Ezekiel 37: 12-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8: 8-11; John 11: 1-45

by Jude Siciliano, OP

Dear Preachers:

I have made promises I haven’t kept. Sometimes I forget, or just never get around to them. I don’t think I intentionally lie when I make those promises. People say I’m a responsible person. But still, there are those promises hanging up in the air, unfulfilled. I need to get to them!

It is a different case with God. God is a "Promise Keeper." We hear one of God’s promises today from the prophet Ezekiel. This wasn’t just any old promise, not like some of ours, "I promise, I’ll pick up ice cream on the way home." God is making a promise to people who are in desperate straits. With authority Ezekiel ends his prophecy in God’s voice, "I have promised and I will do it says the Lord." Why did the people need to hear a promise from God?

We usually associate a prophet with harsh, confronting language, directed to a resistant people who need to be shaken out of their lethargy, or downright indifference to God. The prophets tried to reconcile people with God, sometimes at great costs to themselves. Ezekiel started as a prophet in that strong, confrontational tradition. He preached against a sinful Judah. But the people ignored his warning and, as he had predicted, the Babylonians conquered the nation. The prophet was one of the first to be taken off into slavery.

Ezekiel’s name means "God is strong" or, "God strengthens." Because of the suffering of the enslaved people Ezekiel’s message changes to one of hope. He encourages the Jewish people to trust that God was with them; yes, even in their place of misery, where God felt most absent. Here comes the promise: God would intervene and come to their aid.

What a consoling message Ezekiel had for the people! Previously he had described the people as "dry bones" (37:1-14). They had ignored his warnings. Now he speaks to them as if they were dead; which they were, because of their past sins and refusal to hear God’s word. They are people in a "grave," as good as dead. But God would come to the dead people and raise them from their graves. "O my people, I will open your graves." Didn’t Jesus fulfill that promise when he shouted at the grave of Lazarus, "Come out!" – And Lazarus returned to life? See, God is a Promise Keeper.

As I write this we are approaching the anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The news presents images of bombed Ukrainian cities, mass graves and people weeping over dead family and friends. Similar images come from Turkey and Syria, where over 41,000 people have died. People in such horrific tragedy are tempted to give up on God. It’s hard to blame them. "How could God let this happen to us?", they cry. Similarly, Ezekiel’s people had given up on God. There was nothing left for them in their destroyed homeland and worse, they were slaves in a foreign land under the cruel fists of their conquerors.

God breaks through the tears and grief and speaks to the mourners looking at their graves. "I will open your graves and have you rise from them and bring you back to the land of Israel." The people are surrounded by dirt and death. How is God going to pull this off?

The prophecy echoes the creation story in Genesis. There, God’s breath is life-giving. That is what Ezekiel evokes: the God of life will breathe into a people as good as dead, bring them to life, and return them to their promised land. What have the people done to deserve this?

Ezekiel hasn’t interrupted a prayer service to tell the people God is rewarding them for their fidelity. No, it’s a familiar biblical story, God takes the initiative to come to a people in slavery, either because of a conquering nation, or by their own sins. God offers them a free gift, without prerequisite merits of their own. What must they do? Accept God’s free offer and then live changed lives. Doesn’t that sound like Lent to you?

Lent is a time we are preparing for the free gift God has promised: "I will open your graves." That’s just what God did for Jesus and now does for us. It is a time to accept God’s offer of life; repent of our sins; embrace the resurrected Jesus and the new life he gives us.

"I have promised and I will do it, says the Lord."

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