Can These Bones Live?

Speaker: Pastor Stephen “Tig” Intagliata
Bible Passage:   Ezekiel 37:1-14

Summary:   After the Babylonians destroyed Israel’s temple and holy city of Jerusalem and sent their leaders into exile, the Israelites said “our bones are dried up, our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” God leads the prophet Ezekiel into a valley of dry bones, and asks “Can these bones live?”.  Then God gives Ezekiel a vision of the bones being revived, through the life-giving power of God’s spirit breathed upon them.  When our bones are weary and hope seems to be lost, God’s spirit can also breathe new life into us.  

High up in a remote part of the Andes mountains of Bolivia, there’s a train graveyard.  It’s located in the area of the world’s largest salt flat, the Salar de Uyuni.  The high salt content speeds up the rusting process of the trains.

It is here that trains go to die–they will never carry passengers or cargo again.

The vision that God gave Ezekiel in our passage today is as hopeless and death-filled as the train graveyard.  Ezekiel finds himself in a human graveyard that we could call “death valley”— it’s littered with dry bones, with no sign of life in sight.

The vision of the valley of dry bones is a metaphor for the situation of the people of Israel.  It was a time when their land was invaded and taken over by the Babylonian empire, twice in the span of ten years, first in 597 BC and then again in 587 BC.

The first time, the Babylonians sent Israel’s king and many other leaders into exile to Babylon, and the second time they torched the holy city of Jerusalem, destroyed the sacred temple, and deported another wave of Israelites to Babylon.

The forced, violent displacement from their home into a strange and unfamiliar land was hard enough for the people of Israel.  We can imagine the hardships they faced, as we think about groups of refugees in our world today who have been forced to leave their homeland due to things like war, famine, or economic crisis.

Think Afghanistan, Ukraine, Sudan, Gaza, Venezuela, Sudan, to name a few.

And for the Israelites, this was also a crisis of faith.  The key symbols of their faith—their holy city and holy place of worship, their chosen leaders– had been destroyed.  So it’s easy to imagine that their faith was shaken.

They wondered, “Has our God been defeated and dethroned by a more powerful god from Babylon?”  “Is our God, Yahweh, who he claims to be?  Is he truly faithful and in control?  Do we have a future, or is this the end of the road?”

Ezekiel was one of the exiles in the first wave of deportation.  In the midst of his own despair and disorientation, God called him to be a prophet for his people.

And there in that desolate valley of very dry bones, the Lord asks him a question:  “O mortal, can these bones live?  Do these dry bones have any chance of being revived and brought back to life?”

And Ezekiel’s response is “O Lord God, you know.”

What did Ezekiel mean by this response “O Lord God, you know”?

It seems like it could be interpreted in a number of different ways.

 It could be like “O God, you know.” Meaning that the answer is a solid “No”, there’s no way these bones can live again, but Ezekiel didn’t want to come right out and say that to God.

Or maybe his response was a bit cynical like “Look Lord, you know the answer, so why even ask me?”

Or maybe there’s a third possibility, one a little more optimistic: Lord, to me it doesn’t look very promising, but I know what you are capable of doing so I’m going to hope for a miracle.”

And based on what comes next, maybe this third option is more than wishful thinking.

Because God says that these lifeless bones will start rattling in such a fashion that they begin to form into bodies—and they will develop sinews, tendons and flesh and skin.

As I read this story, I can’t help but think of my recent knee replacement surgery.  I don’t want to know all that the surgeon did when he cut open my knee—sometimes ignorance is bliss!

But I do know that he took out a worn out piece of my knee and replaced it with a new one,

And he somehow attached it to the tendons and the flesh around it so it would stay in place.  And so far, it’s still there where he put it!  And once it heals, it hopefully will give my knee and me a new lease on life.

Now what happens next in our story gives those bones turned into bodies a new lease on life as well.   God says, “Come from the four winds, o breath, and breathe upon these slain, these dead ones, that they may live.”

And the breath came, and breathed new life into that multitude of bodies, and they stood up tall on their feet and they came to life.

Ah, the miracle of the breath of life.  How many of you who are parents can remember the first breath your child took when he or she came out of the womb and into the world.  It probably came in the form of a loud waaah!

But it was such a beautiful waah.  And this scene in the valley of formerly dead bones is beautiful as well.  And it was made possible by the life-giving breath of God.

The Hebrew word for breath is Ruach.  Ruach is also the word used for wind here, and also the word for spirit.  Spirit, breath, and wind.  If we add up the number of times these words are used in this passage, it’s 11 times.

God’s ruach permeates this story, and is the force behind the revival of the dead.  It’s the same spirit, the same ruach that was present from the beginning of creation as described in Genesis when the spirit of God hovered over the waters, and then later when it breathed life into the first humans.

And then the Lord explains to Ezekiel what the prophecy of the valley of dry bones is all about.  It has to do with their current state as exiles.   “These bones are the whole house of Israel”, God says.  They say “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” 

But there is hope.  For God says he will perform surgery on their graveyard, open up their graves, and lift them out, and take his people back home to Israel.

“I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and you will be on your own soil, and you will know that I am the Lord, who speaks and who acts.”

If we’re honest with ourselves, you and I can probably think of times when we felt like the people of Israel did in exile.  Where we feel like our bones are tired and achy, where we have all but lost hope, where we feel cut off from who or what has been familiar and important to us.

It might have to do with a relationship.  Or a job.  Or a physical or mental illness. Or a financial setback. Or being overwhelmed by the state of affairs in our world.  Or an unexpected and unwanted turn of events.

There a lot of things that can suck the life out of us to the point of feeling it deep in our bones.  We see this in what are known as the psalms of lament, where David and others pour out their grief, their despair, and their pain.

Those psalms of lament can be hard to hear, but they are honest and powerful expressions of the human experience that we all can relate to in one way or another.

The psalms are an art form, like poetry.  And some of the most powerful ways of expressing the range of emotions we humans have are through different kinds of art—like poetry, painting, and music.

One of my favorite songs from one of my favorite artists is “American Tune” by Paul Simon, of Simon and Garfunkel fameThe song came out in 1973, near the end of the Vietnam war that had claimed the lives of 58,000 American soldiers. 

Simon lived in New York City, in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island where so many immigrants had traveled far from home to seek refuge in our country.

You can feel the pain of war and also the immigrant experience in the words of the song, which I think could be classified as a lament.

The music was actually borrowed from a Bach tune, which we might know from that Good Friday hymn of lament:  “O Sacred Head Now Wounded, with grief and shame weighed down..”    

  American Tune goes like this:

Many’s the time I’ve been mistaken, and many times confused.

Yes, and often felt forsaken And certainly misused

But I’m all right, I’m all right I’m just weary to my bones

Still, you don’t expect to be bright and bon vivant

So far away from home, so far away from home

 And I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered I don’t have a friend who feels at ease

I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered or driven to its knees

But it’s all right, it’s all right We’ve lived so well so long

Still, when I think of the road we’re traveling on

I wonder what went wrong I can’t help it, I wonder what went wrong  (and then it goes on…)

Here are a couple of Comments about the song on YouTube:

I’m just trying to figure out how he wrote perfect lyrics in 1973 for 2020.

It seems so current and applicable to this troubled and dangerous time. It portrays a weariness of the soul which I know many of us experience “…

The Israelites were vulnerable and open in their lamenting, and God heard and responded to their cries by pouring His spirit out on them to give them hope and the promise of new life.

In the same way, when we have the courage to face the weariness of our bones and sadness of our spirits, we too can experience the power of God’s spirit to revive us, renew us, even resurrect us.

C.S. Lewis said in his book Mere Christianity

Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead.

I think of the 12 step program, which calls people to be honest with themselves and with their brokennes in order to draw upon a higher power and find healing and hope.    

You know what makes it possible to be open and vulnerable with our own pain and despair?  It’s because we know that death doesn’t have the final word.

No, the good news is the promise of redemption which we hear at the end of the passage of the dry bones.  God says, 

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.

One of my favorite books about resurrection and hope is this book by Stephanie Lobdell: Signs of Life: Resurrecting hope out of ordinary losses.

Each chapter is about a different kind of death that we might experience in life:

Like death of expectations, death of beauty, death of invincibility, death of image, death of hope, and death of plans.

In her chapter on the death of plans, Lobdell talks openly about the shattering of her dreams to be a missionary, and also the unraveling of a once-promising ministry in a church.

But out of the ashes, God gave her peace, and hope for a new vision for her life and ministry.  She captured this vision as she opened herself up to listen to the Holy Spirit stirring inside her, and as she took small steps of faith to respond to those stirrings and nudges.

Lobdell writes in the book:

 “Every yes to the Spirit’s promptings in our lives, however unexpected or even unwelcome, cracks us open bit by bit, enabling us to respond to the Spirit’s direction and participate in God’s redemptive work in and around us.”                                                      —Signs of Life  p. 75

Today is Pentecost Sunday, the day when we remember that the Holy Spirit was poured out in a powerful way on a group of people gathered in Jerusalem.  That experience led to the birth of the first church, which was empowered by God’s spirit to live a countercultural way of life with Jesus at center, a way marked by hope, love and joy.

Friends, that same spirit is still moving today.  God invites us, calls us to pay attention to the presence of the spirit in us and around us, be ready and willing to respond to the nudges and promptings we feel, and live with expectation and trust.

I want to close with a quote that I read this week from a Presbyterian pastor in Colorado, Doug Resler, who was reflecting on this passage from Ezekiel:

It’s a powerful thing God calls us to do. To declare hope in the face of hopelessness. To declare joy in the midst of sadness and mourning. To declare love when it feels like all love has been lost once and for all. To walk by faith in the midst of the mess we’ve made of our lives and our churches and our society, trusting God make the dry bones live again. 

Can these bones live?  Yes, indeed, they can.  Amen.