The battlefield of parched bones we hear about from Ezekiel is a lonelier view than a person would usually see wandering in the wilderness. It is a vision of destruction—the evidence of the failure that that led to bondage and exile. Ezekiel wrote, six centuries before Jesus, about the crushing defeat of the people of Israel at the hands of the Babylonians. The ancient Babylonian superpower destroyed the Temple and reduced Jerusalem to rubble. Most of the people were taken into exile in Babylon. Had the God of Babylon overpowered the God of Israel? That’s how they thought back then. They thought their God was limited to their geographic territory and that the people of Israel were cut off from God. They wept by the waters of Babylon when their captors demanded a song of their God—“How can we sing God’s songs on a foreign soil?” The bones were on the battlefield because there was nobody left to bury them. The normal way that the people of Israel cared for their dead was by cave burial; the body was laid on a shelf, and a stone sealed the entrance to keep wild animals out. When the body was reduced to bones, they were carefully placed in ossuaries. The dead were not abandoned on the ground.
Ezekiel saw or heard about the scene of desolation. He was either left behind to write to the people in exile, or with them in Babylon. Ezekiel told the people:
You think you’ve lost your hope–no you haven’t.
You think you’ve been cut off, forsaken by God–no you haven’t.
Ezekiel told them: God can rebuild a people. God can connect bone to bone, knit them with sinews, cover them with flesh and breathe life into God’s people. There is hope and holy connection. The text tells us that however real the scene on the battlefield, it is also a metaphor–that the bones represent the “whole house of Israel.” God spoke through the prophet Ezekiel to tell the people they should hold on to their hope, that in the time to come they will be on their OWN soil. They would be home. Home: perhaps the most powerful word in any language. They were not godforsaken.
Mary and Martha felt godforsaken, and angry.
They each said the same thing to Jesus: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” They probably said much more: “Where were you? We sent word that he was sick. We waited. We thought you would come. Why didn’t you come? Why weren’t you here?”
That’s how it can feel, when a loved one is dying. Where is God? And why do bad things happen to good people? In theological terms, that is the Theodicy question. Where is the answer to that? The answer comes when we know that no matter what happens God is present, and that God cares for us as a people and as an individual person. Faced with the death of Lazarus, and the suffering of his sisters; Jesus wept. In the earlier translation, this was shortest verse in the Gospels. Jesus wept because he cared deeply about his friend, and he was moved by Martha and Mary’s grief. Jesus stood near the tomb and told the disciples to open it. Martha, always the practical one—the one who always knew how things should be done—said, “No! Don’t do that! It has been four days and there will be a stench!”
Martha, Martha. Wait and see. You don’t know everything that is possible with God. Jesus said, “Roll away the stone.” Jesus said, “Come out.” Come out of the grave, you whose hope is lost. Come back to life, you who are coming apart at the seams. Wake up and see how precious you are to God, you who feel godforsaken.
When Moses asked, “Who shall I say sent me to lead the people of Israel?” God responded: Ehyeh asher ehyeh, Hebrew for: I AM that I AM (Exodus 3:14). God, the great I AM, called to the skeletons. The writer of John’s Gospel is showing that Jesus is God’s Messiah. It is likely that all of the people standing with Jesus at that tomb knew about the vision of Ezekiel. They understood that God—and only God–is the source of renewal and hope. They knew what it meant when Jesus used the powerful words–the ‘I AM’–in saying I AM the Resurrection and the Life. As you hear these words, you can hear these accounts of resurrection as events in the past, or you can hear them as living sacred words that speak of life here and now. It is an experience of resurrection before the Resurrection, and time after time in our own lives.
When you feel godforsaken, don’t give up.
Hold on to visions of resurrection. God promises to restore a people, and in Jesus we see the tender care God takes to restore a single person. Every day is a re-enactment of these texts–physically, emotionally, and psychologically. Faced with loss and despair, we turn to God for healing, and are blessed to experience that hope is alive, and life will be renewed. We experience the Resurrection on the Lord’s Day week by week when we gather for Communion, and we are renewed, reborn and redeemed from hopelessness. We know as a people, and as individual persons, we are never godforsaken.