(Originally preached for Cheapside Church on April 6, 2014)
37:1 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.
37:2 He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.
37:3 He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord GOD, you know.”
37:4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD.
37:5 Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.
37:6 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.”
37:7 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.
37:8 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.
37:9 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.”
37:10 I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
37:11 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.’
37:12 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.
37:13 And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people.
37:14 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.
“Mortal, can these bones live?” God asks Ezekiel.
They’re standing in the middle of a dry and dusty valley. It is dark all around and the ground stretches on endlessly. Barren, soulless. And as far as the eye can see there are bones. Bones and bones and more bones. All of them bleached white and leached of every single drop of moisture. A wretched, forgotten, hapless graveyard. An indisputable lost cause. This is a wasteland. This is a place of no hope. Or so it would seem. But God has whisked Ezekiel away to show him this vision of a wide valley filled with bones. And not for nothing. God asks him:
“Mortal, can these bones live?”
This is a powerful passage. Indeed, it gives us one of the most striking images in the entire Bible. Whether we’ve heard this story once or a thousand times, it has probably stuck with us—such is its stand out nature.
And so when I first realized that this was the text I would preach on, I was pretty excited about the opportunity. And then I sat down to write my sermon and I found myself at a loss for words. What exactly do you say about God putting sinew and muscle and flesh and breath into an endless valley of dry, decayed, human bones? Wow?
And so I struggled to speak. I knew there was abundant and powerful truth to speak in this passage, but I was daunted by the call for me to speak it.
I am the sort of person, I suppose, who puts myself into the stories I read. And the more I struggled with this sermon, the more I found myself relating to Ezekiel in this text. I imagine, when he stands in this midst of this wasteland valley with God, and God’s ask him “Mortal, can these bones live?”—he is, at least momentarily, left speechless.
If it were me, I would certainly wonder if this was a trick question. Can these bones live? Are you kidding? It feels almost like adding insult to injury that God starts the question with a reference to the very finite nature of Ezekiel’s humanity. Mortal, God calls him—or more directly translated “Son of man”—just before asking him if fargone mortal bones can transcend their mortality and live again.
Ezekiel plays it safe—at least as safely as it can be played. “O Lord, you know,” he defers, with just a tad bit of snark.
And God does know. So why, I found myself wondering over and over again as I wrestled with this text, why does God even bother to ask? Why bring Ezekiel to this valley? Why show him this wasteland of bones? Why ask him the question and why tell him to prophesy? And why share any of it with us?
This is a God who can create a world in seven days and destroy it with a flood. This is a God who can part seas and speak in burning bushes. What need does this God have for us to participate in the work of resurrection?
God doesn’t need our answer or our participation. God is creating and recreating life. But God asks us anyway. “Mortals, can these bones live?”
The safe answer, I guess, is “O Lord, you know.”
But the truth, I think, is that God wants to know that we know. This question posed to Ezekiel and now in this moment posed to us, is a question of faith. Do we know? Do we believe? Will we dare to speak it? Can these bones live?
God asks Ezekiel about these bones and commands him to prophesy for exactly the same reason God created life in the first place. God desires relationship. Perhaps God doesn’t need us, but God wants us. God wants us to believe—in God, in resurrection, in hope beyond hope, in the world made new.
This story reveals to us just how committed God is to being in relationship with us. God can raise up a valley of bones—no problem. But God wants to share that miracle with Ezekiel. God wants Ezekiel to be a part of that good work. God could start over from scratch, leave those bones to turn to dust and create anew. But instead God chooses to stay with God’s people and raise them up. God could forget the body entirely, but God chooses messy human incarnation and resurrection full of sinews and flesh.
This is the God who will not let us go, not one inch of us, even in the valley of death. The same God who chooses to be with us in Christ. Who chooses to die for us rather than forget us in our brokenness. This is the God who chooses messy human life, and messy human death, and messy human resurrection just to be with us.
What a powerful truth. It’s enough to make your bones rattle.
We are not dead. We are not bones parched and white. But neither are we strangers to valleys and shadow. The dry dusty places of death are a part of life. And the message of this text today is that even there God is with us, raising us up, making us new, daring us to have faith and speak.
This past week I attended a conference called NEXT Church in Minneapolis. This is fairly young event in the Presbyterian Church, started four years ago by pastors from around the country who wanted to dream together about the future of the church. They had grown tired and frustrated by the constant despairing talk about the church’s imminent death. They had, in a sense, found themselves in a space that had been declared a valley of dry bones. A lost cause. And they weren’t content to stand and watch in silent vigil, waiting for God to work around them. They felt, these pastors who started this dreaming place for the church, that God was asking something of them.
“Mortals, can these bones live?”
And they said yes. And for the last few years they have come together to prophesy and to dream of the new life that might enter old bones of the church. It is not a perfect place or a new heaven. It is still a valley. This past week during a worship service at that same conference, all gathered named aloud their fears and troubles—the dry bones of faith inside them. And from within the very heart of those fears, God was at work—creating new life and new hope in the rubble. Hope and resurrection aren’t things that belong to some other world or some perfect place. They belong to the valley itself, because even there God is with us. Choosing us.
Every year, by the end of summer, the fields around this church have gone dry and wilted in the heat. It is hard, on those hot, lifeless days, to believe that even then new life is stirring beneath the ground. We doubt, we sweat, we languish in the deadly Texas swelter. But always, sooner or later, life blossoms anew in this field with a celebration of flowers.
Today we are in the shadowy valley of Lent. The cross looms ever closer. But so does something greater. If we listen, we can hear the bones rattling, daring us to believe in the God who never lets us go. The God who wants us to be a part of God’s amazing work. The God who remains with us in the dark valleys of life and even beyond the grasp of death. The God who makes beautiful things out of dust and out of us. The God who is making all things new.
Those bones, they are rattling for us. Do you believe it? Will you dare to speak it? To prophesy to that holy, impossible truth and watch them raise?
Mortals, can these bones live?