to gather their bones and give them a proper burial. As bones came together and flesh was added, Ezekiel saw the equivalent of what Israelites expected resurrection would entail. The elaborate double burial carefully preserved them so that they could participate in a bodily resurrection.

        Besides the obvious physical components, the Spirit of God must be in those bones for them to live. The word, ruah, in Hebrew, has three meanings in English, all of which are used in the passage. They are breath, wind, and Spirit.

        After receiving the word of God predicting their reception of breath/wind/spirit, the bones would begin the reversal process toward life. Here, as in many of Ezekiels prophecies, the purpose is to establish God as the only true and powerful deity (know that I am the Lord). When Ezekiel did as he was told, bones came together and were fleshed out. Yet the breath/wind/Spirit from God was needed to live. The reference to the four winds not only heightens the emphasis of the passage as it moves inevitably toward the importance of Israel having Gods Spirit, but also speaks to the universal sovereignty of God. This God is not merely God of one nation and land, but is the only God, the God of all the earth. Filled with Gods ruah, the bones came alive.                                                                                                               

        Many medieval churches housed burials and contain even glass-cased skeletons, but most contemporary churches avoid picturing those bones that are left after the flesh has rotted away. Our culture seems to avoid dealing directly and honestly with death: many people even replace the verb died with the term passed, as if with everyone going off to heaven, there really is no death. In contrast, this Sunday's lessons present us with the images of the grave, the stink of bodily decomposition, and the pile of bones. Furthermore, Pauls use of the term flesh as a metaphor for the misused human life intensifies this Sundays honesty about human mortality. These texts represent the Bibles stark attention to the reality of death, both the death that is sin and the finality of death when our bodies expire. When we fully acknowledge the natural fact of death, we are ready to praise Gods life as gift.

       
      Ezekiel speaks the promise of God to dry bones. Jesus cries, Lazarus, come out! Gods Word summons life from death. For a lot of us, this takes place most reliably in worship, where we hear the declaration of forgiveness, good news in preaching, the greeting of peace, and the promise that Christs gifts are given and shed for you. The word is proclaimed in prayer, song, the visual arts, and more. Gods word lifts us from sin, death, and despair, and we are given life. We are unbound and set free.

        When I arrived in Peterborough to see, comfort, and help my father understand all that was happening, he was distraught, broken in mind, body and spirit. Bones, sinew, muscle, and flesh seemed intact, but the intense pain he felt would literally take his breath away. I spent much of the first day there wondering and praying, O Lord God, can these bones live? Assimilating and deciphering all the different things said by his doctors, nurses, PT and OT specialists, case managers and social workers helped me help my father receive the life-giving breath/wind/Spirit of God to re-enliven his weary and broken bones.

Dad remains in the hospital this weekend, and we don't yet know what the next steps will be, for him, for his wife Janice, or for me, my sister Lyn and my brother Deric. But all of us believe in the resurrection promise that bones will live again and the bodies can be commanded to come forth from the tomb. We know this because Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior triumphed over death and rose from his tomb to show us the way to life everlasting in God.  

        We know the words of our baptismal liturgy, By water and the Word God delivers us from sin and death and raises us to new life in Jesus Christ. We believe our creeds affirm not some immortality of the soul, but rather the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting, the life of the world to come. As Christians, we trust that God enlivens not only this natural existence, but also a life other than and beyond this world, a new creation after this entire created universe has come to its end. Our life in Christ begins at baptism and extends, by the mystery of God, beyond time and space.

        He said to me, "Mortal, can these bones live?" I answered, "O Lord God, you know." And, you know what, God really does know!   AMEN!