Sermon on Ezekiel 37:1-14
“Bones, bones, bones.” That was pretty much how I translated verse 7 as I rushed to finish my final exam in Introduction to Biblical Hebrew during my first year of seminary. While not exactly the right translation, we certainly do have a lot of bones in this passage, but we also have so much more than that. In what several commentators referred to as a passage that captures the imagination, we read a vivid depiction of dry bones literally coming back to life. It’s the perfect Halloween passage; complete with skeletons and something that kind of resembles some type of zombie creature! What is going on here?
Well, first, let me place where we are at in our Biblical arc. After spending some time looking at the early history of the people of Israel and the Psalms, we have moved into looking at the prophets. The prophets play many different roles for the people of Israel, serving as both a voice of challenge and speaking hard truths, as well as a voice of comfort, pointing toward a future that is different from the present. Ezekiel did both of these things – first prophesying about the destruction of Jerusalem, and then as an exile, prophesying words of comfort, words of life, like we find here in this passage. We find here one of the major themes of the Bible – as one commentator puts it: “At the core of the Biblical narrative is the story of displacement – of having wandered a long way from home, and longing to return. This is the underlying plot of being cast out of Eden, of being foreigners in Egypt, of the journey to the promised land, of the longing of the exiles in Babylon to return to the land of their [ancestors].”
It is in Babylon that Ezekiel shares the vision that he has that we read tonight. The Israelites are in exile and wondering what their future will be. The Temple lays in ruins in Jerusalem. Spiritually the people were dry – if you want to get a sense of how in despair they were read Psalm 137 sometime. We too can find ourselves with dry bones, maybe from exhaustion, maybe from overuse, maybe from not taking care of our souls. For both the Israelites and us, “Can these bones live again?” can feel like a very real question. The same can be said when we look around our world today – in part I think due to some of the dark side of our technology and connectedness. Statistics show that we are living in a safer time than any recent time, and yet we believe it’s the opposite. Children are not allowed to play outside on their own, and we fear a random mass shooting. Climate change seems unstoppable. The world’s challenges can quickly make us feel like we are in a valley of bones.
What happens next is not zombie-ism. It is resurrection. What we have here is one of my absolute favorite Hebrew words – if you’ve heard me talk about it before, it’s still an awesome word and concept, if you haven’t, listen up. The word is “ruah”, and why I love it is that it means spirit, wind, and breath. And it doesn’t mean just one of these at a time, it can be all three intertwined. So when God says “I will cause breath to enter them,” what is really being said is, “I will cause spirit/breath/wind to enter them.” All three are one and the same, a life force, restoring not just breath, but flesh and being to these dry bones. This is also why I love the Hebrew Scriptures – I mean, talk about an image of hope and resurrection. In a valley of grim despair and death, God breathes a life-force that restores the dead to life. This is powerful stuff. For ourselves and for the world.
Do you ever have times where it seems like all your classes randomly come together, where some topic seems to just keep showing up in everything you read? The prophets talk about justice, and how we can bring hope to the world. One of the great places to find a prophetic voice in our time is Sojourners, a non-partisan organization that challenges us to think first about what it means to be Christian. In last week’s weekly e-mail, Jim Wallis talked about extreme poverty is being reduced, in powerful ways. The efforts of individuals and organizations are working. In 2000, the UN put out its Millennium Development Goals, which had a goal date of 2015, and they have made significant achievements. The number of children who die before age 5 has been cut in half. In the 1980s only half of girls in developing countries completed elementary school; that is now up to 80%. There is still work to be done, but change is really happening.
And you do make a difference. I read a daily Richard Rohr devotional, and right now he is talking about those individuals who have shown him what active non-violent resistance and change looks like. But he took the first day of this week to not talk about an individual, but to acknowledge that behind every great individual, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Dorothy Day being those he has looked at so far this week, our countless individuals also contributing to the work, who make it all actually work. We are those individuals. Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the opposition movement in what was Burma, and 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner, said, “Every thought, every word, and every action that adds to the positive and the wholesome is a contribution to peace. Each and every one of us is capable of making such a contribution. Let us join hands to try to create a peaceful world where we can sleep in security and wake in happiness.”
When you are in the valley of dry bones, may you let God’s ruah restore life to you. And may you let yourself be God’s instrument to breath ruah into others and into this world. These bones will live again. Amen.