7 Questions God Has For You: “Can These Bones Live?”
Rev. Louis Timberlake
August 14, 2016
Ezekiel 37:1-14: 37 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. 2 He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3 He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” 4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5 Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath[a] to enter you, and you shall live. 6 I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath[b] in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”
7 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. 8 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. 9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath:[c] Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath,[d] and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” 10 I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
11 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.’ 12 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. 13 And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14 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.”
I love this passage. It is so powerful, so visceral. You can just hear the rattling, bones clicking together; you can visualize the sinews twining around them; you can feel that strange wind coming from all directions and hear this jarring, ragged gasp as breath comes into bodies that were once dead, but are now alive. It’s kind of a disturbing passage–but in a good way, right? It gives you chills, but they’re the good chills that come from witnessing something utterly incredible. I mean, I feel like we could just read the passage again, skip the sermon, and call it a day.
Now, don’t get too excited. I mean, if I didn’t have a sermon this morning, people would think, “Well, then what did he do since last Sunday? Pastors only work one day of the week, right?”
I love this passage because it so powerfully and succinctly gets at the heart of the Christian faith. At the very core of our faith, of who we are, is the belief that God brings life out of death. Death is not the final answer, because, through Christ, the power of death has been defeated. Paul puts it this way in 1 Corinthians, “When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”
That is who we are. We are the people who cry out, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” Because we have hope. We have hope, because our God brings life out of death.
There are different types of death, aren’t there? Death is more than a biological condition. It can be a spiritual condition. An emotional condition. It is possible to be living and yet not be alive, isn’t it? It’s possible to be breathing, to be biologically functioning, yet not be alive, right?
Do you remember that scene from the movie Braveheart? It’s towards the end of the movie and the Scottish freedom fighter William Wallace has been betrayed and captured by the English. He’s in prison, waiting to be executed. They’ve told him that if he will publicly beg for mercy, then they will make it quick and clean. But, he knows that to beg for mercy would undo all that he’s done to fight for Scottish freedom, so he refuses. Isabella, the English King’s daughter in law, has secretly fallen in love with Wallace and visits him to plead with him to beg for mercy. His response is one of the great lines of a truly great movie. “All men die. Not all men really live.”
It is possible to be living yet not be alive. It is possible to choose to live in the valley, surrounded by dry bones.
Of course, not every valley is of our own making. Part of being a pastor means that you encounter a lot of people that find themselves unwillingly in desolate valleys. Stuck in places or situations that suck the life right out of you. People in broken, even abusive relationships. People dealing with debilitating depression or anxiety. People wrestling with addiction. People suffering from mental illness. People struggling to support their families, despite working 80 hours a week. People in overwhelming financial difficulties. People battling diseases that slowly destroy their bodies.
There are things that we face, not by choice, that threaten to truly suck the life out of us. And, when we find ourselves in the valleys of life, we have a couple of options. One is despair. You see it in this passage. The people of Israel have given into despair. They say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.”
Now, the background of this is that Jerusalem had been conquered by the Babylonians, under King Nebuchadnezzar. The Temple, the center of Jewish religious life, had been destroyed. The Babylonians had deported a large portion of the Jewish population back to Babylon, including the prophet Ezekiel. Their lives, their national identity, their religion–everything had been utterly devastated. This vision that Ezekiel has compares Israel to a valley of dry bones. They were still physically there, but, in reality, they’re dead. Everything about their lives had been destroyed. And, their response is despair. “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.”
And yet, when we find ourselves in the valley, there’s another possibility. God asks Ezekiel, “Mortal, can these bones live?” Now, Ezekiel’s world has been devastated. His response, to me, is the response of someone that has just about lost faith. He has been obedient to God. He has served as a prophet of God in the face of major opposition. But, in his response, you can see the weariness. He’s burdened. He’s overwhelmed. He’s been faithful, but things still haven’t improved. He is literally and figuratively in the middle of the valley of dry bones. “Mortal, can these bones live?” “I don’t know God. Only you know.” It’s a technically correct response, but his heart’s not in it. He’s about ready to lay down and become another pile of bones.
And yet, in the midst of the despair, in the midst of the devastation, God tells Ezekiel. “Prophesy to these bones. Tell them that they are not forsaken. Tell them that even when the despair seems final, there is hope. Where God is, there is always hope.”
As Ezekiel begins to speak the words of God, the words of hope, something happens. That which was dead to the point that even the hints of life were gone, begins to awaken. And, as bones are covered with flesh, as bodies are filled with breath, as Ezekiel speaks the words of life, the despair that threatened to overwhelm him gives way to hope.
Now, it’s not a shallow hope. Shallow hope is the hope of immediacy and platitudes. Shallow hope would tell us that it’s all going to be alright. Whatever we’re facing, it will get better. There’s a reason for everything. But, that’s not realistic and, at times, it’s damaging. Hope is not about expecting problems to be solved.
No, the hope that we have is deep hope. It’s not the hope that devastation will not happen, but that, even in the midst of that devastation, God will bring forth life. It’s the hope that death is not final. The hope that life wins. That love wins. That God wins.
We are bones and we are prophets.
We are bones, because we so desperately need those words of hope. We need to feel the sinews binding us back together, the Spirit of God to fill our bodies with breath. We need the power of God in our lives, transforming what is dead into something that truly lives.
We are prophets because we are called to proclaim the words of hope. God doesn’t bring the bones back to life alone, God uses Ezekiel. And God calls us to be messengers. Messengers of the power of life over death. We don’t just receive hope, we are called to speak hope. So much of our world sees despair as the only option. Our job, as the church, is to demonstrate that there is a better option. There is a better possibility. There is hope.
I love the way the song we sung earlier put it:
We call out to dry bones, come alive
We call out to dead hearts, come alive
Up out of the ashes, let us see an army rise
May we speak words of life to the dry bones and dead hearts that we encounter. And may we be an army, a body that is a living witness to the life-giving hope of God.
- Share where in your life or in our world you have felt like you’re standing in the middle of a valley of dry bones.
- Share where you have seen God bring life out of some sort of death, either in your life or the life someone else.
- Ezekiel is told to prophesy in order for the bones to live. Share your thoughts on our role as the church in bringing life out of death.