Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 26, 2023
Ezekiel 37:1-14 Commentary
Sample sermon: It is a sad statement on the last 100 years that we can rather easily imagine the scene Ezekiel describes in his famous 37th chapter. Whether or not the people in Ezekiel’s original audience had ever seen such a valley full of bones, we have. We’ve seen the mass graves of Auschwitz and Kosovo. Our minds cannot erase, much though we’d like to, the carnage of Rwanda and particularly of that one photo of a church sanctuary littered with the skeletal remains of those who sought refuge in God’s house but who found instead swift death at the hands of machete-wielding thugs. Perhaps most dramatically we’ve seen the killing fields of Cambodia (see below) with bones and skulls stretching to the horizon.
We know what Ezekiel saw and we know that such a scene represents death in all its finality, intensity, and horror. And so we also know what we would say if someone asked us, “Do you see any life in all that carnage? Can those emaciated victims of Hitler’s Final Solution live? Can Pol Pot’s legacy of murder lead to life?” We know what we’d say and we know that from just the human side of things our answer would be a resounding, “No!”
If you’ve ever toured one of the Nazi concentration camp memorials, you know of the almost choking sense of death and finality you sense in those places. When years ago I visited Buchenwald, I was struck by what a glorious place of natural beauty it is. Located near Weimar in what was then East Germany, Buchenwald overlooks a broad vista of rolling hills and valleys. Even in the dead of winter when I was there, the view was lovely.
And yet it wasn’t lovely to me. Buchenwald, like the other camps I’ve seen at Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, and Plötzensee, hangs so heavy with a sense of mass extermination that all else is eclipsed. By the time you’ve viewed the memorial plaques, glanced at the grim photos of corpses stacked like cord wood, and passed by the crematorium onto which is now engraved with the words, Denket Daran Wie Wir Hier Starben / “Ponder How We Died Here,” there is little left in your mind than the overwhelming sense of death’s tragedy and of its apparent absolute finality. There is no beauty there and often very little sense of hope.
Son of man, can these dry bones live?
No, they cannot.
From our human side of things the bones cannot live. From our human side of things death is the end. We cannot bring anyone back. Even with the wonders of today’s medical technology there is nothing that can be done for even a body that has been dead for more than five or so minutes, much less for a body as far gone as to be a skeleton.
Ezekiel saw skeletons–lots and lots of them. These were people who did not receive burial for some reason. The sheer number of bones seemed to indicate some kind of mass carnage or catastrophe. The dry condition of the bones lets Ezekiel know that these people have been dead a long time. Can these bones live–these long-dead, desiccated, jumbled-together remnants of people who are long gone from this earth? No, they cannot. Verse 2 tells us that Yahweh gave Ezekiel a pretty thorough tour of this terrible place. They walked back and forth, through and among the bones. Ezekiel saw no life.
Can these bones live? The question was ridiculous. So much so that Ezekiel was savvy enough to realize that it is more of a rhetorical question. Perhaps that is why Ezekiel is bold enough to swat the ball back into Yahweh’s court.
“Son of man, can these bones live?”
“You tell me, O Sovereign Yahweh. You tell me.”
In the face of such a scene of death’s finality, people of faith have no choice but to throw it back into Yahweh’s hands. We know the answer to the question insofar as our human perspective and ability are concerned. If there is more that can be said in this situation, God will have to be the one to say it. If there is anything to be done to or for these bones, God will have to be the one to do it. “Can these bones live?” The suspense of faith is holding our collective breath to see what Yahweh says in answer to his own question.
Speaking of breath, the Hebrew word for “breath” is ruach, and it pops up fully ten times in just these fourteen verses. Clearly it is the key word for this context. It starts in verse 5 when Yahweh tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones that God would indeed restore the breath of life to them. But before we consider that any further we need to notice the silliness of what Yahweh asks Ezekiel to do. Ezekiel needs to stand up, clear his throat, and preach a sermon to the skeletons! Imagine going to a cemetery tomorrow, standing on a bench, and then saying to all the headstones stretched out before you, “Good afternoon. You’re probably wondering why I called all of you here today . . . well, that is, what I have to say to you is . . . .”
Nobody is listening! There is no one to hear! Ezekiel has had to perform his share of wild and crazy things in this book but earnestly preaching a sermon to this valley of bones is far more outlandish than most of the other prophetic signs he had to perform. Yet this spectacle is less ridiculous than we might at first think. Preaching to the obviously dead is actually not so rare after all–not within the context of Ezekiel and not even yet today.
This entire book was written in the shadow of what Walter Brueggemann calls the Nullpunkt, which is a German word for “zero point.” The Nullpunkt of faith is that moment of crisis when all seems lost and when, humanly speaking at least, all really is lost. For Israel all of her prior understandings of covenant had been shattered. The belief that Jerusalem was inviolate and the Temple indestructible proved hollow. In the hymn “Abide with Me” we sing the line, “Death and decay in all around I see.” The exiles in Ezekiel’s day would no doubt amend that to read, “Death and decay is all that I see.”
What was next for Israel? Everything depends on whether or not Yahweh will return to us the very breath of life itself. We are powerless even to summon this breath, much less to grant it to ourselves or anyone else. In other words, from the human side of things there is the undeniable reality of death, and there is not a thing we ourselves can do about it. We are finite. There are limits. The universe itself cannot continue forever.
But Yahweh is the God of resurrection! Can these bones live? No. Even if somehow sinew and tendon and flesh could be put back onto them, as happens in verses 7-8, can they breathe and be whole and complete living souls again? No–not unless Yahweh himself picks up these dead folks and, as he did in the beginning with Adam and Eve, personally blows the breath of life back into their nostrils! It is all of God.
God will not be without a people. In fact, before this vision is finished it becomes clear to Ezekiel that the many bones he sees in that valley are not the slain of some single battle in Israel’s history. What Ezekiel sees is all of Israel: every man, woman, and child of God’s people who has ever died. And God here promises to bring them all back. To bring them back, to put them back into a true homeland, and so in this way let the people know once and for all and forever that Yahweh alone is God and that we will dwell with him as a result of his Word and Spirit of Life.
The last verse of the entire Book of Ezekiel some 10 chapters after Ezekiel 37 in Ezekiel 48:35. There Ezekiel has finished laying out the dimensions of God’s ultimate home for his restored / resurrected people. The last touch on that description comes in this final verse when Ezekiel reads off for the people the name engraved on the entrance to the holy city. In Hebrew the name is Yahweh Shammah, which means “Yahweh Is Here.” Or maybe an equivalent translation could be something along the lines of Immanuel, “God with us.”
As a prophet it was Ezekiel’s task to pluck the strings of the people’s imagination with lyrical descriptions of things and possibilities beyond what we can attain on our own, and in this way to foster a thoroughgoing hope. He succeeded. In this universe of death and decay, Yahweh’s question still rings across the broken landscape of our history: Can these bones live? The answer of Immanuel, who is the resurrection and the life, the alpha and the omega, the great shepherd of the sheep and the firstborn of all us dead and dying folks–his answer to this question is simple, clear, and redolent of hope: Can these bones live? Yes. The Sovereign God in Jesus Christ our Lord has spoken it.
[Note: We have a special page dedicated to further sermon ideas and resources for the 2023 Year A Season of Lent and on into Easter. Visit this page here.]
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