In 2020, Lent, Holy Week, and Easter have taken place within the context of a worldwide Coronavirus pandemic. Liturgical practice the world over have undergone unprecedented challenges. Government regulations have closed churches, reduced others to a handful of worshippers, with many turning to live streaming via the internet to reach congregants confined in their homes. Rev. Dr. Timothy Quill, General Secretary of the International Lutheran Council, sends the following message of hope to Christians around the world.
The hand of the LORD was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones… Then he said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel.” Behold, they will say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Behold I will open your graves and raise you from you graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the Land of Israel… and I will place you in your own land.” – Ezekiel 37:1, 11-12, 14
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
On every continent people are hunkering down in their homes as the Corona Virus spreads around the world, leaving many people sick and many dead—a global valley of bones. Many people in post-Christian and increasingly secularized nations are living in fear and anxiety, without hope. Even if they dodge the bullet this time, the awareness of the fragility of life and their human mortality has made a deep-rooted impression.
For Christians, however, the Word of God brings hope, a sense of calm, and even joy. All three Scripture readings appointed for the 5th Sunday in Lent bring hope: Ezekiel 37:1-14; Romans 8:1-11; and John 11:1-53. What Ezekiel proclaimed to ‘dead’ exiles in Babylon, what St. John wrote in his Gospel about the resurrection of Lazarus and St. Paul’s in his Epistle to the Romans is that God gives life to the dead. “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies…” (Romans 8:11).
What we read in all three Scripture readings is indeed of great comfort as we find ourselves in the midst of a worldwide pandemic. Of course, this is nothing new. We have heard and confessed and sung about the resurrection long before the coming of the Corona Virus, and we will be doing so again long after COVID-19 is dead and gone.
Just nine days ago I brought the Lord’s Supper to an elderly homebound lady. The widespread effects of the Coronavirus were already being reported nonstop on TV news and talk radio. The dear lady told me she was concerned about the effect all of this was having on the children. When I asked her to elaborate, she explained that her twelve-year-old granddaughter was worried about the pandemic and recently asked mother, “Am I going to die?” As our conversation continued it was wonderful to learn that the girl’s parents were faithful Christians and to hear how her mother answered her: “All people will die one day, but do not worry because Jesus will always be with you no matter what happens, and you will be raised again to eternal life.”
I told the grandmother that her granddaughter was blessed to have such parents and a grandmother who faithfully teach their children about Jesus Christ and teach them how to pray. In times like these it is absolutely essential for children to know and pray the Lord’s Prayer, the Creeds, and Luther’s Morning and Evening Prayers, not to mention the well-loved classic: “Now I lay me down to sleep I pray Thee Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray Thee Lord my soul to take.”
When the Lord gave Ezekiel the vision of the field of dry bones, Ezekiel was with Israel in captivity in Babylon. Jerusalem and the Temple had been destroyed. The glory of the Lord had departed from the Temple. It was utterly devastating for God’s people. To make matters worse, their Babylonian captors tormented the Israelites demanding that they sing songs from their homeland, from Zion. But instead of singing they wept. Psalm 137:1-4 captures their anguish:
“By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our lyres. For there our captures required of us songs, And our tormentors, mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ How shall we sing the LORD’S song in a foreign land?”
Their refusal to sing was not simply a stubborn protest against being forced to entertain the Babylonians with national folk songs from their homeland. These were the Lord’s songs, namely liturgical music intended for use in the Temple liturgy. The Temple was destroyed. The liturgy and sacrifices which proclaimed and delivered the Lord’s eternal steadfast love, mercy, and forgiveness of sins had ceased to exist. God had abandoned the holy place on which he put his Name and mercy… but He did not abandon his people. The Lord sent His prophet Ezekiel to proclaim an “oracle of hope” to uplift His despairing people. The Lord showed Ezekiel a vision of dry dead bones which he was to use as the basis for his message of hope.
Following all the great battles of history, valleys were littered with the remains of soldiers slaughtered in combat, whose bones were picked clean by predators and bleached white by the sun. The same could be seen along the valley roads where women, children, and the elderly were forcibly marched by their captors, with thousands dying along the way. Every generation, including ours, has their valley of bones.
In Ezekiel’s vision, Israel’s exile is compared to a valley of dead dry bones. Dead bones cannot make themselves alive physically or spiritually. But the Lord, who breathed the divine breath of life into Adam promises to do so with his people. “Thus, says the Lord God to these bones: Behold I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the LORD (37:5,12,14). “I will do it,” declared the Lord, and He did it. But the children of Israel had to spend 70 years in captivity before they were released and allowed to return home, rebuild Jerusalem, rebuild the Temple, and resume the beautiful temple liturgy where they would again sing the Lord’s songs.
Today, churches all over the world stand empty and silent due to the Coronavirus and government regulations. Some are closed completely. Some allow only the pastor and a handful to gather. The thought of forbidding the Lord’s people from entering this holy place during Lent and Holy Week is heart-wrenching enough, but the idea of our churches standing devoid of the worshippers on Easter Sunday is even more heart-breaking. Thank God what is happening here today is not as extreme as the 70-year Babylonian exile. We anticipate that today’s interruption will only be a matter of weeks or months at most before things get back to normal, not seventy years.
Nevertheless, these unsettling days serve as a wakeup call for times when we are tempted to take the Lord’s divine services of Word and Sacrament for granted. For the Israelites, being cut off from the Temple liturgy was to be cut off from God’s gracious and life-giving presence—it was to be dead spiritually, real death, ultimate and eternal death. Thus, Israel confessed, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; and we are clean cut off” (37:11). This is a repentance which understands that apart from God’s mercy, all hope is lost—there is nothing we can do. It is up to the Lord to restore spiritual life, and this requires a divine act comparable to bringing the dead back to life. Thus, the Lord God commanded Ezekiel: “Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Behold I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people.”
Today’s events help us to understand how devastating the Babylonian Captivity was for God’s people. But they remained God’s people because he remained their God and did not abandon them. God has not and will abandoned us. In confessing our sins, we feel sick to the bone; a sense of hopelessness seeps in as we cut ourselves of from God and one another. But the Lord promised to open the tombs in which we have sealed ourselves with our sins and cut ourselves off from him.
Lazarus didn’t raise himself from the dead. He just lay rigid and alone in the horrible stench of death while his family grieved deeply wondering why their good friend Jesus allowed it to happen. The disappointment and grief among Lazarus’ sisters and friends was so deep that seeing it, Jesus Himself wept. However, the grief gave way to joy when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead.
Today we find ourselves between a sick and dying world and the celebration of the resurrection on Easter Sunday. In normal times, our beautiful churches around the world are filled on Easter, overflowing with worshippers, song, and joyous exclamations of alleluia. But even where the virus persists and churches remain closed or restricted to a handful of people, we still look forward to the resurrection with hope and joy.
The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
Rev. Dr. Timothy Quill preached the above sermon on the Fifth Sunday in Lent in 2020 at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, the large neogothic mother church in downtown Fort Wayne, Indiana. By law, only ten worshippers were allowed to gather in the beautiful sanctuary built in 1889 and capable of holding more than 1,000 worshippers. Despite this restriction, the service was live-streamed over the internet where it has received more than 1,000 views.