Preaching to Dry Bones, Ezekiel 37:1–14, Fifth Sunday in Lent, March 29, 2020
The Lenten cycle is drawing to a close. This is the last numbered Sunday in Lent; next Sunday begins Palm Sunday and Holy Week.
In our Old Testament text today, God shows the prophet Ezekiel a vision that is quite dramatic and it brings the resurrection to a whole army of dry bones. Some might consider this one of the most well-known and potent Old Testament texts in the lectionary cycle. Some probably have the old spiritual ringing in their ears after hearing today’s reading.
Visualize for a moment those who were dead breathing again, physically breathing again. But Ezekiel is also seeing what that breath can mean for us spiritually. Ultimately, of course, his vision is a picture of what Jesus does for us.
What could be worse than preaching to a congregation of dry bones, well this morning I’m tempted to respond: preaching to an empty sanctuary! Can I get an Amen! I said can I get an Amen!
The Spirit of the Lord took Ezekiel to a valley. As Ezekiel looked around there were all kinds of human bones scattered around in the valley. God commanded Ezekiel, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD.”
Ezekiel did as God commanded and as he took the word from God and gave it to the bones, there was a sound, and behold, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. And Ezekiel looked, and behold, there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them. But there was no breath in them.
Then the Lord commanded Ezekiel to prophesy to the wind to fill the lungs of these bodies. Ezekiel did as God commanded and as he took the word from God and gave it to the wind, the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army. (4-11)
Ezekiel had spent the first part of his ministry destroying the misplaced hope of the exiled people of Israel. You may remember that Nebuchadnezzar had exiled them in stages. Ezekiel was part of the first stage, the upper crust of the society, the people that Nebuchadnezzar thought most likely to lead another revolt. He brought them to Babylon as sort of a hostage group, in an effort to secure the good behavior of the folks whom he left behind to till the fields and pay the taxes, especially pay the taxes.
Once the final destruction of Jerusalem happened, however, Ezekiel became a prophet of hope. I’m sure Israel felt like dried up bones, people abandoned by God. The hope they had of returning to their homes was shattered by Nebuchadnezzar’s army. But Ezekiel calls them to a new hope, a hope in God. The covenant had not been broken; indeed, the old covenant was still in force. The exile was simply the covenant in action. God would restore the fortunes of His people, no matter how difficult that looked.
Today, we are the House of Israel, the Holy Christian Church, we are the dry bones. The Holy Spirit took us when we were dead in our trespasses and sins and added sinews and muscle, flesh and skin, and continuously breathes the breath of life into us. The Holy Spirit, by the power of His Word, has made us alive in Christ Jesus our Lord. That is the power of God’s Word, to take dead, dry, sinful bones and make them alive in Christ.
As we look around the world right now it appears that all our hopes many have been dashed. It seems even worse than the old corrupt and dying world which we knew before. We were tired of it then, we are even more tired of it now. Ezekiel points us to another object for our hope.
First of all, Ezekiel prophecies to the bones and the wind, and they hear his call and obey him. The word of the prophet is potent because it is also the word of the Creator and Lord of the universe. We too are prophets of a sort. We bear witness to the good Word of God. We go out with that message of hope which is empowered by the Holy Spirit to give life to the people who hear it.
Ezekiel seemed to be given an impossible task; his audience was bones, dead dry bones. Talking to them did not seem like it should work. But when God sends us out with a job to do, a Word to speak, it is with His power and Spirit that we speak.
Our neighbors may not seem like they are receptive to our word, they may seem like difficult “nuts to crack.” But it is not our word which we speak; it is Christ’s Word which we speak, empowered by His Holy Spirit. That makes all the difference, that Word is effective.
Secondly, death itself is undone. The bones are very dry, this is no resuscitation, but a re-creation of the very flesh and sinews and skin which are necessary for human life. These guys have been dead a long time.
The people of Ezekiel’s day were without hope, Ezekiel called them to new hope, not in the sort of things which might normally give hope, but in the promise and the gift of God. This is critically important. God can undo even the biggest problem of all.
Do we continue to hope for what God has promised? Will any of us be disappointed if the Savior shows up and says, “forget about the plans you had for this weekend, I have Heaven for you”? At what point do we imagine that all is hopeless, and we are cut off from God?
The Israelites were discouraged because their nation was in ruins. Perhaps our nation, our kingdom, our congregation, our lives, are in ruins too, or at least a hollow shell of their once greater glory, or what we think they should be.
To replace discouragement with hope takes time and the Spirit. Ezekiel used the powerful image of resurrection, but it is not just a resurrection of the body, but of much more. For the Israelites it was the resurrection of their nation and their community. And it really did happen, by the way. The Jewish culture today is one of the oldest contiguous cultures in the world. They have lived most of that without out their homeland, preserving themselves as a pilgrim people, exiled from their homeland. It is a noble story.
This morning I am preaching in a building which was designed to seat well over a hundred people but is empty on this Sunday morning. The budget is extremely tight; the future looks grim. The message I give to you is the same as Ezekiel, a message of hope.
God also works resurrection, but often it comes in surprising ways. The Jews returned when their captors decided one day to let them go home. They were looking for a new Moses like figure, someone who would smite the Babylonians with plagues, but God started with Nehemiah and Ezra, folks who worked inside the Persian Empire, folks who led very differently than Moses.
This hope belongs to God, not to us. We don’t get to define the hope; we just get to have it. God’s answer for the Jewish folks a long time ago was not that the kingdom of David would be restored as they envisioned it. They spent many long years as a backwater outpost of the Persian, then the Greek, and then Roman Empires. When the new David came, He was so outside of their expectations, they almost did not recognize Him, at least many did not.
The Word and the Kingdom of His Church belong to God. He loves the good work of His Church and He will see that it happens. The good work of this congregation, of you and me, lies in His hands, and He will bring it to fruit to harvest. It might not include this building, it might not include our timeline, but it will include His Kingdom.
Hope means we have our hearts opened to the wonderful and new ways that God will accomplish this. God never forgets His promises. He had told David that his son would always rule, He told the people of God that He would bring them home. He told them that if they worshipped other Gods He would send them away to chastise them. He promised them prophets and leaders like Ezekiel.
It is Jesus who gives us the hope of resurrected life. In the Gospel reading, Jesus speaks, “Lazarus, come out,” and Lazarus receives his resurrected life. In fact, “an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear [Jesus’] voice and come out” (John 5:28–29).
The hope that Jesus gives re-creates both soul and body. Remember how very physical the resurrection was that Ezekiel saw. The hope that Jesus gives reaches even those in the grave. This hope of resurrected life happens because Jesus gave up His life on the cross.
This is our sure comfort and hope, because “if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Rom 8:11).
Today God calls us all to receive the hope of resurrected life that comes only from Jesus. In Him is a hope for the weary and heavy-laden, for the crushed in spirit, for the despised and lowly. The hope He gives enters into the deepest dryness of your life and revitalizes who you are beyond all understanding. Yes, in Jesus is a hope of life that extends even beyond the grave.
Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Jesus loves you, He does not forget about you in death, but He who has given His life for you, grieves over your death and promises that He has done something about it in His passion, crucifixion, and resurrection.
The resurrection is not some float on a cloud sort of thing, but a real, flesh and blood sort of thing. You are fearfully and wonderfully made, God delights in the creation and you can expect to see Him act to save it, including your own dry bones. Amen.