March 9, 2008 - Fifth Sunday in Lent
“Can I have the bones?” asked Susan. She was five years old, and we just had a meal of grilled chicken at our cabin in Arizona. Now Susan wanted to have the bones. So Beth scraped them clean and gave them to her. Our daughter ran outside, intent on a project.
She may have been inspired by Dinosaur National Monument. I can’t remember. But when we went to check on Susan, we found the bones carefully arranged on the bumper of our car, along with a hand-lettered cardboard sign: “See the amazing chicken bones!” We laughed and laughed and congratulated Susan on her creativity. Then we warned her that a cat or a skunk would run off with her bones during the night. That’s what we expected. We did not expect those “amazing bones” actually to do anything very amazing, such as stand up, come together, and grow meat and feathers again. But that’s exactly what God told Ezekiel to expect, not with chicken bones, but with human bones.
If Easter were a movie, Ezekiel 37 and John 11 would be the trailers. In these two great texts for this morning, we enter into the promise and hope of resurrection given before Jesus was raised from the dead. They are not the only resurrection previews. In the Old Testament, Elijah and Elisha both raised men from the dead. Jesus raised two other people besides Lazarus, Jairus’s daughter and the son of a widow. But all those others had only been dead a little while.
Ezekiel did not just see bones. He saw dry bones. He saw very dry bones, it says in verse 2. Lazarus was not just dead. He had been dead four days. He was very dead. These two particular previews of resurrection are powerful because the situations are not just bad, they are hopeless.
The first thing Martha and Mary each said to Jesus was, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Lazarus had been dead, dead for days. It was hopeless.
Ezekiel felt much the same way about the dry bones. As he is led up and down an ancient battlefield, all he can see is desiccated death. The bones were very dry. When the Spirit asked him, “can these bones live?” he could not just say “Yes.” All he could offer was a tentative statement of faith, “Lord God, you know.” If any life was to happen in the valley of death, only God knew. Ezekiel didn’t know. Ezekiel didn’t see. All he saw were bones, dry bones. It was hopeless.
We recite the 23rd Psalm, saying, “though I walk through the valley of the shadow death…,” but don’t stop to think how often we do walk through that valley. Like Ezekiel, we follow paths strewn with death, littered with lifeless bones. It might be the bones of lost dreams, the bones of broken relationships, or the literal bones of those we love. But there we are, gingerly picking our way like that old Jewish priest, stepping over, around, through the bones, trying to avoid any contact with death, even though it’s all around us.
As verse 11 explains, Ezekiel was confronted with the metaphorical bones of his nation. Divided in two, one half obliterated, the other half exiled, the once glorious kingdom of Israel was dead. The northern part was destroyed by Assyria two hundred years before. Judah, the southern part, was carried off by the Babylonians. And now, in Babylon, they said, “Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.” There was no way forward, no way back, nothing but slow decay in a foreign country.
Ezekiel faced the dry political bones of his people. Martha and Mary faced the four-day dead bones of their brother. How and where do you and I face bones, dry bones? What’s dead for us? What seems hopelessly dried out and beyond recovery for you? Is it a job? A marriage? A dream of education? A house of your own? A desire for Christian service? A hope to become a better person?
Even in the church there can be a sense of drought, a feeling of dryness, of deadness. You might walk through our new building, which we dreamed and planned would be filled with young people coming to know Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, and see only the dried out bones of that dream, the skeleton of those plans.
And God says to us, as He said to Ezekiel, “Can these bones live?” And the only answer we have is Ezekiel’s, “Only God knows. We sure don’t.” It’s hard to be in a dry place like that. Yet verse 1 says it was the Spirit, the Spirit of God who brought Ezekiel to the valley of bones. It is the Spirit who brings us face to face with our dry, dead bones, and it is the same Spirit who brings us God’s answer.
On a Boy Scout hiking trip in Zion National Park we came across the carcass of a dead cow. In the arid climate of the southwest it was completely dry. No smell, no flies, no flesh. Just skin and bones, about as dead as a cow can get. Well, we poked at those bones and that hide with sticks, threw rocks at it, jumped on it, and took pictures of it (I still have one). We did all the silly things you might imagine boys doing with the dead body of an animal. But there is one thing we never considered. We never even thought of talking to it. If one of us had gone up and begun to speak to that corpse, we would have checked him for heat stroke, figured he had gone of out of his head in the sun. It’s absurd to talk to dry bones.
God’s answer to Ezekiel seems totally absurd. I mentioned a few weeks ago that St. Francis of Assisi once preached to the birds. In verse 4, the Lord told Ezekiel, “Prophesy to these bones…” Preach to the bones. That’s about as insane as you can get… except for maybe Jesus standing in front of Lazarus’ tomb and calling to him. Martha knew that was crazy. When Jesus wanted the stone in front removed, she told Him bluntly, “But Lord, by this time he stinks, for he has been there four days.” But Jesus stepped right up to that stinking hole in a hillside, and with the rotten smell of death wafting into His eyes and nose and mouth, spoke the Word of God to dead, stinking bones. “Lazarus, come out!”
Ezekiel was told, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord!’” “Oh hear the Word of the Lord.” That’s the refrain, over and over, in the famous spiritual set to music by James Weldon Johnson. “Ezekiel cried, ‘Dem dry bones, Oh hear the Word of the Lord.’” You know it:
The foot bone connected to the leg bone,
The leg bone connected to the knee bone,
The knee bone connected to the thigh bone,
The thigh bone connected to the back bone,
The back bone connected to the neck bone,
The neck bone connected to the head bone,
Oh, hear the word of the Lord!
Dem bones, dem bones, gonna walk aroun’,
Dem bones, dem bones, gonna walk aroun’,
Dem bones, dem bones, gonna walk aroun’,
Oh, hear the word of the Lord.
Hear the Word of the Lord. Hear the voice of God speaking to dead bones. Hear what God has to say about death and dryness and our despair. Hear the Word of the Lord.
Our denomination arose in a country, in a time, when there was death and dryness everywhere. Sweden in the 1840s was not like it is now, a prosperous nation with nearly no poverty or hunger. Instead, one of our Covenant historians says,
What was it like in the world of our parents? To live with a family of five or seven on what would be produced from eleven acres of stony, rocky land, with a short growing season, with bad seed, with all the nutrition that almost pure sand can supply, plenty of water but not enough substance? What was it like to live where your children were perpetually hungry? What was it like to live where you live in a caste from which you have no real hope of escape because education is reserved for the nobility and the upper-middle class? … What was it like to live in that kind of land when suddenly you feel that you and your children, your spouse, your parents, and your hope for the future is surplus? There is no place for you, there is no need for you. You are, in fact, an embarrassment.
In that time, in a little village called Vall, lived a woman named Maria. She had married a dashing young ironworker, but like most everyone else in their town, he was poor. He was also an alcoholic, with a sometimes mean disposition. She had six young children to feed and little from him in the way of love. Her life seemed dry, dark and without hope. She turned more and more to her Christian faith. Her grandson tells how her husband at one point tethered her by a rope to the stovepipe in their kitchen, so she could not go off to see the pastor, but had to stay and cook and clean.
But Maria did go the pastor. She took her friend Birgitta. These two tired, distraught, married women in their thirties went to see a brand new young pastor 25 years of age. They told him their of lives, their physical and spiritual hunger, their hopelessness. And that young man looked at them and counseled them to read. Once a week, more often if they could, sit down together and read the Bible. That was his answer to their poverty, to their bad marriages, to all the dryness and deadness of their lives. Read.
You can imagine various reasons why the young pastor said that. In his inexperience he may have had nothing more to offer those poor women. He may have simply wanted to brush them off so he could polish his sermons and move on to a better parish. He may have just acted like most 19th century men, silencing unruly women and sending them home to their duties. Who knows why he gave them that counsel? But he told them to read and they took it as God’s word to them. Hear the Word of the Lord. So they did.
Maria and Birgitta began to read together and did so for years. They read the Bible, they read Luther’s sermons, they read a new magazine coming out of Stockholm called The Pietist. They read and others began to join them. The read and heard the Word of the Lord and people got excited. They came alive. Others in the town grew suspicious and spread ugly rumors about these “Readers.”
It was not too long and Maria’s husband died. She was left a poor widow with six children in a town where a number of people were already dubious about her character. Yet reading sparked a new kind of life in Maria, a life of compassion. She began to visit the poorest homes in the village, those with even less than she had. She saw children left alone while parents went off to work.
So Maria rose to the need and began a school, at first a tiny affair in a room above her own kitchen. She took in those neglected children and began to teach them. Others in her reading group caught her spirit and began to help. They built a new building where children were housed and taught and fed. The work she did started to be appreciated by the whole town. She became an activist in Vall, caring not just for the needs of children but for the social ills of everyone. By the end of her life she was known as “Mor i Vall,” “the Mother in Vall,” a beloved and respected figure in her community. Because she read. Because she heard the Word of the Lord.
In verse 5, Ezekiel says God told him to speak His Word and prophesy the coming of “breath.” “This is what the Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life.” The word for “breath” is the same as the word for “spirit,” ruach in Hebrew. Hear the Word of the Lord, and look for the coming of His breath, His Spirit. The Word of God and the power of God’s Spirit go out together.
Ezekiel saw bones reconnected, saw muscle and tendons grow round the bones. But they were still not alive. They were still corpses, fresh corpses, but dead. And then in verse 9 he’s told, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man and say to it, ‘This is what the Lord says: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” And verse 10 says he prophesied, and the breath came, the Spirit came, and those dry bones stood up alive “on their feet—a vast army.”
In verses 11-14, God makes the application of this vision for Ezekiel. Israel is not dead forever. God’s people will not always be dry bones. God is going to raise them up, going to bring them back to their own land. “I will put my Spirit in you and you will live…” He says in verse 14.
Jesus spoke the word of God to Lazarus, “Come out!” And we read there, “The dead man came out…” The Word of the Lord raised the dead. God raises the dead. He raised the dry bones. He raised Lazarus. Most of all, He raised His Son Jesus Christ, once for all, forever and always. Christ is risen! That’s the Word of the Lord, Spirit of the Lord. And God will raise us. God will raise you.
I can only guess what’s dead for you, what’s dead in you, what death you fear. I can only guess, but I’m convinced, perhaps as naively as Maria’s pastor, that the answer is Ezekiel’s message to the dry bones, “Hear the Word of the Lord.” The Word brings the Spirit and the Spirit empowers the Word. Word and Spirit together are the promise and the hope of life, of resurrection from the dead.
Hear the Word of the Lord, welcome the Spirit, and let the bones of our lives, of our own selves come back together. Hear the Lord’s Word, feel the Lord’s Spirit and let Him reconnect us in our church. Hear His Word, obey His Spirit and reach out to connect with those who live dead lives apart from the gracious Word and life-giving Spirit. Hear His Word and, through His Spirit, let everyone hear and live.
The resurrection of the dry bones, the raising of the stinking body of Lazarus, they’re the previews, the previews of what the Word and the Spirit accomplished on Easter when Jesus walked from His own tomb. May those resurrections be another sort of preview, the preview of what God will do when we hear His Word, and the Spirit blows into us.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2008 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj