Ezekiel, alongside with the somewhat related book of Jeremiah, are among my favorite Biblical texts. I love the prophets. We Christians spend a lot of time with the prophet Isaiah every Advent and Christmas season, but Jeremiah and Ezekiel don’t come up in quite the same way; they aren’t associated with a liturgical season. Today’s Ezekiel text comes up in both the Lent-Easter cycle and on Pentecost in different years of the lectionary.
That said, as much as I love these books, I always feel a little strange when it comes time to preach on them. Perhaps part of this comes from my Tarantino phase and the famous scene from Pulp Fiction where Samuel L. Jackson quotes from Ezekiel…except not really. Tarantino took a lot of liberties with that particular verse, but it’s created some strange impressions about Ezekiel in popular culture.
A lot of my strange feeling in preaching on Ezekiel and Jeremiah, is rooted in their historical context. Ezekiel and Jeremiah both lived during the exile, preaching and prophesying from opposite ends of that journey—Jeremiah was in the group left behind, the mostly peasant class the Babylonians left in Israel to keep working the land. Ezekiel is in Babylon, among the elite and aristocracy who were taken. He is very clear and specific about that at the beginning of his book. The thirtieth year of Ezekiel’s life, the fourth month, the fifth day, continuing that this was the fifth year of the exile…or, if you prefer, 592 B.C.E. We’ll come back to Ezekiel’s specificity in a bit, but I think the problem that I have preaching on Ezekiel and Jeremiah is that as much as I love their focus on social justice, and, yes, their fire and brimstone, it is usually hard for me to put myself in the shoes of someone either in exile, like Ezekiel, or dealing with the aftermath of exile, like Jeremiah.
I don’t want to minimize the powerful feeling these texts can have on someone who has truly needed them. I don’t want to read this text and then sing the skeleton dance song about the bones connecting back to each other, much as, yes, it’s been in my head this week.
This has always been my struggle with these exilic texts: I haven’t known how to use them without minimizing the very real struggles of others. I mentioned the specificity of Ezekiel earlier. It’s not just at the beginning of this text. The Ezekiel text recounts several visions, and all of them begin with a date and location. All of them, except for the text we read today.
Scholars have pondered the significance of the missing date. There are the range of ideas about it having been lost in the generations of transcription and translation, or about Ezekiel intending this vision to somehow be even more metaphorical than the others…which…I don’t think there are degrees of metaphor.
This text is a vivid one. In this vision, God transports Ezekiel to some now forgotten valley. There are hints in the text that Ezekiel and his contemporaries might have known where, but if that’s the case, we have lost it, and it’s not essential. This valley is the site of some already long past battle, one which we can infer had no real victor, since it seems there weren’t enough left alive to properly bury the fallen. We know it was a long time ago because they have already decomposed. There’s no mention of scavengers, because they have already left.
God asks Ezekiel if these bones can live, and Ezekiel, never one to doubt that God can do anything God so chooses, says to God “You know,” which, absent any information about inflection, could be read a few different ways, one could imagine a non-committal “ya know…” but I like to read it with a bit of sass—sort of a “why are you asking me? You’re God. You brought me here. You know the answer to this question or you wouldn’t be asking it.” God commands Ezekiel to speak to the bones, to preach God’s word of hope and the bones begin to sort themselves and come back together. They grew sinew and flesh and skin, but they are still without breath, spirit, life.
Next, God commands Ezekiel to preach to the winds that they might put breath and spirit and life back into these bodies, much as God first formed the bodies of Adam and Eve and then breathed life into them. Ezekiel prophesies and the bodies live.
The text tells us that this vision is the story of the exiles: they are lost and scattered, their hope has withered and died, but God can and will still bring them back to Israel.
This is a text of hope when the idea of hope can seem a cruel joke. A text of hope in the deepest darkness. That is why I appreciated Elie Wiesel, a Jewish author and Holocaust survivor’s explanation. This vision has no date, Wiesel says, because every generation needs to hear it in its own time. This may be that time.
Our text from John today has some of the same elements. Jesus and his disciples have gone across the Jordan River, into the present-day country of Jordan when they get word that Jesus’ friend, Lazarus, is sick. Jesus, who has healed so many, who has made a man blind since birth see, decides not to hurry back, but to wait 2 extra days. As it turns out, those two extra days would not have mattered all that much. When they do get to Bethany, a town only about two miles from Jerusalem, Lazarus has been dead and buried for four days.
It’s difficult, to read that Lazarus fell ill so that Jesus could be glorified, just like it was hard to read last week that the man, born blind and now an adult, was born blind just so Jesus could eventually heal him.
It opens up the great questions of theodicy, questions about how God can be all powerful, all-loving, and still allow suffering to exist. Many theologians and thinkers have tried to come up with satisfying answers, from Aquinas’ metaphor that for now we only see the back of the tapestry, but that it will be beautiful once we see the front.
That’s an answer rejected by Mary and Martha, each of whom great Jesus as a friend and teacher, but say “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Past commentators have bent over backwards to remove the accusation from those words. They say it’s just a statement of fact and faith in Jesus and God. I can’t say what I think of that here. Mary and Martha are saying to Jesus “Where were you? We called and you did not come. You could have saved him and you did not.” It’s important to note that accusation still comes from a place of faith and belief. It’s only possible from a place of faith and belief, even continuing faith and belief.
They are asking why Jesus, who could have stopped this, allowed it to happen. It’s a question asked by the others at the tomb, who knew that Jesus had healed so many, but did not heal his friend, but the text implies that from the crowd, it’s not a statement of faith but of doubt. In John’s Gospel, it’s this event, not the disruption at the Temple that leads to Jesus’ arrest.
Theologians aren’t the only ones who have tried to answer the question of suffering. The poet Keats, in a letter to his siblings, also wrote on this problem. In the letter, he contrasts a description of this world as a “Vale of Tears” with a “Vale of Soul Making,” arguing that we can each only gain our identities, becoming fully human, through the medium of this imperfect world. Keat’s doesn’t say it explicitly, and, honestly might resent the Christological connection, but this is the point of Jesus being not only fully-God, but also fully-human. The point of Jesus humanity is that he shared our burdens.
I don’t think saying “this is all a learning experience” is a good answer the question of “why.” I don’t have an answer, and I don’t think I will, at least not in this world. What it brings us back to though, is that, through Jesus, God entered this world, participated in this world. God demonstrated through Jesus that everything we go through, God also feels. God sends Ezekiel visions of bones restored to flesh and breath and life because God feels the despair of the exiles. Jesus comes to Bethany, to the home of Mary and Martha, the grave of Lazarus late to demonstrate that God has power over death, that death is not an end, but a transition. God came in the person of Jesus and went to the cross because God will love us through the very worst of what we can do to ourselves and each other.
Even when we feel most lost, especially when we feel most lost, God is there, sitting in it with us, waiting for us to notice.
In Jerusalem or Babylon, God is with us.
As we, like the Psalmist, cry from the depths, God is with us.
Whether we are on the banks of the Jordan or the Chedar, God is with us.
As we grieve the deaths of siblings, parents, children, family, friends, or even strangers, God is with us.
As we social distance, self-isolate, quarantine, or shelter-in-place, God is with us.
As we wonder when or if things will return to normal, God is with us