Sunday, January 2, 2022

God's Presence Brings Life: Dry Bones

Today, our reading is from the prophetic book of Ezekiel. It is, perhaps, the most known passage in Ezekiel. 

Last week, we were in the Prophet Jeremiah. The time frame of both of these prophets is about the same, with Jeremiah perhaps a little older than Ezekiel. Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel were prophets during the first exile of Israel. But they are in different locations. Jeremiah is speaking to the people exiled in Babylon from Israel’s homeland. Ezekiel, however, who was a priest and a prophet, an influencer of sorts in Jerusalem, has been exiled by Babylon. To keep him from stirring up trouble in Jerusalem. So, Ezekiel is an exile speaking to those in the homeland. 

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.” --Ezekiel 37:1-14 (NRSV)

During the time I lived in Austin, I got to know my youngest niece, Grace, well. One of her favorite TV shows - in fact, her most favorite TV show - was “Bones.” She even named her cat, “Bones.” I don’t know if you remember the show, or if you saw it, but it was a crime procedural comedy-drama series that first premiered in 2005. It was based on a real person - a woman who was a forensic anthropologist. 

The whole idea behind this area of work is that bones can speak to us. Forensic anthropologists assist in identifying deceased individuals whose remains are decomposed, burned, mutilated, or otherwise unrecognizable - such as the result of a plane crash. They are also instrumental in investigating and documenting mass genocide and identifying remains left behind in mass graves. Their job is to help the bones tell the story of this person or this people who are no more.

Now Ezekiel is not a forensic anthropologist. But a prophet. And, as our test today opens, he is being whisked away by God - kind of like Disney’s Ghost of Christmas past from Dicken’s Christmas Carol. Ezekiel is literally being whisked by the hand of God into a valley of bones. Bone upon bone upon bone. Stacked far and wide. All Ezekiel can see are bones. Dry bones. Bones that have been there for a very long time. Bones from which all of the marrow - that life giving center - has completely dried up. Ezekiel has been carried into the midst of death itself. 

Then, surprisingly, God asks the question of Ezekiel. “Can these bones live?” God asks. And, Ezekiel, perhaps not entirely sure of the answer, responds, “You know, God.” Like “I don’t know, you tell me.” There is no “Pollyanna” “Sure, you bet!” answer here. Instead, Ezekiel, not really knowing the answer given what lies in front of him, turns the question back to God.

It is then that God acts - not by restoring the bones to life as we might expect, but by telling Ezekiel to prophesy to them. Almost like God is saying to Ezekiel, even though you may not know whether these dried out bones can be restored, do it. Prophesy, Mortal.

So, he does. Reluctantly. Perhaps, hopelessly, too. But, then, a miracle begins to happen. What Ezekiel perhaps expected would happen, doesn’t. The exact opposite happens. These bones begin to fill out with sinew and flesh, covered by skin. Dry as they were, they have begun to come alive. But, not fully. 

Because, then, God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the breath. To the breath of creation - the four winds from the four corners of the earth. Creation itself has a role to play in this restoration of life. Soon, these formerly dead, dry bones are alive. Standing on their feet. A vast multitude, our text tells us.

This text from Ezekiel is often used as a metaphor for life after death, for the resurrection of the dead. But, perhaps a better reading of this - a reading that is clearly laid out for us in the text, is one that is about the restoration of Israel. Of the people of Israel. This is less a resurrection story and more a restoration story. It is the story of an exiled people, who, like the dry, dead bones, have lost hope. A people who have lost their land. Who have lost their way of life. Who have lost everything. This is a story of a people disrupted. This could also be our story.

The lesson of this story? There are many. But, perhaps, for us in our time - as we are once again witness to a new COVID variant, witness to another school shooting, witness again to increasing hostility between nations - things that dry out our bones, that suck all of the hope from us. Perhaps, for us in our time this is simply a message for us as people of God - like Ezekiel - to simply speak words of hope into our world, even when we don’t know for sure what the future holds. To prophesy to the dry bones around us. To call in the breath of creation. To be part of creating that new future into which the God of Israel - who entered into our world through God’s own Son - will again enter in to restore and reanimate our hope. And our world.

Can these bones live? O God, you know. Amen.

Preached December 5, 2021, at Grace & Glory, Prospect, and Third, Louisville.
Advent 2
Readings: Ezekiel 37:1-14; John 11:25-26

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