& Bandages -
Bones and Bandages
Railton Road, 13 March 2005
“Son of man, can these bones live?”
Today’s readings are, of course, about resurrection. About returning to life. Ezekiel in the valley of the bones, and Jesus with his friends in their distress.
Can you imagine a field of bones? We’ve all seen skeletons on television, of course, and some of us may have visited ossuaries on the continent, which are usually memorials to soldiers who fell in the first world war, and they put the bones of soldiers who have got separated from their identity into the ossuaries to honour them. And the older ones among us may remember seeing pictures of a huge pile of bones in Cambodia after the Pol Pot atrocities of the 1970s.
I think Ezekiel, in his vision, must have seen something like that. A huge pile of skulls and bones…. “Son of man, can these bones live?”
And, at God’s command, Ezekiel prophesied to the bones, and then he saw the skeletons fitting themselves together like a jigsaw puzzle, and then internal organs and tendons and muscle and fat and skin growing on the bare skeletons. I’m sure I’ve seen some kind of computer animation like that on television, haven’t you? But for Ezekiel, it must have been totally weird, unless he was in one of those dream-states where it’s all rational.
But once the skeletons had come together and grown bodies, things were still not right.
Do you ever watch the television programme called Meet the Ancestors? It’s an archaeological programme, and, very often, when they have found a skeleton, they get a laboratory to build up the head and face as the person might have looked like when they were alive. The trouble is, of course, that it never looks much like a real live person, but more like those photo-fit reconstructions that the police build up from people’s descriptions of villains.
And I never think the dinosaurs that they show you that they have reconstructed from computer graphics look very alive, either. The trouble is, that no matter how good the computer animation, it is only a computer animation. They are not films of real animals, and it shows.
The difference, in both the Meet the Ancestors reconstruction and the dinosaur programmes is that there is no life. No spirit, no personality looking out through the eyes.
And that’s what Ezekiel saw in his vision – there were just so many plastic models lying there, no life, no spirit. Ezekiel had to preach to them again, and they eventually came to life as a vast army.
And then Ezekiel was told the interpretation of his vision – it was a prophecy of what God was going to do for Israel, which at the time seemed dead and buried. God was going to bring Israel back to life, to breathe new life into the nation, and put His Spirit into them.
I’ll come back to Ezekiel in a minute, but for now, let’s go on to the wonderful story of Lazarus.
The family at Bethany has many links in the Bible. Some people have identified Mary as the woman who poured ointment all over Jesus’ feet in the house of Simon the Leper – and because he lived in Bethany, some people have also said that he was married to Martha. We don’t know. We do know that Martha and Mary were sisters, and that they had a beloved brother, called Lazarus. We do know that on one occasion Mary poured her expensive perfume all over the feet of the Lord – whether this was the same Mary as in the other accounts or a different one, we don’t know. But whatever, they seem to have been a family that Jesus knew well, a home where he knew he was welcome, and dear friends whose grief he shared when Lazarus died.
In some ways the story “works” better if the woman who poured ointment on Jesus’ feet in the house of Simon the Leper and this Mary are one and the same person, as we know that the woman in Simon’s house was, or had been, some kind of loose woman that a pious Jew wouldn’t normally associate with. Now she has repented and been forgiven, and simply adores Jesus, who made that possible for her. And she seems to have been taken back into her sister’s household, possibly rather on sufferance.
But then she does nothing but sit at Jesus’ feet, listening to him. Back then, this simply was Not Done. Only men were thought to be able to learn, women were supposed not to be capable. Actually, I have a feeling that the Jews thought that only Jewish free men were able to learn. They would thank God each morning that they had not been made a woman, a slave or a Gentile. And even though St Paul had sufficient insight to be able to write that “In Christ, there is neither male nor female, slave nor free, Jew nor Gentile”, thus at a stroke disposing of the prayer he’d been taught to make daily, it’s taken us all a very long time to work that out, and some would say we haven’t succeeded, even now.
Anyway, the point is that Mary, by sitting at Jesus’ feet like that, was behaving in rather an outrageous fashion. Totally blatant, like throwing herself at him. He might have felt extremely uncomfortable, and it’s quite possible that his disciples did. Martha certainly did, which was one of the reasons why she asked Jesus to send Mary through to help in the kitchen.
But Jesus replied: “Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
Mary, with all her history, was now thirsty for the Word of God. Jesus was happy enough with bread and cheese, or the equivalent; he didn’t want a huge and complicated meal. He wanted to be able to give Mary what she needed, the teaching that only he could provide. He would have liked to have given it to Martha, too, but Martha wasn’t ready. Not then.
But now….. now it’s all different. Lazarus, the beloved brother, has been taken ill and died. It’s awful, isn’t it, when people die very suddenly? I know we’d all rather go quickly rather than linger for years getting more and more helpless and senile, but it’s a horrible shock for those left behind. And, so it seems, Lazarus wasn’t ill for very long, only a couple of days. And he dies.
It must have been awful for them. Where was Jesus? They had sent for him, begged him to come, but he wasn’t there. He didn’t even come for the funeral – which, in that culture and climate, had to happen at once, ideally the same day. The two women, and their families if they had them, were observing the Jewish custom of “sitting Shiva”, sitting on low stools indoors while their friends and neighbours came to condole with them and, I believe, bring them food and stuff so that the bereaved didn’t have to bother.
But Martha, hearing that Jesus is on his way, runs out to meet him. This time it is she who abandons custom and propriety to get closer to Jesus. And it is she who declares her faith in Him: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is come into this world!”
And Mary, too, asserts that if Jesus had been there, Lazarus would not have died. But it is Martha, practical Martha, who overcomes her doubts about removing the gravestone – four days dead, that was going to be a bit niffy, wasn’t it? But she orders it removed, and Jesus calls Lazarus forth.
And he comes, still wrapped in the bandages they used for preparing a body for burial. When Jesus is raised, some weeks or months later, the grave-cloths are left behind, but we are told that this didn’t happen to Lazarus. The people watching had to help him out of the grave-clothes.
Of course, I think the point of these two stories – and the point of linking them together in the lectionary – is fairly obvious. Life comes from God. In Ezekiel’s vision, God had to breathe life into the fitted-together skeletons, or they were no more than computer animations, or dressmakers’ dummies. And it was God who, through Jesus, raised Lazarus from the dead.
Without God, Ezekiel’s skeletons would have remained just random collections of bones. I think that this was a dream or a vision, rather than something that actually happened, but it makes an important point, even still. God said to Ezekiel that just as, in the dream, he had breathed life into the skeletons, so he would breathe new life into the people of Israel.
And the story of Lazarus, of course, foreshadows the even greater resurrection of Jesus himself, a resurrection that left even the grave-clothes behind. Lazarus, of course, will have eventually died permanently, as it were, when his time had come; Jesus, as we know, remains alive today and lives within us through the power of the Holy Spirit.
So what have these stories to say to us, here in the 21st century? We don’t find the idea of a fieldful of bones coming together and growing flesh particularly special – computer animations have seen to that. And we don’t expect to see the dead raised – more’s the pity, in some ways; maybe if we did, we would. Then again, that doesn’t seem to be something God does very often in our world.
But I do think that there is something very important we can take away with us this morning, and that is that it’s all God’s idea. Our relationship with God is all his idea – we are free to say “No, thank you”, of course, but in the final analysis, our relationship with God depends on God, not on us. I don’t know about you, but I find that really liberating – I don’t have to struggle and strain and strive to stay “on track”. When I fall into sin, I am not left all by myself, but God comes after me and gently draws me back to himself. I can just relax and be myself!
Our relationship with God is God’s idea. It is God who breathes life into us. It is God who brings us back when we go astray. It is God who helps us to change and grow and become the people we were created to be, designed to be. It is God who breathes life into the dry bones of our spirituality, who calls us out of the grave, who enables us to grow and change. Amen, and thanks be to God!
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