Valley of the Shadow of Life

Three foreshadowings of resurrection, from the valley of bones, the tomb of Bethany, and the hope that is in us... a sermon for Lent 5a

SJF • Lent 5a 2011 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.+

The season of Lent is fast drawing to a close. Next Sunday is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week and the slow walk to Calvary, to the garden tomb, to the Sabbath rest of Holy Saturday, and then in the midst of that dark night, the shuddering and sundering shaking as the stone rolls aside and the Risen Christ is manifest to the dawning light of Easter.

In today’s Scripture readings we begin to see the glimmerings of that light, a preview of coming attractions, as all three speak of life emerging from death, of the power of God to give life even to what seems past hope of living. In these passages we walk through the valley of the shadow — not of death, but of life. And this is not just any old kind of life, but miraculous life, resurrection life, life of the power and the presence of God. It is not simply the reanimation of the flesh, but the new life in the Spirit. Even more than that, it is the power of God’s own life: God’s own Holy Spirit.

+ + +

Arrayed before us, then, are three shadows of life, three reflections of the great resurrection — two foreshadowings, and one still a hope.

In the first we stand in a scene of utter desolation: the valley of dry bones. I imagine it must have looked a bit like the coastal fields of Japan a few weeks ago, littered with broken bits and pieces of anything and everything caught in the unstoppable flood from the tsunami that swept ashore at Sendai and so many other coastal towns: a scene of utter devastation. But here not boats but bones: bones piled on bones, and all of them dry after baking in the hot sun. Surely this is a valley of the shadow of death, and not of life! And yet, at the prophet’s word, spoken at God’s instruction, those bones begin to rattle and to move, and bone joins to bone — just like in the old song. Sinews and ligaments and muscles begin to form on those old dry bones, and skin covers them up as limbs and bodies form. And yet...

And yet there is still no breath of life in them. So God gives the prophet another instruction: a call to the breath from the four winds, which is the spirit of life, the spirit of God. And the breath comes upon those newly reassembled bodies, and they stand up on their feet, and they live and breathe by the power of God. God has opened the graves of the people of Israel, the very ones who thought that all was lost when they had been taken away to captivity in Babylon, the very ones who had given up hope; and God has raised them up from their graves and restored them to life as his people, on their own homeland, their own soil. The Spirit of God has brought them life. This is the first shadow of life in this valley of shadows.

+ + +

And the second is even more startling, because so specific. This is not a quasi-legendary event from the time of the prophet Ezekiel — a tale which even the rabbis could not agree upon, as to whether it was an historical event or a symbolic prophetic parable. But this second shadow of life is about an individual, not an anonymous collection of skeletons of the valley, but a man with a name, a household we’ve already come to know through the gospel. This is Lazarus and his two sisters, practical Martha the busy and hopeful Mary the prayerful, living in a specific town with a name we know, Bethany. We even know where it is, just two miles from Jerusalem. This is Jesus and the disciples. This is not, as Peter would later write about his own experience of the Transfiguration, “a cleverly devised myth.” This is not an allegory or a symbolic parable, but an event, recorded with all of those human details of misunderstanding, disappointment, sisterly concern and human questioning — and above all weeping: the weeping of the sisters and the crowd of mourners; and even the weeping of Jesus — such is his love for this friend, who suffered death, not because he was worse than anyone else or a greater sinner than anyone else. But just as the man born blind was given his sight precisely so that God’s glory might be revealed, so too God’s power is revealed in that cemetery of that little town of Bethany when Lazarus returns to life: and to the end that both the disciples and the whole community might see, and believe. This shadow of life is meant to prepare them all to understand the resurrection of Jesus when it comes — as come it will, and soon enough.

Soon enough the Passover will come, and Jesus will share a last meal with his disciples, and be betrayed, and be crucified and be buried. And not four days, but just shy of three he will lie in his own grave, borrowed though it be, and another stone will be rolled away, and the glory of the Risen Lord will be revealed: and all flesh shall see it together.

+ + +

But that is not yet... We are still in our Lenten journey amidst the shadows of that risen Life, though our reading from Saint Paul does carry us forward and beyond, to present us with a prophetic shadow not of Christ’s rising, but of our own. And yet our rising from the dead partakes — as it must — of Christ’s new life as well, for there is no life apart from him. It is, as the old hymn says, “because he lives” that we can face the tomorrow of our own deaths and the day after tomorrow of our own rising to life again. For just as the dead of Israel passed through that valley of dry bones before they were raised up, and just as Lazarus went through the valley of the shadow of death into his stone cold tomb, and just as Jesus himself would suffer on the hard wood of the cross for our redemption and die a mortal death as any mortal does — so too we creatures of flesh, feeble and frail, even as we have the mind of Christ and the Spirit of God, we too will one day face our mortality just as all these others did — including Christ himself.

The difference, as Paul assures us, lies in where Jesus stands in relation to us. Ezekiel had to call for the spirit from the four corners of the earth to breathe into the bones in the valley where they lay. Christ had to call on God to send his power down to raise up Lazarus, and had to call Lazarus forth from where he lay dead and bound in strips of cloth. God had to reach down with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm to roll aside the stone that blocked the tomb where Jesus lay.

But we — we who are in Christ as he is in us, since the Spirit of God dwells in us, as Paul says, “though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.”

And that, my friends, is not a mere shadow of life, but life itself. God’s spirit of life and of love is within us and among us, thanks be to God. And so let us give glory to God, whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. Glory to him from generation to generation in the church, and in Christ Jesus our Lord.+