And they said to Jesus, “Lord, by now there is a strong stench”.
One of the blessings in worshipping in our tradition of Christianity is that, if preachers are attentive, we have incredible opportunities to let God speak through Scripture.
In some traditions, some denominations, part of the pastor’s task is to decide what passage will be read each week, praying that they’ll find lessons that will be encouraging, and edifying, and timely for their congregation – a challenging task for even the most gifted preachers.
Have you ever wondered where our set of Bible lessons come from? The Old Testament, Psalm, Epistle and Gospel we hear each week? For us, as with most Anglicans and the majority of Christians around the world, the lessons come from the lectionary – the table of readings assigned years, even decades in advance.
So that means, this Sunday, at a time when all of us need encouragement, when our economy is facing enormous struggles, in a week when CBC is reporting that over a million Canadians applied for EI, a week with reports of overflowing hospitals in the South and widespread anxiety about how long this pandemic will last, while part of me would love to open up my Bible to preach on the first encouraging verse that came to mind, instead – by God’s grace – we’re presented with the readings officially chosen for this day, way back in 1994.
Why bother, you might say… it’s not like whatever committee of men and women sitting in some conference room in the early 90s was choosing lessons for a pandemic 25 years later. But that, I would say, is actually one of the great mysteries of God working through his Church by the Holy Spirit. If those, in 1994, choosing the lessons for today in 2020 had prayed and invited God to guide their work, and were seeking to be faithful in providing for the Church; if those two or three or 15 gathered in Jesus’ Name had Christ there in their midst, and it goes without saying that God, in his infinite wisdom, though He didn’t plan this pandemic, was not at all caught by surprise, then maybe, just maybe, we were given today’s lessons for a reason. And, in that case, preachers have a responsibility to prayerfully see what God may be saying through what He has guided the Church to read today, before simply (and selfishly) turning to the easy words of encouragement that I myself would like to hear.
…And, I must say, God has given us some great material.
Never in a thousand years would my mind have gone to the Valley of Dry Bones for a time like this. Never in a thousand years would I have turned to that great Biblical affirmation in John 11 of just how awful a situation can be: “My Lord, there is an awful stench”. In fact, this is one of those occasions where I wish we were reading the old King James Version: “Lord… by now he stinketh”.
The Valley of Dry Bones
In Ezekiel’s vision, he sees himself in a dried-up valley, a valley where a once-mighty army, an army of God’s chosen people, lie knocked down in their prime. This vast army is now picked clean, as the prophet sees in a dream this valley with dry, sun-bleached bones scattered everywhere.
The Lord says to Ezekiel: these are the bones of my people. These are the remains of those who cried out “our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost”.
I don’t know about you, but I know there have been times for me this week, with all the disruption, all the adapting to a new and uncomfortable way of life, with all the uncertainty of not knowing how long this will last, of not knowing when my own relatives and friends who have been laid off will be called back, of not knowing the effects this will have on even the strongest businesses and charities; this week of those who struggle with addiction being tempted to turn back to the bottle or the pill or the ungodly website; this week of those who live with depression and anxiety being tempted to slide back under the covers; this week of realizing just how essential, just how utterly dependent we are on the truckers and the minimum-wage warehouse workers, stock clerks, and cashiers about whom we rarely stop to think; this week of hanging up the phone after hearing of another lay-off, another company struggling, and wondering where these billions of dollars of government money is going to come from when we already have a huge national deficit… this week of sitting in my chair, feeling… dried up; knowing that as much faith as I have in God, as much trust as I have in his never-failing mercy and love, the fact is that I sometimes feel as though my hope is lost.
I know, I really know, that God will sustain us, and everything that we really and truly need to be made like Jesus will be provided, but sometimes, to my limited, fallen mind, all I can see is the bones, not the new life that God has in store.
And the great news provided by God’s grace and the guidance of the Holy Spirit for us to read today is that it’s ok to be honest, to feel that we’re in a valley of dry bones. There’s nothing un-Christian, and there certainly isn’t any sin or shame in naming our anxiety and our confusion.
There’s a shiny, glossy, half-true version of Christianity that would tell people to just think positively, to put their mind on Christ: the same ancient heresy, the lie that the body and its afflictions don’t matter, the lie that only the spirit matters, when we know, we believe, that God created us as body and soul joined together in one, and our faith is that, at the last day, not my spirit, but this body will be restored as we live not on a cloud, but in a renewed city: the new Jerusalem.
That half-truth to simply think on heavenly things does little to encourage those who have lost their jobs, or who face addiction or mental illness, or who are anxious because of things beyond our control – that half-truth falls flat because it simply isn’t of God: it’s un-Biblical, and it’s un-Christian.
No: God stood with the prophet Ezekiel in his dream, not of a pleasant pasture of happy thoughts, but in the very valley of death itself. God showed Ezekiel death, and then asked him a simple question: “Tell me, can these bones live?”.
Can these bones live?
Faith doesn’t whisk us away from the anxiety, death, and decay of the world around us. No, that’s not it’s purpose. As we heard today in Romans, even though Christ is in us, the body is still subject to death because of the sin of the world.
But it’s faith that determines how we answer the question.
Can these bones live?
Well, from my human perspective, looking at a pile of dry bones picked clean by vultures under the baking desert sun… I don’t see how.
But what did Ezekiel say?
I find this so encouraging: he didn’t say, “oh yes, of course they can! You’ll bring them back to life and all will be fine and dandy.”
No, the great prophet offered the most faithful answer I can imagine. “Lord… only you know”.
Not pretending that we have easy answers when we don’t.
Not relying on glossy half-truths that lead us to ignore the suffering of those around us.
“Can these bones live?”
The response is a perfectly confident, a perfectly faithful, yet a perfectly simple: “God knows”.
God will restore his creation; God will restore his people. The Lord will do it. How will it look? When will it happen? Will we be spared the learning opportunities of wandering in the desert, or austerity, or depending on one-another rather than our own strength? I don’t know. You don’t know. But God knows.
And his wisdom, his understanding far surpasses all that you or I can ask or imagine. A wisdom so great, so over-arching, so focused on his offer of eternal life with Him, that it looks like foolishness to those who are perishing, as his power is made perfect not in strength, but in weakness.
Human weakness that Jesus came not to eliminate in this world, but to share.
The Death of Lazarus
In John 11, Jesus came to the home of his dear friend, Lazarus, who became sick and died. He got there, and the whole neighbourhood was gathered for mourning. Mary and Martha were there, with friends and neighbours bringing over food, sharing memories, and weeping together at the death of their brother.
Then Jesus came.
He didn’t break in singing and dancing. He didn’t admonish them for their little faith or tell them to look at the big picture, or tell them to think positively about heavenly things. He came along side those who were weeping, and what did he do? He wept. He acknowledged, he understood, he came along-side the very real grief, confusion, and even despair that they were feeling, and entered into it with them: he shared their burden as the tears flowed down his holy cheeks.
But, in the midst of that despair, comes the question of faith. Can these bones live?
The Lord himself comes to the tomb, and after sharing in their grief, says: open it up. Open the tomb.
As I read this, I can hear the gasps of those gathered.
No, we don’t open it. He’s dead. Look around, we’re in a cemetery – a valley of dry bones. “Lord… he’s been in there four days. Don’t you know, Lord, what happens to a body after four days? Lord, we don’t re-open tombs. Lord… this stinks. Lord, he stinketh. This is literally a rotten situation.
…Can these bones live?
Well, God knows.
Jesus said to Martha, “your brother will rise again”. She said, “oh yes, I know he will rise again at the last day when all the dead are raised for judgment… and, if only you had been here before it was too late, you could have healed him before he died”.
But, the answer of faith is: no matter how hopeless the situation, no matter how dried out the bones, no matter how strong the stench, no matter how bad the rot, no matter how bad things look from our perspective, no matter how unlikely or illogical it may seem, God knows what He will do, God knows how he will reveal his glory so that we and all the world may believe on his holy name and worship him in spirit and in truth.
And then, standing in the midst of the truly unimaginable stench of death and decay, Jesus says, “Lazarus – come out!”.
And those who had done the right thing, those who were consoling their neighbours, those who had prepared the body, binding it with linen strips, find now that the right answer is always “only God knows”. For with God, all things are possible.
A Word to the Church
Together with the anxiety and confusion of the past weeks, the real hardship being experienced by so many, I see another set of dry bones.
How much has the Church looked like a pile of bones, picked clean, baked by the scorching sun? How much has the Church said, “our strength is dried up; our hope is gone”.
Just months ago, our own national office predicted the extinction of the Anglican Church of Canada by the year 2040. Attendance is down, expenses are up; the volunteers are grey-headed. In many ways, as a young priest, across much of the Church, it looks as if we’ve already begun to prepare the body for burial.
But… can these bones live?
Maybe, just maybe, after generations of congregations everywhere retreating inside our buildings, in many cases, rolling the stone over the door, knowing this isn’t a place many people would really want to come; after decades of binding ourselves with the burial shroud of “business as usual”, the traditional refrain of “what we’ve always done”, perhaps now, as our buildings are locked and business as usual is forbidden, perhaps we’re the ones in the tomb.
What if, in the midst of all that is happening, Jesus is standing outside, calling, crying out with a loud voice through the stench of staleness and decay, “Church, come out!”
Unbind the burial cloths of business as usual, and breathe in the fresh air, not of the decaying world around us, but the breath of God, the same breath that breathed over creation, the same Spirit who speaks in the unfailing, unchanging words of Scripture, the same Spirit who sends us out of the stale tomb where the body has been bound, and out into a world that needs to hear that peace springs from hope, and hope doesn’t come from having all the answers… hope comes from trust in the One who has the answers, the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, even Jesus Christ our Lord.
Can these bones live?
God knows. Let’s unbind ourselves and find out.