(A sermon remix.)
Ezekiel sees zombies, the walking dead. Lazarus is wrapped up like a mummy. To the rotting dead and walking dead the living God speaks a living word:
…hear the word of the Holy God…I will cause spirit-breath to come into you and you shall live.
Let us pray: Open our eyes that we may see. Amen.
The setting is what would on another day be a lovely, lush valley. But today it is full of human carnage. It is a scene out of a horror movie. It is a horror movie. There are bodies and body parts everywhere, decayed down to the bone. It is as though someone uncovered a mass grave. The bones are jumbled together in an apocalyptic, post-modern, nightmarish sculpture. This is holy ground and accursed ground. This place was a killing field, plague site or the site of some other unfathomable catastrophe. Every once in a while a lonely bird of prey disturbs a ragged cluster of bones looking for some long dissolved morsel of flesh. There is the stench of death. Not the wet, rotting smell of decaying flesh, but the deeply permeating scent of death in the air, in the grass, in the trees. The smell of death is everywhere.
A ragged refugee-prophet escapes his prison camp through a wormhole that sucks him up into the air and spits him out into the valley of dry bones, feeling a supernatural hand propelling him, guiding him by the grip on his dreadlocks. The wormhole collapses in on itself and transforms into a being made of pure light, without color and all colors at the same time. The special affects are amazing! The God of Light gives the prophet-man a task – conjure life from death, draw the spirit-winds from the four corners of the flat earth into the valley and animate the bones. The prophet speaks the words he was given:
So says the Sovereign God to these bones: Look! I will cause spirit-breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will place sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put spirit-breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am God-Whose-Name-Is-Holy.
All of the bones in the valley begin to shake, rattle and roll. It sounds like an earthquake. The ground shakes and the bones rise. They whirl and swirl and connect to each other forming complete skeletons. There are all sorts of skeletons. Some of them have broken bones or marks on their bones from swords and clubs and other weapons. Many died violent deaths. Some are tall, some are short, some have the telltale pelvic girdles of women, some are children. The bones begin to thicken, their white turns pink and then shades of beige, tan and brown as layers of flesh, muscle, tendons, cartilage, nerves and finally skin covers them. The special effects director is going to win an Oscar for this movie! Finally there is a whole nation of people standing in the valley. Yet there was no spirit-breath in them – they were like an army of zombies: formerly dead, reanimated, moving, standing but without the breath of life – true, authentic, God-given life. But then they became something more than zombies. Sorry, no chainsaws, axes or other zombie-killing tools needed here. These one-time zombies had ruach, the word means spirit and breath, they had spirit-breath, life-breath, the breath of God poured into them and they returned fully to life, resurrected.
God tells the prophet from days gone by that the people he has seen resurrected are the prophet’s people, living in exile. Their nation has been hacked and burned to death and dismembered like disarticulated bones. And God promised them resurrection, national resurrection:
I will put my spirit within you all and you all shall live, and I will place you all on your own soil; then you all shall know that I, the Holy One of Old, have spoken and have done this,” says God-Whose-Name-Is-Holy.
The prophet was returned through the wormhole to his captive people. Eventually his people were returned to their ancestral land, but he didn’t live to see it. Sometimes, the promise is not for us. We are called to be faithful whether there is any direct benefit to us or even our children or not. That’s a hard word. But it was a hard life. Foreign nations fell on them like hoards of B-movie zombies. Some, many, of them died as individuals, yet they survived as a people. The resurrected nation would not die.
But who would believe his report? Ezekiel couldn’t tell his people good news of his prophecy. Ezekiel couldn’t prophesy to the crowds. He couldn’t prophesy outdoors at all. Ezekiel only prophesied indoors in a crowd-controlled room. The bouncer only let in folk he knew so no one would rat him out. You see Ezekiel was in a Babylonian refugee camp that might as well have been a prison camp. It wasn’t safe to speak against the empire. As the prophet Muhammad would come to say, “Believe in God but tie up your camel.” In other words, don’t take any chances. His inner circle would get the word out so if they got snatched up Ezekiel could live to prophesy another day.
Ezekiel’s world was a living nightmare. He had lived through the worst horror to plague his people since the days of Egyptian slavery, a horror that traumatized his people for more than four hundred years. The destruction of Judah and the temple by Nebuchadnezzar was simply theologically incomprehensible. Nebuchadnezzar’s assault was as unimaginable as – not the events that we remember from September 11th, for the towers had been struck previously – but rather as unimaginable as the assault on Pearl Harbor, and, as incomprehensible as the bombs we dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and as unfathomable as was Japan’s surrender to her own citizens.
There was a time when no one could enter the most holy space in the temple except the high priest, and then only once a year. Tradition says that he wore bells so that people would know if he was able to survive in the presence of God and, that he had a rope around him so that if he dropped dead from proximity to the holiness of God, his mortal remains could be pulled out for burial. And yet, Nebuchadnezzar’s troops not only entered the most holy place, they butchered it with battle axes, hatchets and hammers, chopping it to bits, burning everything that would burn, melting down the gold and silver and bronze for the Babylonian treasury. And they took a few choice vessels, used to worship the God of Israel back to Babylon for the king and his court to toy with. And there was not even a puff of smoke. There was no strike of holy lightening; no burst of fire from heaven, no hailstones, plagues of Egypt, scorpions or poisonous snakes, earthquake or sinkhole; the earth did not open up her swallow them whole. Nothing happened. It was almost as if the temple was empty.
It must have seemed like the stories of Miriam and Moses and the promises God to their descendants either never happened or were null and void. It may have seemed like the stories of Exodus were irrelevant fairy tales. Imagine, what it would have been like if the assault on and collapse of the Twin Towers was followed by an assault on and collapse of our government, defeat of our military and forced exile of our citizens: no homes, no jobs, no healthcare, parents separated from children, dead bodies heaped in the streets, everyone subject to robbery, rape and murder, on the way to incarceration in an over populated refugee camp with out any social services.
Some will not have to imagine Native persons herded onto reservations, Japanese American citizens interned in camps, South Africans banned to Bantustans, European Jews crowded into European ghettos, American Blacks crowded into inner city ghettos, Latinos regulated to barrios, political dissidents sentenced to gulags and reeducation camps.
We may not be internationally displaced persons struggling for clean drinking water, firewood and food, and while some of us may be fearful of physical or sexual assault or murder, those atrocities do not shape our daily lives in most cases. But many of our sisters and brothers around the world and in our own country are desperately hungry, homeless or facing the loss of their homes, unemployed, underemployed, lacking sufficient or any health care and subject to private and public explosions of violence. To all of these, God offers the vision of a resurrected people and society in Ezekiel. Not only is the society resurrected but so are all the people who make it what it is. There are all there, restored from the confusing jumble of death. It does not matter how or where their bones were scattered, piled up, decayed, dissolved or even cremated, God sorts them out.
God brings the dead to life. Ezekiel and his imprisoned people can trust God to bring their dead and unburied, left in the street to rot nation back to life because God brings the dead to life. God through Elijah raised a widow’s son in Zarephath. God through Elisha raised another widow’s son in Shunem. God has a rep that can be trusted. God brings the dead to life.
But first, God weeps. God weeps with us when we weep. In his valley of the shadow of death, Ezekiel was a man transported by the power of his God to an open valley full of decayed bodies at the end of their decomposition cycle. Under a different shadow, God-in-flesh walked on his own two feet as a road-weary traveling prophet, teacher and healer joining the mourners outside the cave-tombs coming to stand before a closed tomb with just one body just beginning to decompose.
The setting is a rocky hillside dotted with natural and fabricated caves. Lightly carved and rounded stones secure the entrances to the cave-tombs, keeping some out and others in. The air is thick with the smell of vegetation. The air is full of life. The air is also full of death. Oils and ointments can no longer mask the scent of death. A small group of mourners prays, keens and beats their breasts. And there he spoke his own words of power: “El‘azar! Lazarus! Come out!” God brings the dead to life.
No one sees what is going on in the tomb: the bloated body contracts, the ripening flesh regains its firmness, the chest begins to rise and fall, the eye lashes flutter. He sits up, swings his legs off the rocky ledge on which he was so recently lain, and struggles to walk towards the light where he hears someone calling his name. He is like a mummy, wrapped in sheets of linen that have loosened as his body swelled in the first stages of decomposition. He shuffles out of the tomb. But he is not a mummy, or a zombie. He has had the breath of life spoken back into him and he has returned fully to life, resurrected. God brings the dead to life.
Over and over again God reveals Godself to be the God of life and light, even when God’s people are dwelling and dying in darkness. The life that the God of Ezekiel and Jesus grants us is individual and corporate life; no national or personal tragedy can destroy us. Where ever we are, no matter how we got there, God will find us and bring us home. The Judeans in the Babylonian internment camp did not believe that God would or could leave the temple, not even to see about them. Ezekiel’s crazy visions and even crazier antics – he will go so far as to use poop to make a prophetic point– all demonstrate that the people claimed by God will never be abandoned by God, no matter what happens to their national treasures and monuments.
God-in-flesh tells Miryam who you know as Mary:
I am the resurrection and the life! Whoever believes in me will live, even if they die; and everyone living and believing in me will never die.
And even when it seems like it is too late – and Jesus was four days late to the funeral – the universal laws of earth and heaven can be swept away that we might live again. The life that God calls us to is this life and the life beyond this one. Lazarus was raised and restored to his human life, for a while. He would die again as we all will die. But death will not have the last word. The same folk who sought to kill Jesus turned their attention to Lazarus and planned to kill him (again) too. The gospel doesn’t tell us if they succeeded because it doesn’t matter. Lazarus’ resurrection in this life was a promise of our resurrection in the next.
And to those devastated by the loss of a dear one, Jesus comes to us in our grief, walks with us, mourns with us, weeps with us and promises us resurrected life in the community of the redeemed. But unlike the movies in which the main characters seem to escape death at every turn, we may die, we will die, and even if and when we die, not even death has the power to separate us from the life-giving Spirit of God. We go to our deaths knowing that Jesus has gone before us, accompanies us and waits for us to transform our dying into living. God brings the dead to life. And that’s good news. Amen.