March 29, 2020, Scripture Readings and Sermon
Ezekiel 37:1-14 NIV
The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”
I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”
Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’”
So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.
Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.
Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’”
Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord;
Lord, hear my voice; let your ears consider well the voice of my supplication.
If you, Lord, were to note what is done amiss, O Lord, who could stand?
For there is forgiveness with you; therefore you shall be feared.
I wait for the Lord; my soul waits for him; in his word is my hope.
My soul waits for the Lord, more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning.
O Israel, wait for the Lord, for with the Lord there is mercy;
With him there is plenteous redemption, and he shall redeem Israel from all their sins.
John 11:1-45 NIV
Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. (This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.) So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.”
When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days, and then he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.”
“But Rabbi,” they said, “a short while ago the Jews there tried to stone you, and yet you are going back?”
Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Anyone who walks in the daytime will not stumble, for they see by this world’s light. It is when a person walks at night that they stumble, for they have no light.”
After he had said this, he went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.”
His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.” Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep.
So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”
Then Thomas (also known as Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.
“Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
“Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”
After she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary aside. “The Teacher is here,” she said, “and is asking for you.” When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. When the Jews who had been with Mary in the house, comforting her, noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn there.
When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked.
“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.
Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”
But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. “Take away the stone,” he said.
“But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.”
Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”
So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”
When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.
Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”
Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
Sermon: The Valley Within
THE VALLEY WITHIN
This morning we journey with our old friend Ezekiel, to that foreboding and desolate place, the Valley of the Dry Bones. The Prophet takes us to a well-traveled locale, in a story we all know, and into a setting unlike almost any in the Bible. I doubt there are parishioners or people in this or any other church who are not familiar with this story and with the remarkable vision and experience of that lonely yet faithful traveler. The Valley of the Dry Bones has been the source of many a sermon and many a volume of theology. Indeed, I always recall that for the very first sermon I ever preached at seminary, some 34 years ago, in a time of youth and vigor, I chose this very piece of the Old Testament for my topic. The haunting experience of Ezekiel has shaped and formed my thinking and my feeling ever since.
Almost without fail, this scene from scripture is used as a metaphor for the whole church, or more broadly, the wider society. Most sermons written on the Valley see the dry bones as the house of Israel, however you understand and interpret that. Thus, by extension, it is easy to understand the dry bones as representing many a group, church, organization, workplace, family or gathering in this and other ages. As human institutions, we fall on hard times, sometimes very hard times. And as human institutions and as human beings we are challenged to experience such places of desolation and testing. But remember at the outset, as the first lines of this scripture say: “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 the valley....” Regardless of the despair and desolation, it is God who guides us here and it is God who sets the scene before us. Even in the worst of it, we are never alone.
It is also quite tempting, indeed it is rather easy, to see in this bleak vision a description of our own, current, tattered, anxious social fabric. Without much effort you or I can drive through parts of Worcester or Springfield, Hartford or New Haven, or Lawrence or Providence or probably neighborhoods and forgotten streets right in our own backyard, or a hundred other places and see - and literally experience - the kind of emptiness and desolation and apparent hopelessness which so starkly faces and confronts Ezekiel. We need not look far to witness the seeming destruction of order, the apparent abandonment of hope, the rather obvious proliferation of grief and pain. Indeed, there is not one Valley of the Dry Bones; there are many.
Some years ago, during an especially difficult and transitory time in my life, this harrowing vision returned vividly to me (as it periodically does). I set out for a walk, to “walk off” the anxiety and the tension and the fear and confusion which I was feeling. I remember, like it was yesterday, that the once warm April skies soon turned sullen and gray. Rain began to chase me toward shelter until I found myself sitting alone in Beaver Brook Park, in the middle of Worcester, possessing nothing but my troubled thoughts, my unquiet spirit, and my fragile heart. I needed then, as I often do now, to settle my soul and to find light where only darkness was visible. The streets and sidewalks were devoid of people, the old abandoned factories and run down houses made me feel, in a way, that I too was right now - in that moment - living in this Valley of Dry Bones; that I too was no better off than the forsaken prophet in his bleak desert, that I too was being strangely led by the hand of the Lord out into some awful and awe-filled place. I had arrived at a locale and at a moment as raw as raw can be, and I was frightened. And then, sheltering myself from cold rain on the outside and from churning spiritual tumult within, it hit me, and it hit me then, that rainy April day, as it never had hit me before. Even though I had read Ezekiel dozens of times, this passage of scripture took on a new and terrifying and yet hopeful meaning that I had never before fully understood, and it was this: The Valley of the Dry Bones is not always an outside setting at all; instead, it is sometimes that very place within me, and within each of us, where we are compelled and forced and driven out into desolation so as to face our own deepest fears, our own enduring pain, our own darkness and our own tears.
I remain convinced that such a valley exists in every living being and that part of the experience of growth and development and soulfulness and spirit is to be, at times, cast and led by God into just such an empty place. It is easy to think that God's humbling message is about the church or about society or about the world or about anything or about someone OUT THERE, outside of us. And yet, the genuine challenge and the Gospel mandate is to understand that such a place is really deep within, inside, as a fundamental and beloved part of who we are and of how we minister.
For the addicted the valley of the dry bones is that place of destruction and enslavement; for the abuser that valley is the place of pain received and pain inflicted; for the lonely that valley is the place of utter abandonment and isolation; for the priest that valley is a place of spiritual dryness and desiccation; for the neglected that valley is the place of hopelessness and fear; for the ill that valley is the place of mortality and hurt; for many a congregation that valley is a place of transition and change and uncertainty, of that which is ending and of the unknown which yet lies ahead. And in its most radical expression, and picking up where I left off last week, the Valley of the Dry Bones is the cross that each of us carries, on our own Via Dolorosa, through the tortured streets of our own lives, amid the taunts and jeers and spite of the mob, to our own personal Calvary. To our own Gethsemane. To our own personal place on that symbol of both death and hope. To our own personal agony on that rocky and forsaken hill, and ultimately to our own empty tomb, though that surely can feel far, far off. You and I must know and experience this, and we must pray for renewal, we must pray for repair, we must pray for revitalization, and most of all we must pray for resurrection - not just our own but for the whole of creation, in all its brokenness and in all its frailty.
Just as Ezekiel is led by the "hand of the Lord" into that valley so too are we guided by God. I would argue that this is one of the most crucial, painful, and yet vital moments in the life of faith – trusting, believing, even affirming, that here, even here, precisely here (!); even amidst this ruination, God is not only present but God is in charge, and God is actually leading me and leading us. The Valley is a time of testing, and it is an awful crucible in which our souls shall be forged into something new, a proving ground of the Spirit. Our temptation (certainly my temptation) is to be angry with God and to flee from such trials. And yet, as Ezekiel knows and as we discover at the Empty Tomb, God has not abandoned us and God has not forsaken us. Even if we sometimes leave God, God never leaves us. The challenge comes in simple words, spoken directly to you and to me, in our moment of gravest fear: "Mortal, can these bones live?" Spoken another way, in the great drama of Lazarus, the words are from Jesus himself: "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live...Do you believe this?", [John 11:25] we are asked. And those last four words are at the epicenter of it all: “do you believe this?” Well, do you? Do we? Because that, brothers and sisters in Christ, is the very heart of the matter. And how we live, once we have answered Jesus, is life itself. Period.
The challenge could not be more clear nor more blunt: where is our faith to be found ~ your faith, my faith ~ in the Valley of Dry Bones? To whom and to what shall we turn in our moment of deepest fear and pain? On what shall we rest our sorrows and our loss? Yes, God brings us to this place, of that there can be no doubt. And it is a place of awfulness and tears, of blood poured out on dry rock and of voices crying in the wilderness. Of that there can be no doubt. But God does not leave us there to die. Because, the promise of redemption and the hope of resurrection is genuine. If we believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, if our faith in God is real, we shall be brought through to that new and better place: "Thus says the Lord God - I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people;...and you shall know that I am the Lord...I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live..." [Ezek. 37:12] Life is affirmed, not denied. Hope is fulfilled, not mocked. The faithful are strengthened, and not struck down. We are made whole again, and not broken. We are put back together, and no longer torn apart.
It is the Promise, clear and concise, delivered to us in our moment of greatest weakness and uncertainty and need. It is the promise of redemption, the promise of forgiveness, the promise of the Holy Spirit, the promise of the empty tomb, the promise of the resurrection, the promise of newness of life and of life everlasting. And all this - all this - rises from the desperation and the desiccation and the desolation of the Valley of the Dry Bones.
And so my beloved brothers and sisters, when you are at that place within yourself and in your life, when you find yourself sifting the parched sands between your own weary fingers, when your souls thirsts out for the water of life, when you face abandonment in the foreign land of your very soul know this and heed the word of God: "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." [Ezek 37:14]