29th March 2020
Ezekiel 37: 1-14
The valley of dry bones- the place where there is nothing to see except death and its aftermath. One cannot hope anymore, there is no flesh left on our hopes, they are all crumbled to dust, only the bare bones are left.This is how Ezekiel experiences exile. All his expectations of how life should be are dead. All his hope is gone. With God’s people he cries ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’
Exile is an experience of dislocation that is forced upon us, often without warning, a bit like quarantine. Like the exiles of Psalm 137, we can become despondent or angry, experience severe turbulence in our emotions. 'How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?' Can these bones ever live again?But exile can be a great teacher. The exiles had no choice but to re-examine the foundations of their faith in an environment where the question was inevitably, what theological, spiritual sense can this catastrophe possibly make? The fruits of that deep search are found in the Hebrew Bible. Israel could never have expected that the destruction of the temple, the end of the monarchy, the conquest of the land and exile to a far country could possibly be gift. But so it proved. Martha and Mary are in the valley of dry bones through a very personal bereavement. Their brother is dead, and the teacher they thought just might be able to help has delayed in coming.
Now it is too late, at least until the general resurrection. But that future hope is not much help in the here and now. When he meets Martha, Jesus gently leads her out of the valley of her own grief. He stretches her imagination; leading her every step of the way, walking beside her, supporting her, until she affirms that he is the one who brings life. He takes her intellectual belief about resurrection and shows her that its reality is grounded in him. He offers her the hope that God was not to act in some distant and unspecified future, but here and now, where she was in pain. Even then, she cannot quite see where he is leading her- Lord, don’t roll away the stone, the stench will be terrible. But Jesus, who shares the human grief of these beloved friends and weeps with them, frees Lazarus from death and Martha and Mary from the strange land of grief. He reminds them, and us, that if we’re hurting, then God is hurting too, and that, whatever the cost, God will not let us go out of the circle of his life and his love. The valley of dry bones is almost certainly a place where you have found yourselves at one time or another. I know I have. The place where there is no energy left, even to hope. The place where we can find no strength to go on we become as lifeless as the bones that surround us. The place where we can no longer help ourselves.
Maybe you feel as if you’re in that place now? It is unlikely that we’ll hear the voice of God asking us a question like Ezekiel, or meet Jesus on the road like Martha, but like them our challenge at the moment is to trust, however impossible that feels. Trusting in God in a world of fear may be the most radical thing we do in our lives, to do it consistently is one of the hardest things. It makes it slightly easier if we remind ourselves that God is yearning to meet us as we are, not as we imagine he wants us to be. Trust can only come with real intimacy, and sometimes if I’m honest I think it is tempting to keep God at what we imagine might be a safe distance. It is easier to declare ‘I believe in God’, than attempt to share who we really are with the invisible creator of the universe. It is easier to let our prayers slide into hollow sentimentality masquerading as prayer, to police our thoughts and feelings and try and squash them into how we think we ought to think and talk when God is around. But we cannot have an intimate relationship with someone to whom we cannot speak honestly. So, what should we do?
I suggest we engage in the Biblical practice of lament. For examples of what I mean by this turn to the Psalms, where cries of anguishand rage dominate the first half of the Psalter. Their raw honesty cuts right through our ideas of the correct way to speak with God. They tell of anger, of disappointment, of bewilderment, of feeling abandoned, of fear, of hopelessness. And this is what God wants. God wants us to bring our whole selves to God, with all the feels we’re feeling. God wants us to want to share with God just who we are and how we are at any given moment, and that includes this moment, a moment completely beyond our previous experience. And once we do this, once we allow ourselves to release to God the truth of how we’re feeling, we’ve already taken the first step of trust. We have assumed that God is here. We have imagined that the creator of the universe is interested in how we are feeling in a small town, on a smallish island, on the edge of the ocean. And that assumption, that imagining is absolutely right. We know this because we have seen how God met Ezekiel, how God in Christ met Martha and Mary. God weeps with us at the pain of a world where everything we thought we knew has been brought into question. And God is prepared to do whatever it costs to show us that in this situation, as in every situation, God’s response to us is love.
The gospel writer tells us that through the raising of Lazarus many people came to believe in Jesus, but it was also the act that convinced his enemies that he must be killed. In the New Testament glory and suffering, death and resurrection, comfort and challenge are all mixed up. And we struggle to understand how this can be. But without death there can be no resurrection. And the death that Jesus died, the surrender to the pain of the world, the depth of that amazing love is what makes a new hope possible. When love meets pain without flinching, a new hope can be born. Adversity always invites us to renegotiate life on a new set of terms. But as we do so, undreamed of possibilities open up.
Neither our world or ourselves wil be the same when we emerge from this experience. But Paul remind us, as he reminded the Roman church, that the spirit of God dwells in us. The spirit, the breath, the life of God is alive in our lives. We are still God’s people, even if we have left (for the time being) the building that we call the church. God is with us in our exile, God is with our world in its pain and confusion and fear. The Psalms of lament generally move from anger and anguish to confidence in God. This does not happen because external circumstances change. It happens because as we draw near to God in lament we remember that God is with us, we remember we are God’s people, we remember that there is always hope.
Lord Jesus Christ, you have taught us that what we do for the least of our brothers and sisters we do also for you: give us the will to be the servant of others as you were the servant of all, and gave up your life and died for us, but are alive and reign, now and for ever. Amen