Sermon - 5th May 2019
The Valley of Very Dry Bones and Resurrection
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
Despite being one of the longest books in the Old Testament, running to 48 chapters, the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel appears only 7 times in the three-yearly cycle of Sunday church readings known as the Lectionary. The most well-known part of Ezekiel is today’s reading from Chapter 37. The narrative lends itself well to be told as an inspiring story, as we heard it read to us, and its strong imagery lends itself well to song, and as a ‘good story’ for Sunday Schools!
So who was Ezekiel? The Book tells us that he was born in the late 7th Century BCE into the priestly tribe of Levi; his father was Buzi; and his name means “God strengthens”. Although he was born in the Southern Kingdom of Judah, the narrative of the Book is written from exile in Babylon. He and his family were forcibly taken into exile with Judah’s king Jehoiachin in 598 BCE.
The Book has three broad themes: God’s judgement on the people of Israel, God’s judgement on other nations, and the future restoration of the Jewish people, from which we have our reading today. There is little historical narrative in the Book of Ezekiel: instead, it is told in a series of visions in both prose and poetry.
When God speaks to Ezekiel, he is addressed as “Mortal man” or “Son of Man”, a translation of the poetical Hebrew phrase is “Ben Adam”, but we should not confuse this with the similar title used in reference to Jesus in the New Testament. Another consistency in Ezekiel is how the Prophet addresses God, always with the double naming – “Adonai Yahweh”: Lord God, or “Sovereign Lord” in some translations.
The naming clearly identifies both God and humanity and their places in the order of things: God is the creator, the One in control; humanity, the created, the ones called to listen to and respond to God’s words.
Our reading begins with Ezekiel being transported by God’s Spirit to a valley filled with dry bones. There is something very final and dead about bones… yesterday morning, while out walking with my friend’s dog on Winter Hill in Bolton, we came across the remains of a sheep’s skeleton. It was hard to image that once those bones were a living, breathing creature.
The bones in Ezekiel’s vision must represent something. To understand this, let us look of the historical context, much of which is verifiable from the surviving records from contemporary Babylonian historians and later others like Josephus.
To Ezekiel, there were three clear historical reasons which led him to believe that the people of Israel were a dead people, just like the lifeless collection of bones he saw at the start of his vision.
Firstly, Ezekiel would also have known of the fate of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, some 150 years earlier, when the Assyrians conquered it and forced 10 tribes of Israel into exile, and they disappeared forever from history. Genocide, the wiping-out of whole nations, is an appalling thread across recorded history.
Secondly, as a young man, Ezekiel saw his beloved homeland Judah invaded and conquered by the Babylonians, resulting in forced exile. Sadly, exile is something that has happened throughout history. Even in 2019, according to the UN, around 70 million people worldwide are refugees. Seekers of asylum are in exile, too, no longer able to live in the countries of birth.
Thirdly, after living in Babylon for around 15 years, a second group of exiles arrived from Judah, bringing with them terrible news. The Babylonians had destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, the Jewish spiritual home.
A three-fold loss: the people, the homeland, the Temple. This is our starting-point. These are the dry, lifeless bones in the valley. The text includes the words “very” to emphasise the situation: “there were very many [bones] lying in the valley, and they were very dry”.
God forces Ezekiel to look at the bones, leading him through them. This was not a quick glimpse: it was a prolonged exposure to a terrible reality. If that were us, confronted with the loss of kin, home and spiritual home, we would probably be broken, bereaved, depressed and hopeless.
It is at this point, when Ezekiel has reached rock-bottom, that God speaks and proposes the extraordinary, the unthinkable, the miraculous.
Many of us may have had the experience of having reached rock-bottom – the despair of a seemingly never-ending asylum case; the rejection, the loneliness of having being rejected by friends, family, co-workers because of our sexuality or gender identity; the grief of losing a loved one – if we have been there personally, we may have an inkling of an understanding of what it was like for Ezekiel.
But before God can bring on the miraculous, God has to get Ezekiel on board by asking him a question: “Mortal, can these bones live?” Ezekiel’s answer is neither “yes” nor “no”. His answer is one of surrender to the Lord God: “Lord God, You know.”
At this point, God could have done the miraculous, bringing life to the bones and Ezekiel could have been a passive observer, but God’s actions took a different direction, one that required Ezekiel’s co-operation. Co-operation in the truest sense of the word: Ezekiel needed to do something, and this would be hand-in-hand with God acting.
God commands Ezekiel to “prophesy”, that is to speak God’s word. Ezekiel speaks God’s words of re-creation, and the bones reverse their decay. The command to “prophesy” in this way occurs 18 times in the book of Ezekiel, and just once elsewhere in the whole of the Old Testament [Amos].
The image of re-creation or resurrection of these lifeless bones bears a similarity with the creation narratives in Genesis 1, where God speaks and creation takes form; and in Genesis 2, where God creates woman by taking a bone from the man (Adam means ‘man’).
At the start of John’s Gospel, we read something similar: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” (John 1:1-2)
We might like to look down on these ancient texts from our level of superior scientific and medical knowledge, but it is clear that the people 2600 years ago had a good knowledge of anatomy: they knew how the skeleton connected, and how muscles were held to bones by sinews, and covered with skin. They also knew that more was required for there to be life!
After God has brought the bones together, re-grown the muscles and sinews and covered them with skin, we now come to the second miracle.
The Hebrew word “ruach” has three meanings: wind, breath and spirit. In this passage, the word occurs 8 times. It is a medical fact that to be alive requires breathing, and we identify our spirit as something which is in our body as long as we live; and the wind which we feel is very similar to the breath that we feel when we exhale. It should be no surprise that the Hebrew word can mean all three.
In other parts of the Old Testament, the words “ruach” refers to God’s Holy Spirit. Going back again to Genesis 1 (v.3), we read that God’s Spirit is there at the Beginning, hovering over the waters at the dawn of creation.
At Easter, we remember God’s miracle of the Resurrection of Jesus, raised from the dead. Jesus had been dead only 2 days, no time for Him to decay into the very dry bones we read about in Ezekiel. The same Spirit of God who for Ezekiel raised the bones to living, breathing people, raised Christ from the dead; and the same Spirit of God, whom the Disciples received at Pentecost, lives in us as Christians.
The end of our reading brings God’s explanation to Ezekiel of what the vision of very dry bones means: “these bones are the whole house of Israel.” God heard their cry: “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.”
We may feel like the very dry bones. We may feel that our hope is lost.
Although Ezekiel died before he could see it, the Jewish exiles did return to their homeland, they rebuilt the Temple: the Jewish people experienced a resurrection of faith and identity, albeit only for 600 years until 70CE, when the Romans destroyed the Temple and razed Jerusalem to the ground.
Ezekiel’s vision offers us a vision of how much God can do for us, we who are God’s beloved creation. As Christians, we also have the assurance of God’s raising Christ from the dead, and God’s Spirit lives in us.
What can we learn from Ezekiel? In his darkest moment, Ezekiel said neither “yes” nor “no” to God; he trusted in God, he surrendered to God and responded to God’s call. Most importantly, Ezekiel became part of what God was doing.
Like Ezekiel, we are the mortal children of God, but because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we become the immortal children of God. Easter and the power of resurrection is not a one-off wonder: for Christians, we live the Resurrected life each and every day.