“Breath of Life, Spirit of Life”

April 10, 2011


Ezekiel 37:1-14

John 11:1-45


“The hand of the Lord came upon me, and brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of dry bones.”

“Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave and a stone was lying against it.”

Just as the daffodils and tulips and crocuses are pushing their way out of the rain softened earth; just as the grass starts to turn green; just as the light of these Lenten days lengthen and beckon us into sunlit early evenings we are taken to a valley full of dry bones.

Just as green buds begin to appear on the trees; just as the earth invites us to dig in it once more; just as the warmer weather begs us to set aside our winter coats in favor of short sleeves we arrive with Jesus at a tomb where the dead Lazarus has lain for four days.

You might think that strong, healthy souls would naturally avoid the valley of dry bones or the tomb of Lazarus and choose instead the places of the green and sunlight of spring. Perhaps. But since we are so often weak and sick in spirit we can find ourselves—even without our own choosing—staring directly into the valley and at the tomb.

And it is just in these places that the good news of God’s power and God’s love starts to sound over the din of death and despair.

That din can be loud—for we know that in one sense, the world is a cemetery.

The great Swiss theologian Karl Barth wrote of the word “buried” in the Apostles' Creed that the “future toward which all human present is running is just this: to be buried, to be accessible only to memory.”

Or, as the title of the biography of Jim Morrison puts it: No One Here Gets Out Alive.

Not that we don’t resist this reality with all that is in our power—and rightly so. “Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” the poet advises.

We seek long life, healthy life, productive life both for ourselves and for those whom we love. When illness or brokenness plague us, we seek the top medical care. The banners across the river tell us, “Look no further.” “One of the Best 100 Hospitals.” “One of the Best 100 Children’s Hospitals.” Your search is over.

When Mary and Martha find their brother Lazarus ill, they send word to their friend, Jesus. He heals the sick, cures the lame, gives sight to the blind. Certainly he can do something for Lazarus.

The purpose of this illness, Jesus says, is for God’s glory. Those are difficult words. We know how illness seems to rob us of our power and our glory. We are puzzled when Jesus speaks like this—as we often are when Jesus speaks.

As difficult as these words are, listen to them. Do you begin to sense that what we are encountering here is more than a family crisis in Bethany? We are encountering the crisis of the world that moves toward death—so this is our crisis as well. What will happen is not simply the resuscitation of a corpse, but the giving of life to the world.

In other words, we are confronted here not just with the death and revival of Lazarus, but more importantly with the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Jesus hears the news of Lazarus’ illness and waits for two days before doing anything. It’s not what we would expect. But then, living in a cemetery, our expectations are somewhat skewed. And the world is a cemetery.

But you did not come here this morning to remain at the tomb, to continue to stare into the valley of dry bones. You came here for some good news. So let me tell you where you will find it—for the good news is certainly present even at this tomb, even in the valley.

Just as he looks out over the valley of dry bones, the prophet Ezekiel begins to sense the power of God that is able to act even when we are weak, cut off, without hope, dead.

This power works within us, within communities, even, Ezekiel suggests, within nations. It is not something we possess. It is something that works upon us.

He calls it the breath of God—imagining God breathing upon the bones and filling them with life. It is an ancient understanding, of course, not original to Ezekiel.

Remember? One of the creation stories in Genesis tells of God fashioning a creature out of the muddy, springtime earth and breathing life into so that it becomes a human being. The God who is distant as the farthest galaxy is also as close as our breathing. The breath of God gives life.

Another prophet, Isaiah, announced that the grass—that is the people—the grass withers when the breath of the Lord blows upon it. Life and death are intimately caught up in the breath of God.

Or, for our purposes, we might do better to speak of the Spirit of God—another equally good translation of the Hebrew word ruach. God’s Spirit gives life to all humankind—to individuals and communities. God’s Spirit blows upon the dry bones and the cut off, lifeless nation of Israel is restored.

We can say, then, that our connection with the power of God is a spiritual connection. It helps, perhaps, to imagine that connection as something that needs to be renewed with each breath.

The power of God is greater than our own power, greater than all the little ways in which we die each day—lacking money, lacking grace, lacking love—greater, even, than the death that is our final enemy. We call that power “resurrection.”

What we can’t do on our own, what we won’t do on our own, God is able to do.

When Jesus goes toward Bethany we begin to see the possibility of new life.

Faith springs out of the ground of grief and sorrow.

The grief of Martha is real. So real that she neither seems to hear what Jesus says nor does she quite know what she is saying. With one breath she reproaches Jesus for not coming soon enough to save her brother. We can hear the anguish and anger in her voice when she says: “If you had been here my brother would not have died.” Then with her next breath she affirms her trust in this same Jesus, adding: “Even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask.”

From your own experience you know that grief is like this—a strange mixture of anger and trust.

And in sense faith is like that, too. The life of faith is a strange mixture of belief and doubt, thanksgiving and anger. God can seem consistently inconsistent. So we find ourselves praying both “If you had been here . . .” and “Even now I know . . .”

Faith is Ezekiel staring at that valley of bones, admitting the limits of his own belief, saying: “You know, O God, if these bones can live.” While faith lacks certainty, it finds the hope in God’s love that grows into trust. When we stare at our own dry bones, our own dashed hopes, our own broken dreams, it is faith, not certainty, that first feels the reviving breath of God blowing upon us.

Diana Eck, who teaches at Harvard Divinity School, writes: “In the Christian tradition, it is so very clear to me that God accompanies us in our suffering. God so loved the world that God became one of us and accompanies us. God accompanies us not just in our life, and in the challenges of growth, but in the sorrow, in the suffering, in the confronting of illness and death and tragedy that are part of the fabric of our lives. We can’t see those moments as provocation for us to say, ‘If God were really on the job we would be shielded from those times.’ God is present right in the midst of those times. That is the power of the Christian story.”

By God’s power, life springs out of the ground of grief and sorrow.

The scene at the tomb is oddly familiar, looking back on it from our vantage point. A stone lies against the tomb. Inside, no doubt, a body. Indeed, according to Martha a stinking body now four days dead.

But the stone is rolled away. Jesus screams toward the tomb:  “Lazarus, come out.”

New Testament scholar Gail O’Day says that “the question that many hearers of the story of the raising of Lazarus will ask [is]: ‘Did this really happen?’” She concludes that while there is no way to prove the “facts” of this miracle, we must decide how we understand the world to be ordered. So “the only answer to the question of whether this miracle could have occurred is another question: Can we believe that God, acting through Jesus, has the power over the course of life and death?” The real question then is not so much “Did this happen?” as “Is it happening today?”

Dry bones can live. People who are cut off and without hope will find themselves newly alive.

Even as spring moves toward its height of beauty and warmth and color we need to look upon the valley of dry bones and the tomb of Lazarus. Our spirits long to hear the stories of these places because they are stories not of death but of new life and resurrection. We need such stories not just at Easter but at all times—not just because they are true in the deepest sense of that word but because in a world that moves toward death we need to hear the good news that the Spirit of God has power still—power to revive us, power to renew us, power to restore us. When you find yourself in the valley of the dry bones, when you find yourself among the tombs remember that you have had a glimpse of the new thing that God can do, you have heard a whisper of the mighty power of God.

Remember, too, that there is not time when you are so cut off from God that you cannot be brought back to life, that your hopes, your dreams, your desires, your goals all still matter not just to you but to the God who created you and gave you life. This same God is still breathing new life into you each day, each moment.