“Can these bones live?” asked God of the prophet Ezekiel in the 6th century B.C.E. Standing in a valley filled with bones, bleached by the sun and eaten away by the cruel ravages of time, Ezekiel was faced with a seemingly simple question to which there was an obvious answer. Had it been anyone else, they would have been quick to state: “no” there is no way these bones could live; that to even ask such a question was completely absurd. But Ezekiel wasn’t dealing with just anyone – after all, this was God asking, and the prophet knew that the question pointed to something more. So, Ezekiel, in his wisdom uttered a few humble words: “God, you know.”
Now, Ezekiel was a prophet living in exile. His people had been cut off from their land, their customs, and, they were removed from the Jerusalem temple which was the heart of their worship. Times were bleak. The people were fairly convinced that God had abandoned them, that there was no hope left. But then, Ezekiel has this vision of a valley of dry bones that through some miracle come to life. They are filled with breath and flesh; they are infused with God’s spirit.
I don’t know if this story is so much an account of resurrection, as it is of new life. Ezekiel’s people had lost their faith and identity, and I think that this new life being breathed into the dry bones symbolizes the promise that God is still with them, that they are a people of God, that God doesn’t live exclusively in Jerusalem, but that God is with them in any time and place, wherever that may be.
As you know, I am always interested in trying to figure out if and how these ancient texts speak to our current reality, not in a way that foretells the future, but in a way that allows us to draw from the deep wells of wisdom that the prophets and their people provide us with. As I sit in this empty church by myself today, Ezekiel’s vision somehow resonates with me. I love our church, but it is nothing without the people in it. I know God is present here as much as God is present with all of us elsewhere too, but the body of Christ, this faith community that we love and are a part of is missing from this bulding. Although our situation is very different from that of the prophet Ezekiel, this feels like some sort of an exile. We’ve been banished from our temple; we are not able to gather physically for the rituals that help to connect us to God and to each other. This is a difficult reality to accept, but we know that one day, hopefully not too long from now, we can gather here again.
Something else that has been on my mind as I’ve been reflecting on this passage is that at times the church, our church but also the wider church has felt like a place that isn’t necessarily as alive as it could be. We live in a time where the church’s relevance is being questioned. Are we able to respond to the questions and struggles of today? How do we connect with younger generations? How do we meet people where they are at? Are we religious but not spiritual, whereas the reality out there in the world seems to be the exact opposite? In some ways it feels to me, that this new reality that COVID-19 has pushed us all into, is forcing us to dare to imagine a new way of being church. We are learning how to really move beyond the four walls of our bulding.
All of a sudden, we’ve realized that we can gather in different ways, spread the message of good news through alternative avenues. I am absolutely amazed at how our community is embracing technology; we are gathering for Lenten studies and coffee hours online; our worship team is figuring out how to do worship through video; we are phoning each other more than usual. In some ways it feels to me that this current situation is bringing us even closer together. This is a blessing and a breath of fresh air. Maybe new life is being breathed into the old bones of the church – God’s spirit is always stronger than any worldly reality. There is hope in the midst of the despair.
So perhaps today, God is asking us the very same question that God asked Ezekiel so many centuries ago: “Can these bones live?” For Ezekiel, the question was a call to action – it was an invitation to trust in God’s all-encompassing love and power. What will we do with this question? Are we too eager to jump in and declare that all is lost – or can we find it within ourselves to lift up our hands toward God saying “God, you know!” Amen.
Since we didn’t hear today’s Gospel reading during worship today, I am going to leave it for you as Lenten homework. Please read the story of Lazarus in the Gospel of John chapter 11 verses 1 to 45. I am looking forward to hearing if and how it speaks to you in the midst of today’s world.