Lent 5A 2005 Ezekiel 37:1-14; John 11:1-44
The Ezekiel passage on the Valley of the dry bones and the gospel passage on the raising of Lazarus from the dead are well
paired. Both remind us of several important things.
At first glance these two passages seem straightforward enough. Straightforward, that is, if any resurrection story is really
A few years ago there was a story making the rounds about a letter that supposedly had appeared in the national news. This
letter had been sent to a deceased person by a state Department of Social Services. It read as follows:
"Your food stamps will be stopped in March because we received notice that you passed away. You may reapply if there is a
change in your circumstances." (1)
There was no follow up to the story to see if anyone had reapplied.
At the first level, then, these two passages remind us of our own mortality. Lazarus was dead. And he died again. And throughout
the book of Ezekiel, God addresses Ezekiel not by name, but simply as “Mortal”.
What is particularly interesting about the valley of the dry bones is that there is re-enfleshment as well as resurrection.
That must have been some vision old Ezekiel had! Any one remember that old popular song of many years ago that went something
like this: “The toe bone is connected to the foot bone, the foot bone is connected to the ankle bone, the ankle bone
is connected to the leg bone, the leg bone is connected to the thigh bone”, and so on and on. Surely it was this Ezekiel
passage that inspired that song!
The vision of the dry bones restored to human existence and the raising of Lazarus from the grave are both about a return
to a previous state. A variety of words beginning with “Re” have been used to come to terms with something beyond
ordinary human experience and to try to express what it was all a bout: revival, restoration, resumption, redemption, resuscitation,
reconnection, and return, in addition to re-enfleshment and resurrection.
Because of Jesus’ action, the four days Lazarus spent in the tomb did not mark the end of his life, as his sisters and
others thought, but in effect were an interruption in his life. (2) What the story of raising Lazarus from the dead doesn’t
tell us was what Lazarus experienced during that time. If we could only know that….
At another level, our Scriptures for today remind us that God is always with us, among us, working in the world and in history.
As a prophet to the Children of Israel as exiles, in their period of Babylonian Captivity during the 6th Century BC, Ezekiel
assured his hearers of the abiding presence of God among them. He constantly emphasized the LORD’s role in the events
of the day, so that Israel and the nations “will know that I am the LORD” -- a refrain that occurs many times
throughout the book. Ezekiel underscored the integrity of the individual and each one’s personal responsibility to
God. To a helpless and hopeless people he brought hope of restoration to homeland and temple by their just and holy God. (3)
In this teaching Ezekiel was a foretaste of the message about God present and working in the world that Jesus brought in the
At yet another level, these two stories of the valley of the dry bones and the raising of Lazarus from the dead remind us
of the limitless divine power of God.
Can you imagine the absolute amazement and astonishment that overwhelmed Ezekiel as his vision unfolded? Ancient dead dry
riverbed bones beginning to stir and move, shaking, rattling, even thundering as they reassembled themselves. I suppose that
if we put together Spielberg and Lucas to make a film of this they might begin to give us some idea of what it was like, flesh
growing, muscle reattaching to bone, skin beginning to cover it, and the breath of God bringing the multitude of the dead
Lazarus dead for four days and in his tomb for three, in a hot climate, flesh already beginning to deteriorate. The KJV is
very graphic: “He stinketh!” Sisters wailing and weeping. Martha and Mary blaming Jesus for not coming soon
enough, challenging him to do something about it, an impossible something that only a woman of great faith could contemplate,
much less demand of Jesus.
And then the divine power instantly tearing apart the dark veil of death as if it never existed. No vision of the mind, this,
no prophetic dream. Pure, raw, divine power blazing across time and eternity.
Jesus – God – speaks, commands. ‘Lazarus, come out.” He uses ordinary, every day language:
But what happens to the dead Lazarus is not ordinary, not at all. Lazarus doesn’t come stumbling out slowly, trailing
burial wrappings behind him, sort of hesitantly blinking and peering out at the people standing in the bright sunlight, the
image made popular by filmmakers. No not at all. The English can lead you astray again: “The dead man came out.”
The Greek word is exerchomai. There is almost the sense of Lazarus flying out of the tomb instantaneously, even explosively
as Jesus was saying, “Come out.”. He could not walk out or even stumble for his hands and feet were bound with
the burial wrappings – strips of clothe and he could not see for his head was likewise wrapped. Lazarus has to be freed,
untied, unwrapped before he can do anything.
The limitless divine power of God over life and death and perforce over the whole universe. No wonder the prayer book reminds
us of the God in whom we live and move and have our being.
That God has such unlimited power is a frightening thing as it was frightening for the ancient Hebrews. They sought to build
fences around God for their own protection. Fences built of the rigidly ritualistic system of the Old Testament Law.
And we run that risk, too, unless we remember the one most important thing about today’s gospel: God loves us despite
An old Yiddish folk story tells of a well-to-do gentleman of leisured much interested in the Hebrew Scriptures. He visited
a wise rabbi to ask a question. He said: “I think I grasp the sense and meaning of these writings except for one thing.
I cannot understand how we can be expected to give God thanks for our troubles.”
The rabbi knew instantly that he could not explain this with mere words. He said to the gentleman: “If you want to
understand this, you will have to visit Isaac the water-carrier.”
The gentleman was mystified by this, but knowing the rabbi to be wise, crossed to a poor section of the settlement and came
upon Isaac the water-carrier, an old man who had been engaged in mean, lowly, backbreaking labor for some fifty years.
The gentleman explained the reason for his visit. Isaac paused from his labors. Finally, after several minutes of silence,
looking baffled, he spoke: “I know that the rabbi is the wisest of men. But I cannot understand why he would send you
to me with that question. I can’t answer it because I’ve had nothing but wonderful things happen to me. I thank
God every morning and night for all his many blessings on me and my family.” (1)
Never forget how much God loves us.
1. eSermons illustrations for 13 February 2005.
2. Adapted from Theodore William Johnson, Bodybuilding: Resuscitation or Resurrection. Email newsletter.
3. Introduction to Ezekiel, NRSV Oxford Annotated Bible.