5th Sunday in Lent

March 13, 2005
See Also: 

Lenten Candle Liturgy
John Cobb on redemption
Biblical Preaching on the Death of Jesus (Cobb)

Reading 1: 
Ezekiel 37:1-14
Reading 2: 
Psalm 130
Reading 3: 
Romans 8:6-11
Reading 4: 
John 11:1-45
By Rick Marshall

Life-giving Power

This selection of lenten lectionary texts continues with the theme of hope in the face of threat, chaos and death. How to survive in a hostile world where creating well-being and securing safety is ultimately out of our hands. Again, the temptation is to give into fear and to abandon trust in God and take our future into our own hands. It’s a formula to create conditions for sin and leads only to frustration and death.

The text from Ezekiel continues with the theme of the problem of dryness that we saw in the Exodus text from last week. There the people of Israel were literally thirsty and began to panic about the threat of not having water. In Ezekiel, in the famous vision of the valley of dry bones, dryness becomes a symbol, not simply of death, though that is the ultimate implication, but lack of life. Where does life come from? Dryness then becomes a symbol of no hope, no future, no life. Where does hope come from? It’s natural that, in the desert, water takes on symbolic importance for life. Moistness, dampness, water, rain, flowing rivers, lakes, tears are all images of life, especially in desert conditions.

The text, being a vision, is visual in spirit. “Behold” there were many dry bones; look, the valley is filled with them. It doesn’t take much for the narrator to sketch a picture of deadness. As the reader, we can easily imagine a lifeless landscape, sand and rock and mountain fading off to more sand and rock and mountain and fading off into ever more of the same, endlessly. The whiteness of the bleached bones, the harsh angles of bones upon bones, this is a vision of bones scattered and piled as if thrown away. It is a vision of dryness, stillness; the hush of death has settled over this valley. It is a vision of lack of possibilities. The connection to Sarah’s dry womb is obvious.

Then God’s Spirit begins to move over the bones. A similar movement of God’s Spirit is seen in the opening verses of Genesis where God’s Spirit moves over the chaos of water, bringing order, life. Here now, this same Spirit moves over a sea of bones. We know what will happen. But God’s Spirit is something that can’t be fully understood. We saw in the story of Nicodemus how Jesus described the Spirit of God as like the wind, coming from this direction and blowing in that direction. It is beyond our control, though we see its power in what it moves.

The visual also becomes aural as the bones begin to snap together, clattering and scraping as if a heap of dominoes right themselves in reverse order. I have an image of carefully positioned dominoes all set in ordered patterns The first domino falls into the next, all of them falling down in a beautiful, moving pattern of clattering malignment. Only in this text, we have the reverse, from malignment and disorder, in a moving pattern of clattering alignment to life. We get the distinct feeling that God’s Spirit is the undertow moving against entropy, which seems to be an overwhelming force toward disorder, decay and death. God’s power moves toward complexity, harmony, beauty, order, novelty, life.

Breath is another symbol of life. It was the same divine breath that infused the first human bodies of Adam and Eve. It was the same breath that moved over the created order, drawing out and vivifying all things. It is the same breath the will blow through Lazarus’ grave and the grave of Jesus. It is no accident that breath and spirit are two words related.

We can hear the wind blowing through the valley, moving, swirling and enfolding life into the bones, the sinews, the flesh and skin. And then finally blowing into the manikin-like nostrils, bringing to life what was dead.

The narrative is theologically unpacked in verses 11-14. “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost.” The promise of divine breath is “to open your graves, and raise you up from your grave.” We can feel the text tilting toward Easter. God says, “I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live.” God’s creating, transforming power extends to all of life and death and, like water, works its way into every nook and cranny, soaking everything in newness.

The story of the valley of dry bones relates directly to the story of Lazarus from the Gospel of John. John’s story is small and personal. It doesn’t involve “an exceedingly great host” as in Ezekiel, but one person. The story is personal, intimate. It involves Jesus’ friends. “Jesus wept” over this death. The climax of the story comes in verses 38-44 with the dramatic raising of Lazarus from the grave. But we rush too soon to the resolution. The buildup is long and particular. The narrative wants us to thirst for a resolution. We begin to pant for new life as the story lingers on misunderstandings, bits of dialogue and pieces of scenes. We stare at the grave as the unfolding story flickers across our imaginations. The story is brief, even fragmented, and the resolution of the pieces of narrative make the point of new life coming at the end of things. Once again, we see the narrative as a vehicle itself of the transforming power of God. The point of the gospel snaps into clarity at the end. Lazarus is suddenly standing before us. Unbind him! What happened? We have the same feeling of being in the presence of mystery that we have had all along in the Gospel of John. With each story, that same mysterious power of divine transformation works its way through life, through the story, through our imaginations, bleeding over into our lives. Our lives are like this story: bits and pieces of dialogue, fragments of memories and scenes, a wreckage of our inability to hold everything together in harmony and beauty. All of that is snapped into focus by the transforming power of God. The irony is that our fragmented lives finally make sense in the hands of the mysterious Spirit.

Paul expresses the same sense of trust in the transforming spirit of God. He is explicit: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit which dwells in you” (vs 11).

Preaching the Text:
The overarching theme of Lent is trusting the transforming power of God. There are several images in the texts that can be used effectively in preaching. One is the metaphor of dryness. The preacher could play with this word, brainstorm this word, in preparation for preaching it. What associations does dryness suggest to you? What other stories in the Bible can be linked through dryness? The Exodus story from last Sunday is close at hand. Other desert stories are suggested. The children of Israel wandering in the desert for forty years. Jesus in the wilderness being tempted. The dryness of Sarah’s womb. The dryness of Jesus’ tomb. How do our lives become dry? What does it feel like? What does it mean to us to experience a time of dryness?

Another way into a sermon is to simply retell the story of Lazarus in all its peculiarity and particularity. Work with the details of it, the odd shifts in dialogue, the misunderstandings, the longing for hope. It would be easy then to focus on the final scene of the raising of Lazarus. It is, after all, the punch line. So set it up properly to deliver its punch.

Another idea is to work with the metaphor of breath/spirit. It would be interesting to play musically with the story of the valley of dry bones. I can easily imagine a drum beat in the background of the telling. Other instruments such as a guitar could be used to musically describe the first sounds of life. Other stringed instruments might describe the orchestrating movement of the Spirit as the bones begin to animate with life. The choir could prepare olds songs about Dem Bones, Dem Bones, Dem Dry bones. The story begs for dramatization.

The Ezekiel and John texts are so imaginative and suggestive that they work their wonders almost on their own, just in the telling, simply in the hearing.

Rick Marshall is co-pastor of Brea Congregational United Church of Christ in Brea, California, a church he has served for more than 24 years. He has contributed many resources to the Process & Faith website, including A Process-Relational Guide to Grief, Death, and Funerals.