Can These Dry Bones Live?

drybones.jpg

Meditation on Ezekiel 37:1-14

June 23, 2019

The Presbyterian Church of Coshocton

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 around 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.

 

***

     I’ll say it again! It’s good to be home! After two weeks of intensive study and a time of listening for God’s voice in Pittsburgh, I’m glad to be back. By Friday afternoon, my colleagues in ministry and I were exhausted and a wee bit homesick. And it had rained almost every day—like it rained here.

We had engaged in conversations about our particular callings and congregations, and the struggles of the Church, in general. We prayed for all three. Elaine Heath writes, “A dark night of the soul is descending on the church in the United States. The signs are everywhere: a steady decline in church membership, especially among mainline denominations, a striking increase in the percentage of Americans who do not attend church, dropping numbers of young adults preparing for ordained ministry, and the loss of moral authority and credibility among clergy and churches due to widespread sex scandals and financial misconduct.” [1] Some Christians are alarmed, she says, and churches are putting forth “enormous effort to launch church growth programs to shore up membership, increase giving and keep denominational ships afloat.” But Heath reminds us that the Lord is in control. This is all part of God’s plan.

“On the margins of society,” she says, is where “the church will once again find its God-given voice to speak to the dominant culture in subversive ways, resisting the powers and principalities, standing against the seduction of the status quo.”  What is dark is not evil, she says; it is simply the unknown.

Other scholars, such as Walter Brueggemann, say that the Western church is “in exile, much like the Jewish people in Babylon long ago.” But remember, in exile, God is still with us. It is we are may be tempted to move away and have trouble finding our way back. In exile, we have the opportunity to grow in faith and learn to rely on the Lord.

Heath speaks words of hope for the future. “The church will once again become a prophetic, evangelistic, alternative community, offering to the world a model of life that is radically ‘other’—life-giving, loving, healing, liberating.”[2]

Jesus’s way does seem radically different than the American church ideals of bigger is better. That’s what Americans think, right? Bigger churches are healthier than smaller churches. Churches with more money are better than churches with fewer financial resources. Some people think that, right? But that’s not the way of Jesus. He sends out his 70 missionaries in pairs–2 by 2– in Luke 10 to proclaim the kingdom drawing near, to speak peace to the homes, towns and villages, heal people of their diseases, and cast out demons. He says to them, “‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore, ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road.’” Don’t get distracted from what I am sending you to do!

Our conversation about the Church stirred one of my colleagues to ask, “Can these dry bones live?”  And we all got goosebumps. I’m getting them now!

***

Ray was quoting from Ezekiel 37 and the prophet’s vision in a valley of dry bones. The young priest, Ezekiel, is among a group taken into exile in 597 BC to Babylonia. He hears God’s call to be a prophet five years later. And he prophesies “doom for the city of Jerusalem and hope for the Israelites.”

The Israelites have sinned, proclaiming their allegiance to other gods and nations. But our Gracious and Merciful God, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, welcomes them back and promises renewal and cleansing from their idols and other sins. “A new heart I will give you,” the Lord says in Ezekiel 36:26, “and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”

Hope awakens in us when the Lord asks Ezekiel in 37, standing in a valley surrounded by death, “Mortal” or “Son of Man, can these bones live?” I like it that the prophet doesn’t say no or yes. He avoids getting it wrong when he says, “Lord God, you know.” And God says, “Prophecy to the bones.” And the Lord gives Ezekiel the words to say. “‘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.’”

Breath is ruach—Hebrew for breath, spirit or wind. This is the word in Genesis, in the beginning, when a wind (ruach) sweeps over the face of the waters and God creates the heavens and the earth with His powerful Word. He fashions human beings from dust and breathes his breath or wind (ruach) into them. And they come alive.

This is the promise of new beginnings for God’s people in Ezekiel 37.

From death to resurrection. Raised to new life.

***

I took a break from my Sunday preparations yesterday to take our dog, Mabel, for a walk. It was good to finally be out in the sun, if only for a little while. On the way in, I was surprised and delighted to see what I had not seen the night before when we returned from Pittsburgh—three beautiful, pink roses in bloom behind our forsythia bushes by the garage. I didn’t even know we had any roses planted in our yard! The funny thing is, I almost cut the bush down before I left for Pittsburgh because there wasn’t a leaf on it – just dry sticks coming from the ground. And I thought it was dead.

Rose in bloom.jpg

The roses seemed to me to be a gift of grace and beauty—like so many other gifts of grace and beauty that we encounter, but don’t always notice or think anything of, every day. The roses in bloom—bursting forth from ordinary, unenriched soil in the shade behind an overgrown bush—were signs of life and hope from Our Creator and Sustainer, the One whom Mary Magdalene mistook for the Gardener when she encountered her Risen Lord. And I thought, how many times have I missed what is lovely, beautiful, and good by choosing to look, instead, into the darkness—the strange and frightening unknown?

Sisters and brothers! Mortals! Listen to the Word of the Lord, spoken by Ezekiel. We no longer have hearts of stone; we have hearts of flesh. We have been cleansed and are being changed by a gracious and merciful God who, despite our sin and faithlessness, welcomes us home, back to the Lord where we belong.

When we dedicate our time capsule today, we won’t be seeking to memorialize our history or lift up our accomplishments. We will gather to pray for the people who will follow us, the Church of Jesus Christ that will continue on in this community for generations to come. This is an act of faith! We are saying the Church will continue on! In our prayer, we will say, “We come as a people of hope because of Jesus Christ, bringing these items to share with those who come after us not to celebrate what we have done, but in gratitude, humility and praise to you for what you have done in, with and for us, your beloved Church. We know not what the future will bring or who will be here to open this time capsule. We know not what our community and world will be like, this world that you created and still so love. Whatever challenges and opportunities the future will present for the people of God, we pray that those who open this time capsule will be people of commitment and compassion, full of faith and love.”

Come with me now. Let us draw closer to the Lord together. Open yourself to God’s ruach—the Lord’s Spirit, breath, or wind. Let’s join with the work of the Spirit among us and in our community. Because the Spirit is already at work in our community. We just have to join in! Let us follow Jesus’ example, seeking to serve and not be served, at the risk of losing our own life. For it is only in dying that we will rise. These dry bones will live a new life!

Let us pray…

Holy One, thank you for your word that continues to speak to your people through the ancient prophet, Ezekiel. We pray for the Church, Lord, in America, that seems to be in decline, walking in darkness, longing for your light. But we know you are working in, among and through us. Breathe in us, Lord, once again, with the same breath you breathed at Creation, the breath that empowered us at Pentecost, the breath, ruach, that will help us to live as Christians in this time of confusion and uncertainty, but also a time of beauty and delight. Strengthen and stir us to labor for you, to preach the good news of your present and coming Kingdom, heal the sick, cast out demons, and speak peace to homes, towns and villages. For we know the harvest is plentiful and the laborers are few. And when you return, as we yearn for your return, may you find us to be people of commitment and compassion, full of faith and love. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

 

[1] Elaine A. Heath, The Mystic Way of Evangelism, chapter 1, “Into the Night,” p. 25-27.

[2] Ibid., 26.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s