Texts: Ezekiel 37:1-14; John 11:17-27
If God were to take you by the hand and lead you somewhere – I doubt Ezekiel’s destination would be where you’d want or even expect to go. Perhaps you’d expect to gaze upon a stunning mountain range or take in a beautiful meadow filled with wildflowers and babbling brooks. Any valley we might see would be a green and growing valley, a valley of life. We would be led by the hand of God into a paradise.
Ezekiel’s experience of being touched by the hand of God is not what we might imagine. Ezekiel—one of the Judeans exiled by Babylon and a priest turned prophet—is led in a vision to a place the psalmist could have been thinking of when writing “yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” Ezekiel is brought to the remnants of a great battle – a battle where the dead where not giving the honor of burial but remained in an open field. He has been brought to a place where a rebellious and covenant breaking Judah had experienced ultimate defeat, humiliation, and anguish and been left to rot.
Just as with the story of Jesus and Lazarus, there is no chance the dead of this valley are not dead yet, that perhaps they’ll soon be feeling better. Not just four days have passed as with Lazarus – enough time has passed there are no intact bodies, only scattered parts. In this valley there is no life – there is nothing but bare bones. Bare-dry-bones.
In the midst of such a desolate place, God asks Ezekiel can these bones live? Can these bones live? Bones that are nothing but pieces of what presumably once were people?
Ezekiel doesn’t know if these dry bones can ever be anything other than dry bones. He doesn’t know whether or not there can ever be life in the midst of all these overwhelming – and seemingly final – death. But what he does know is much like Martha—who answers Jesus’ question of resurrection after her brother’s death—knows. Ezekiel knows that the divine is where the answer to this question – and where life – lies.
The prophet responds in this faith and is in turn instructed to proclaim a promise of life.
Even though these bones presumably have no ears to hear, something happens. There is a sound, a rattling, and suddenly the impossible is happening – bone to bone. God – who knit each one of us in our mother’s wombs – knits these bones, these bodies, these people back together.
Then, after instructing Ezekiel to call out to the ruach – which is the word for both breath and spirit in Hebrew – God’s ruach, God’s spirit comes into the once dry bones and they live.
After this vision God does not make Ezekiel or us sit and wonder what these dry bones knitting back together, becoming whole and being filled with life might mean. God declares that those who once cried out that their bones are dried and hope lost will be brought up from their graves, out from their despair, into life and the land.
For Ezekiel’s original hearers, this vision promised hope after their country had been destroyed and after they had been exiled from their land.
For those of us who hear Ezekiel’s words today, we have no trouble reimaging Ezekiel’s dry bones. We have each known what it is to feel torn apart, to be left behind in a valley of despair. We have experienced disappointment after disappointment; we have been at a loss for who we are and whose we are; we have fallen so low that we wonder if we can every climb out of our hole.
We have felt brittle and dry and longed to be refreshed and whole.
We have each experience our own valleys. Many of us have also experienced a rebuilding and a renewing brought on by the Spirit. We have fallen into valleys of death and been raised by God into life. In small groups, bible studies, around tables at dinner, we have shared stories of how God has breathed the spirit of life into us.
This is good news – news which will carry us through our hard times. In the valleys of our lives, God speaks and moves and brings life. This is good news for us but it is not the only word for us to hear.
In this vision of Ezekiel’s, we can see ourselves as the dry bones. And there are times when we are those dry bones. But there are also times when we are – at least we should be – Ezekiel.
God speaks words of life in the face of death. God speaks these words not through an angel or a burning bush or a talking donkey, but through a mortal, a person, just like you, just like me, a human.
God chooses to use those created in the divine image to proclaim the divine truth – that in God life is possible even after death, even after all hope seems lost.
This Friday I attended a production of Numbers the Stars, a play based on the Lois Lowry book about the Danish resistance during World War II, how the Danish people hid and protected their Jewish friends and neighbors from the horrible fate of so many other European Jews.
After the play, a man by the name of Mark Strauss spoke to the audience. Mark is a Holocaust survivor. After being forced into a ghetto – Jews in a cage as he called it – friends of his grandparents, an elderly Catholic couple, took Mark in and hid him in a first floor apartment.
For 22 months he lived in a 10 by 7 room, a room with a cot, a window, and a door. Lest the neighbors grow suspicious by the appearance of a curtain in the window or a glimpse of what looked like a little boy’s face at the elderly couple’s house, he spent the time living on the cot or the floor.
Mark survived – unlike 85% of the Jewish people from his town – but his time of survival wasn’t pleasant. It was filled with fear, filth, hunger, and moments of which he would not speak. During this time, he experienced not only German hatred toward Jews, but Ukrainian hatred toward the Polish. Surrounded by threat upon threat, Mark survived.
In the midst of death, Mark was an example of life. What’s more, after he was liberated and after he came to the United States, he did not bring the forces of death with him. The hatred of a people – hatred he witnessed and experienced embodied in atrocious ways – this hatred he left behind. Of the five things Mark wants those who hear his story to understand, to take away with them, the fifth was most profound for this listener. He doesn’t hate. Rather than be filled with hate toward the Germans or the Ukrainians, he chooses to value each person based on their own merits – not their ethnicity. Mark has chosen the path of life over death, and what’s more, he speaks about it.
As the body of Christ, are we called to do any less?
Words of life, words that bring together the scattered pieces of a people, words that are inspired by and speak to the breath of life which comes from God – these are words that you and I are charged with. As the body of Christ – the one who is the resurrection and the life – we are the ones who must speak to this resurrection and this life. We are the ones who are called to look out at a valley and say “O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.”
“O dry bones…” These are words we are to proclaim but do we? How many times have we looked out at these valleys and stayed silent instead of speaking out God’s good news? How often have we looked at despair and doubted that anything can be done to change the situation?
The problem is too complicated – nothing that you or I can say or do will ensure all people have access to adequate health care. The hatred is too deep, too entrenched in people – no efforts we make will stem the tide of violence. This is the way things have always been – the poor will be with us always.
We get lost and are made mute by doubting what good we can do. What good letter writing or phone calls will do. What good speaking out when we hear or experience hatred or injustice will do.
What good will it do? When we speak to life as the spirit of God moves within us, we testify to the breath of life which comes from God. This breath which brought the dry bones together, bone to bone, then sinew to sinew, flesh to flesh. This breath which filled Lazarus with life, this breath which flows from the resurrection and the life.
Mark Strauss witnessed a valley of dry bones and now spends his time witnessing to both the death that has been and the promise of life that will be. You and I who are bound together in the one baptism, the one faith, the one Lord, are called to witness to the Lord, to the one who died and rose again. We are called to witness to the impossible. We are called to speak life for the one who is the life.
We have to be the ones to speak for a world full of dry bones, a world that needs the sound of our voice. This world is crying out for someone to speak daring words, scary words, unwelcome words; to proclaim life in the midst of death; to witness to hope in the abyss of despair.
This world is crying out so let us find the words given to us even as we have been filled with the Spirit – the ruach – the breath of life. Let us speak, proclaim, we witness not because we know whether or not the bones will live, not because we know that the words we speak will definitely bring an end to poverty or bring about justice. Let us speak because God knows, speak because God has chosen to work through us. Praise be to God. Amen.