Ezekiel’s prophecies don’t just spring to life without context. God gives them to Ezekiel to speak about the very real world Ezekiel knows.
Ezekiel was born into a priestly family of money, and power. He got an education, and worked as a priest advising the royalty of the Kingdom of Judah. Picture for a moment that Mexico and Canada get into a war… where are they going to fight? In the US. This happens to Judah, and the country begins to take sides with either Egypt or Babylon as the two nations both fight for land in the middle east. Babylon wins, and takes the nobles of Judah back to Babylon as captives. Sorta like if Canada wins this imaginary war, they take our president, his family, and our representatives and senators back to Canada. The idea is that without these leaders, we’re less likely to rise up and fight again.
Ezekiel is one of those people taken captive because he’s an important prophet. He and his wife begin to live with the other captives of Jerusalem in Babylon. There, he has prophecies that more woe is coming to the Kingdom of Judah. Sure enough, the old king’s uncle takes charge of the country, and rebels against Babylon with an alliance with Egypt. In our fake war, the president’s uncle goes to Mexico, gets support, and decides to lead a war against Canada.
Babylon’s had enough of these Judeans and Egyptians. King Nebuchadnezzar returns to the country. Clay tablets found in modern day Israel recount how the people in Jerusalem saw the signal fires of their neighboring towns disappearing one… by… one… as the Babylonian army destroyed everything and everyone in its path on the way to the king in Jerusalem. When they get there, they utterly destroys the Judean capital city. Archeological evidence shows that virtually the entire city was burned to rubble, including its walls. The Bible recounts how the king’s family was murdered before his eyes, and then the king was blinded before he was marched to Babylon. The Temple of Solomon – in all its glory and beauty – was ransacked. All the religious items, the Ark of the Covenant, the sacred scripture – all of it taken, sold, burned, or destroyed. Everyone in the city was scattered – some ran into the country, many died, and the rest were taken forcibly back to Babylon. About 1 in 4 of all the nation’s people were forced into exile.
Today, that would be like 80 million Americans kidnapped and sent abroad. 80 million people sent to a place with a different language, different religion, and different way of living. 80 million prisoners.
The people left in Judah are largely the rural peasants, the uneducated, the foreigners, and they later become known as the Samaritans, for they don’t keep burned and destroyed Jerusalem as their capital.
Ezekiel has seen visions of all of this, and has tried again and again to warn his people. He’s in exile, not able to return home. He’s seen his country defeated, and all his family and friends murdered. He’s seen the Holy Temple of God ruined, and his sacred books and items desecrated. His wife dies, and he can’t even mourn.
This is the context his bones vision rests in. He has literally seen the bones of his countrymen. He has literally seen his city, and his country, defeated. Ezekiel sits in exile with his home, his land, his people utterly, utterly destroyed. When God gives Ezekiel this vision of valley of bones… Ezekiel and the Israelites are dry. Out of hope. Out of joy. Tired. Exhausted. The ones who are still walking are zombies, husks – there is no life left in them.
God asks Ezekiel, can these bones live?
Ezekiel answers with exhaustion, “O Lord God – you know.”
You know – these bones are weary and dead. You know – these people are hopeless. You know – we don’t even have tears left to cry. We’re dry.
And God says: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord: you shall live. I shall put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord.
And as Ezekiel tells the dry bones that God will put them back together, and gives them flesh, and muscle, and tendons, and skin – the bones wiggles and clatter and rattle and organize themselves back into people.
Then God tells Ezekiel to call to the four winds — call everywhere – and let God’s breath bring life. From all corners, God breathes, and the people stand up – healthy – no longer slain. No longer dry. No longer breathless.
God tells Ezekiel, “These bones are the whole house of Israel. They say ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost. We are cut off completely.’ But I say, I am going to open your graves and bring you up. I will bring you home. I will put my spirit in you, and you will live. You shall know that I have spoken and I will act.”
There, when all hope is lost, when the country is destroyed and the people scattered, when so many have died and even more are living hopelessly – with one foot in the grave and just waiting for death to claim them – when the breath, the Spirit of God, is snuffed… God says, I have spoken and I will act. I am speaking and I have acted. I give you hope. I give you life. I will bring you home.
The words of God are literal for Ezekiel – God literally helps the Israelites eventually return home, rebuild Jerusalem, and the Second Temple. But God’s words are also metaphorical – the hope and life given to the dead bones is the hope and life given to the people living in exile. Do not fear. I am God. Do not be hopeless. I am God. I am acting. I am giving new life. I bring hope against all hope.
Lazarus’ situation seems hopeless, too. Jesus was ran out of Bethany with the people there wanting to stone him to death. And now, back in Bethany, Lazarus is very, very ill. Mary and Martha have sent word to Jesus. Jesus tells his disciples Lazarus has fallen asleep – and the disciples are relieved. Oh good! Then Lazarus will be fine. There’s no need for us to go back to Bethany, which is right in the shadow of Jerusalem, and get stoned to death. But Jesus tells them plainly – no, Lazarus is dead and we are going back to Bethany. You hear Thomas say, “Well, guys, let’s go to Bethany too – might as well all die together.” They don’t have any hope that this situation is going to turn out well. They’re going to join Lazarus in the grave.
When Jesus and his disciples arrive in Bethany, they learn that Lazarus has been dead for four days. In ancient Jewish understanding, the soul finished leaving the body after three days. This makes sense medically – someone could enter a coma and appear dead, and wake up in a day or two… but if someone has appeared dead for three days… and rot has begun to set in… you know, they’re not in a coma. They’re not going to wake up. This person is very, very dead. Since it has been four days, Lazarus is beyond hope. Everyone knows – he is dead.
Martha goes out and meets Jesus. She says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died! But even now I know God will give you whatever you ask of God.” Listen to that angry accusation! Jesus – I sent you word – you knew Lazarus needed you ahead of time – yet you didn’t come. Where were you when Lazarus needed you? Now he is dead. I know you could have asked God to cure Lazarus and God would have answered your prayer.
Jesus replies, “Your brother will rise again.”
Martha’s heard this phrase over and over. Many Jews at this time believed there would be a final day when the dead would be resurrected and stand before God. I think Martha must sigh and say, “I know.” I know we’ll all meet again. I know there’s an afterlife – but Jesus – you could have done something now! I sent for you! I called for you! And you came too late!
Jesus replies, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
Do you believe this? Do you believe that a person’s body dies, but they live on? Do you believe that in Jesus, there is abundant life – even for those who are beyond hope? Even for bones that are weary, and dry, and souls that thirst, and are weighed with sin? Do you believe that we suffer death and deaths, but through it all, resurrection – new life – is always possible?
Martha replies, “Yes, Lord, I believe.” And she shares the news with her sister, Mary.
Mary comes to Jesus with the same accusation as Martha- but she comes in tears and falls at Jesus’ feet, “Lord – if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died!”
I’ve said both of these prayers of the sisters. I’ve cried out in anger – God, I told you when the prognoses didn’t look good – I gave you heads up – why didn’t you act?! If you’d intervened, my loved one would still be here! I’ve also fallen to my knees in prayer and sobbed, God, where were you?
… Mary is crying. Lazarus’ family and friends are crying. And Jesus begins to cry too, and asks where Lazarus’ body lays.
Around Jesus, people mutter, “Look at him cry! Look at how much he loved Lazarus.” Others say, “He opened the eyes of that blind man, he can cure and heal people. If he’d come quicker, couldn’t he have saved Lazarus? He’s crying out of guilt.” Why do we think Jesus is crying? Maybe he knew he was going to resurrect Lazarus, and that deed – the seventh and final sign in the book of John – would lead to Jesus’ death. Maybe Jesus is crying because he knows this sets into motion his return into Jerusalem, and his passion, and the scattering of the disciples. Maybe Jesus is crying because he loves Mary, and sees how much she is hurting. We’re told he is greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. But why? We don’t know.
In his agitated state, and full of tears, Jesus goes to Lazarus’ tomb. Show me him.
Martha reminds Jesus that Lazarus has been dead for four days. He stinks. He’s beyond curing. He isn’t in a coma – there is no soul left in his body. Jesus… Lazarus is beyond hope. Do you really want your last memories of him to be his rotting body? The tomb is closed. The story is done. The hope is gone.
Jesus replies, “If you believe, you will see the glory of God.” And he begins to pray over the reopened tomb – and calls out to Lazarus – “LAZARUS – COME OUT!” “Like the sheep that recognize the voice of the shepherd who calls them by name, Lazarus hears his name being called, he recognizes the voice of the shepherd, and the dead man comes out, because only the shepherd can lead his sheep out.” (Karoline Lewis)
The very dead man comes out of the grave still bound by the grave clothes. And these rags of death are unbound, and he is set free. Lazarus is alive!
Yet this very miracle, at the end of this chapter, is what leads in the book of John many to plan Jesus’ death. This final sign – that hope cannot be extinguished – is what leads to the cross.
And yet, we know, that even the cross cannot extinguish God’s ever renewing life and hope. Even should God Incarnate be crucified, nothing is ever so dead, so hopeless, to be beyond God’s saving grace – beyond God’s love.
Ezekiel stands in a landscape full of death – yet the hope for renewed life remains. Jesus stands at the tomb of his dear friend, in the shadow of the death – the shadow of the cross – Jesus knows the death and dryness of our own lives – literally stands with us in a garden of grief with gut wrenching tears – and yet, hope against all hope remains.