Two Sundays before Easter, on this fifth Sunday of the Lenten season we are pointed toward Easter with two very interesting resurrection stories. In the Gospel reading from John, we heard of the resurrection of an individual and in Ezekiel we heard the resurrection story of a community: a community that considered itself lifeless, beyond hope and filled with despair.
Being a minister is an interesting thing, especially when it comes time to write sermons because you never know from week to week what kind of startling things God is going to place in your heart to preach. I have finally figured out that whatever it is that gets put into my heart to preach means that somehow or other it is supposed to get to your ears to hear and between my heart and your ears we are being called on to DO SOMETHING and it is always just a little bit startling and a whole lot of wonderful when that happens.
And I say that because it somehow felt like today that I should be preaching the Lazarus story because who doesn’t want to be reassured about our personal resurrection? But instead I was drawn to the Valley of the Dry Bones that God lead Ezekiel to and I found I wanted to figure out what those bones meant to Ezekiel’s community then and how in the world does this speak to us now?
Will you pray with me please? May the Words of my mouth and the meditation of all of our hearts and minds be acceptable in your sight O Lord. Our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen
It may seem strange to hear me talk about a pile of dried up bones as a community, but here’s why.
In 587 BCE, or 587 years before the birth of Christ, the nation of Israel, had undergone an incredibly long siege by the Babylonians. Many of the elite of the kingdom of Judah, including the prophet Ezekiel, had been taken out of the country and into exile in Babylon. The Babylonian siege was a time of devastation and despair. The city of Jerusalem once a vibrant and thriving economic and spiritual community was laid to waste and left in ruins and the temple was destroyed. The people who were left behind lived in poverty beyond anything they could have ever imagined. Those taken into exile lived in a strange land with spiritual practices different from what they knew and they were longing for their homes. From his place in exile, Ezekiel knew what was happening in Babylon and heard about the things that were happening at home. It is from this place of despondency and woe that he is visited by the spirit of God and taken to this valley of dry bones.
There is something kind of starkly awful about the idea of being placed in an area that has no life and is piled with bones, lots and lots of bones all over the place, bones that had been lifeless for so long that they were bleached white with the sun. For our ancient brothers and sisters in faith there would have been an added significance here because dead bodies were considered to be impure. As a priest, Ezekiel would have understood this to be the severest condition of ritual impurity and contamination, so there is a level of repulsion in this vision that we don’t understand today. But Ezekiel understands. He is in a valley that if full of bodily remains, a place full of impurity, he understood it to be a symbol of the people who feel that they are apart from God. In the shadow of this valley, and looking through Ezekiel’s eye we are being shown the Holy and the unholy, the pure and the impure, God present and God absent.
Ezekiel is standing, either in memory or in reality in the midst of one of the battle fields where many had fallen. He was brought by the spirit and set down in this valley. “There were many bones,” he said “and they were dry.” The words are chilling, but in them we hear and see the utter devastation, the desolation, the hopelessness that was gripping the people of Israel during this time of exile. God calls him to bring words of hope to God’s people and Ezekiel wonders what word he could possibly speak that would bring any hope to their situation? Standing in the valley filled with the bones of dead men, bones that aren’t even connected to each other anymore Ezekiel hears God’s question, “Can these bones live?”
I assure you, that if it were me who was looking at this vast landscape of death I would have felt so overwhelmed that my answer probably would have been “no” Thank goodness it was Ezekiel there that day because Ezekiel was about to respond from a place of faith and says, “God, you know.” and hearing this faithful response God says “Then prophesy to these dead bones and say, ‘O dry bones, hear the Word of the Lord.”
Now I have preached in some interesting situations, but that is something that I have never been called on to do, and I give Ezekiel a lot of credit. He didn’t question, he didn’t say, “Lord, these are just bones, they don’t even have ears! What can they hear, what can I preach?” It made me wonder what might happen to me if I stood in the middle of a cemetery and said “Um…excuse me…The Lord told me to tell you that you are going to breathe again.” Ezekiel had no such hesitation, he shouts out through the valley “The Lord says, I will breathe into you and you will come to life.”
There is a great noise and a rattling and the bones start to move and they start getting reconnected and where there was once a valley of dry bones there now stood a valley of bodies but there was still something missing, “there was no breath in them” So the Lord God said to Ezekiel, “Call forth the breath and say, “come forth from the four winds, O breath, breathe into those who are slain that they may live.’” and the breath came and they came to life. They stood on their feet and there was a host of them. Hear the Word of the Lord!
What does that story say to you? Is it just a story of an ancient miraculous happening? Is it a myth-an allegory, which says one thing but is meant to imply something else? Is there a Word from the Lord for you today in that story?
Do you want me to give you a hint? Here is what I am thinking. That what Ezekiel wanted to say to the people of Israel is what I want to say to you today. The context of our human condition has changed but the content of the faith remains the same.
Israel had experienced joy and prosperity in their land and they thought that this way of living would go on forever. They thought that they could celebrate and enjoy life that they could plan and do whatever they wanted. They were people of God and they believed that they would be blessed forever…and then the Babylonians came and life changed.
And somehow that feels way too similar to life today. How many of us just a few short years ago, were saying about life…this is wonderful, we are prosperous, this will last forever…and then 100 dollar-a-barrel oil, and dropping stocks and lost 401K’s and the housing crash happened and it changed our outlook and it changed some of our lives. How many of us have had plans with loved ones, a bright shiny future ahead only to have the unthinkable happen when a dear one dies? To lose a job that provides for your family, to experience a difficult illness? So many things that can ruin our dreams, dash our lives to the ground
One of the most devastating parts of an experience like that is not that we have fallen, or that we are broken; it is the fear that we will never revive and recover. As we lie in our own valley we may well be asking “can these bones live?”
And as God said to Ezekiel I say now to you… “hear the Words of the Lord.” Are you ready to hear them?
When Ezekiel heard God’s words he did three things. First, he was bluntly realistic about his true situation. He didn’t look at the world through rose –colored glasses, he didn’t say “This is a dream and it will pass, or this is a nightmare and it cannot be happening.” The reality of the human condition is that no amount of grief, no amount of wishing it away can change the reality of things that have passed. There are opportunities of being and of doing which, when they are not taken, lie among the dry, bleached bones of the day that has passed.
This is what we sometimes feel happens to us This is what the Israelites believed had happened to them that their bones were dried up and there was no hope.
In that hopelessness, Ezekiel acknowledged the ultimate reality of a God who was faithful; he listened to what God had to say. “Can these bones live?” I don’t know God, You know. You can do things that I cannot. You can see things that I cannot see. Speak, I am listening.
When Ezekiel became ready to listen, he was also ready and willing to be an instrument in the hands of God. He was willing to do and to say whatever God wanted him to do or say. No matter how farfetched it may have appeared to him at the time and his faith was rewarded.
Some people say “God helps those who help themselves.” I say “God helps those who help God help them.” This is what Ezekiel did. He did all that he could do to help God help the people of Israel and the Spirit of the Lord revived the people.
Jesus said that is how the Spirit of the Lord is: “It is like the wind. You do not know whence it comes or where it goes, but you hear the sound of it and you cannot deny the evidence of it”
I cannot explain the breath of God. I cannot explain the Spirit, but I have felt its power to lift me up from devastation and desolation. I have felt the breath of hope that only God can give. Our God is a faithful God and I believe, I know that the power of the Spirit, that breath of hope is there for you too. Regardless of the circumstances in which you find yourself. Immanuel, God is with us. Today as we gather at the foot of the cross, the last leg of our Lenten journey awaits us, down the Via Delarosa, up the hill to Golgotha. We may be approaching that cross feeling like a bunch of dry lifeless bones. But today and every day…Lift up your head, open your heart and take a deep breath and God’s Spirit will be with you. That is the Word of the Lord. You can trust it. There is still breath, the breath of hope for dry bones. Breathe deep! Hallelujah Amen