Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 29, 2020

Ezekiel 37:1-14 Commentary

At first glance, this famous vision of the valley of dry bones seems more like an Easter text than a Lenten text.  I mean, if the text left us with a valley full of dry bones, it might fit the somber mood of the last week of Lent.  But it doesn’t, because the bleached-out bones are miraculously transformed into living bodies, a resurrection theme if ever there was one.

On the other hand, maybe this note of hope is exactly what we need as we journey deeper into the darkness of Lent, as we approach the cross and the tomb.  The utter hopelessness of Israel in this text mirrors our despair if we have been taking the penitential mood of Lent seriously.  The more we look at our own sin and the journey of Jesus to the cross for our sin, the more we will say with Israel: “Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off (verse 11).”  But this text, taken as a whole reminds us that “neither death nor life… can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  If we are to continue our Lenten journey, we will need that note of hope.  Or else Lent becomes too dark a time.

It was a very dark time for Israel.  In our reading for last week, we saw a whole new beginning for the people of God, as Samuel anointed a new king who was a man “after God’s own heart.”  Happy days were there again.  But it has been a long time since that high point in Israel’s history and Israel has sunk low.  Ezekiel prophesied during the last days of Judah and Jerusalem and on into the Exile.

Ezekiel himself was exiled to Babylon in 597 in the first wave of Judean deportees.  For the next 11 years, he would deliver a message of gloom and doom to Judah (Ezekiel 1-24) and the surrounding nations (Ezekiel 25-32).  Then in 586 Jerusalem fell, the Temple was burned to the ground, a second round of Judeans was exiled to Babylon, and the Davidic monarchy came to an end.  Once news reached the exiles in Babylon that Jerusalem had fallen and the temple was destroyed, Ezekiel began to prophesy hope—revival, restoration, and a glorious future as the redeemed and perfected Kingdom of God in the world (Ezekiel 33-48).  Our text is perhaps the pinnacle prophesy of hope to a hopeless people.  It is certainly the most memorable word of hope, because of its vivid imagery.

To understand the imagery, put yourself in their place.  Their world had come to an end.  Everything they had trusted, everything that had given their lives shape and meaning, was gone—land, homes, property, the Holy City, the Holy Temple, and, most important, their Holy God.  Their God had been defeated by the gods of the Babylonians.  Could it be that their God wasn’t really Lord at all? Or perhaps their God had deserted them in their darkest hour.  Could it be that their Yahweh had broken covenant with them and forsaken them once and for all?

In our Lenten readings we have been following God’s long campaign to defeat the forces of evil in the world, appointing One person to represent and redeem the All—Adam, Abram, Moses, David.  Could it be that God has abandoned his campaign, that there is no longer One for All?  Has the history of Yahweh with his people come to an end?  It sure looked and felt like it.  We hear their despair in verse 11.  “They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’”

This vision is God’s answer to their despair.  As we dig into it, notice the frequent use of two pregnant themes that run through and frame the vivid imagery: “Sovereign Lord” and “then you will know that I am the Lord.”  Because Yahweh is the Sovereign Lord, there is hope for the dry bones of Israel.  When they see those dry bones live, they will know that Yahweh is their Lord who has not forsaken them.

Clearly, God has been listening to his people’s lament.  In response God’s Spirit (the Hebrew is ruah, a word that echoes throughout this text) gives Ezekiel a vision that speaks directly to their feelings of desertion and death—a valley filled with dry bones.  It was a place where death reigned; there was not one iota of life, not one speck of flesh on these bones, bleached dry by the sun. It was Death Valley.

But God asks Ezekiel a question, a deep question, a trick question?  “Son of Man, can these bones live?”  Humanly speaking the answer is clear.  Of course not!  But Ezekiel is in tune with God’s absolute power over nature and nations and maybe even death, so he answers, “O Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”  Only God can bring new life to dry bones and to a nation that looks like dry bones, that has lost all hope, that feels cut off from its God (if there is a God anymore).

Well, there is, and this God is going to do a miracle using two means—words and wind, prophesy and breath, the Word of God spoken by a man and the Spirit of God.  That is remarkable and paradigmatic.  God could have given new life directly, but he chose to use the prophesy of Ezekiel and the power of the Spirit in the form of breath or wind.  It has always been that way.  The miracle of new life is always a result of the combination of the Word of God and the Spirit of God.   Which gives new meaning to the act of preaching.

But make no mistake. Whatever means God uses to accomplish his work, it is still always God who does the work.  So, as we’ve seen again and again, God is completely in charge here.  It is God who tells Ezekiel to prophesy.  It is God who says he will breathe into the bones.  It is God who attaches tendons and makes flesh come upon the bones and covers the skeletons with skin.  It is God who gives this new life.  God is the Sovereign Lord.

Ezekiel prophesies (the word is used 6 times) and the Spirit blows (the word ruah is used 9 times).  As result, a very strange, even bizarre scene presents itself to Ezekiel’s eyes.  Bones rattle and come together.  Tendons attach bone to bone.  Flesh and muscle give strength to the skeletons.  Skin covers all the skeletons.  So we have reconstituted bodies, but they aren’t alive until Ezekiel prophesies again and the four winds blow life into once dry bones.  And a vast army stands on their feet.

What does this vision mean?  Is it a precursor to the resurrection of the body promised in the New Testament and guaranteed by Christ’s resurrection?  One could take it that way, because at the very least this vision shows God’s sovereign power over death.  But that’s not the meaning God gives.  These bones are “the whole house of Israel.”  This is not about the resurrection of individuals in the last day.  It is about the restoration of Israel after the Exile.  Currently they feel dead, like dry bones, buried in the grave of Babylon (note how God changes the imagery in verses 12 and 13).

You think that I have cut you off, that I am done with you because this terrible thing has happened to you.  Well, here’s a picture of your future, accompanied by a promise: “I will bring you back to the land of Israel.  I will settle you in your own land.”  Your dry bones will live again in the land of promise.

“Then you will know that I am the Lord, Yahweh, your covenant God, your Sovereign Lord.”  Here’s a message that will preach in our hopeless world, where nations, churches, families and individuals are drying up, dying slowly, and wondering where God is in all this.  We live in a great cloud of unknowing.  We believe and we doubt, we hope and we despair, we simply don’t know what is happening to us and how it will all turn out.  Here is a picture and a promise that will help us know that God is still Lord, still keeping covenant, still sovereign over nature and nations and, yes, even over death.

No, this passage is not the end of the story.  As one scholar put it, this is part of “the unfolding of God’s saving purposes in the history of the world—from the time in which he must withdraw from the defilement of his covenant people to the culmination of his grand design of redemption.”  This text anticipates—even demands—God’s future works in history proclaimed in the New Testament, like the raising of Lazarus (the Gospel lesson for today) and, of course, the resurrection of Jesus.  The history of God’s work with his people is not done yet, and won’t be until we all stand upon the New Earth under the New Heavens in our resurrected bodies.

For now, we remain in exile, like Israel still coping with the death of loved ones, still mourning the loss of familiar ways to find and meet God, but assured of God’ presence.  The standing multitude of dry bones brought back to life has a somewhat different connotation.  Because God is present, we can breathe.  And stand ready for the future, looking forward in hope.

Additional Year A Resources for Lent and Holy Week now available. 

Illustration Idea

In his Trilogy of the Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien tells the story of Frodo Baggins and his company who are on a quest to destroy the evil Ring of Power.  They journey into the elvish kingdom of Lothlerien, where Galadriel tells Frodo of the elves’ long resistance to the creeping evil of Sauron.  Though they have lost their country bit by bit, she encourages him with these bracing words: “together through the ages of the world we have fought the long defeat.”  That’s often how it seems; our battle with sin and evil, even in our own selves, is “a long defeat.”  That is surely how it felt to ancient Israel.  But God has a surprise for us.  Defeat will turn to victory, as Frodo and his company will finally discover. And death will be overcome by sovereign love, as the Exiles and the followers of Jesus discovered.


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