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These Bones Live?"
There are many visions in the Hebrew Scriptures. And, for me, they have something in common with the parables of the New Covenant.
Just as the parables are stories that call upon us to use our imagination to interpret them, so are the visions also pushing us to use our imaginations in drawing conclusions as to their meanings.
This morning I would like to draw your attention to one of those visions, a vision of the prophet Ezekiel. Now, I suspect that there is an assumption that most of what the prophets did was warn the people of disaster if they didn’t change their ways.
But in the case of this vision, we are seeing another side of the role of the prophet. Ezekiel’s message is not one of despair, but one of hope. His purpose is not to chastise the people, but to cheer them on.
In the opening verse of the thirty-seventh chapter of the book of Ezekiel, we read, “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.”
So this is not an act on the part of Ezekiel, even in a visionary sense; it is an act of God. Notice the verbs: “came upon me...brought me out...set me down.” It is almost as if a parent were handling a small child.
And Ezekiel must be wondering, “What on earth am I doing here, in the middle of a valley full of bones?”
You know, God does that to us. God puts us in strange circumstances, leaving us to wonder “What am I doing here?” But God usually has a reason, if we’re willing to pay attention.
Ezekiel continues, “He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.”
God wants Ezekiel to soak up this experience: “very many...very dry.” I think God is trying to convey the immensity and the depth of a problem.
Sometimes when we experience pain or suffering or loss, we would like to be able to express that to others, but we can’t. We try, but words fail us. And when others say, sympathetically, “I know how you feel,” we would like to say, “No, you don’t.”
They simply cannot get inside us to feel as we feel.
Well, God is not saying anything to Ezekiel yet, but God is trying to convey a situation, to set a stage for Ezekiel with this valley full of very many, very dry bones. And then, God pops the question:
“He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.”
Talk about a packed verse! What IS God talking about? Ezekiel is a bit taken aback, and doesn’t really know how to answer. It’s a stumbling answer. Or maybe Ezekiel is saying, “That’s up to you!” “O Lord God, YOU know.”
But then, we need to wonder, is God talking about physical life? Or are these bones not what they seem? Are they dead or merely dormant? Is God raising the issue of hope?
A number of years ago, two western Kansas high schools played a football game. Stockton played Osborne. It was the last game of the season. Osborne had not won a game all year. Stockton had not won a game in three years. I’m sure that there were some Stockton folks who were wondering, “Can these bones live?” Well, Stockton won. And hardly anybody in Stockton, Kansas, slept that night, they were so excited.
“Can these bones live?”
“Then God said to Ezekiel, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.”
Now, would God call upon Ezekiel to exercise an act of futility? So the very fact that God calls upon us to do anything is a sign of hope. “Prophesy to these bones!” Well, God must know what God is doing.
But look at how the bones are addressed. They are addressed as DRY bones. And I suspect that there has been an absence of hope here for a very long time. These bones are in an advanced state of decay.
But God has something to say to them: “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.”
Now I suppose that we could get technical here and ask, “How can breath enter bones?” Well, it doesn’t. Of course, bones don’t have ears to hear, either. So what IS it that Ezekiel is prophesying, and to whom or what? I think he is prophesying the revival of a people.
The bones simply represent people who for a long time have given up hope. And God is telling them that he is prepared to breathe hope back into them.
When Ezekiel prophesies that “you shall live,” he is speaking of more than physical life. His people already have that. What they are lacking is a spiritual life that moves them out of their hopelessness.
The prophecy continues:
“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.”
Now, there is more to this than poetry. Look carefully at the structure of what God is doing. Sinews, flesh, skin, breath. This is the opposite of the process of the deterioration of the body: breath, skin, flesh, sinews.
But note also what God may be suggesting: that the renewal of hope may take place in stages, that it may require some patience, that it may take some time.
But in the process of all this happening, “you shall know that I am the Lord.” In other words, the manner in which this rebirth and renewal will take place will reaffirm the faith of Israel.
“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.”
The bones came together. Now ask yourself, in the revival of any community, in the revival of any people, what is the fundamental first requirement? Is it not that the people “come together”?
And on the other hand, when communities fail, it is usually because the “coming together” has ceased, when there is no common vision, no mutual hope, no coordinated planning for the future.
What had formerly been a community has degenerated into a collection of dry bones.
And in spite of the fact that lots of folks dislike organizations and meetings, even dislike organized religion, without that “coming together” we would be nothing but a collection of dry bones.
“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.”
So Ezekiel’s prophesying as God has instructed has brought the bones together. There are sinews and flesh and skin. But that is not enough. The breath is missing. We might say that the form is present, but the substance is lacking.
Is there a parallel here with the Pentecost experience? When the disciples were gathered together, but waiting for the Holy Spirit?
We definitely are reminded of the seventh verse of the second chapter of Genesis, when “the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.”
But that seems too simple. I think that the absence of the breath for the Israelites was an indication of inertia. They simply were not moving, not going anywhere.
“Then God said to Ezekiel, “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.”
“Breath” in this context can be understood on multiple levels. It can be that which indicates physical life. But the air that is inhaled and exhaled is also the air that is made manifest in the winds. And beyond that, understanding that the words for breath and wind and spirit are the same in Hebrew, breath is also the spirit that dwells in us. It is the Holy Spirit of God working through us. It is our spiritual motivation.
And when God calls upon the four winds, God is calling upon all creation to join together to give a rebirth to God’s chosen.
“I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.”
Ezekiel’s vision has moved from a valley full of very many, very dry bones to a valley filled with a vast multitude standing on their feet.
In our text this morning from the gospel according to John, Jesus resuscitates one man; but in Ezekiel’s vision, he has revived a whole nation.
But the dead that Jesus resuscitates and the dead that Ezekiel revive are dead in different ways. Lazarus was physically dead. Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days. As Martha said to him, “already there is a stench.” This is a palpable, rotting corpse.
But the dead whom Ezekiel revive in his vision are dead in spirit, and God spells it out to Ezekiel:
“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.”
They felt cut off in time and space: cut off from the Jewish heritage of their past, cut off from the promised land and from Jerusalem.
But the concept of dried up bones is deep in the culture. In the twenty-second verse of the seventeenth chapter of Proverbs, we read, “A cheerful heart is a good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones.”
So, to acknowledge dried up bones is to acknowledge a downcast spirit.
When God quotes the people as saying, “our hope is lost,” that may be understating it. The Hebrew root means not only “lost” or “gone,” as we find in contemporary translations. It means not only “to vanish,” but also “to perish.”
We might as well be reading, “Our hope is dead.”
So God says to Ezekiel, “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.”
We are now late in the season of Lent and anticipating holy week. And this morning we heard the story of Jesus bringing Lazarus back from the dead. So we may be primed to think of God’s message as referring to actual graves, or tombs.
But these people were not physically dead. They may have had the attitude, “I wish I were dead,” but they were not. God is speaking metaphorically, speaking to their spirits.
But I suspect that the people knew this. And many probably also saw a parallel with the Exodus from Egypt, when, in a sense, the Israelites were buried in bondage, but were brought up from that grave and brought back to the promised land.
God’s message to the people through Ezekiel continues:
“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.”
It is a message to a people in captivity, far from home, longing to return, but seemingly with all hope lost.
But it is a message to all of us, when our faith wavers and all seems to be lost. God is ever-present to breathe new life into our spirit.
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