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Sunday 29 March 2020: Lent 5

Dry bones live

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

By Janet Wootton

Former Director of Studies for the Integrated Training Course, Congregational Federation

Context: a reflective service for Passion Sunday, looking toward the events of Holy Week. The reading from John 11 could be dramatized in a series of readings, as a narrative framework for the whole service

Aim: to see God’s power to conquer death at work in our own world

During the worst days of the recent bombardment in Aleppo, in Syria, a small group of Christians tried to reach out to their community under fire. They opened a pharmacy in the church, offering at least some medical care. In the very darkest days, they dug wells in in the church grounds, to give access to desperately needed clean water.

They offered ‘hope against hope’ (Romans 4:18), and when even they were past endurance, stubbornly persisted, because they believed Jesus was there suffering and serving with them.

But that is not the end of their story. Once the war had swept over them and they could emerge into an uneasy peace, they began to help rebuild their community. There was a ‘lost generation’ of children, who had received no education, but instead had experienced appalling things. So, the churches re-opened the schools, with as ‘normal’ a timetable as possible.

[You may like to replace this with a different story, or show a short film of recovery after tragedy, or invite a speaker working in disaster relief or community building.]

The suffering and death were real; destruction was all around them; their beautiful town and their homes had disappeared under rubble, and no family was untouched by searing tragedy. But over the next few years, up to the present day, this group of Christians has been working with others to put flesh on the bones of recovery and learn to breathe again.

In a town of rubble, just as in a valley of dry bones, healing of lives and communities is not a trivial matter. The miracle is accomplished not by waving a magic wand, but by patient progress, step by step.

As a rather over-imaginative child, I found the story of the dry bones in the book of Ezekiel terrifying. What got me was the rattling! And all that talk of sinews and flesh and skin. Surely these are unnecessary details? Surely, God only has to speak, and all will be well? But that is not what happens in the story.

To start with, God uses human agency. He talks Ezekiel through the process of bringing life to a scene of utter destruction. The bones are dry and scattered. As the prophet speaks, a process takes place. You can’t imagine this language being anything other than gruesome, even when it was first heard. I think we are right to be shocked by it. Rebuilding human lives and communities is often gruesome work. And it is only once the bodies are whole again that the breath can come, and life can begin again.

There’s another gruesome moment in the conversation at Lazarus’s tomb. When Jesus gets there, horror of horrors, he commands them to open the tomb! But Lazarus has been dead for four days, and this would release the stench of death. However, the tomb is opened, and what comes out is not the stuff of nightmares, but the hope of life, Lazarus, restored, and hungry.

This is the power of resurrection at work, where people dare to respond to God’s call. As in Aleppo, there are countless other conflict zones, or scenes of natural disaster, where the quiet work of committed people is bringing communities back to life. Or in ordinary human lives, where bereavement or the breakdown of relationships can turn life to ashes.

Today we are looking towards Easter, when we remember the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the power of God to conquer death. The Christian faith does not deny death or belittle suffering, but by acknowledging the depth of suffering, recognises the strength of God’s love to lift us to life again.

Over the next couple of weeks, we will remember that Jesus our Saviour entered into the fullness of human suffering and grief. We will recall his own horror as he faced the reality of his coming death in the Garden of Gethsemane. We will live again with the terror of his disciples, as the religious police and occupying forces converged. We will hear his cry of dereliction on the cross.

And then we will stand with the women in the early dawn of life. This tomb too is empty. Jesus is not there. He is calling us on out into the world. Because, like the cessation of hostilities in Aleppo, Easter is not the end, but the beginning, as the risen Jesus calls us to prophecy to the shattered world, in the power of God’s Spirit.

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