Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 2, 2017
Ezekiel 37:1-14 Commentary
No matter how gladly we sing the old spiritual about “dry bones” that’s based on Ezekiel 17, we must admit it’s among the most mysterious and, dare we say, strangest passages in all of the Scriptures. Its imagery is so striking that it calls for vivid, poetic language to, by the power of the Holy Spirit, describe it.
In Ezekiel 37 the Lord leads Ezekiel back and forth on a tour of a maze of human skeletons of Israelites whom their enemies had earlier slaughtered. However, this is more than just a gruesome sight. A kind of spiritual radioactivity also fills this valley of dry bones. Biblical laws of purity, after all, labeled anything dead, including skeletons, impure or unclean.
So the Israelites had rituals to cleanse people whom contact with dead people and things had contaminated. God also specifically prohibited Israelite priests from attending funerals or even being close to anyone who had died, except for their immediate family members.
Since Ezekiel is an Israelite priest, as well as prophet, he doesn’t only experience the kind of queasiness that would almost inevitably come from such a chilling walk through a valley of full of skeletons. The prophet’s hike through this kind of cemetery, after all, exposes him to severe religious contamination. So we can only imagine the level of repulsion Ezekiel experiences as he strolls through this vast graveyard.
God, however, has a compelling reason for exposing God’s prophet to this spiritual and ritual contamination. The Lord explains to him that the bones symbolize the exiled house of Israel. In Babylonian exile she is, after all, as good as dead. She’s a pile of spiritual skeletons. The Israelites are lifeless and “without hope,” completely “cut off.”
Those who preach and teach as well as people who listen to us sometimes feel like we’re walking through a valley that’s full of death. Perhaps walking through a workplace or neighborhood has felt like a walk through a valley of dry bones. Some lives have been littered with the dry bones of broken relationships. Perhaps even relationships with the Lord feel like a bleached skeletons this morning.
So, Son of Man, can these bones live? Clearly it’s very hard for Ezekiel to answer, “yes” to this question. He realizes that if life will come to these dry skeletons, only God knows how it will happen. Son of Man, can these bones live? Only, God answers, through “breath” that somehow reanimates those bones.
This enlivening “breath,” however, is no ordinary puff of air or even human resuscitation. No, this life-giving breath is the spirit, the breath of the Lord. So Ezekiel 37 insists that if the bleached skeleton that is Israel is to live again, God will have to enliven her. If broken relationships are to somehow rise from the dead, God will have to raise them to life.
So Son of Man, can these bones live? Only, insists God, if God’s Spirit blows into them through God’s prophet speaking God’s word to them. “I will make breath enter you,” God tells the skeletons through his prophet. “And you will come to life.” And just as God promises, Ezekiel watches those skeletons somehow miraculously come together. The skeletons noisily take on tendons, flesh and skin.
Yet something’s still missing. These bodies still somehow remain lifeless. Both those who proclaim and those who hear this passage know something about such lifelessness. Some relationships, for instance, have a kind of flesh and skin on them. Family members exchange pleasantries with each other. Friends talk about the weather or sports. Family members may even sing the songs and say the prayers to God. Yet a kind of deadness lingers; there’s no real life.
So, Son of Man, can these bones live? God reminds Ezekiel and us that not just the reforming, but also the crucial enlivening ingredient is that breath of the Lord. What raises dead bones of all sorts to life is the Spirit of God. And so when Ezekiel invites that Holy Spirit to blow into the valley’s dry bones, they do, in fact, come to life. With a rush of the Spirit, “they came to life and stood up on their feet – a vast army.”
Near the beginning of measured time, Genesis 1 reports, “the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” No matter how exactly we understand that mysterious assertion, we sense that “wind,” that “breath” of God somehow hovered over the primeval chaos. It’s the same Spirit that Genesis 2:7 reports God blew into Adam’s nostrils. In fact, only when God breathes “the breath of life” into the man God made from the dust does our first parent become a living being.
So, Son of Man, can these bones live? Notice that Ezekiel doesn’t command Israel’s dry bones to somehow get up and live themselves. After all, dead things have no power to raise themselves to life. No dry bones, even the skeletons of our relationships, can make themselves alive.
Only God can bring life where there is death. So what raises these dry bones is God’s promise spoken through a prophet. What gives these bleached skeletons life is God’s Spirit blowing into them. Exiled Israel will live again and return home, but only because God will breathe into her to give her new life.
That’s good news for those without hope. This is gospel for those who feel alienated from God or the people to whom they want to be close. Death may surround, fill and even chase us. But God is in the business of restoring hope by raising the dead to life and breathing new life into people, relationships and even communities.
The Old Testament text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday holds out hope for communities that seem dead, that see no way forward. So this is gospel for churches that seem dead and dying. Life, health and vitality may seem completely gone. God, however, has the power to give life to those dry bones, to breathe his Spirit of life into those skeletons.
On this Sunday that is yet another Lenten “mini”-celebration of Easter, we also see God’s power at work to raise dry bones to life across his world. Today, after all, we remember how God’s Spirit who blew life into Israel’s dry bones also breathed life into Jesus’ disciples. So, Son of Man, can these bones live? Jesus’ disciples were like the breathless bodies in our Old Testament lesson. They had flesh, bones and skin, but no real life. Jesus’ followers, before Pentecost, were largely afraid to speak the gospel.
On the first Pentecost, however, God blew his Holy Spirit right into the dry bones that were Jesus’ followers. The Holy Spirit so raised them to life that they were able to speak the gospel in many languages. And as Peter “prophesied,” God’s Spirit also blew into those who heard him. Those hearers, like us by nature, were dead in their sins, unable to raise themselves to life. Yet on that first Pentecost God’s Spirit blew into about three thousand dry bones. The Spirit raised them from death to life so that they could faithfully accept Peter’s gospel message.
We believe only God’s Spirit can give anyone faith. So, Son of Man, can these bones live? Yes, by the power of the Spirit! Our world remains full of people who are dry bones, dead in their sins. Some of them are in our families and circles of friends, in our workplaces and neighborhoods. Death haunts places where life doesn’t thrive, such as in Syria, South Sudan and eastern Ukraine. So, Son of Man, can those bones live? Yes, by the power of God’s Spirit!
In the chapter, “Miracle on the Beach” in her book, Home By Another Way, Barbara Brown Taylor grieves, “What we have lost . . . is a full sense of the power of God — to recruit people who have made terrible choices; to invade the most hopeless lives and fill them with light; to sneak up on people who are thinking about lunch, not God, and smack them upside the head with glory.”
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!