Flesh, Bone, and Empty Tombs

A Homily for the Fifth Sunday in Lent

Texts: Ezekiel 37:1-14; St. John 11:1-45


Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus the Lord, the Resurrection and the Life. Amen.

As we enter into the Valley of Dry Bones, it’s not difficult to feel Ezekiel’s sense of desperation. He is a Judahite sent into exile, a priest who has heard of the Temple’s destruction, a prophet striving to make sense of why the Lord would abandon the Chosen People and let the Land of Promise fall into such ruin.

This morning’s imagery, the bones stripped bare by decay and rot, provides a vivid image of the doubt and fear Ezekiel and the other exiles felt. Staring out over the wasteland of a battle lost long ago, asked if these bones might live again, you can almost hear the defeat in Ezekiel’s voice:

O Lord God, you know.

His same resignation is on the lips of the rest of the exiles and those still living in the smoldering waste left behind in Judah. They cry out:

Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.

The 137th psalm provides a window into their despair:

By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!

In the most desperate hour, they are surrounded on all sides by despair: the rubble of Jerusalem, the Temple – God’s dwelling on earth – in desolation, the dry and fleshless bones.

And all around them are the soaring towers of Babylon dedicated to foreign gods, the foreign rulers lording the Babylonian triumph over them, as if to say that Nebuchadnezzar is greater than the sons of David, that the pagan gods have triumphed over the Lord God of Israel.

It’s a feeling of despair known throughout the centuries, one we see on a more intimate level in today’s Gospel: Lazarus is dead, and even Christ himself weeps.

In the face of death, what hope is there?

Entering the home, Mary and Martha greet Jesus with these words:

Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.

I used to think these sisters were expressing an understandable anger: Why weren’t you here? Why didn’t you do something? But there’s something deeper there, a statement of profound faith: “Lord, if you had been here.” – You, O Christ, have the ability to make the wounded whole, to drive out demons, to stave off death.

And even now, even with their brother’s body in the tomb, these sisters hope in new life at the last day.

(Compare this to Thomas’ response when Jesus sets off to visit the grieving household: a beleaguered sigh and a muttered, He’s going to get himself killed. Alright, let’s go.)

Oh that we had such faith in our day! I confess that my own prayers for healing focus more on human intervention – truly a gift from God in its own form – and less on God’s miraculous might. We are not the Lord’s only hands in the world – but how often do we pray as though we are!

In these days of pandemic, know that we’ve been here before: the People of God have endured through slavery, exile, tempest, plague, warfare, and all forms of evil. Our Lord has wept at the graveside and comforted those who mourn.

But know also that our grief is not the end. A sudden turn is coming.

At the Lord God’s command, the prophet speaks. The bones begin to clack and creak and pull themselves together. The sinew begins to stretch itself over these dry, old bones, and then flesh. And then a wind from God blows over the valley, and divine breath enters these human bodies just as at Creation. Where once there were only bones, there is now life!

To the people lamenting that their bones are dry and scattered, the Lord God promises:

I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves.

And so it is that, at our Lord Christ’s command, the stone is removed from Lazarus’ tomb, the grave opened, and Jesus calls forth his friend and disciple: the one who died lives again, a foretaste of greater things yet to come.

Today, we see our Lord’s ability to turn the tide even after the battle is lost. It seems that all is lost – because all is lost. The bones are bare, scattered, dry. Lazarus has met the common fate of all humanity. But Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life, and at the sound of his voice, death is repelled. He is the one who pulls us from the graves.

In under two weeks, we will read again the story of his own Passion, his suffering on the Cross, his demise. But a sudden turn is coming. Though Christ himself tastes death’s bitterness, he lives – and brings us into this newness of life.

Come what may in these next months, mourn though we will, even when all is lost, we have the blessed assurance that Jesus will open our tombs and bring us up from the grave.

In the waters of Baptism, our deaths are joined to Christ’s that we might join in his Resurrection. There, we pick up harp and lyre and sing to the Lord a new song of that heavenly Jerusalem descending from on high. By those waters and the very Word of God, we died the only death that matters that we may enter into the True and Everlasting life of Christ our Lord. You members of Christ, remember your Baptism. Trust that the grace in this Sacrament suffices. Have faith.

To you who have not yet been baptized, come: join us in Jesus’ death and rise with Christ into the new creation.

And in the midst of this, let us all trust that in the fullness of time, the Lord our God will put flesh upon our dry bones and breathe into us anew the Spirit.

Amen.

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