A few years ago I heard the news that a number of skeletons dug up in London – by crews excavating for a rail extension – were confirmed to be the remains of plague victims. This isn’t especially uncommon – in 1348 when the bubonic plague virus swept into Europe from its ancient foothold in central Asia the Black Death killed one third of the population of Europe – however when it reached London in June of that year 60% of the population died within months and victims were hastily buried in large communal pits. Survivors driven mad with fear assumed that this was the apocalypse, the end of history.

Europe survived, of course, though the flower of its medieval culture and intellectual accomplishment was snuffed out – in England vast tracts of agricultural land returned to the forest and whole villages were abandoned. The population took centuries to recover – it is impossible for us to imagine the fog of despair and hopelessness that would have clung to the landscape.

Two Sundays before Easter and the readings from the Bible speak to us of resurrection – not Jesus’ resurrection, but ours. Both in Ezekiel with the prophet’s mysterious vision of dry bones, and in John’s Gospel with the raising of Lazarus. Lazarus, as has often been remarked, never speaks – neither before his death nor after his raising. His experience is never described, but it is an experience we can’t help but wonder at, as we face the certainty of our own mortality. It isn’t a foretaste of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead because Lazarus, once raised, is still subject to the mortal conundrum that his life eventually will be hidden again in the darkness of death. But Jesus tells us clearly that death does not get the last word, in God’s scheme of things, and says to us: ‘I am the resurrection and the life’. Our assurance that our lives are meant not for oblivion but for resurrection is not a dogma, but a person.

But where the Lazarus story provides reassurance on an individual level, the mystery of resurrection in the prophet Ezekiel centres on a whole community that has given way to despair. This is good news for a nation that has faced the agony of military defeat and exile, the destruction of its temple and religious observances and the humiliation of its ruling classes. After years of siege during which the people of Jerusalem were reduced to near starvation and cannibalism, the fabric of Judean society disintegrated, the remains of the educated and governing class were dragged off in chains to Babylon, the prophet Ezekiel among them, and the only people who remained were the landless peasants. Effectively, Judah was no more.

The exiles were out of place, disconnected with everything that had made their lives meaningful, uncertain even how to worship God in a strange land. From this place of dislocation and despair, the prophet Ezekiel is visited by the spirit of God and is taken to this valley of dry bones.

Possibly the prophet is seeing a real burial place, the communal grave of the victims of starvation and disease during the years of siege. It is an appalling sight, and for Ezekiel as a priest, also a place of ritual contamination and impurity. And this burial pit has become a symbol for the people who are now apart from God and who have no life or hope remaining in them. The tension between life and death, ritual cleanliness and impurity points to the underlying problem for the people in exile: where is God? With the Temple in ruins and surrounded by a strange landscape and foreign customs, where is their centre and their hope? And the prophet asks, "can these bones live?".

Many commentators have seen in this image the frustration and despair of faith communities clinging to what sometimes seems like the anachronism of religious rituals in a sea of secularism. Marooned by the passing of what used to be known as Christendom – the age of Christianity in which faith and society were synonymous – the Church now finds it speaks a language nobody else seems able to hear or understand. Exiled – so to speak – in a foreign land that worships the strange gods of consumerism and nationalism, Christian communities can lose their faith, find themselves going through the motions out of habit, no longer sustained by creed or sacrament. We see this not only in dwindling attendance at church services, but in congregations that disconnect from the basics of living together as a community of faith: no longer studying and praying together or working together for the good of others. We ourselves can become the dry bones of the faith we proclaim.

But the real power of this parable is more fundamental, more immediate. It speaks directly to any community that faces loss and dislocation and no longer has confidence in its own familiar ways. It speaks to us in our own plague year when in just a couple of weeks everything we thought had given us security and much that we thought gave us purpose has evaporated. We are no longer the lucky country. The wealth and individual freedom that we have taken for granted seems to have become a liability. We fear the illness and calculate our own personal odds - we look nervously at the grim logic of triage that prioritises treatment for those least likely to suffer the gravest outcomes. Or the other grim logic of economic contraction that is closing whole industries and leaving workers - especially the young and economically most vulnerable - without the means to pay for the basics of life. Can these dry bones live again?

Pope Francis a few days ago preached a powerful homily in which he pointed out that pandemic, like famine and war and climate change - are the inevitable consequences for a human species that is heedless of the consequences of its overconsumption, competitiveness and fixation on endless growth. This is not a punishment from God, the Pope insisted - as I did also, last week - but is what we Aussies refer to as a wake up call. Like climate change, like the ever expanding and more devastating bushfire season in our country, like the accelerating loss of biodiversity as more and more species fall extinct, like the loss of wetlands and the threat to rural communities as reliable water sources run dry, a novel coronavirus that piggybacks on our global systems of transportation and our patterns of human behaviour is also the consequence of human failure to live in harmony with the earth that is our home. Can we learn new ways of living in harmony both with the earth and with one another?

The parable of Ezekiel tells us that the future belongs to God, and that God is the one who is capable of bringing new life out of the human situations that reek of despair and death. God doesn’t ask Ezekiel for help in reassembling the bones – resurrection is God’s initiative and God’s project. But that doesn’t mean to say we don’t have a part to play! We participate in resurrection to the extent that we take it seriously and act towards it. Ezekiel didn’t just see the vision in the valley of dry bones; he also saw the reality of a community in exile who believed the good news that they had not been abandoned by God, and who were prepared to become the good news that they had received. Ezekiel and others such as the prophet Jeremiah encourage the people to put their faith in God’s promises into action – to build homes in Babylon, to get married and raise children and work for the good of the community in which they found themselves. And as it turned out the 70-odd years of exile were a time of unprecedented creativity and growth in cultural and religious identity. When the exiles – now calling themselves Jews - eventually returned to the land they knew God not just as the dangerous presence confined to the Temple in Jerusalem but as the one who could be trusted to accompany them through thick and thin.

Crisis is nothing new – our responses to both the slow-moving climate crisis and the exponentially rapid tsunami of COVID19 echo the experiences of ancient populations, like the despair that gripped the population of Europe in the fourteenth century. As a community of faith we have one essential difference – as Archbishop Rowan Williams put it – as Christians we are necessarily prisoners of hope. We believe in God’s faithfulness and God’s ability to bring new life from death-dealing situations. But that good news comes with a warning – which is that to be a community of faith we must also be a community who dares to put God’s promises into action, a community of hope that puts flesh and blood on the promises of God. Like God’s people in exile we must dare to live God’s promises of new life – the God who promises liberation for captives and justice for the oppressed, the God who promises to be with us always, the God who pledges an everlasting covenant with all that lives, that never again will the Earth be submerged beneath the deep waters of death.

If we believe God’s promises and if we live toward them with passion and conviction – then these bones will live.