Ezekiel 37, John 11
Preaching at the National Cathedral is always an honor and a privilege. At my stage of life, I don’t know how many more sermons I have to preach at the National Cathedral or anywhere else. I feel a pressing need to come to the point. I wish to preach to you today as it was said of the great 19th century preacher George Whitefield: “He preached as one never to preach again, a dying man to dying men.”
Because I am a guest preacher, I don’t have any way of knowing you, or what brought you here today, or what is in your hearts this morning. What I do know of you, and what you know of me, is reflected in the two majestic Scripture lessons that we have just heard. This is what we know about each other. We’re all going to die.
The great poet Philip Larkin writes these lines:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.
The mind blinks at the glare…
…at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.1
And so, as the funeral service tells us, “In the midst of life we are in death.” The season of Lent is a time to reflect on this, beginning with the ashes of Ash Wednesday.
Listen to these additional lines from the same Philip Larkin poem:
This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die…
Is this worship today in this Cathedral a “vast moth-eaten musical brocade,” and are we here to pretend? Let’s hold that question in our minds for a few minutes as we look at our two readings.
It is rather unexpected to find two of the greatest of all Resurrection texts here in the middle of Lent. The Old Testament book of the prophet Ezekiel has some of the most glorious, most extravagant passages in all Scripture, and at the same time some of the most perplexing and provoking. The dry bones vision, however, presents no such complications. Let’s pay attention to the context first. The first part of the prophet’s book is an extended indictment of God’s people and their leaders. Without going into lurid detail (and some of Ezekiel is indeed lurid), the people whom God has chosen and nurtured and loved and protected have given themselves up wholesale to idolatry and apostasy. The verdict of the Lord is, “You want idolatry, you will get idolatry—raised to the nth power.” The people are dragged off as captives to an unthinkable place—mighty Babylon, dominated by colossal statues of brutal and capricious gods. It’s a city at the furthest possible remove from the worship of the one true God.
Into this lamentable situation the prophet of Ezekiel speaks to the exiles. But it’s not really Ezekiel speaking. The undergirding foundation of all the prophetic books is the speaking of God. The entire Scripture rests upon this one presupposition: The Lord said… The Lord said to Ezekiel:
These bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are clean cut off. Therefore prophesy to them, “Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and…you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken, and I have done it, ” says the Lord.
Let us take away just one thing from this amazing text. The Israelites have done less than nothing to restore God’s faith in them. He does not raise them from the dust because they have repented. He raises them from the dust because he is their God. This is the theme of Ezekiel. “When I raise you from your graves, O my people, you shall know that I am the Lord.” The promise is unconditional. God’s action in reconstituting the people Israel is not a reward due them. It proceeds from his nature as the one who raises the dead.
It would be a very good thing if Jews and Christians could spend more time reading this passage together. In its context in the Hebrew Scriptures, it is a promise to the Hebrew people. Christians hearing it with a Jewish sensibility can perhaps think of it as a promise made in the darkness of the Holocaust: our bones are dried up; our hope is lost; we are clean cut off. The passage is not about the resurrection of individual souls; it is about the remaking of God’s people Israel, the restoration of their own God-given land, the reinstatement of their hope. Christians read it differently, we think of it in a more universal way, having to do with Jews and Gentiles alike. Yet even so, the interpretation of the passage at any time by a particular group gives it specific shades of meaning. We’ve learned something about the spirituals that came out of the slave communities in the South. They weren’t just songs of individual longing. When they sang “de foot bone connected to de ankle bone,” they were thinking of themselves as a community in exile, a people enslaved, an oppressed race to whom the promise comes. “Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones, We gonna walk again wid-a dry bones…now hear de Word of de Lord.”2
I wish that we could linger with Ezekiel this morning. But we must hasten on to the New Testament lesson, the equally towering story of the raising of Lazarus.
Lazarus and Martha and Mary of Bethany were like Jesus’ family. We have the impression that his visits to them in their home were the only times of peace in his adult life. It is therefore very strange that when the sisters send him a message that Lazarus is seriously ill, he postpones going to them. The evangelist implies that Jesus does this for two specific reasons: to show his glory, and because he loves the family.3 We could have a whole sermon on God’s timing. He delays, precisely in order to show his love. What he plans to do for Lazarus is infinitely greater than what Mary and Martha had prayed for. Two days later he says to his disciples, “Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe.” Here the Lord restates his purpose. The raising of Lazarus is to be a sign, the last and greatest of all his signs, the one that will most definitively reveal him as the Son of God (huíòs toû theoû), the one that leads to his death.
When Martha, the active, assertive sister, heard that Jesus was coming, she ran out to meet him and reproached him: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” But then she adds this hint of trust in him: “Even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” And Jesus says to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
We come now the center of the narrative. It’s important to get the inflection right in the next verse. Martha says to Jesus, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” She’s rebuking him, as though he were not taking her seriously. Most pious Jews of the day believed that there would be a general Resurrection on the Day of Judgment. Martha is saying, in effect, “I know Lazarus will rise at the last day, but that ‘s no use to us now!” And the Lord says:
I am (egõ eimi) the Resurrection and the Life; he who believes in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.
In two majestic verses, Christ tells Martha three things. He declares that he himself is Resurrection and Life, already, even in the present, and death can have no dominion over him. He pronounces that even in the midst of death he is able to give life. And he promises that he freely gives this life to anyone who trusts in him.
Are we here today to pretend that “this vast moth-eaten brocade” is true because we want it to be true? I ask myself that question every day in the face of “unresting death…nothing more terrible, nothing more true.”
Here is the story of someone who knew that he was to die.
Helmuth James von Moltke is not as well known as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but he should be. He was a young German aristocrat, a member of the ancient Prussian nobility, tall, strikingly handsome, a brilliant lawyer.4 Unlike most people, very early in the 1930s he saw that the rise of Nazi power would be a catastrophe. He was appalled by the Nazi-controlled Olympic Games and horrified by the enthusiasm of the general population. He worked tirelessly during those years to save the lives of prisoners of war held by the Germans and to help Jews to get out of Europe. He became the leader of a resistance group who met at his country estate, Kreisau (the group became known as “the Kreisauers).”5 Moltke was a deeply committed Christian who read the Bible regularly and devotionally and loved to sing hymns. He believed that the German churches could be mobilized against the Nazis and was in contact with church leaders throughout Europe. George Kennan, the celebrated American diplomat, wrote that Moltke, “one of the few genuine Protestant-Christian martyrs of our time” was “the greatest person, morally, and the largest and most enlightened…that I met on either side of the battle lines in World War II.”
Moltke considered himself a “very average” person. He called himself, using Biblical language, “a humble earthen vessel.” Kennan described him as “lonely” and “struggling.”6 He did not make a big decision to be a moral hero. He made small decisions and took limited actions, day after day for more than ten years. He traveled, he met people and talked to them, trying to get them to understand. At any time, he wrote, one word from Freya would have called a halt to his activities.7 She was as much a resister as he; she saw him through to the end. Moltke’s letters to his wife were published in English in 1990 in a volume called Letters to Freya. On the morning he was sentenced to death by the Nazis, Moltke wrote his farewell letter to Freya and his two little boys. Here is a very small part of that letter:
Your husband stands before [the judge] not as…a big landowner, not as a Prussian, not as a German…but as a Christian and nothing else. ..For what a mighty task your husband was chosen; all the trouble the Lord took with him, the infinite detours…all suddenly find their explanation in one hour…Everything which was hidden acquires its meaning in retrospect…the refusal to put out [Nazi] flags or to belong to the Party…it has all at last become comprehensible in a single hour. For this one hour the Lord took all that trouble. And now, my love, I come to you… And we were allowed finally to symbolize this fact by our shared Holy Communion, which will have been my last…The task for which God made me is done…There is a hymn which says, “For he to die is ready/ Who, living, clings to Thee.”8
This husband, this wife, were not pretending. In the midst of life they were in death; in the midst of death they were in life. Death had no dominion over them.
Adolf Hitler tried to cut off the hope of the Jews and nearly succeeded. But the God of Israel is the One who reconstitutes a slain community. All the powers, religious and secular, joined together to crucify Jesus of Nazareth. But the God and Father of the incarnate Word is the one who raises the dead. There is One who is more true than death.
And the Lord said:
I am the Resurrection and the Life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”
Here is the reason for the sermon, and the worship, and the communion today, that you who are in this congregation will hear the question addressed to you by the living Jesus Christ in the power of the same Spirit that breathed upon the dry bones:
“Do you believe this?”
May the Spirit move in our hearts today to join Martha in her confession:
“Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who comes into the world.”
1 From “Aubade.”
2 Negro spirituals.com: “De foot bone connected wid de ankle bone…” See also “’Zekeil saw de wheel, way up in de middle of de air” (Ezekiel 1). Wonderful!
3 John links vss. 5 and 6: “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So (hos oun) when he heard that he was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.”
4 Helmuth James von Moltke inherited the title of Count. His father was the great-nephew of Bismarck’s legendary field marshal, “the great” Moltke. His illustrious name protected Helmuth for a time, but in the end it only exacerbated the Nazis’ determination to execute him as a traitor. Himmler would eventually refer to his class as “blue-blooded swine.” (Introduction to Letters to Freya, 21)
5 The complex, detailed, harrowing, morally uplifting history of the Kreisauer group (many of whom lost their lives( and of Moltke’s leadership is only hinted at here. His principal project was to rally the humane institutions of Germany, including the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, to reconstitute Germany after the defeat which he knew would come. Unlike Bonhoeffer, he did not participate in the plots to kill Hitler (though several “Kreisauers” did); his astute political sense told him that a military coup d’état, even if successful, would lead to dire unintended consequences.
6 George F. Kennan, Memoirs 1925–1950 (Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown, & Co. 1967)
7 Letters to Freya, trans. and ed. Beata Ruhm von Oppen. New York: Knopf, 1990, p. 4.
8 This letter is a hundred times more extraordinary than this tiny excerpt can suggest. I have made some very slight alterations in the word order.