This sermon was preached at a Roots Revival Wednesday evening service at Centenary United Methodist Church (Winston-Salem, NC) on October 30, 2013. Roots Revival is a worship service grounded in Americana/roots-based music featuring Martha Bassett and friends. We used Martha Bassett’s “Wicked Witch” and Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” to talk about Ezekiel 37:1-14 and Matthew 27:45-53.
The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.” So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord. – Ezekiel 37:1-14
From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “This man is calling for Elijah.” At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. – Matthew 27:45-53
From ghoulies and ghosties and long legged beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord deliver us. (Scottish prayer)
When I was a kid, my dad and I had a little routine. Whenever my mom would go out of town, we would head to the nearest Blockbuster—remember those?—and stock up on scary movies.
You see, my mom hates horror movies, and generally I wasn’t allowed to watch them. But with Mom gone, Dad couldn’t resist. And so I saw films like Psycho, The Omen, The Exorcist, and many more, somehow enjoying the feeling of terror that often lingered for days.
Halloween is a funny holiday, because it shows us something about ourselves. Some of us like to be scared. For 11 months out of the year, we work to insulate ourselves from fear. But in October we put on grisly costumes, go willingly into haunted houses, and watch scary movies. We put spiderwebs and witches in our front lawns and carve pumpkins into gruesome characters.
Halloween is all about death. Skeletons and ghosts and zombies and the Grim Reaper—these are icons of this holiday. It seems more than a little morbid that we would have a whole holiday dedicated to the macabre.
And yet, in a way, Halloween has a message of hope. I recently discovered a podcast by two young pastors called Pulpit Fiction. In a recent episode, the duo talked about the meaning of Halloween for the church. One of them commented that Halloween is in many ways a time for facing our fears. On Halloween, we dress up as the ghoulies and ghosties and long legged beasties, we put on the masks and play the part, but at the end of the day we take off the costume and reveal our monster of choice for what it is: only a mask. We expose our fears by taking them on and facing them, then expose their powerlessness as we stuff them in a closet until next year.
Of course, although spiders or ghosts or zombies might make us jump, the real ghosts and ghouls of our world cannot be reduced to a costume, and if they were, it would probably be more offensive than scary. War, famine, poverty, addiction, and violence are not so easily unmasked, for unlike vampires and werewolves, their danger and devastation is very real.
Then, too, our deepest fears are probably not the long legged beasties. Stephen King’s books and the movies based on them have given me plenty of frights in my time, and King talks about how he loved to be scared as a kid. But now, he says, his fears have changed. The scariest movie he’s seen recently, he said, has nothing to do with werewolves or haunted hotels or even psychotic clowns. The scariest movie he’s seen recently is one where the main character is experiencing the onset of Alzheimer’s.
We face our mortality on Halloween, but we come at it from the angle of the absurd. Halloween lets us look death in the face, but even that face is obscured by a mask. The rattling bones and fake blood are too silly to bring us to the edge of our real fears.
And yet even this absurdity can still be a way in to hope and healing. Both of the Scripture passages bring us face to face with mortality, and yet the scenes are as absurd as some of the zombie costumes I saw at Party City the other day.
I once had the pleasure of watching an atheist hear the story of Ezekiel and the dry bones for the first time. For me, this story is familiar, perhaps overly familiar, and so it had lost its shock value. But if you listen to it with fresh ears, Ezekiel 37 is, frankly, pretty gross.
“So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them…”
As I watched my friend listen to this story, it came alive for me in a new way. His face contorted in surprise and even disgust as in his mind’s eye he saw those scattered bones slink across the dry ground and leap up onto one another, the sinews appear and wrap around them and bind them together, the flesh creep across each bone and latch on to the skeleton, and skin slither over the raw meat until whole bodies stood before Ezekiel, whole but lifeless, waiting for breath to enter them.
Just imagine that scene—a vast multitude! The zombie apocalypse, right there in the Bible!
OK, this isn’t really the zombie apocalypse. But what happens in Matthew 27 is close. All four of the Gospels describe the death of Jesus, but only Matthew includes this scene:
“The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.”
I have a vivid image in my mind of the death of Jesus—the darkness at noon, the earthquake, the rocks splitting, and dead people crawling up out of their graves. If this sounds even more like the apocalypse, it kind of is. This is actually an apocalyptic fragment, a sort of retelling of Ezekiel 37 in the context of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
You see, what these phenomena tell us—the earthquake, the rocks splitting, the dead being raised—is that Jesus’ death and resurrection are of cosmic significance. Jesus defeated death, and it shook the foundations of the world. When Jesus died and rose again, he overturned the order of things and, by looking death in the face, gave us new hope. The reverberations of those events were felt throughout creation, and the power of his resurrection rippled out and spilled over, shaking the dead awake and giving us a foretaste of the resurrection to come.
Last week, I talked about the Apostle’s Creed, one of the statements of faith that sum up Christian beliefs. In it, we say that we believe in “the resurrection of the body.” This means two things: one, we believe that Jesus was raised from the dead not only in spirit but also in body; and two, we believe that we, too, will be raised at the last day—not only in spirit but also in body.
Paul emphasizes the importance of the general resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:
“For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins… If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.”
Paul also chastises those who ask what kind of body the dead have when they are raised—it is a mystery, and speculating about the nature of the resurrection, although fun at times, is not terribly helpful.
But for me, faith in the resurrection of the body changes how I live and how I understand myself and my relationship with God and with other people here and now. The resurrection of the body is to me a beautiful thing because it tells me that our bodies matter to God. God not only created our bodies, God will also raise our bodies to imperishability.
Our bodies matter to God—every bone, every sinew, every muscle, every skin cell. Our bodies matter to God in all their complexity and fragility. And so every fear we have for our bodies our minds, whether they be of goblins and werewolves or of illness and death, those matter to God too. In the crucifixion, God looks all of our deepest fears in the face, and in the resurrection, God rips off the mask and gives us profound hope that is not just for a distant future; it is for us here and now.
Wendell Berry wrote a poem called “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” In it, he says this: “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts. Practice resurrection.”
The facts are that there is much to fear in this world, things far worse than any haunted house or Halloween costume. Yet we are able to face those facts because the facts are not all there is. Beyond fear, beyond suffering, beyond even death there is joy, there is hope, there is peace.
Since Christ is alive, the resurrection is not just something to wait for—it is a reality right now. We can live in that hope now, even in the midst of fear. We can be joyful though we have considered all the facts. We can practice resurrection.
God asks Ezekiel, “Mortal, can these bones live?” The prophet replies, “O Lord God, you know.” God knows, God has spoken, and God will act. God will deliver us from ghoulies and ghosties and long legged beasties and things that go bump in the night. Amen.