Sermon on Ezekiel 37:1-14 for Lent 5 A, April 2, 2017
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. He led me all round them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: 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. 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.”
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. 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. 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.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
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.’ 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. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 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.”
My mother’s family is from western Colorado. One summer when I was a boy we were visiting my grandmother. She on the edge of town so when my brother and I went exploring, we were quickly in an undeveloped area.
We went over a hill and in the plateau saw a sight that was both amazing to us, and appalling. There were animal bones everywhere. Mostly deer. It must have been the place they dumped the deer that had been killed on the road. We immediately set about looking for a pair of intact antlers. We found some. To be honest, that place did not smell very nice.
The Dry Bones and the Question
Ezekiel, the prophet had a vision in which he was led by the Spirit to a place where he could see a whole valley of bones. Dry bones – clearly they had been there for awhile. But these were human bones. A vast cemetery without any burials.
He is about to be told whose bones they are. The Spirit says to him:
“Mortal, (literally, “Son of Man”) 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.’”
Ezekiel lived during Israel’s national catastrophe we call the Babylonian exile. The Babylonian empire swept down and conquered the Israelites in the sixth century BCE. It was devastating. Thousands and thousands died. The temple and palace were destroyed. The king was captured and killed. The survivors were taken in chains to Babylon. So of course, in the vision, the bones of the nation say,
“Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’”
The situation of the nation in Babylon was a catastrophe. The question is, is it hopeless? The Spirit, in the vision, asks the prophet:
“Mortal, (Son of Man) can these bones live?”
The prophet deflects the question.
“I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.’”
Not So Fast to Comfort
It would be easy and comforting to jump to the happy conclusion, but we cannot because it is not so simple. Ezekiel does not know the correct answer because it is complicated. Why? Because of what happened to the Northern Kingdom of Israel, after the nation split in two.
Almost two hundred years earlier, the empire of Assyria swept into Israelite territory and did the same thing to the Northern Israelites as the Babylonians had just done to the remaining Southerners of Judah.
The Northerners never recovered; they never returned. Their bones did not live again. They were the descendants of Abraham, every bit as much as the Southern Judeans. They had received the promise that God would bless them. And yet, on the whole, they ceased to exist.
The reason it is wrong to jump to the happy conclusion too quickly is that we have all experienced enough of life to know that both kinds of outcomes happen. Sometimes it is tragic, and we grieve. Sometimes it is wonderful, and we rejoice.
So, in our times of despair or hopelessness, we are not simply handed an iron-clad guarantee that all the bones that died will live again. People die. Relationships die. Hopes and reams die. Economies crash.
Let us let the story play out. In this case, the voice of the Spirit calls the prophet to prophecy to the bones.
“Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: 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. 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.”
Breath, in Hebrew (and in Greek) is the same as the word for Spirit. Similarly in English we have ghost and gust. What is life-giving to the nation? It is that God’s breath, God’s Spirit can again enter and bring life back into a formerly hopeless condition.
The Spiritual and the Historical
If the action of the story stopped here, and the narrator said, “So Israel was reborn, returned to the land, rebuilt the temple, and they all lived happily ever after,” we would discount it as a children’s story, unworthy of deep reflection.
We do know that the nation was reborn. We know that Israelites were allowed to return and rebuild. But we also know that it did not happen instantly or by miraculous magic.
We know that about 70 years after the exile began, the Babylonians were conquered by the Persians, and that the Persian king, Cyrus, allowed exiles to return.
In other words, the nation of Israel was reborn, but the way it happened was long, complicated and, in the end, was part of the historical process. It involved individual people acting humanely and justly (who knows what Cyrus’ motives were?). And then it involved real Israelites willing to risk returning.
The Lure of the Spirit
Our theology is not that God is behind the curtain like Oz, or like a puppet master. Rather that God is the ultimate depth dimension in every moment, calling all creation to the possibilities of goodness and of justice.
Even as evil and tragedy happen, we are presented with the choice of acting on the side of goodness and justice, of compassion and trust, or not. In every moment there is hope that there can be resurrections; there can be new life. Bones can live. The Spirit is present.
How? Not magically, but as people cooperate with the Spirit’s aim towards goodness and justice, in the real life historical process, then goodness and justice can come.
So, I have seen people respond to tragedy with courage and hope, and bring new hope to life where there was death. I have seen it in race relations in which a policeman and a protestor embrace in a common commitment to not allow violence to be the last word.
I have seen it in the reconciliation between Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims who refuse to answer the calls to hatred and suspicion, but rather sit down together as students or stand and sing in a common choir, asserting the goodness of their common humanity.
It can go the other way. It can happen that bones are added to the pile rather than brought back to life. I have been to cities in Eastern Europe which were sickeningly polluted by totally unregulated factories.
Both outcomes are possible. I have seen Lake Erie, after reaching the point in the 1970’s in which no fish from it could be safely eaten, come back to life, thanks to the EPA that Richard Nixon first proposed. But we all know how a few unwise, short-sighted decisions can wreck havoc on a whole community as was done to Flint, Michigan.
All of us have seen it in relationships. Each word, each look, each act can be born of ego-defense and anger, or out of compassion and a will-to-goodness. Dry bones can live, if, in the real historical process of daily life, we choose the good.
The Spirit of Christ: Possibilities
As Christians, we name the Spirit who is at work in the world, the Spirit of Christ. We believe that this Spirit is at work both inside us and in the world. The Spirit is present, luring us towards producing the fruit of goodness, of justice, of reconciliation and of forgiveness.
And even in tragic situations in which the stench of death is undeniable, as in the case of Lazarus’ grave, the stone can be rolled away if we are willing to take the risk that love can win.
New life is possible. It is possible to have reconciled relationships.
It is possible to coexist in peace with Muslims.
It is possible to feed all the hungry people in our country.
It is possible to have clean air and water.
It is possible to come to the aid of people who have been hurt by the changes that happen when we move to a clean-energy economy.
It is possible to have good health care for everyone and to protect internet security.
All it takes real people in the historical process of everyday life who respond to the lure of the Spirit towards goodness and justice, to reconciliation and compassion.