To listen to me preaching, click the “play” button below. Please note: You’ll hear my voice crack throughout because I find the call to forgiveness to be deeply personal and quite an emotional experience – nothing to be alarmed about. 🙂
From the prophet Ezekiel:
The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.”
The prophets comprise some of the most fantastical poetry and prose in the entire Bible. Ezekiel’s vision is an example of this tradition. His vision of a valley of dry bones and God’s commandment to Ezekiel to prophesy to them. It’s a piece of scripture so rich with imagery, you can almost see it like a movie. Picture this:
Ezekiel is plopped down in a wasteland, the air so thick with dust that the sun is not able to cast shadows, it’s grey and dirty. Dry – a parched landscape. The air is still, stifling underneath the cloud of dust that presses down.
And as Ezekiel looks around for something, anything that will give him relief, he steps forward and hears a crunching. He feels the breaking under his foot and he immediately draws it back in confusion and horror and shock.
He looks down… to discover that the ground, the grey desiccated ground that makes up the entire landscape as far as he can see, is a never-ending sea of bones; dry, brittle – parched of all life. Long-since forgotten. Discarded.
Even in his horror, he feels drawn to walk around, fascinated and revolted by what he sees. Cringing every time he steps on the bones.
And he hears, “Mortal, can these bones live?”
Still sickened and in a state of astonishment and perhaps even outrage, he replies, “O Lord, God, you know.”
Scholars read this vision of Ezekiel’s as a metaphor.
We’ve talked about the Babylonians invasions of Israel before. When King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, captured Jerusalem in 597 BC, he took many of the leading citizens of Jerusalem as hostages in Babylon where they were held for 50 years – about 2 generations. This was a way to prevent revolt in a newly conquered territory and establish control of the territory under the subjugating nation.
Ezekiel was one of the people captured and taken to Babylon. He was a priest and once captured, became a prophet shortly after his exile. So, this valley of the dry bones that Ezekiel is plopped in the middle of is the group exiles in Babylon.
In verse 11, God says, “Mortal, 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.”
The vision is one of hope – that they will be restored and that this restoration is a re-knitting of a body – a community of people, who will be brought out of their graves, resurrected from this exile and returned to their homeland.
Verse 14 – God says, “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act.”
So, even in the driest, darkest of times, when we have no more life in us, when we are no longer capable of hope… when we have been shut away in our deathly tomb… and we cry out of the depths to God… the message is, that there is, in fact hope.
Even though we are not able to call it up ourselves, even though we have no hope in us… God comes to us, breathing life into us, bringing us back to life.
What remains curious to me is, why does God need Ezekiel?
Because, if it is God who acts, who brings hope and breath and life to us… then what exactly is Ezekiel’s role?
What is important about the fact that God asked Ezekiel to prophesy?
Why does God ask this Mortal to get involved?
As humans, we have great capacity to hurt one another. We also have an equally great capacity to become healing agents in one another’s lives.
The hurting part is easy. We do it without thinking. As a matter of fact, it’s usually because we aren’t thinking – or because we are making thinking errors – that we end up hurting one another to begin with. Sometimes that means we make something up about someone – assign motivation to someone’s behaviors before we’ve checked, and certainly before offering compassion. These thinking errors always bring hurt to ourselves and ultimately to others when we cannot contain the pain our thinking errors have caused us.
The healing part, though… that takes more.
It requires a strength that we don’t think we have, a vulnerability that we don’t think we can expose, and a commitment that we don’t think we can make.
In short, healing requires Christ. And so that means, healing requires us.
Most of Jesus’ ministry was about healing. Through the healing of individuals, Jesus healed deep wounds in the human race that were and that are still occurring because we continue to make thinking errors.
What was so miraculous about Jesus, and what is so important for us to understand about the Incarnation is this: Jesus showed us that the capacity to share God’s healing, life-giving breath is very much a human capacity.
That we have within us, the ability to open our broken hearts to one another even when we think we can’t. We have the capacity to enable God’s healing, breath of life in our world even when all we see is an endless wasteland valley of dry bones.
But it’s not easy. Reconciliation, forgiveness, boundless compassion. These healing capacities that we are called to incarnate are incredibly difficult, sometimes even more so than others. But they are the foundation for Resurrection – for our resurrection in Christ.
Today Jesus meets Lazarus in the tomb. It’s a mysterious and fantastical story, much like the work of the prophets. But the key moment in the entire story is when Jesus turns to Martha and says, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”
This signifies to us the importance of the community and how the community brings Christ’s presence to one another and to the world. This story is not about Lazarus, but about the community who loves Lazarus – because that’s who Jesus responds to. It’s up to Martha to believe so that Christ may be present. He answers the call of the community – of Mary and the other Jews, who call upon the presence of Christ and Christ becomes embodied by the community… and the dry bones live again.
It is when we show up for one another – really show up for one another – that we see the glory of God. We are not only witness to the Resurrection, but we become the Resurrection.
When I read the dialogue between Ezekiel and God, it’s apparent that this is more than just a metaphor for the healing of Israel. Because Ezekiel is also being challenged personally. Ezekiel has been hurt, victimized. He is a marginalized person, held in captivity in a foreign land.
What if God poses these questions to Ezekiel because Ezekiel is so hurt? Because he is only capable of seeing dry bones? In his misery, Ezekiel is locked in a tomb of death with those who sinned against him. All he can see is dry bones.
And so, what if this question, this command that God makes of Ezekiel is about Ezekiel’s transformation, Ezekiel’s redemption and restoration? Which, ultimately leads to Israel’s resurrection?
It’s as if God is asking, “Are you capable of forgiveness?”
“Are you able to lay down your burden? To open your own broken human heart?”
And Ezekiel surrenders, “O Lord God, you know.”
Another way of saying, “O God, I have no idea. But I’m going to show up and try.”
Ezekiel sees no health in these bones. He sees only a wasteland, dismembered remains of bodies. He sees only death because in his humanity, he is not able to call forth the capability that enables God’s healing to take place. When this happens, both Ezekiel and his perpetrators are bound together in suffering, in remorse.
God asks for one act of faithfulness – to prophesy to the bones, to speak to the bones of Love, to recognize the bones as if they are human, to show up and trust God long enough to see what happens.
God asks for this because God know that without it, both Ezekiel and those who have hurt him, remain bound together in a tomb of death.
I think we sometimes forget that forgiveness is a Lenten discipline – indeed perhaps the most important Lenten discipline. We are called to forgive as a member of the Body of Christ so that ties of suffering and remorse can be broken and God’s entire body may be reconciled, restored, resurrected.
The point is that by doing the hard work of forgiveness, we are working toward healthy relationships amongst all of God’s beloved children. We are working at healing the world – at transforming the world – one person at a time.
And when we cannot extend forgiveness… when we have no capacity, when all we can see is an endless valley of dry bones, we can hopefully have the presence of mind to remember that we can call on God, out of the depths – to be with us, not to nurse our wounds, but to breathe life and Spirit to our dry bones, so our own wound may be healed.
Often, forgiveness happens in spite of ourselves. It opens our heart, if only just a crack.
And perhaps we need to do the work of forgiving our self before we can offer it authentically to an other. Because, just as we cannot fully love another human without having the capacity to truly love and accept ourselves, we cannot open our broken heart into the compassion it takes to forgive unless have truly forgiven ourselves.
And so, God is always asking us, “Mortal, can these bones live?”