Dry Bones No More

Ezekiel 37:1-14
© Stacey Steck

For many people, “The knee bone’s connected to the hip bone” is all they know about our story this morning from the book of Ezekiel, that collection of bizarre images and prophecies made by the prophet to his people in exile. It’s a great song, very catchy, very humorous, but if that’s all we know about the Valley of the Dry Bones, we’ll miss the point of this incredibly significant metaphor of our life and our ministry. You see, the only thing humerus out there in the desert in Ezekiel’s time were a few arm bones. Sorry. Couldn’t resist.

But seriously, too seriously…the people of Israel had been reduced to bare bones, dry bones. Defeated by the empire of Nebuchadnezzar, carted off to a foreign land on a forced march across the desert, the bones of their fallen kin and countrymen, quite literally, lay baking in the sun. Still others would have died since arriving at their destination, and who knows if or how the Babylonians would have permitted the Israelites to attend to their dead. They too might have been left exposed for scavengers to pick clean. And those who remained would surely have felt like they were mere bags of bones, stripped of their possessions, stripped of their homeland, and worst of all, stripped of their dignity. Their sense of despair was captured so well in the psalms: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and there we wept…If I forget you Jerusalem, let my right hand wither.” This was the remnant of a proud people who lamented their fate and wondered if they’d ever go home again. Dry bones to be sure.

In a similar way, those who had followed Jesus with high hopes and expectations must have felt like their bones were left hanging on the cross with those of Jesus. Yes, by the time Pentecost rolled around, they were somewhat renewed having seen Jesus come back to life, but there for a while there wasn’t much left of them. They were despairing the loss of their friend and teacher. On the road to Emmaus, the sneaky and still-unrecognizable Jesus heard the lament of Cleopas and his companion, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who did not know that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified?…But we had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel.” Not quite as bad off as their ancestors in the faith, but another Biblical case of dry bones, nonetheless.

And there are dry, despairing bones in Houston, Texas, as wet tears flow from friends and family, as again, a shooter acts out of despair or anger or revenge or whatever horrific motive resides in his heart. There are dry bones in Gaza amid the blood flowing there. There are dry bones in Hawaii as the lava flows. There are dry bones all around where we are gathered at this very moment, and I don’t mean the ones in the cemetery. And there are dry bones in this sanctuary. There are dry bones anywhere that unhealed human hurts, and unfulfilled human hopes, reside. There are valleys and valleys of dry bones in our world, as far as the eye can see.

And God asks us the same question God asked Ezekiel: “Mortal, can these bones live?” And Ezekiel hedges, doesn’t he? “Um, O Lord God, you know.” Isn’t that our answer sometimes? “God only knows!” we say when we are afraid to give an unqualified answer to an uncertain question. You can hardly blame Ezekiel, can you? It doesn’t say that, in a vision, God showed Ezekiel that valley of bones. It says the Lord brought him out by the spirit and set him there. He was facing the cold, hard, dry reality of the situation, not just some hypothetical divine facsimile. He might even have crunched a bone of one of his ancestors when that spirit set him down in that valley. It was real. And he probably wasn’t really prepared. You know, theologies and theories are great when you’re sitting behind a book in a library or a classroom, but how much good do they do you when you’re faced with the cold, hard, dry reality you’re crunching beneath your feet? When your whole retirement savings are on the line for that once-in-a-lifetime investment opportunity your brother-in-law wants you to make, none of his forecasts and business models are going to keep you from being anxious. When your wilderness guide tells you that the rope bridge that looks like it’s hanging on by a thread is perfectly safe, you pause for a minute! And so Ezekiel hedges, doesn’t he? “Um, O Lord God, you know.” He’s not going to answer that question with so much evidence to the contrary.

But God can handle our doubt. And so God goes ahead and says to Ezekiel, “Prophecy to these bones,” and we know what happened. And then God says to Ezekiel, “Prophecy to the breath,” and we know what happened: “the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.” In the face of Ezekiel’s doubt, in the face of Ezekiel’s failing courage, God does not let the dream die. There is still hope for Israel, hope for a vast multitude, hope for a return home from captivity. These dry bones will live, Ezekiel! And in the face of the doubt of the disciples, and in the face of their failing courage, God does not let the dream die, but raises Jesus’ dry bones from the tomb, and releases him back into our world for a little while. And in the face of our doubt, and in the face of our failing courage, God does not let the dream die. Our bones too will live. We can be, we will be revivified both in this life and in the life to come.

No, it's not just an old prophecy about a Valley of Dry Bones. It’s a promise for all eternity. From whatever may leave us feeling stripped down, God will raise us up. Whether it’s from shame, injustice, or disillusionment, that our bones are stripped bare, God will raise us up. Whether it’s from controversy, conflict, or criticism, God will raise us up. Whether it’s due to illness or grief or loss of any kind, God will raise us up. Whether it comes from toxic relationships or micromanaging bosses or corrupt governments, God will raise us up. Whether it assails us through self-doubt or addiction or resentment, God will raise us up. Yes, all these things will leave us feeling at our bare bones minimum, but that’s never stopped the spirit of God. The almighty power of Pharaoh couldn’t stop the spirit of the Almighty God from freeing the slaves from Egypt. All those tribes of Amalekites and Jebbusites and Perezites couldn’t stop the spirit of God from leading the people into the land of milk and honey. Israel’s worst sins couldn’t stop the spirit of God from bringing the nation back from Ezekiel’s Babylon, and death itself sure couldn’t stop the spirit of God from opening that tomb. There’s nothing in this world that can keep God from putting life into your dry bones and filling you with the very breath of God.

Now, if you don’t have anything that’s stripping you down to your bare bones, praise the Lord. But for the rest of us, there’s some good news this Day of Pentecost. Yes, the Spirit is alive and well and moving in your life. It’s there for the feeling. It’s there for the taking. It’s there for the blessing. It might take a little while to come to full flower, but it’s there. It took a while with the disciples, yes it did. You could say that even after the disciples had their reunion with the risen Jesus, and their bones had come back together, so to speak, that they still weren’t quite alive. They had their bones back together but they had no breath within them. Remember that in Ezekiel, it takes two prophecies to do the job: one to put the body back together, and another to bring it to life. And it took two prophecies for Peter and the rest of the disciples too. Jesus’ resurrection was his first prophecy; the coming of the Holy Spirit was his second. And then the church really came alive. And in a funny way, we could make a parallel to our own lives of faith, that the first prophecy is what gets our creaky bones out of bed on Sunday morning, and into the car, and through the doors of this place, and set down in our pews, and that the second prophecy is when we really experience the breath of God flowing through our lives, when we really get it, deep down in those bones, that we are loved by God no matter what the world tells us, or what other people tell us, or what we tell ourselves. Or think of it this way, that in our baptisms our bodies come together, and in confirmation, or in whatever moment that we find ourselves truly claiming the love of God, the spirit brings us to life. However you think about, know this: that there is hope, on so many levels, and in so many ways. That’s the spirit of God. That’s the promise of Pentecost. Dry bones come alive.

I want to invite you live with that thought for a few minutes, that dry bones come alive. I came across a song this week that reminds us just that and that just seems so appropriate. So, close your eyes if you like, or read the lyrics as they show up on the screen, but however you choose to let the spirit flow a little through this music, I hope it will bring you refreshment and assurance that “Dry Bones Come Alive”.