Standing in a valley full of dry, dead human bones is no abstract philosophical encounter with death. God had brought Ezekiel to this grim graveyard as the prophet balanced himself on broken skulls and sharp rib bones. God took him by the hand and led him around as if to make sure he didn’t miss a bone. Death filled all the senses as Ezekiel surveyed the Grim Reaper’s playground.
It had been over ten years since Ezekiel, his family and others had been marched off into exile from Judah to Babylon. He watched his whole world and his whole culture unravel under the rule of Babylon. Life in a foreign country, cut off from native culture, religion and customs, must have been a lonely and hopeless experience. Yet Ezekiel’s role as a prophet was to remind his people that God was still in charge and at work.
God’s voice broke the silence. “Mortal, can these bones live” (Ezekiel 37:3)? Standing knee deep in dry white bleached human bones, Ezekiel is asked this question. As we listen to this Scripture reading, there is an audible sense of empty nothingness. A white bland canvass of despair, covered in colorless paints, fills the scene. For where there is death, there is nothing. There is no smell, no color, no movement and no breath in this place of hopelessness. What faith it took for Ezekiel to muster his answer, “O Lord God, you know” (Ezekiel 37:3).
God tells Ezekiel to prophesy and tell the bones that God’s breath will come into them. These brittle dead bones will live and be covered by sinews and flesh. In response to God’s living breath, Ezekiel hears a rattling noise as bone is joined to bone. Next, God tells his prophet to call upon the four winds from where God’s breath will come to bring these bones to life as the restored people of Israel. All of this happened because God said so and Ezekiel dared to believe. God’s breath suffocated Death. The life giving breath of God will even open the graves of the dead. God’s breath suffocated Death.
What could be more different from a valley full of dried dead human bones to a freshly stinking corpse of the man. Yet the result of death is the same: hopelessness and despair. This time it’s not the nation of Israel that grieves without hope but two ordinary sisters: Mary and Martha. Their brother Lazarus was sick and dying when they sent word to Jesus. “Lord, he whom You love is ill” (John 11:3). Yet Jesus did not arrive until four days later after Lazarus had been put into the tomb. No wonder when Martha met Jesus she told him that if he had arrived sooner, her brother would not have died. For death seems so powerful and permanent when you find yourself hopelessly touched by its cold hand. Mary echoes her sister’s same feelings when she meets Jesus too. “Lord, if you would had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:32). Death has convinced the sisters that where death is, there is no God.
The question raised by Ezekiel and the sisters is the same: Is God present in Israel’s exile or in Lazarus’ death? If you had asked the Israelites, many would have answered “No!” God had abandoned them to their enemies. Their lives were over, and Israel was nothing more than a pile of dead dry bones. Or the sisters, Mary and Martha, who strained to see Jesus at his friend’s funeral, went home knowing that Jesus never bothered to show up at their brother’s burial. If you were to ask exiled peoples in the world today or relatives at a funeral, “Is God here?” many would respond, “No!”
The Scriptures are very clear and forceful that in times of crisis, many people feel the absence of God. There is pain, loss, brokenness and death in all of our lives. Human beings get hurt and often times struggle to sense life in a death-filled world. God doesn’t casually drop by and pat us on the back and tell us everything is okay. Ezekiel was really in exile and captivity and his nation had been destroyed. Jesus was really late and did not arrive in time for the funeral.
Most of us, at sometime in our lives, have looked over a valley of dry bones or waited anxiously for a Jesus who never arrived on time. These dry bones may be a dream never fulfilled. You pleaded, worked, struggled and prayed for God’s help and intervention, yet you still fell short.
These dry bones may be a broken marriage. Everything was so wonderful and romantic at your wedding, only to become brittle and broken. Little by little, death began to consume your relationship. You called out for Jesus to come to you in counseling, prayers, honesty and church. But he was too late as you walked away from the lawyer’s burial service. Or these dry bones could be a faith gone dead and hopeless. You watched your child die from some horrible disease or your father turn into some kind of Alzheimer vegetable. Where is there hope in God as your child literally wastes away or as you change your father’s diapers?
The Scriptures are very concrete in their understanding of hopelessness and despair. But painful as this may be, healing begins when we take a long hard look at our bones and stinking graves. For unless we acknowledge the dry bones of our lives and the stench of death’s powerful smell, there will always be an empty rattling in our souls as Death laughs his way through our lives. But we Christians proclaim that Death has not won and his laughter will be silenced by the power of hope. God’s breath suffocates Death.
With God’s breath, these dry dead bones will be brought back to life. God will see to it that one day Israel will return to her own land. The people of God will resurrect into a new creation as the new Israel. “Thus says the Lord God, T am going to open your graves and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel'” (Ezekiel 37:12). Ezekiel knew and believed that God’s breath suffocated Death.
When Jesus stood at the grave site of his friend Lazarus and wept, He, too, felt the pain of loss and despair. But Christ remembered the promise of His father to Ezekiel, “And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people” (Ezekiel 37:13). As the Son of God snorted His divine breath through His own nostrils; echoing when the Triune God created humanity by breathing life into the nostrils of human beings, Jesus commanded Lazarus to “Come out” (John 11:43)! Lazarus began clawing and kicking at the grave dirt as he struggled to step out into the blinding sunlight. Jesus told them to unbind the burial bandages and set Lazarus free. God’s breath suffocates Death.
In the book of Romans, Paul reminds us of the good news that we proclaim in the midst of death and despair. “But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through the Spirit that dwells in you” (Romans 8:10-11). The breath of God that raised Jesus from the dead will raise us too. For on that Friday, when Jesus went to the place of dead, dry boney death called “The skull” (Calvary); Death thought it had won again. But Easter morning saw another grave open and death eternally defeated when Jesus Christ resurrected and promised His followers eternal life. The very breath of God, in Jesus Christ, had suffocated death forever.
Today, we mourn the death of Whitey. Standing in the Cardiac unit valley of dry dead bones, death filled the family waiting room. There was no movement of air when the doctor pronounced his death. “We tried everything, but his heart simply stopped beating,” he said. “It was too late to help him.” In despair, the family prayed for Jesus to come and to heal their loved one. But they all stood beside Mary and Martha as Jesus arrived too late.
But this is not the end of the story. For Whitey felt the breath of God throughout his life. It began blowing through the waters of his baptism. The Holy Scriptures filled his ears with breath-filled inspired words. God’s breath inflated the meal gifts of Christ’s Holy Supper. The prayers of his family and church moved over the still valley of death. Whitey knew the promise of eternal life through Jesus Christ whose Easter breath suffocated Whitey’s death.
Brothers and Sisters: we are the people of God who will live and be resurrected because of Jesus. This is the message we need to share as the body of Christ. As the minister ended the service, after reading these scriptures, he said to the congregation,” Let us all sit down quietly and when you can affirm that your bones live, please stand up. After a while, a few of them stood and then some more, until the whole congregation was on its feet. They sang the doxology and left worship that Sunday a renewed people of God.”1 For they really knew and believed, as I pray we do, that God’s breath suffocates Death.
1William Holloday, Long Ago God Spoke. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995) p.211