Primary Text: Ezekiel 37
Traditionally, preachers use this story to yell at their church. They compare the church to the valley of dry bones. The church has lost its way. The churches is small and weak. The church needs a revival. I have two problems with that. One: it insults the church. And two? It’s thinking way, way too small.
In today’s reading, God takes the prophet Ezekiel and plants him in a valley covered with bleached, bare bones. We don’t recognize it, because our lives are so different now. But for the majority of human history, this is what it looks like to lose. There are no treaties. No negotiation. The only memorial is a valley where no one wants to walk anymore. Ezekiel stands on the battlefield where his nation died. They’re not wounded. They are not martyrs to rally the people. They are gone. And God speaks into that moment. “Can these bones live?”
Now do you see why this cannot apply to our church? The fruit of the Spirit are real in this place. Are we dead? Are we gone? Are all our choices behind us? Are you kidding me?! This building is potential. Our children are potential. And you? You are so much more than potential! You are reality.
This church, this week, comforted the mourning, educated the wondering, and brought beauty out of bleakness. I had random stranger, who thought the place looked so beautiful, so inviting, after our Spring Cleanup that they just had to ring the bell, come in, and look around. You are more than potential. You are reality, and you are alive. No, this story cannot be about the church. It’s about what it is to be human.
God steps into the absolute desolation of loss and asks, “Can these bones live?” Ezekiel gives the exact same response we’ve seen all the way through Lent. It’s the doubting hopefulness. It’s the faithful first step. It’s looking with open eyes at the bleakness of reality, and daring to believe that maybe, just maybe, God is bigger, even than this. God takes him to the very edge of hopelessness. “Can these bones live?” And Ezekiel wants to say, “No! They can’t… It’s over.” Instead he says, “Lord, only you know.” And that brothers and sisters, is the moment when this victory started. All the miracle and mystery that follows started with one tiny act of faith.
God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones. Speak truth to them before they resemble it. Speak hope over hopelessness, and life over death. And as he speaks, he witnesses what must be one of the creepiest visions in all of scripture. The bones start shaking on the ground. You know at the end of Indiana Jones where they open the Ark of the Covenant, and the bad Nazi’s face melts off? It’s like that, but in reverse.
The foot bone connected to the ankle bone. The ankle bone connected to the shinbone. The shinbone connected to the thigh bone. They turned it into a funny song because it’s disgusting! Then muscle and tendons snake over the bones. Then skin slides over the muscle, and they’re just laying there like the living dead. And yes that is absolutely as spooky as it sounds, because you look in their eyes, and there’s no life in their eyes.
Once again, this can’t be about the church. The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, and peace. Patience, kindness, and goodness. Faithfulness and self-control. That’s what we work on here, every week. That’s the standard we hold each other to. The opposite of that, life without spirit, is desperation, an endless striving and desperation. To eat and never feel full. To love and never feel known. To feel helpless, hopeless. This is not about the church. This is about life, real life, for human beings.
And once again God speaks to Ezekiel, instructing him to prophesy. Only this time, not to the bones, but to the breath, the spirit, the wind. It’s all one word in the Hebrew. In the beginning, the world was formless and void and the spirit of God moved over the face of the waters. The breath of God. The wind of God. And God shaped humankind out of the dirt and breathed life into it, and it became a living being. This is a re-creation. God is breathing life back into his people.
Again, this is usually the part where the preacher yells at the people. You need the Spirit. If you don’t have the Spirit, you’re the walking dead. You need to open up your heart and make it personal. But that’s not what the story says. The bones don’t ask to be healed. They don’t take any action. It’s not about getting personal with God. It’s about facing the realities of life.
My Uncle Jon suffered a major medical setback. He went from strong as an ox to bedridden and fading fast. One day he called me, and he said, “You’re a preacher. Why is it like this? Help me understand this.” The thing you have to know about Jon is that he adored to his father. My Grandpa was Uncle Jon’s hero. So I told, “It’s the same thing that happens to everyone. First you’re strong and tall. You can say what you want and go where you want. And then you can’t work any more. Then you can’t drive any more. Then you can’t walk any more. Then you can’t talk any more. Everything you’re going through Grandpa went through it first. The suck of it is that he had years to get used to each new step. You have to cram all that work into one month. And I’m sorry, and it sucks, but it’s the exact same road he walked.” And Jon said, “Well, if that’s the way it is. Thanks.” And he hung up the phone.
The hard reality we don’t want to face is that over time, our choices dwindle. But as we lose our choices, as we lose our power, the true choices, the ones that matter, become even more visible. Look at Jesus. He’s nailed to a cross. Massive blood loss. His body is going into shock. He can’t stop what’s happening. Can’t even move his arms. We would look at that and think, “No options left.” Right?
Wrong. Scripture records seven last words. To the crowd he says, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they do” To the thief on the cross next to him, he says, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” To his mother and his disciple John he says, “Mother, behold your son. John behold your mother.” To God he says, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” For himself he says, “I thirst” and “It is finished.”
Brothers and sisters, that’s more work that some people complete in a lifetime, and he did it in a few hours, nailed to a cross. If your options feel limited, that’s because they are. It’s the truth of life. It’s not going away. It’s going to get worse. But just because your options are limited doesn’t mean you’re done. You’re not bones beached white on a valley floor.
That’s the message of God to his people. His people are trapped in exile, and they’ve quit. They have totally given up. They said, “We’re dead. We’re over. We’re not a nation any more.” And God says, “Fine, if you’re dead then I’m coming into the grave after you and dragging you out kicking and screaming, because you are not dead. You have life in you, and good-hearted people near to you.”
If Jesus can do all that nailed to a cross, there is still something you can do. Even if you feel like nothing. God turns nothing into something all the time. That’s what God does. That’s who God is. If God can make the world’s first zombie movie and turn it into a prophecy of hope, if God can turn desolation into opportunity and a torture device into a sign of grace, then just imagine what God can do with us. Us! With all this space asking to be used, and all this life still to be lived. In this very place, God took 16 people and a patch of dirt and turned it into over 150 years of laughter and service, just imagine what God can do with our tomorrow.
We can be Ezekiel for this town, and for each other. We can speak truth before the world resembles it. We can look each other in the eye and counter the lies we’ve been trained to believe. We can help hurting people hope that the promises of God are for us, right now. If you’re not dead, you’re not done. And even if you feel dead, God is still not done! All it takes is the tiniest sliver of hope. Faith the size of an itty bitty mustard seed.
God says, “Can these bones live?”
And you say, “Whooooo. I don’t know. They look pretty dead. Not just a little bit dead. Like dead dead. Really amazingly dead. I just don’t know. What do you think?”