Our Second Reading for today comes from the prophet Ezekiel, chapter 37, verses 1-14. Ezekiel speaks from Babylon, exiled from Israel - a nation and a people that had died. The temple and the city of Jerusalem - destroyed. Many in his community – hopeless. For the God who had delivered them from slavery in Egypt and dwelt in the Jerusalem temple had not rescued them from the Babylonian armies.
Despite all of this, Ezekiel has hope. He had discovered God’s grace. Twice before in this book of his prophesies, Ezekiel has declared that God will put a new spirit in God’s people, removing their hearts of stone. Knowing that this is God’s intent, in our text for today we get to see God in action. Let us hear this Word of God.
1The 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. 2 He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3 He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” 4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5 Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6 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.”
7 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. 8 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. 9 Then he said to me, “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.” 10 I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
11 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.’ 12 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. 13 And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14 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.”
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the mediations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
Throughout this week of preparation, I struggled with this text. I suspect that for many of you this is a pretty familiar passage of scripture. If this is the first time you have heard it, I hope you found it to be a compelling story.
Yet, I struggled. Not because I had not spent enough time in preparation, nor because I could not follow the story, not even because I could not see the essence of the gospel within. No, I struggled because I wanted to talk about resurrection, but I could not escape the dry bones.
Yes, I wanted to talk about resurrection. After all, today is the beginning of Masters Week here in Augusta. It is a week of celebration and triumph; a week in which half of Augusta leaves town for exotic destinations (or at least the beach). Those who remain pull out all the stops of hospitality to welcome the world.
Even more than that, this past Wednesday we concluded a five-week Wednesday Night Lenten Series on “Living the Sabbath” with a service dedicated to delight. We left the sanctuary with party blowouts and scripture verses of joy! It felt like we had reached the end of Lent. I was ready Easter and resurrection.
And this scripture text certainly contains that good news. That is what drew me to it months ago when I selected it for this Sunday. Yes, the Lord tells Ezekiel that he will open the graves of his people and they will live. The good news of resurrection is in this text.
But all week I kept hearing: “Not yet. Linger in the graveyard. Talk about the bones. Easter is coming, but you have to wait for it.”
And as I read the story again, I realized that just like me, Ezekiel did not choose this trip to the valley of the dry bones. He did not just wander over on an afternoon stroll. No, the hand of the Lord came upon him, the Spirit brought him out, and set him down in the middle of a valley. And it was full of bones. God put him in the valley. And together they walk around and around. There are many, many bones. And the bones are very, very dry.
And after lingering amidst the bones, for how long we do not know, the Lord asks Ezekiel a question: “Mortal, can these bones live?”
The obvious answer is no. The bones are too scattered. The bones are too many. The bones are too dry. No way that these bones could live. In the words of one who spent some time with the bones in the valley:
I am told God lives in me - and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great nothing touches my soul…I feel the terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting me, of God not being God, of God not really existing.
The writer of those despairing words has in recent years been named a saint a saint in the Roman Catholic Church – Mother Teresa. Yes, Teresa of Calcutta lingered in the valley of dry bones.
The Lord asks, “Mortal can these bones live?” And the prophet answers, “O
Lord God, you know.” This is one of the many places in scripture where I wish we could hear the tone of his voice. Plucked from exile in Babylon and carried to this valley of bones, does the prophet respond with weary resignation? O Lord God, the bones are too dry. You failed to help us when the Babylonians threatened. You know that the answer: No.
Or does the prophet speak with a glimmer of hope? O Lord God, you know. Life and death both find themselves in God’s hand and responsive to God’s command. If there will be life for these dry bones it will not come because they merely choose to live. If these bones live again it will be because God chooses life over death.
Yes, whatever the prophet’s state of mind, he speaks the truth. Life for these bones is not up to him. It was not his choice to come to the valley. It was not his choice to linger in the bones. It is not his choice whether the bones live or stay dead. Ezekiel cannot force resurrection no matter how badly he wants it. You and I cannot force resurrection no matter how badly we want it.
There is only one who has that power. There is only one who can make that choice. We can wait. We can obey. We can pray. We can prophesy. We can witness. But only God can choose life.
And God chooses life.
The command comes to prophesy to the bones that they should come together, bone to bone, be covered with sinew and muscle and skin. And with a great rattling the bones came together, bone to bone, with sinew and muscle and skin covering them. And they stood; a great multitude. These bones, dry beyond imagination, without hope of life, scattered across an entire valley, now stood bone to bone.
You have to wonder how long that took, for each bone to find its mates. Was it like dancing skeletons across the valley or a gradual recovering of a semblance of bodily form? But eventually they stood. Bones and sinew and muscle and skin - corpses now vertical.
But they remain lifeless. Bones and sinew and muscle, but no life. We are still forced to linger in this valley. And this is the question that perhaps has truly vexed me all week: how many of us find ourselves in exactly that kind of “lifeless” life? Every day we get up and go through the motions. Perhaps we rush from activity to activity without time to stop and appreciate what it is that we are doing. Perhaps our job stresses us out as it demands much and provides little in return. Perhaps we know the pain of grief and loss and struggle to the point where it is a challenge to open the blinds every morning. Perhaps we do good, we volunteer everywhere, and yet still feel like something is missing in our life. Perhaps we barely make it through today and cannot imagine what the future might hold. We are living, sure. We are standing up at least. But real life? I am not so sure.
In her novel Station Eleven, author Emily St. John Mandel tells the story of a world of not quite living. A devastating pandemic called the Georgian Flu killed the vast majority of humanity. Perhaps 1 in 300 survived. Almost all had been lost. St. John Mandel provides an incomplete list, including:
No more pools of chlorinated water, no more electricity, no more gasoline, no more cell phone screens lighting up dark rooms, no more pharmaceuticals, no more flight, no more fire departments, no more police, no more road maintenance, no more garbage pickup. No more internet or social media, no more reading and commenting on the lives of others and as a result feeling slightly less alone.
Yes, almost all had been lost, almost everyone had been lost. And yet there is still beauty. The novel tells a variety of stories, set twenty years after the flu, but most of the stories revolve around a group of artists – actors and musicians – who call themselves the Traveling Symphony. They walk or caravan in wagons from town to town, as much as towns exist, performing Shakespeare. The world is barely holding on, just bones and sinew and muscle and skin. And the Traveling Symphony sets up a stage in a parking lot and performs Shakespeare. Why? “Because survival is insufficient.” That is the motto they paint on their lead wagon.
My friends, survival is insufficient. That is what we discover as we linger in the valley of dry bones. The bones were dry, very dry and while minimal life might have been enough for them; while just standing up might be enough, it is not enough for God. We need to linger for a while in the valley to truly learn this truth. But as we wait, as we listen, eventually we hear: “Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will … put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord." And you shall know that I am the Lord. If we spend enough time with the bones we discover it is not enough for the dry bones to stand up in that valley, it is not enough for you and for me to just go through the motions of life, it is not enough for churches to do things just the way we have always done them. For God desires not only life, but that God’s new creation will know that the God is the Lord!
That is the gift of the Spirit in Ezekiel’s vision. The Spirit comes from the four winds, and brings breath to those who are barely living. This Spirit is life to those who are dead. It is breath to those whose lungs are worn out. The Spirit is the new life and hope that fills you and me, that overflows from a congregation when it is willing to not just stand, but to live and earnestly seek to know the Lord. The Spirit brings not just breath, but knowledge – knowledge of God and God’s amazing gifts and power.
My friends, God wants more for you; God wants more for me; God wants more for this church than mere survival. God invites you to know more, a faith and a life that is truly alive! We cannot force resurrection no matter how badly we want it. But as we linger with the bones we can know the ONE who brings resurrection. For it was in a graveyard that our risen Lord met Mary on that first resurrection day and where he might and he does meet you and me today
Thanks be to God.
Let us pray: