Dry Bones & the Breath of Life
Sermon on Ezekiel 37: 1 – 14 by Rev. Steven McClelland. Focus on how only God can bring life out of death.
To put it bluntly in the year 587 B.C.E., the nation of Israel ended. It’s long magnificent history covering thousands of years finished. Jerusalem and its holy temple utterly destroyed, leveled to the ground.
It’s hard for us to even imagine. As far as the eye could see the dessert was filled with the white bones of dead young men. The Babylonians had completely wiped out the Israelite army. The bodies hadn’t been buried, because no one was left to do the burying. And in time all that remained in hot sun were the bleached white bones of a dead nation.
And for the living, scattered like a giant jigsaw puzzle to the four corners of the earth, they dreamed of death as their last hope.
The people were living in such poverty that the writer of Lamentations looking upon his countrymen wrote these words. “The hands of compassionate mothers have boiled their own children. They have become their food in the destruction of the people.”
But there was one person who remained, one person who was transported to gaze upon this terrible valley of death, and into this of hopelessness and despair God comes to Ezekiel with the question, “Son of man, can these bones live?”
It’s still the same question today: “Can God bring life out of dry dead bones?”
Can God give a way where there is no way? Can God bring hope where judgment appears to reign.
In proverbs it says that “without a vision people will perish.” It’s still true to this day, but the prophets were different from the popular preachers of their day. There message wasn’t about self-improvements or that God wants you to be happy or that you deserve to be rich.
To be very honest they were not popular during their day because they spoke the truth. And the truth of God’s vision and word has never been one of giving the people the feel good theology that they wanted to here. It was based upon giving them the reality of their situation and their sin. It was a message offering Israel the courage to bear God’s judgment, so they could experience God’s grace.
The prophet Ezekiel had an urgent task before him. He had to confront the people with a sense of their sin, with their own complicity in a lifestyle of opulent abuse that had forgotten about the widows, the orphans and the poor.
One of the problems of being blessed is that in time you forget from who all blessings flow and you think it’s because of your brilliance or skill and you believe that these things are now an entitlement that you have earned. You forget that they were and always will be a gift of God’s grace.
And within a generation or two your children and grandchildren no longer are told the stories of God’s glory, they told the stories of your glory. You’re telling them how you got where you are. How you were able pick up your neighbor’s land at an auction for half of what it’s worth. You quickly rationalize to yourself that you’ve done nothing wrong. Its simply business and some people have good luck and others have bad luck.
You tell your children with pride and they tell their children with pride how this fortunate that you’re family has amassed is their inheritance because you’ve earned it and it’s yours to pass on as you see fit. And within no time at all there is a very, very rich class of people and a huge population of poor people.
Once you were twelve brothers, then twelve tribes, then one and soon none. Former brothers and sisters are now simply indentured servants. And low and behold you’ve completely forgotten that just a few generations ago you were wandering, poor and homeless in a desert looking for a better future that was given to you as a gift from God. A gift you and your descendants did not earn.
And even though your worship is still following the same form and custom it has become empty, without holiness because your concern for your poor brothers and sisters has morphed into – you get what you deserve – and you despise the very people who are your family.
This lesson didn’t come easy. It took a generation to learn it. It took until the people were without hope for it to arrive. And it did not come until the community, having all but given up hope, came to realize that they, no matter how pure their individual lives might have been, shared in the collective sin of their community.
Once this lesson is learned that judgment and hope are found in relation to one another, then anger and fear lose their hold over individual lives and a common life develops around a very common and necessary truth. You need each other to survive but you thrive because it has been God’s judgment that has bound you together as a community and now you are ready to experience what it means to live by God’s grace.
Paul Tillich speaks of this very phenomenon in his book The Shaking of the Foundations, when he says:
We do not like words such as ‘sin’ and ‘punishment’. They seem to us old fashioned, barbaric, and invalid in the light of modern psychology. But whenever I have met exiles of high moral standards and insight, I have discovered that they feel responsible for what has happened within their own countries. And very often I have met citizens of democratic countries, citizens of this country, who have expressed a feeling of guilt for the situation of the world today. They were right, and the exiles (in Israel) were right: they are responsible, as are you and I. Whether or not we call it sin, whether or not we call it punishment, we are beaten by the consequences of our own (apathy). That is the order of history. But at the horizon appears another saying, ‘our struggles are not in vain, and our iniquity is pardoned.’” (Tillich, “We Live in Two Orders”, p. 19)
It is precisely at this horizon that the vision of hope came to Ezekiel. The word of the Lord came to Ezekiel saying, “Son of man, prophesy to the bones. Son of man, prophesy to the breath. Son of man, prophesy to the people and give them hope. Thus says the Lord God: … I will put my Spirit within (them), and (they) shall live, and I will place (them) in (their) own land; then (they) shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken, and I have done it, says the Lord.” (Ezekiel 37:14)
It’s at the moment of deepest hurt, regret, and realization of our complicity with sin and self-indulgence that grace comes to us with fresh insight and hope. It comes when we have been humbled. It comes when we see our best answers and our most cherished conceptions of how God ought to work fail us. The Spirit comes bearing visions of hope when and where we least expect it. And the Spirit of God works this way so we’ll know that it is of God and not man.
This vision once seen in a desolate dessert has survived the test of time because it is the truth. It speaks the truth of what God wants and expects from us. It speaks the truth because it isn’t easy to hear, but it’s necessary to hear, because there is no such thing as easy or cheap grace.
Easter comes with the cost of the cross. It exposes our sin and it exposes God’s grace. Both are true but both are not always acknowledged. You can’t come back to life until you have acknowledged that you’ve been dead. It’s the only way back. Amen