Toorak Uniting Church

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For with God is healing

Ezekiel 37: 1 – 14     John 11: 1 – 45
Rev. Anneke Oppewal
10:15am, 13 March, 2005

A valley full of bones.

I’d like you to think about that for a moment. Close your eyes and try to join the prophet in that place where his vision, his fruitful imagination takes him: A valley full of very dry bones.

Not a happy sight.

And now I’d like you to think of places and situations in our world today that you think would fit that description, of being a valley of very dry bones. Hopeless, beyond help, places of despair, places where the future is just bleak and countless efforts have not been able to make any difference. Places we’ve read about in the paper and feel sad and powerless about, because we can’t see how they’re going to get out of the fix they’re in.
Places of war, places of poverty, places of devastation, places of illness, places we feel are real dead-end situations.
Think of them and be assured that we won’t stay in the helpless hopeless powerlessness that can come over us when we think of places like that.
The Middle East comes to mind, the situation on the Westbank, the enmity between Israelis and Palestinians, chasms of hatred that are centuries deep. We might think of Iraq where the violence doesn’t seem to be diminishing in any way. We might think of other war torn areas we know of in the world. There is the aids epidemic in Africa, thousands upon thousands of orphans roaming the streets. There are the after effects of the Tsunami… We could think of refugees and asylum seekers, drifting in ever bigger numbers across the globe looking for safety, for shelter, for a decent life to live somewhere in peace.
And those are only the top of the iceberg. There is so much suffering, so many people living below the poverty line, experiencing violence and death, their very basic needs of safety, food and shelter not met by any standards. There are millions of them….

Our world is full of dry bones!
Valleys and valleys full of them!

And now lets come a little closer to home. Let’s look at our own lives and to the lives of those who are dear to us. And let us for a moment do what most of us most of the time try to avoid: dwell on the amount of dry bones that are piled up there. Messy divorces, family feuds, abuse, illness, taking away the joy of life or even taking those who we love to a premature and unwanted death.
There is quite a lot isn’t there, that is exceedingly difficult in our lives or that we know of in other people’s lives? Life isn’t made to be easy, but at times it can be so very hard can’t it, and feel like we are in a valley full of dry bones not quite sure how to get out of it, but somehow hoping against hope that it will all, somehow, sometime work out.

There are people that think the Church is a valley of dry bones. People that think that we, as we are gathered here this morning are nothing but a group of dinosaurs, remnants of a glorious past, about to become extinct. And I know that some of you, deep down, fear that they may be right, that in the next 25 years or so all this will disappear, become a thing of the past. Because people do no longer have time for community, because they are looking for a more individual, privatised type of spirituality, because nobody any longer has the time and the inclination to take responsibility and serve a community voluntarily without remuneration. Perhaps the evangelicals may survive, those communities that are apparently thriving on the outskirts of Melbourne, but we? Us? A valley of dry bones. Perhaps not as yet very dry, but on the way there…..

I hope at this stage you are starting to feel resistance. I hope that by now you are ready to protest against this very bleak picture of what and who we are. I hope that by now you are getting ready to stand up, perhaps for the first time in your life, and tell me off.

OK. Life is a mess sometimes and the world is full of agony and distress. OK. Our personal lives leave a lot to be desired at times and some of it is quite challenging. OK. We do find it difficult sometimes to see who will be here after we’ll be gone and imagine a thriving community filling this Church to the rafters once more. But:

I hope you are still with me here, because I want to invite you to think of the things in this Church, the things in that desperate personal situation, the sad and futureless we contemplated when thinking about the world. And lay them alongside the word of God we have heard proclaim in this world this morning. I want you to take the words you have heard and apply them to those situations we have been thinking of. Speak the word of God to the dry bones that populate your life, your mind, your imagination and ask the same question the Lord asked Ezekiel:

"Can those bones live?"

And the answer should be an adamant no, or at least: A more hesitant I don't think so. Ezekiel sees a valley full of very dry bones. Lazarus has been dead for four days, the stench when they roll away the stone and open his grave appalling. In both cases there is no hope, there is no future, there is just death and an end to all expectation. If there is nothing in our lives, or in our imagination's that is quite that bad we are going to miss the point of those stories. So you better think if you haven’t done so before.

"Lord, if only you’d been here earlier…."

Martha has a deep trust in Jesus. She believes that he can do nearly anything, she has seen him perform miracles, she’s seen him give healing to people that were very ill, but she also knows there is a limit to what is possible. And death is that limit. Death the final dead-end where everything comes to a halt. No power can reach beyond that.

Jesus answer "Your brother will rise again" she accepts with eagerness: of course, at the end of times, when we will all rise again…The comfort of a life after death something to hold on to at this moment where grief is overwhelming. They will meet again, sometime, in another time. That’s her hope, but for the moment all hope is lost, for this life there is just pain, bereavement, loss.

They come to Jesus, a huddle of grief, Mary weeping, her neighbours weeping with her, the scene is one of profound sadness and deep loss.

And at that moment something very strange happens: Jesus becomes moved and greatly disturbed at the sight of all this grieving and weeps.

Death does not leave our Lord undisturbed. Grief moves him to tears. He is deeply involved with those who are battling their despair and helplessness in the face of death and descends into the depths with them. Jesus weeps.

And I imagine that when we were thinking about those dry bones just now, when we were filled with uncomfortable feelings of sadness and helplessness facing the dryness and death that feature in our lives, Jesus was there too, weeping, feeling the hurt, the pain and the distress we feel and we know others feel. Weeping.

The gospel writer maintains Jesus knows from the beginning that he has the power to change, to open what is definitely a dead end situation towards new life and future. He tells Martha he is the resurrection and the life, he tells her brother will rise again, he says "could not one who opened the eyes of a blind man raise somebody from the dead?" But he is still deeply disturbed when he walks up to the grave and touches it. The man Jesus suffering with his people, the divine Jesus convinced that even death is no end for God.

"Thank you for having heard me" is his prayer. Unimaginable trust in the face of death, faith that the prayer that hasn’t been uttered has already been heard. A prayer from the depths, from weeping, from deep disturbance. Thank you for having heard me. And: Come out!

And the dead man comes out, bound hands and feet, unable to move still, until others have helped him become unbound.
I think it is rather nice that the word of Jesus is enough to bring him back to life, but that the community still needed to finish what Jesus has begun.

Do they believe? Not all of them, some of them stay dead to the word that has been spoken, come out. Some just won’t. And that is something John finds difficult to live with. Only part of the valley restored to life, only part of the people brought to life in the Spirit.

Ezekiel sees further than that. Flesh and sinews, muscles and tissues are put on those very dry bones. God breathes his spirit into them, graves open, and people return to life. What nobody would have thought possible happens, what nobody could imagine takes place.

Lazarus of course pre-figures the resurrection of Jesus. Like the blind man last week pre-figured the suffering of Jesus. There was resurrection in the story of the blind man, as there is suffering in the story of Lazarus. The raising of the dead to new life is accompanied by weeping and wailing, by great disturbance of mind and deeply moved emotions. There is the speaking of words that at first instance don’t make sense because they are utterly outrageous: Can those bones live?

Yes! They can.

Is there hope for the world? Our world, that intricate complicated mess of a world where people suffer and die in such great numbers, where there seems to be no end to injustice and violence and hurt. Can this world filled with the Spirit of God come to peace and life?
And what about the sticky messiness we deal with at home, on a day to day basis, the rows, the misunderstandings, the difficulties we have with health and keeping ourselves and our loved ones together, could that be touched by Christ in such a way that what binds us can be taken off and we can walk out of our tombs?
Last but not least: What about the Church. Can we believe there is a future? That God will put flesh and sinew and muscle and tissue on us and breath the Spirit into this community and bring it back from whatever is dead among us?

Jesus speaks words of faith. Outrageous, hard to believe words of trust. Your brother will rise again Martha, I am the resurrection and the light Mary, believe in me. Thank you for hearing my prayer God, come out now Lazarus. Ezekiel is told to preach. To speak the words of God over the dead bones to help bring them back to life.

Do we dare to speak such words? Do we dare to believe and take responsibility for the unwinding of what binds us and our world in death? Are we prepared to bear witness to the awesomeness of God’s healing and redeeming power in the middle of what, as yet, may seem as a valley of dry bones, a tomb sealed too many days ago? Are we prepared to stand up and witness? And expect something to happen?
Or have we laid ourselves down among the bones ready to die, does the sight of a sealed tomb still fill us with despair rather than with the expectant hope that although grief is deep and despair profound Jesus is there with us, ready to open up the future for us? The gospel tells us that even death is no obstacle for God’s love to reach and heal us. So let us trust that whatever valley of dry bones we can see around us is not beyond his healing power either. Amen.

© Rev. Anneke Oppewal, 2005


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