Ezekiel 37:1-14 & John 11:1-45

Recently I was watching the show “Abandoned” on the cable TV channel Viceland, in which skateboarder Rick McCrank explores abandoned places with the people who love them long after the lights have gone out. Different episodes explore various abandoned locales across the continent such as abandoned malls, decaying towns, and the deteriorating remnants of Route 66. One of the most intriguing episodes to me was on Detroit and the rundown, neglected, and abandoned parts of the city. Detroit’s blight has become infamous world-wide, leading to what has become a minor tourist industry of ruins photography, as people come from near and far to view the remnants of what was once a bustling city.

Whether it be Michigan Central Station, the Packard Automotive Plant, the Eastown Theatre or the many decaying schools, factories, churches, and houses that litter the Detroit landscape, the city is seemingly more famous for what is dead and gone than what life that remains. One can easily get sucked into a vortex of what some call “ruin porn,” staring endlessly at photographs of the many decrepit and decaying buildings that dot the landscape. Searching “Detroit Blight” on the internet will provide an endless stream of rotted houses, abandoned factories, and empty city blocks.  What was once the center of American industry and manufacturing is now the postcard of demise. Looking at these haunting images that portray such death and decay it’s hard to believe life is ever again possible for Detroit.

I want us to hold in our mind these haunting images of the death and demise of Detroit as we consider this morning two tales of death—that of Ezekiel’s dry bones and of Jesus’ friend Lazarus. Most of us know the story of Lazarus. He was a friend of Jesus and was sick. His family sent word to Jesus to come help. Jesus delayed in coming to the point that when he finally arrived, Lazarus had been dead for days.  Undeterred by Lazarus’ state or the ambiguous faith of Mary and Martha, Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. The story from Ezekiel is another story of death. In the ancient Near East, when armies battled, the victor would leave the victims of the defeated army exposed on the battlefield to succumb to the ravishes of nature and beast. As nature ran its course, the dead bodies would decay becoming a pile of dry bones, free of an flesh, sinews, or bone barrow. For the losers, it was a powerful reminder of death and defeat. Dry bones were then symbolic with death and defeat, much as the decaying factories of Detroit have become synonymous with the decline and demise of American manufacturing.

Despite all this doom and gloom, despite all the death and demise, we know how the stories of Ezekiel and Lazarus end. Lazarus is raised from the death and Ezekiel speaks the words of God to these dry bones and they are re-enfleshed and re-enlivened by the breath of God. The show “Abandoned” tells a similar story, highlighting signs of new-life and re-birth amongst the seemingly endless decay. In the episode about Detroit, the show highlights Detroit residents working hard to bring life to their city by residents turning empty residential neighborhoods into urban farms, volunteers cleaning up local blight, and local entrepreneurs creating sustainable businesses. In fact, each episode of “Abandoned” tells a similar story of life creeping out of what was once thought dead and gone. Though unwittingly perhaps, the show highlights a spirit or breath of life that takes what was once dead and brings life. I’d like to say that that spirit of life is that which we call God.

In the Bible, especially the first half which we call the Old Testament, the breath of life is understood as a wind, or breath, or spirit that emanates from God.[1] In the Creation story in Genesis, the spirit, or wind, or breath of God was said to be hovering over the waters of the earth before God brought forth life.[2] In the original language, the word is “ruach” meaning “wind, breath, or spirit” and is understood to come from God and is recognized to have creative activity and active power. Again, remember in Genesis, it is said that God breathed into Adam the breath of life and Adam became a living being.[3] Here also, Ezekiel is told to tell the breath of God to enliven these lifeless beings, so that they may live. In the book of John, Jesus breathes out the words, “Lazarus, come out” and all of the sudden a dead man comes out alive, stumbling over his graveclothes. The breath of God, the wind of God, the spirit of God is creative, it is powerful, and it is life-giving.

by Trevor Olfert

Without the breath of God, creation is just an abyss of swirling waters, without the wind of God, the bones and sinews and flesh are just dead, dry bones, without the spirit of God, Lazarus is just a dead guy beginning the decomposition process, and without the ruach of God, the breath or wind or spirit of God, we are just as Jesus once said to the Pharisees, “empty white tombs which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.”[4]  There is no life without the breath of God, without the spirit of God. Without the power and the presence of God we are simply a dying, decrepit, destitute entity no better than the ruins of Detroit. Truthfully, it doesn’t matter what we look like. We could have the biggest building, the best technology, the brightest rooms, the nicest furniture—the best of everything—but if the power and presence of God is not in our midst, it will not matter. We will be but lifeless bones. So, in the mode of Ezekiel, seeking to speak the word of God, I have three questions for us to consider this morning.

First, are we willing to open ourselves up to the living breath of God’s spirit and the resurrection that will come about? Resurrection implies new life, new life implies change, change implies doing things differently than how we’ve done them before. As we come closer and closer to the celebration of Easter and the resurrection of Jesus, these stories from the Bible today invite us to consider the possibility of resurrection in our own lives and in our church where we may be deeply in need of God’s presence and the newness of existence.[5] Are we willing to allow God’s spirit to work in us and through us and change us?

The second question I’d like us to consider is do we believe this is possible? Jesus said to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”[6] Henderson Church, I ask you this, do you believe? And if you do believe, are you will to do what it requires to move from just saying what you believe to giving your whole selves and our whole lives and our whole church over to transformation and to the new life God brings? [7] Too often, in fact, Christians say we do believe, but we live as if we do not, something one author has called “functional atheism.”[8] It’s one thing to say we are Christians, to profess to be believers in the resurrection, to assent to the transformative power of God—but then act as if we don’t really believe in what we have just said. So church, do we believe?

The third question I’d like to ask us to think about this morning, is can we envision our bones with new flesh and blood, re-enlivened by God? Ezekiel 37 offers a ridiculous hope. After all, to think that there is hope after the bones have been picked clean is like thinking that someone who had been buried for nearly four days could be resuscitated (John 11:17).[9] Pretty far-fetched. Perhaps also as far-fetched as thinking that a church that has experienced years and years of decline and degradation could experience new life, new energy, and new enthusiasm. But I believe in the power of God, I can see what’s possible if we choose to allow God’s power and God’s presence fill and enliven our hearts and our space. To hope is to act in accordance with what you say, not just saying you believe, but living in the expectation that it will.

Breath Of God by Deborah Brown Maher

But please hear this, ultimately the choice is up to us. We’re reminded in 1 Thessalonians to not quench or suppress God’s spirit.[10] Are we willing to open ourselves up so that God’s breath might enliven us, so that God’s wind will blow through us, so that God’s spirit might empower us? And if we do, if we really do, God can and will blow the doors off this place. Really, the choice is up to us. Are we willing to open ourselves up to the living breath of God’s spirit and the resurrection that will come about? Do we believe this is possible? And are we will to act in the hope that this will happen?

I stand before you this morning in the mode of Ezekiel, asking each to consider for themselves this very question…do you believe?

 

 

[1] http://www.hebrew4christians.com/Names_of_G-d/Spirit_of_God/spirit_of_god.html

[2] Genesis 1:2

[3] Genesis 2:7

[4] Matthew 23:27

[5] Veronice Miles, “Pastoral Perspective: John 11:1-45” in Feasting on the Word, ed. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Year A Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 140 .

[6] John 11:25

[7] Kathryn Matthews, “Hope Against All Hope,

”http://www.ucc.org/weekly_seeds_hope_against_all_hope?utm_campaign=ws_mar24_17&utm_medium=email&utm_source=unitedchurchofchrist> (accessed March 30, 2017).

[8] Jane Vennard, A Praying Congregation (

[9] Corrine Carvalho, “Commentary on Ezekiel 37:1-14,” <http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1820> (accessed March 31, 2017).

[10] 1 Thessalonians 5:19

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