Lent 5a, April 2, 2017

April 3, 2017

Fleshing Out the Dry Bones

Ezekiel 37:1-14


1 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. 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.


I don’t want to create any unease this morning, but I’m in some unfamiliar preaching territory this morning. As you have noticed, I’m using a text from the Old Testament for our scripture, and this isn’t something I do very often. Chances are, nobody’s going to get hurt as a result of my inexperience, but we’re in some uncharted territory.


It may not seem like a big thing. And you would think a seminary trained pastor would be certified for preaching from both testaments, but it’s a different undertaking on some level. I’m oriented around preaching from the gospels which are very focused on Jesus and I don’t believe the prophet, Ezekiel, wasn’t thinking about Jesus when he wrote these words. It’s not in conflict with Jesus, but it’s not about Jesus. Of course a lot of people have wondered what Ezekiel was thinking about when he wrote some of the things he wrote, but this is such an iconic text it’s worthy of our attention. No doubt this is a passage Jesus would have been familiar with and it’s interesting to think of how it might have somehow shaped who he was and what he did.


On some level I feel that when we look at Jesus we are looking at a person who was able to put flesh on the essential bones of the Hebrew scripture. I’m certainly influenced by what I believe about Jesus when I look at this passage from Ezekiel, but I also believe it’s good for us to try to understand what Ezekiel was saying to the people of Israel when he shared his remarkable vision.


So I’ve done a little homework, and here’s what you should know about the situation. The prophet, Ezekiel, was living in or near Jerusalem the time that King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon conquered the Southern Kingdom of Israel, which was the region known as Judah. This was going on around 600 BC, and Nebuchadnezzar exiled many of the leaders of Judah to Babylon. That was a terrible thing, because the people of Israel believed God resided in the Temple in Jerusalem. The Babylonians knew this about them, so carting the Israelites off to Babylon was a great way to make them suffer. But things continued to deteriorate between the Israelites and the Babylonians, so the Babylonians actually destroyed the Temple in 587 BC.


Ezekiel was one of the Prophets who saw all of this destruction coming. And even before the exile occurred he had tried to warn his people that they needed to repent of their unfaithfulness to God in order to avoid the pending disaster. But they didn’t heed his words, and they found themselves in this horrible situation of living in Babylon and knowing that their revered temple had been destroyed.


This is the background for today’s reading. And I sort of get the context of the situation, but honestly, I don’t even have the illusion that I understand what they were feeling. Now I think I’ve probably mentioned how I didn’t exactly feel at home in the part of the world where I was first appointed as a pastor, but I assumed God knew how to get there. And that’s not how the Israelites felt about Babylon. They felt like they were living in a place that was cut-off from God, and it’s not easy for me to enter in to the mind of these people who felt so utterly removed from the presence of God.


Now in my opinion, Jesus was very clear about the place where God abides, and it isn’t a place at all. The spirit of the living God is not confined to any particular place. Jesus didn’t want us to connect God with any piece of real estate, but I don’t think it’s unusual for any of us to find ourselves living in a situation where we feel cut-off from God.


I know there are degrees of alienation from God, and I don’t want to engage in any kind of comparison in regard to the various ways people feel removed from God. Certainly there is always someone who has experienced an even greater degree of alienation from God than what someone else has experienced. But it’s accurate to say that the Israelites who were living in Babylon in the early part of the 6th Century BC, were experiencing a dark night of the soul. They couldn’t help but believe that God had abandoned them – and for good reason. They were conscious of their unfaithfulness, and they couldn’t see how their relationship with God was going to be restored.


But Ezekiel could. Ezekiel had always been able to see unusual things. In fact people are still trying to figure out what he was talking about with some of the things he described seeing. Because of his visions of those multi-wheeled vehicles in the sky he’s become the patron saint of UFO enthusiasts, but he’s probably best known for this vision he had of the valley of dry bones that were mysteriously and profoundly brought to life by the word of God.


The surviving people of Israel couldn’t see how they were going to make it. They were cut off from the land and the traditions that they considered to be their link with God – until Ezekiel shared with them this vision that God had placed within his heart.


And when we read of what Ezekiel saw we don’t have to get caught up in the biology of how dry bones could be reassembled as actual human beings. We are invited to get caught up the theology of a man who had been called by God to bring hope to some people who were living in utter despair. We don’t have to wonder what this is about because we know what those exiled Israelites came to understand – which is that true life is a mysterious gift that isn’t controlled by the powers of this world. King Nebuchadnezzar had been able to wreak havoc for the people of Israel. Their loved ones had been killed, their families had been torn apart, their glorious temple had been turned to rubble, but the word of the Lord came to Ezekiel. God provided Ezekiel with a vision of life being restored to those who’s lives had been turned in to dusty bones.


Unlike the exiled Israelites, we aren’t people who share a common sense of crisis, but I don’t think any of us are unfamiliar with the experience of crisis. And I may be wrong about this, but I’m guessing most of us have been drawn in to the church because of some kind of crisis. There are many other factors that attract us and connect us to the church, but I suspect many of us are here because at some point we have been in need of the healing and the hope and the support that we get from the church – the living body of Jesus Christ. The church represents a message and a type of community that we don’t get from anywhere else.


I believe most of us are drawn to church because we have had the experience of recognizing that having flesh on our bones and breath in our lungs isn’t enough. Fortunately, we haven’t had to march past a valley that held the dry bones of our friends and family members who were killed by hostile invaders, but we are people who know what it feels like to experience tragedy and loss. What we know is that our lives can be reduced to dusty rubble while our bodies are still fit and we are living in the homes of our choice.


I’m guessing most of us have witnessed and experienced something along the lines of a valley of dry bones. Life can be very hard. It’s not unusual for people to feel like they are standing in the middle of a valley of dead, dry bones. It’s more or less what some people see as soon as they wake up in the morning and it’s the last thing they see as they go to bed at night. Some of us don’t see the dusty rubble of life until we wake up in the middle of night and wonder how in the world we will ever find a way to navigate the deathly obstacles that loom so clearly before us, but this image of standing in the middle of a valley of dry bones describes a type pf landscape that many people know too much about, and it’s hard for some people to believe that this isn’t the final and most real scene.


I’m grateful to say that I don’t regularly harbor such a scene of despair in my mind, but I know what it feels like to stand in such a place. I can’t really explain why I stepped into such a place, but there was a period of time in my life that I was tormented by despair. There was a time when I was a young adult that I had trouble seeing anything that provided me with hope. I may well have had some kind of chemical imbalance going on in my brain. There may well have been some kind of pill I could have taken that would have helped me see things a little differently, but what I know helped me was coming to hear a message that redefined reality for me in a significant way.


I was searching for something that made sense to me, and I am grateful to say I found a church that presented Jesus in a way that spoke to me. I wasn’t a newcomer to church, but I needed a new view of Jesus, and I found a place where I came to experience the unconditional and healing love of Christ. I didn’t have an instantaneous experience of healing when I stepped in to the campus ministry community at the University of Arkansas, but I know I was helped by what I came to hear about who Jesus was, and how loving God really is. Such talk of Jesus didn’t immediately resolve my deep sense of despair, but in a gradual way I came to trust that things were going to be ok.


The external features of my life didn’t change at that time, but I came to see the world in a new way, and that changed everything. And I don’t think what I experienced is that different from what the Israelites experienced when they heard this message from Ezekiel. He was telling them that they weren’t cut off from the love of God and that with God there was hope for their future.


God didn’t actually put new flesh on those dry bones, but God used Ezekiel to speak a word that put new life in to the hearts of some people who were feeling as good as dead.


I believe this passage of scripture is a powerful portrayal of how powerful words can be in our lives, and how a gracious word spoken at a critical time can make all the difference in our lives. Ezekiel provided a vision to some people who were without hope for a future, and it turned everything around for them. It had the ring of God’s truth to it, and it changed the course of their lives.


I believe God wants us all to find our way in to abundant life, and I believe God can use us any one of us to be the bearer of that message. Ezekiel’s message wasn’t really any different from the message of Jesus – it is the message of God’s abundant love for us all and God’s ongoing desire for us to abide in the kingdom of God.


It’s a beautiful thing the way that God uses people and words to spread this timeless and divine message of God’s love and concern for each of us.


Thanks be to God.





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