Index

Sundays
2nd Quarter
2020

 

J Nichols Adams et al

March 29, 2020, 5th Sunday of Lent

 

 

LectionAid 2nd Quarter 2020

March 29, 2020, 5th Sunday of Lent

A Dead End?

Ps 130; Ezekiel 37:1-14; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45

Theme: God’s Power

Top of Page ILLUMINATING AND THINKING ABOUT THE SERMON

Starting Thoughts

A few years ago, they had a contest to determine what the world’s funniest joke was. This was the winner: Two men were out hunting in the woods together. All of a sudden the one man clutches his chest, gasps for breath, and drops to the ground. His friend immediately gets out his cell phone and calls for help. He tells the hospital, “My friend just died! What should I do?” The operator at the hospital says, “Take it easy, sir. First, make sure that he’s really dead.” There is silence for a few seconds, and then the hospital operator hears a shot ring out. The man gets back on the phone and says, “OK, now what?”
We like to laugh about death, but the truth is that death is something that makes us feel uncomfortable. It’s not something we want to think is going to happen to us. Tony Campolo has commented that one of the reasons so many young people like to take part in risky activities is because they feel they are immortal. They do not realize, Campolo says, there is going to come a day when someone is going to shovel six feet of dirt on top of them, and then everyone is going to head back to the church and eat potato salad without them.
Even here in this passage, Ezekiel was none too keen about walking around that bone-filled valley, that field of death. Yet Ezekiel finds that God would not let him escape facing that death. Rather God leads Ezekiel on a guided tour right through the midst of those bones. After a while of looking at bones and more bones, the prophet starts to wonder what God is up to. “What does it all mean?” he asks himself. God essentially replies, “This is the world you live in. It’s a world of death. It’s a world that is out to contaminate you and drag you down.”
For Ezekiel and for many of the people of his day, though, they must have wondered if God wasn’t exaggerating a bit. This vision happened during the time after the Babylonian army had conquered Israel, and they had carried away Ezekiel and many of the other people to live out the rest of their days in Babylon. Yet Ezekiel and his fellow Jews were not forced to live in prisons or concentration camps. Life for many of them was not so bad. They were allowed to marry, own their own homes, and get jobs. Life may not have been perfect, they thought to themselves, but at the same time it wasn’t so bad.
That is precisely why God made Ezekiel take that walk through that field of dead bones. God wanted Ezekiel and the people to realize that things around them were indeed bad—as bad as being surrounded by piles of dead bones. What made things so bad was that they were living in a world where the people around them did not care about God, where the people did not even know about God. So God was saying that if you hang around in a world like that long enough, it’s going to get to you.
It’s not too difficult for us to see the dead bones in the world around us. Corporate executives making out like bandits while their companies are left in ruins. Church leaders abusing children. Government officials on trial for corruption. Athletes and celebrities testing positive for drugs. And the list goes on and on.
However, we are sometimes tempted to think: What do those scandals have to do with me? I didn’t have money invested in that company that was forced to file for bankruptcy. It’s not my congressman that’s on trial. So why should I care about those things?
A few years ago, a plane took off from Milan, Italy, bound for Cuba. A short way into the journey, though, the people on the plane noticed flames coming out of one of the engines. When the pilot was informed, he told the passengers that it was nothing to worry about. But when the passengers continued to express concern, the pilot agreed to put the matter to a vote. Overwhelmingly the people on the plane voted that yes, there was a problem, and they needed to turn around.
I believe that much of the time our attitude is like that of that pilot. Sure, our wing is on fire, but is it that big of a deal? After all, it’s not like the cockpit or the cabin is on fire. It’s not like the seat that we’re sitting in is on fire. But like those passengers, we need to realize that, in time, what’s a problem “out there” may very well eventually become a problem over here for us. In the United States we have such a tendency toward individualism that it’s difficult for us to realize that the things that go on around us often have an effect on us, whether we want them to or not.
Even if our own personal lives might be terrific at the moment, God wants us to see the bones that are all around us. God wants us to see those things in the world that aren’t quite the way they should be. But instead of becoming depressed by what we see, assuming there is nothing that can be done about those dead bones, God invites to envision a new future, a future in which God will truly amaze us.
Do we look for God to amaze us? Do we look for God to take the old dead, dry bones of this world and breathe new life into them? Or do we set our hopes a bit lower than that? What is God waiting to do for us? What is God waiting to do that will surprise us, that will go beyond our wildest imaginations?
Back around the tenth century, when they were building many of the massive cathedrals over in Europe, there was a certain part of the architecture that drew a good bit of laughter from the townspeople. When they built the cathedrals, they intentionally left some small holes in the roof. The townspeople laughed and said, “Why would you do that? What about the rain? What about the snow?” But the Christians called those holes “Holy Spirit holes.” They left those holes in the roof to remind themselves that God’s Spirit moves like a mighty wind. And just like God’s wind breathed new life into those bones that Ezekiel saw, the Christians building those cathedrals wanted to make sure they left room for God to breathe that same kind of new life into their midst.
What are the dead bones you see in your life? What are those things that aren’t the way they ought to be? What are the dead bones you see in the world around us? If we just listen to ourselves, the only message we hear from inside us is: “Cope. Just learn to cope with the bones. Get used to them.” But if we listen to God, God’s message isn’t “Cope.” It’s “Hope.” Hope that things can be different. Hope that things will be different. That’s the promise we have from God.

Exegetical Comments

Ezekiel was both a priest and a prophet. He spoke his prophetic oracles to his fellow exiles in Babylon over a period of about thirty years (approximately 593–563 B.C.E.). Recall that the Babylonians exiled the people of Judah in two waves, the leaders in 597 and much of the rest of the population in 587. The oracles in the book of Ezekiel may be divided roughly into three large clusters: (1) chapters 1–24—oracles of warning dating from before the fall of Jerusalem in 587; (2) chapters 25–32—oracles against the foreign nations belonging to the middle period of Ezekiel’s ministry; and (3) chapters 33–48—oracles of hope which come after the fall of Jerusalem.
We need to consider one important piece of background information as we examine this text about a valley full of dry human skeleton bones in Ezekiel 37. According to the biblical laws of ritual purity, anything which is dead, including a skeleton, conveys the severest impurity or uncleanness. There were elaborate rituals to cleanse those who had been contaminated by contact with the dead (Num. 19:16–18). Human bones were used to contaminate illegal altars and high places so that they could never be used again during the reforms of King Josiah in 2 Kings 23:14–16. In particular, priests had strict prohibitions imposed upon them which prevented them from attending funerals or being close to anyone who had died except for their immediate family (Lev. 21:1–9). Indeed, the high priest could not defile himself by going near a human corpse, even if it was the funeral of his mother or father (Lev. 21:10–11). Remember that Ezekiel is a priest. Thus the vision of chapter 37, which puts Ezekiel down in a valley “full of dry bones,” is not only a matter of queasiness about being in an open human graveyard but also a matter of the severest condition of ritual impurity and contamination. There is a level of repulsion in this vision, and we moderns may need some help to sense the extent to which this repulsion was experienced by Ezekiel and his audience.
The scene in Ezekiel 37:1–14 breaks down into two clear parts: the vision (vv. 1–10) and its explanation (vv. 11–14). This basic pairing of a vision and its explanation is a frequent device used throughout the book of Ezekiel.
The vision (vv. 1–10). The Lord sets the prophet down in the valley full of dry bones, human skeletons lying down, “very many” and “very dry.” No flesh remained on any bone. The word “bone-dry” could well apply here. It was the “spirit” (ruaḥ) of the Lord that brought the prophet here, and it will be the ruaḥ (the Hebrew word meaning “spirit,” “breath,” and “wind”) that will figure prominently throughout this vision.
The critical question is raised by God to the prophet in verse 3: “Mortal, can these bones live?” The Old Testament contains some isolated instances of bodily resurrections of individuals who had recently died. The miracles of the prophets Elijah and Elisha (1 Kings 17:17–24; 2 Kings 4:32–37) include the resurrection of a child who had just died. But nowhere in the Old Testament do we have a precedent for bringing to life a long-dead skeleton of dry human bones without any skin or flesh. Ezekiel sees bones that are dead, really dead. And so the question, “Can these bones live?” would be difficult for Ezekiel to answer in the affirmative. So Ezekiel responds diplomatically, “O Lord GOD, you know.” If there is any rising to life, only God knows how it will come to pass.
The how of this amazing skeletal resurrection will be through the “breath” (ruaḥ—spirit, wind, breath) of the Lord which will enter these bones and give them life. And that breath of God will come through a human priest/prophet speaking the word of the Lord in ordinary human language. That language is couched in the form of a divine promise spoken directly in the second person to these skeletons: “I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.” Sinews will hook the bones together, and skin will reappear, and then “you shall know that I am the LORD” (v. 6). This last statement is the central theme throughout Ezekiel—this amazing resurrection will happen so that God’s people may know that the Lord is God and there is no other.
Verses 7–10 record the prophet’s implementation of the Lord’s instructions. True to the promise, God causes a great “noise” and “rattling” as skeletal bones come together with sinews and flesh. But the bodies remain lifeless; “there was no breath in them” (v. 8). The crucial ingredient, the one thing that makes life happen, is the divine ruaḥ, the breath that comes from the four winds of the cosmos (north, south, east, and west). With the rush of wind, “the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude” (v. 10). Ezekiel sees here a new creation so foundational as to be compared with the first creation in Genesis 1 and 2. In Genesis 1 God creates through the divine “spirit/wind” which hovers over the primeval chaos and brings order and life out of chaos through the divine word: “Let there be light,” and there was light (Gen. 1:2–3). This motif is now joined in Ezekiel’s vision with the story of the creation of the human in Genesis 2:7 when God breathes the divine ruaḥ (breath, wind) into the human form made of dust, and only then does the human become “a living being.”
The explanation (vv. 11–14). Now, what does all of this mean? The Lord tells the prophet that these dried-up bones of death are “the whole house of Israel,” who say they are lifeless and without hope: “we are cut off completely” (v. 11). Thus the Lord instructs the prophet about the more direct meaning of the earlier vision. God promises, “I am going to open your graves, and bring you up … and … bring you back to the land of Israel” (v. 12). The prophet does not exhort or command the skeletons to get up; they have no power whatsoever to bring themselves back to life. That’s the point. What lifts them up is God’s word spoken through a prophet chosen by God to speak this powerful divine promise. God delivers these awesome words and promises in the form of common human language spoken by a human prophet named Ezekiel in a particular time and place in Israel’s history. Although embodied in human language, the connection between the divine promise spoken and its result is assured: “I, the LORD, have spoken and will act” (v. 14). Israel will return. Israel will live again.
Theological reflections that may flow out of the text are the following:
1. Ezekiel’s vision is not about a literal resurrection of dead individuals. Rather, it is a vision of a communal resurrection of a people frozen dead in hopelessness, feeling totally cut off. This is a community that sees no way forward. They are without resources, without energy, without motivation, without a plan, and without hope. The Christian hope of the resurrection is rightly proclaimed in the face of the death of individuals. But a full biblical understanding of resurrection should speak also about the death and resurrection of communities where life and vitality are gone, completely gone, and then somehow reappear as a miracle without any visible means of support or hope. The vision applies most vividly to communities of faith, communities of God’s people and their death and resurrection. Here, just before we begin the final week of Lent and the walk toward the cross of Good Friday, individuals and communities are reminded that “neither death, nor life … nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38–39).
2. Perhaps the clearest biblical reapplication of Ezekiel’s vision comes in Acts 2 and Pentecost when God’s ruaḥ (spirit/wind) blows through the community of God’s people in a new and powerful way, creating out of Jesus’ death and resurrection the resurrection of “the body of Christ” in the world to proclaim the good news of forgiveness, life, and salvation in the name of Jesus. As with Ezekiel, so there the word of God proclaimed in common human language that each listener could hear in his or her own language became the means for creating something entirely new, so new its nearest analogue was God’s creation of the universe at the beginning of time or God’s mighty return of Israel back through the wilderness from Babylon to Jerusalem, which was also described as God’s “new creation.” (Olson, D. T. The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis For Sunday’s Texts, [2001, Grand Rapids, MI] Vol one pp. 460–463)

Preaching Possibilities

This is a call for the Spirit of God to be active in all our lives, particularly as we in the whole world face death together.

Top of Page ILLUSTRATING THE SERMON

Different Sermon Illustrations

Although not exactly an act of resurrection, a Dallas-based company is offering people the opportunity to communicate with loved ones after they pass away. Through their web site, LastWishes.com, customers can assemble a list of people they want messages, photos, and videos e-mailed to after they die. Apparently, there is considerable interest in the service. In its first year of operation, the company attracted more than 12,000 customers. The web site developers, Jonathan Yeo and Simon Shurmer, initially came up with the idea for the web site when a friend of Yeo’s suddenly passed away, leaving his family not only grief-stricken, but also confused as they tried to sort through his finances. For instance, they had great difficulty locating his bank account number and his life insurance policy. And they were not able to access the records on his home computer, because he had them password-protected. Now, with this new web site, for a $99 lifetime membership, customers can leave their financial information for loved ones. In addition, participants are able to send personalized messages to friends and families that will be sent after they die. It remains to be seen whether this new service will last long enough to provide what it promises. A somewhat similar web site, MyLastEmail.com was in business for less than a year. (“Voice From the Grave,” Newsweek, 9/6/04)

One of the challenges that Ezekiel and his fellow Jews experienced was a lack of complete religious freedom in Babylon. In the midst of the foreign influences in which they lived, they had to strive to maintain the integrity of their faith. A somewhat similar situation is taking place right now with the Eastern Orthodox Church. When priests lead masses in Istanbul, which has historically been the center of Orthodox Christianity, often they find only a dozen or so worshipers assembled in the vast, ornate churches. Even though the patriarch in Istanbul presides over some 250 million Orthodox believers throughout the world—stretching from Russia to Romania to Greece and the United States—and even though that patriarchate has endured for more than 1,500 years, the number of practicing Orthodox Christians in Istanbul is dwindling. To compound the problem, Turkish law requires that the patriarch be a Turkish citizen, which means that the next leader of the Orthodox church must be drawn from a significantly shrinking number of people. A spokesperson for patriarch despairs, “This minority cannot provide another patriarch from its remaining members....The patriarchates’s survival depends on God and on its flock outside Turkey.” When Patriarch Bartholomew appointed six non-Turkish metropolitans to be members of an advisory council called the Holy Synod, Turkish politicians roundly criticized that move, insisting that the patriarch’s foremost duty is to provide for the Turkish church. In contrast, the patriarch sees his role as being ecumenical, or worldwide, in scope. A member of the Turkish parliament complained, “The church is a Turkish institution and we oppose its ecumenical nature.” (“When state rules, church dwindles,” The Christian Science Monitor, 8/26/04)

For Immanuel Kant, the most basic religious question does not focus on the past or on the origin of creation. Rather, according to Kant, the heart of all religious inquiry is directed to the future. In his opinion, the most essential question we ask is: “What can I hope for?” Only a future that we can hope for can give meaning to the present challenges that we face. (Jürgen Moltmann, “Progress and Abyss: Remembrances of the Future of the Modern World,” The Future of Hope: Christian Tradition amid Modernity and Postmodernity, eds. Miroslav Volf and William Katerberg [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004], p. 11)

The pomegranate was an ancient symbol of resurrection. In classical mythology the pomegranate was a symbol of Proserpina, the queen of the underworld. Her return to earth each spring marked the reawakening of life after the death of winter. Christianity proceeded to adopt that symbol as the church celebrates Easter each spring, at a time when we mark both the new life that Jesus found in the tomb and the new life that returns to the world around us. (David Starkey, Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII [New York: HarperCollins, 2003], p. 14)

In many cultures, burial places are treated as sacred possessions, carefully passed on from one generation to the next. A man near San Francisco, though, decided that due to personal financial needs, he had no choice but to sell the plot of ground where many of his family members are entombed in a mausoleum. The site is located on a quiet, green hill in Oakland, overlooking the San Francisco Bay. At first, he didn’t have anyone interested in paying the $250,000 that he was asking. But after several months, an attorney contacted him about buying the land and eventually entombing some of his own family members there. (“For sale: California mausoleum, spectacular view,” Reuters, 10/11/03)

When it comes to death, most Americans would prefer to live a few months less if that would mean they would experience a more comfortable death. A team from the University of Pittsburgh found that on average the people they interviewed would have been willing to trade seven months of healthy life if that would ensure a better quality of care in their final month of life. Overall, 75% said they would trade some amount of healthy life in exchange for improved quality of care at the end of their life. The researchers suggest the findings support the growing movement toward hospice care and away from heroic but often painful attempts to keep a dying person alive a bit longer (“Study: Good death as important as long life.” CNN, 5/20/04)

Blaise Pascal offered a rather bleak picture of the hopelessness that so many people in the world experience. In his Pensees, Pascal asks us to imagine a large number of people in chains, all condemned to death, where some of them are killed each day as the others look on. All they can do is wait for their turn to meet the same awful fate. That, Pascal said, is the kind of hopelessness and despair that countless people live with each day. (David Billings, “Natality or Advent: Hannah Arendt and Jürgen Moltmann on Hope and Politics, The Future of Hope: Christian Tradition amid Modernity and Postmodernity, eds. Miroslav Volf and William Katerberg [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004], pp. 131-32)

When it comes to what we are able to hope for, Holocaust survivor Corrie ten Boom advised Christians to never underestimate what is possible for God: “Do not ask, "What can I do? But "What can He not do?’” (Corrie ten Book, Amazing Love [Carmel, N.Y.: Guideposts, 1973], p. 17)

Ezekiel was invited to see the hope that God offers even in the midst of the most seemingly hopeless situation: “Hope can see heaven through the thickest clouds.” (Thomas Benton Brooks)

Without a firm grasp of the hope that God offers, our faith will undoubtedly languish: “What oxygen is to the lungs, such is hope for the meaning of life.” (Emil Brunner)

Robert Wicks, in remarks before the 2000 conference of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors, told the following story. “I had been invited to Phenom Phen, to talk with those who were listening to the stories of the survivors of the Cambodian holocaust. As I walked across the open field toward the building they were making a museum, the ground beneath my feet crunched. I suddenly knew what I was walking on,” he said, “and since I couldn’t bear the horror of it, I dropped to my knees and prayed.” He was walking on the fragments of human bones that had been crushed by the torturers of Pol Pot.

“I have no hope, but I could be wrong.” Pete Seeger

The scene that Ezekiel witnessed in that valley may correspond in some respects to the way that bodies were disposed of by the Persians who adhered to Zoroastrianism. According to ancient Persian texts, “Zoroastrians were known to leave corpses exposed so that they could be rent by birds of prey and other scavengers. “Previously the tribes of Persia had practiced cremation. But Zoroastrianism insisted that fire be maintained pure, and therefore dead bodies were not allowed to come into contact with fire. Instead, dead bodies were exposed, usually for between a week and a month. Afterwards the larger bones were collected and stored in special ossuaries. Exposure of the dead is a fairly rare practice in terms of world religions. Followers of Buddhism in Tibet continue the practice, although their rationale for doing so is due to the fact that they live in a treeless, permafrosted land where neither cremation nor burial are viable options. (Alan F. Segal, Life after Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion [New York: Random House, 2004], p. 187)

If we were faced with a scene such as Ezekiel encountered, fear would be a predominant emotion that many of us would experience. Yet are there things in this world scarier than a field of old, dead bones? According to a poll recently conducted in Great Britain, the number one fear of the greatest number of people is a fear of spiders. In descending order, people also fear “terrorists, snakes, height, death, a trip to the dentist, needles and injections, and public speaking.” (Associated Press, 10/11/04)

Sometimes it’s only when we’re confronted face to face with death, such as Ezekiel was, that we are motivated to sort out what is truly important in life and what is not. It has been suggested that in the field of literature, The Death of Ivan Ilyich is perhaps one of the best studies on how the idea of death reorients our priorities away from worldly matters and toward spiritual concerns, away from card games and dinner parties and toward divine matters such as truth and love. (Alain de Botton, Status Anxiety [New York: Pantheon, 2004], p. 219)

When we focus on such weighty matters as life and death, that enables us to put our more insignificant concerns into perspective. For instance, while we may at times obsess about how someone else is a little faster than we are or a little bit smarter than we are or a little bit taller than we are, if instead we consider the overwhelming vastness of the universe, we come to realize that the minor advantages that some people have over us are nothing in comparison. Ultimately, as we reflect on the eternal and infinite nature of God, we realize that any human boasting is truly in vain. (Alain de Botton, Status Anxiety [New York: Pantheon, 2004], p. 239)

God forced Ezekiel to face up to the sin and death that he found himself surrounded by. Yet we often resort to euphemisms to shield ourselves from facing up to the truth about our culture. One example of that is found in the way that we refer to things as being “wrong” when it would be more theologically correct to call those things “evil.” When we speak of right and wrong, those are terms which ultimately are defined by humans. “Right” and “wrong” are matters where it is possible to enact laws in order to encourage right behavior and punish wrong behavior. “Evil,” however, points to an entirely different realm, “a realm that is controlled by forces that are beyond human control.” (Lance Morrow, Evil: An Investigation [New York: Basic Books, 2003], p. 51)

Ezekiel’s vision gives us hope that the day is coming when a radical transformation will take place in our world, changing evil into good. In the aftermath of a severe flood that struck a community outside of Pittsburgh last year, a fellow from a neighboring town drove there and asked around to see who needed some help. Right away three individuals indicated that they needed a place to stay. The man proceeded to load the three of him into his car and drove them to the home of his neighbor, “a blind, 71-year-old woman whom he knew was a good-hearted soul.” She immediately welcomed the three in. In the end, though, it turned out that they were not flood victims. Instead, they repaid the elderly woman’s hospitality by stealing thirty personal checks and attempting to cash them around town before finally being arrested by police. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 9/25/04)

When it comes to the evil that is so often present in the world, when it comes to the “dead dry bones” that fill our society, instead of hoping for a transformation of those problems, after a while we tend to want to ignore those realities. During the Nazi’s reign in Germany, a certain woman wrote a letter of complaint to the government, protesting the fact that prisoners were being massacred very near her home. She wrote: “I request that it be arranged that such inhuman deeds be discontinued or else be done where one does not see it.” That often is our wish as well. If evil and suffering cannot be brought to an end, at least we want to make sure that we remain shielded from it. (Garret Keizer, Help: The Original Human Dilemma [San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004], p. 38)

God invited Ezekiel to look beyond the despair of exile in order to take hold of the hope that God offers: “When people hope, they lay a story arc over a certain span of history, one that identifies the limitations of the present, offers a vision of how those limitations may be overcome in the future, and furnishes grounds for expecting that the future will be realized.” (Daniel Johnson, “Contrary Hopes: Evangelical Christianity and the Decline Narrative” in The Future of Hope: Christian Tradition amid Modernity and Postmodernity, eds. Miroslav Volf and William Katerberg [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004], p. 31)

A limited exposure to suffering and evil often motivates us to seek to change the wrongs that are before us. Yet when our exposure to suffering and evil is overwhelming, such as when Ezekiel witnessed that seemingly endless field of bones, our inclination is often to turn away. Bruno Bettelheim, who survived the experience of Dachau and Buchenwald, wrote: “A few screams evoke in us deep anxiety and a desire to help. Hours of screaming without end lead us only to wish that the screamer would shut up.” Ezekiel’s encounter with God invites us consider the fact that no matter how prolonged or intense an evil situation may be, nothing is ever hopeless. (Garret Keizer, Help: The Original Human Dilemma [San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004], p. 51)

The vision that Ezekiel experienced causes us to consider whether we are too quick to accept the dry bones around us or whether we are hopeful that a new future is possible through God. Vic Pentz offers a variation on the traditional story of Humpty Dumpty. In his version, when Humpty Dumpty falls and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men fail to put him back together again, eventually the king himself arrives. The king looks at Humpty and says, “It is I—your King! I have powers greater than those of my horses and men who failed to put you together again. Be at peace. I am here to help!” But Humpty responds, “Leave me alone. I’ve gotten used to this new way of life. I kind of like it now.” When the king continues to insist that he help restore Humpty, Humpty protests by declaring, “I’ve just seen my psychiatrist, and he assures me that I’m doing a fine job of coping with my environment as it is. A man has to deal with life as it comes. I’m a realist.” (Alice Gray, Stories for the Heart [Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah, 1996], pp. 28-29)

Ezekiel’s encounter with God is an opportunity to explore the difference between optimism and hope: “Optimism means faith in men, in their human potential; hope means faith in God and in His omnipotence.” (Carlo Carretto)

Hope is the ability to look beyond the bleakness of current reality to the glory of God’s future: “Hope is the struggle of the soul, breaking loose from what is perishable, and attesting her eternity.” (Herman Melville)

The awesome specter of a valley littered with the dry bones of dead warriors is a fitting symbol of the despair of the Jews, defeated and carried into captivity by the Babylonians. This is the prophet’s version of the Psalmist’s despair, “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” In the inspirational film Woman, Thou Art Loosed we find Michelle dwelling in the valley of dry bones of a prison cell. She is on death row, sent there for murdering a man in the midst of an evangelistic service. But she is not alone. The evangelist himself, Bishop T.J. Jakes has come to visit her. We soon see that he has helped her in the past, that he had visited her in another cell and been able to convince a judge to release her on condition that she attend all the services of the Bishop’s evangelistic services. She has so retreated into her shell that at first Michelle barely looks up from the model house she seems intent on finishing before her execution. Gradually, however, as the compassionate clergyman talks with her, she opens up, and in a series of flashbacks, tells her story of sexual abuse by Reggie, the lover who came to live with her mother. Her mother did not believe her story of abuse, and so for years the smooth-talking man took advantage of the girl, until at last, when she was a teenager, she ran away from home. Her descent into drugs, prostitution and petty crime came to an end when the Bishop rescued her, and she was actually coming down at the Invitation in the service. She was bringing the stained dress she had been assaulted in years before as a symbol of her past. Unfortunately, she also had in her purse a small pistol a well-meaning friend had given her for protection. She stopped dead in her tracks when she saw coming down another aisle of the church the very man who had been her tormentor through the years. Reggie approached her, embraced her, and asked for forgiveness. Overcome with rage, Michelle took out her gun and shot him dead. Bishop Jakes tries to assure her that even now she is not beyond the mercy of God’s love, but Michelle is so overcome with remorse, that she believes that her sin is unforgivable. “It is never too late,” Bishop Jakes reminds her. “It is for me,” she replies. There is more to the film, much more, just as there is to the story of captive Israel—and both the nation of Israel in the Bible and the imprisoned woman will go through further struggle until they arrive at an Easter hope.

Top of Page prayers (WorshipAid)

Call to Worship

Leader: Out of the depths we cry to you, O Lord.
People: Lord, hear our voices!
Leader: If you, O Lord, should note our sins,
People: Lord, who could stand?
Leader: But there is forgiveness with you,
People: So that you may be revered.
Leader: O people of God, hope in the Lord!
People: For with the Lord is steadfast love, and great power to redeem.

Prayer of Confession (based on Romans 8:6-11)

O searching God, we confess that our minds are set on earthly things. We seek not your Spirit, nor do we yearn for your presence. We live in hostility toward you; we ignore your statutes and we know we displease you.
Have mercy on us. Give us the Spirit of Christ, that we may be like him. May we seek your will in everything and seek the Spirit’s guidance. May your power, enough to raise Christ from the dead, give life to our mortal bodies through his Spirit, in whom we pray. Amen.

Prayer of Dedication (based on Ezekiel 37)

O Lord, like dry bones, we want to live. Receive these offerings and gifts, and bring your life-giving Spirit to them. Breathe into the lives of those who are touched by our sacrifice, that they may trust in you. Raise up witnesses to your matchless love in Christ.
Let our generosity mirror yours. Restore the fortunes of our neighbors, that together we may rejoice in your amazing love, through Christ, in Christ, with Christ. And let the people say, Amen.

Pastoral Prayer (based on John 11)

Holy Lord grant us your peace. As Lazarus of old, may we be raised up, restored, returned to life. From the stresses and strains of our daily lives, we come to you for renewed strength, for wisdom, for new life.
When we see the pain of some of those we love, we are moved to tears. Why do you seem distant, O Lord? Why do you not send aid? Nevertheless, we trust in you. We know that in your time you will send help.
O God use me as an answer to someone else’s prayer. May your life-giving Spirit move in and through me. May Christ grant his presence, who brought life to Lazarus that you might be glorified. So let me be a source of light and life, as I seek to walk in your ways, O God. Amen.