A sermon delivered by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City Mo., on April 10, 2011
You likely already know this, but most of the Top Ten television dramas on TV today deal with sickness, death, buried bodies in all manner of decay, and the forensic clues a dead body reveals to crime scene investigators so they might determine the circumstances of death. In almost all of them, a crime has been committed and the show is given to unraveling the many clues until the narrative emerges and someone goes to jail. Mysteries, all of them, with more visual and descriptive details than should be seen while eating supper. Anybody watch one those shows?
Doesn’t it seem strange that in an obsessed culture of death-denial, we’re so intrigued by it all? Today we’ve read the vision of the dry bones from Ezekiel (“dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones”) but other churches have chosen the gospel reading from John 11, the path more taken by preachers who would rather spring Lazarus from his tomb as a dress rehearsal of Easter. Both stories walk hand-in-hand together to provide a theme that proclaims our Creator God’s wish to demonstrate God’s power over death by breathing life back into a dead body … it’s almost as if God has an unquenchable desire to breathe life into everything, you, me, all God’s people … even the whole world!
Ezekiel’s well-known vision of the desiccated bones strewn across the field willy-nilly with bodies piled up and left to rot where they lay is not unique in history as war after war has dealt with the vanquished in just this way. Photographic images in our brains supply the visual imagination we need to remember this story.
Think of the days in 1945 when the Nazi death camps were freed and the harsh reality of killings we couldn’t face had actually occurred and had been occurring for years all the way to the last days when the Nazis were defeated. When the numbers were tallied, the Nazis had exterminated six of the nine million European Jews in the death camps.
But that wasn’t the only terrible truth about those killed for there were others, weren’t there? Also killed were the Romanis (better known as the Gypsy people), Soviet prisoners of war, and Polish and Soviet citizens. Rounded up for death were persons with disabilities, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, and political dissidents who were executed by the millions. The dead bodies kept the concentration camp furnaces busy burning the bodies to ash. But others were thrown into mass graves and buried. Allied soldiers who liberated the concentration camps were stunned by the death and carnage. The living dead were saved from the jaws of their own graves and were the ones who told the stories that did little to explain why these things had occurred.
Or think of the pogrom of death carried out by Pol Pot, Prime Minister of the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia in the mid-1970’s when some two million citizens were killed in an attempt to “cleanse” the country of undesirables. Bodies were thrown into fields with no attempt to bury them so the bodies rotted where they lay and eventually became known simply as, “the killing fields,” discovered by New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg and Cambodian journalist Dith Pran, who exposed these bone fields where the bodies were dumped.
The problem with our denial of death is that we can’t keep denying it forever. It persistently knocks at our door and in the end, we have to answer its knocking. When we’re young, ignoring it is as easy as the blissful promise of life.
When Will Willimon was in college at Wofford College, Dr. Carlyle Marney was the guest preacher for religious emphasis week. A group of ministerial students met with him as an opportunity to sit and talk about the faith and about their callings to this shared work. Marney, then the pastor at Myers Park Baptist Church of Charlotte, was known at the time as a robust Christian liberal, quite odd considering he had grown up in the same Baptist yard others much more conservative had come from.
So one of the students took a risk and asked him, “Dr. Marney, let us hear you say a word or two about the resurrection from the dead.”
Marney stunned them with his answer: “I will not discuss that with people like you.”
“Why not?” they asked.
“Look at you,” said Marney, “prime of life … never have you known honest to God failure, heartburn, impotency, solid defeat, brick walls, mortality. So what in God’s name can you know of a dark world which only makes sense if Christ is raised?”
The older one gets and the more bruises life leaves on us, the more Marney makes sense, although most of us would rather not learn our lessons of youth so brutally. In the vision, Ezekiel faces up squarely to God’s question that all of us think about from time to time: “Can these bones live?”
A friend puts it this way: All of us eventually come to the point where we have a bad case of the “used to’s.” I used to run every morning or evening racking up the miles as though they were nothing. I used to eat anything I wanted without thinking much about it. I used to think I might eventually be able to dunk a basketball. I used to think afternoon naps were for the weak. I used to dream about walking the Appalachian Trail or going into politics or owning my own business and becoming rich. I used to pull an all-nighter and then go full-speed the next day skipping over a night’s rest as though I could walk between the raindrops of fatigue.
You see, the “used to’s” are a sign of aging and the accumulating signs of our aging are a sure sign of our mortality. This is simply the truth about us that’s true from the day we’re born only it takes us a while to recognize it. The price of being born is that we are on a path that has a beginning and moves toward an end. But death is not just about our physical being and the process of aging; it’s about everything. Death wreaks havoc on our dreams and attacks our relationships. We give it every name in the book: Illness, mental illness, anxiety, addiction, abuse, depression, divorce, disappointment, failure, fear, hatred, violence, bitterness, despair, loss, unemployment, homelessness, rejection, shame, sin, and the list goes on and on. These are just a sampler of the surnames of death.
The people of God were suffering in their imprisonment saying, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely!” (Ezekiel 37:11) So God’s question, “Will these bones live?” is a question of faith in God’s ultimacy and God’s power over death itself.
It was just a few weeks ago that we stood here in this place and Pastor Kathy and I imposed the mark of ashes on our foreheads quoting the Scriptures, “Remember … you are dust and to dust you shall return.” So here we are, just two weeks before our visit to our Lord’s empty tomb and we’re in a graveyard considering a pile of lifeless bones. The bones have laid there until all flesh has withered away and the glaring sun has bleached the bones to a dull, lifeless white. It is a vision as dead and decayed as can be imagined and yet, even as we look over the bones, there is hope because Ezekiel sees what God does with dead things.
When one reads across the pages of the Bible, this isn’t such an isolated occurrence as God has always been in the business of bringing dead things back to life. One preacher named it boldly that Jesus was so filled with God’s power of life, that when he came along, the dead couldn’t help themselves but to sit up and take notice.
So the little girl who had died heard Jesus say to her “Talitha koum! (‘Little girl, get up’)” The man with the withered hand was made well and the man who had lain on his pallet for so many years he couldn’t remember what it was to walk on his own, got up, picked up his pallet and went home. The woman with the issue of blood was healed. The sexually abused woman who came to the city well only in the heat of the day was forgiven and urged to live a new life.
As we draw ever closer to Holy Week, we have the story of Jesus’ friend Lazarus and the drama of life over death. But the story of Lazarus does not stand alone. It stands alongside the dozens of other biblical stories where the finality of death gives way to a stronger reality than existential emptiness and sorrow.
And God commands that we preach to the bones. “Say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. Thus says the LORD to these bones. ‘I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.’” (Ezekiel 37:4).
Two weeks out from Easter and we imagine Jesus standing outside Lazarus’ tomb with Mary and Martha in their grief, a grief felt so strongly Jesus himself shed his tears. [You see, the Gospel of John is preaching the sermon from Ezekiel to the valley of dry bones: “In the name of the LORD, live! Live in the name of the LORD!”]
“Suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them: but there was no breath in them. Then God said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: ‘Thus says the LORD God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain that they may live.’ I prophesied as I was commanded, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet” (Ezekiel 37:7-10).
So Jesus looked at the sisters of Lazarus and laid claim on the power of God over death by staking a claim on this hopeful power and asking them the question all of us must answer: “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me shall live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in me, shall never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-6, NASB).
God breathe your holy breath on us all and bring us back to life!
 Will Willimon, On a Dark and Windy Mountain and 25 other meditations for the Christian year, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1984, 90
 Larry Bethune, “Life Before Death,” University Baptist Church, 3/21/99
After serving as bridge pastor at First Congregational Church of St. Louis, Missouri, during the past year, Herron moved recently to Lawrence, Kansas, where he will continue to minister in interim settings. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).