O ‘Dem Dry Bones!

Ezekiel 37:1-14

Ezekiel prophesies to a valley full of dry bones, and they receive life again.  Jesus calls Lazarus forth from the grave.  Ezekiel’s vision is to a people who have lost hope of ever returning home.  Jesus’ calling of Lazarus to new life is a prefiguring of his own death and resurrection.

The setting for the Old Testament story is in Babylon.  Israel has been destroyed.  The temple is no more.  The leaders of Israel have been taken into exile.  No nation has ever returned from such destruction to rebuild from its ashes.  The promises of God seem to have failed the Jewish people.  In the Book of Lamentations, Jeremiah asks, “How can we sing in a strange land?”  There are a few faithful who continue to worship the God of the Jews, but most of the exiles have taken on the ways of their conquerors.  One of the faithful is the prophet of exile, Ezekiel.  Like other Jews, he wonders how the Jewish people can continue to worship in this foreign land.  He wonders how they can worship Yahweh, when he seems to have been so roundly defeated.  He wonders how they can worship at all, when all hope is lost.

In response, God grants him a vision:  he takes him to a valley full of dry bones, and asks whether they can live again.  He is about to open his mouth, to say, “Of course not.  It’s impossible.”  Then he remembers how, at creation, God took clay, made it into bones and sinew, put flesh upon it, and breathed into it the breath of life.  Is it possible for God to take that which is dead and make it live again?  His answer to God:  “Lord, only you know.” 

God instructs him to prophesy to the bones, to tell them to keep hope alive, to tell them there is a God who is stronger than death, who can raise them up again.  So he prophesies to the bones, and they come together.  Then he tells him to prophesy to the wind, to the Spirit that animates life, to the breath of God, and tell it to enter once again into that which was dead.  He does, and the bones come back to life.

It is one of the most potent pictures in the Bible, the first hint of resurrection found in its pages.  It’s a vision that not only animated the Jewish people in exile, giving them hope that they might once again return to their homeland, but has inspired enslaved people ever since.  It was central to the African-American story in our own land, inspiring in them the hope of freedom, remembered in their sermons and in African-American hymns.  It is also one of the texts of the great Easter Vigil, presaging Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.

The question, I suppose, is whether such a political and revolutionary text can have meaning to a mainly white, middle class church today?  Can a text addressed to an enslaved underclass speak also to a more privileged people?  While the story of Lazarus raises our hopes in a resurrection from the dead, what kid of message does Ezekiel raise in us, with its heavy political implications? 

I would like to suggest a couple of responses to this text today. 

The first has to do with the spiritual malaise that has gripped this country.  In the midst of plenty, in a society typified by pornographic displays of wealth, we are empty, starving for life; we hunger and thirst for real life.  My wife’s grandmother always used to say:  “be careful what you hope for.”  We have invested generations of work into providing more and more things for ourselves, only to find that the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow has left us feeling empty.  Rather than being thankful for what we have, it has only increased our appetite for more empty calories.  We are like drunks on a binge.  We seem to feel that, if only we had a bit more, our gut feeling of emptiness would go away.  No less than the ancient Jews, no less than the slaves in our own country, we long for freedom – freedom from meaninglessness and despair.  Freedom from desires which can never be fulfilled.  Freedom from appetites that can never be sated.  We have more than any society on earth has ever had.  Yet we are starving.  We need new hope.  We need new life.

We are also the most powerful country the world has ever known.  We live more secure lives than any generation that has ever gone before us.  That is a fact.  Yet we live in fear.  We fear terrorists.  We fear immigrants who come, looking for a better life.  We fear one another.  We walk around with guns strapped to us.  We fear that a recession will take our businesses, our jobs, destroy the economy.  We fear our own government.  We fear the future and what new horrors it may bring.  We live lives full of insecurity and fear.  Other nations with less healthy economies, who experience terrorist attacks much more frequently than we do, who have, in reality, much less reason to feel secure, seem to be less fearful than we are.  We need hope.  We need a vision worth both living and dying for.  We need new life.

Like the exiles in Babylon, we are living in a foreign land.  We live in a land that is not the Promised Land, no matter how people try to convince us that it is.  We were meant to live in the kingdom of God, but instead, we try to fit into this earthly kingdom.  We work hard to fit in. We collect a lot of things. We buy houses, plant our roots, live quietly, and try to make Babylon as nice as we can. But however nicely we decorate it, Babylon is not our home.

Eventually things got so cozy for the Hebrew exiles that even after they were encouraged to go back to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple, to rebuild their lives there, most of them didn’t want to go back. They became acculturated to Babylon.

So one day the Spirit of the Lord grabbed hold of Ezekiel, and took him to a valley filled with dry bones. God asked Ezekiel, "Mortal, can these bones live?" Looking around at all those skeletons, all those bones that seemed to be satisfied just lying there, Ezekiel said, "Ah, Lord, only you know." The Lord told him to start preaching to the bones: "O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live . . . And you shall know that I am the Lord."

What a foolish gesture. Ezekiel, standing in the middle of a pile of dead bones, telling them not to give up hope. Hope instructs us that the way things seem is not always the way things truly are. Hope allows for change.  Hope insists on the opening of possibilities. Hope doesn’t believe that things cannot change.  Hope doesn’t believe that things cannot be different. Hope is revolutionary. That is why the poor are great at hoping, and why we who are coping well in Babylon have such a hard time with hope. We think we are doing well enough. Our only worry is that we will lose ground tomorrow. But if we turn against tomorrow, if we turn our back on the possibility of change, if we turn our back on hope, then we turn our back on God’s Spirit, and the possibility of returning to the Promised Land. It is then that our spirit begins to wither away.

Craig Barnes, writing about today’s lessons, says: “The apostle Paul told the believers in Rome that the one ‘who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you’ (Rom. 8:11). The church has always found its life not in what it sees today but in the Spirit of the God who raises dead hopes. The day we lose our ability to envision a better tomorrow is the day we deny that we really believe in the resurrection.

Why does the church keep pouring out its little cup of water into Haiti, the West Bank, Sudan and other desperate places of the world where hope has run dry? Why do we keep visiting shut-ins and those in hospitals when we have no miracle drug to take away their pain? Why do we commit ourselves to the political process when there is so much cynicism and a malaise of despair in politics today? Why? Because God is not done.

So we will take our stand beside Ezekiel and proclaim our hope to the dry bones, "Thus, says the Lord, I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live!" You who gave up hope, who gave up dreaming -- who have settled for a comfortably routine life of work, bills and dirty laundry. You who think your best years are behind you. You who think the Lord God has forgotten all about your little life.”

Ezekiel’s vision is for all those who have lost hope – all who have been marginalized, all who have been enslaved, all who dwell in the far country; all those, also, who have become so comfortable, that they cannot imagine another place, another future, for whom the possibility of a different future raises in them confusion and fear.  Ezekiel’s vision is for all of us.  “Arise, dead bones.  Arise, because the Spirit of God is blowing; the breath of God is blowing upon you.  Arise to new possibilities. Arise to hope.  Arise to life.”