Can These Bones Live?
The following is a sermon preached in ACU Graduate Chapel on March 29, 2017.
Sermon Text: Ezekiel 37:1-14
For me, the last week has been dominated by the ferocious West Texas wind. It has shaken the trees, rattled the windows, howled down the chimney, and endeavored—almost successfully—to strip the metal roofing off the shed. It stirs up abundant allergens, and the watery eyes, sniffly nose, and headaches that go with them. The wind affects my moods, too. A gentle cool breeze on a warm sunny day makes my soul sing. The incessant gusting of high winds at night leaves me feeling spent and driven, like last season’s tumbleweed uprooted at last. Over the weekend, in the space of 24 hours, the wind blew in from every cardinal direction, as though to encircle us. Yesterday afternoon I couldn’t keep my eyes from scanning the horizon, hunting the edges of dark cloud for signs of a funnel. “The wind blows where it wills,” our Lord told Nicodemus, and it is so.
But it’s March in West Texas, and this is really just to be expected. It’s as natural as the bluebonnets and the twittering birds and the vibrant green of new mesquite leaves. The wind sometimes feels like an assault, yes, but it’s a seasonal one, come in its right time.
Like March in West Texas, the wind is everywhere in Ezek 37:1-14, but there’s nothing natural or normal about it. The same Hebrew word, ruach, is used ten times in this short passage, variously translated as spirit, wind, and breath. The repetition of ruach holds this text together: without these ligaments, the skeleton of the passage falls to pieces.
Ezekiel feels the hand of the Lord upon him—a phrase the prophet uses to describe ecstatic visions. The ruach, or spirit, of the Lord mystically transports him to a place he’s been before: the valley. In chapter 3 verse 22, the first time Ezekiel feels the weight of the “hand of the Lord,” he goes out to “the valley” near the exiles’ dwelling place at Tel-abib and sees the glory of the Lord.
How different is that valley now! It has become a gruesome site of slaughter. Before, Ezekiel had fallen on his face at the sight of the Lord’s glory, and the spirit set him back on his feet. But now the spirit sets him down in the midst of a vast boneyard and makes him walk all around. When Ezekiel says, “Behold,” perhaps we can imagine an audible gasp as the prophet takes it in: [gasp] so many! [gasp] so dry! Desiccated and disarticulated. There is indeed “terror on every side,” right here in Ezekiel’s neighborhood.
In the eerie stillness of that place of death, the Lord’s words ring out across the valley: “Mortal, can these bones live?”
It’s a surprising question. Is it a mocking one? I imagine Ezekiel had some questions of his own: Who are these unfortunates? What happened to them? Who has done this and why? What am I supposed to make of this? Where can “the Word of the Lord” be found in such a situation? (And is it one that I really have to proclaim?) At least, those would be my questions.
But Ezekiel has been around the block once or twice as a prophet of Yahweh, and he answers guardedly, prudently. He utters into that still, lifeless valley a polite and evasive, “O Lord God, you know.”
The Lord has more surprises in store. The next thing we hear is a command to prophesy to those disheveled masses of sun-bleached bone. At first, it’s odd to think of prophesying to a heap of bones—to what end? What “ears to hear” are there in this place? Or did the miniscule middle ear bones give an anticipatory little quiver? On the other hand, from the very beginning of Ezekiel’s ministry, the Lord had warned that his prophetic message would be largely fruitless: this is a rebellious people, and they won’t hear. At least seven years have passed since his calling. Ezekiel has spoken the Word of the Lord and performed a sequence of shocking symbolic actions. And the people didn’t hear, and the leaders continued in their rebellion, and Jerusalem has fallen all. Is Ezekiel tempted to make a comparison? “Yeah, my ministry has been like preaching to dry bones.”
But I doubt it. This vision isn’t about Ezekiel, and I reckon he knows it. The Lord continues with an astonishing message: these bones will breathe. They shall live. “I will lay sinews upon you and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath (ruach) in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord.”
It’s clearly connected to the message of the previous chapter, verses 26-28, where the Lord promises to gather the people for his own name’s sake:
A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. Then you shall live in the land that I gave to your ancestors; and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.
So Ezekiel prophesies as he is told. A rumbling fills the valley and the earth below quakes as the bones click into place—“bone to its bone.” Like a visitor to a bathhouse, the reconstituted skeletons put on first what they were stripped of last. Connecting sinews, then flesh—even lungs to breathe—and at last a covering of skin.
But no breath, no ruach. The first prophecy has already asserted that God would put breath in these bones. Where is the breath? Like Jesus’ twofold healing of the blind man in Mark, the two-part resuscitation of the bones stops us in our tracks, it signals to us that we must pause and ask why. Here are apparently whole persons, but they are still corpses—as lifeless and hopeless as the scattered bones moments before.
The Lord continues, “Prophesy to the breath… ‘Come from the four winds (the four ruach), O breath—O ruach—and breathe on these slain that they may live.’”
Ezekiel does so. Perhaps the east wind tosses his hair as the west wind pulls at his garment. The north wind sends an icy chill down his spine, and the heat of the south wind blasts his face. Breath enters the bodies and they rise at last—a formidable host.
I just want to pause and remark on what an abnormal thing this is for the wind to do in this book. In chapter 19, the wind dries out fruit that has not yet been harvested from the vine. Usually, the wind is a force that scatters, as it once scattered a third of Ezekiel’s shorn hair. The wind is a favorite metaphor for the scattering of the people of Israel. In other books of the Hebrew Bible the “four winds” indicate the cardinal directions, but metaphorically they underscore the extent of Israel’s dispersion. This scattering “wind” was doing the Lord’s bidding.
But at the word of Yahweh, the very winds that once scattered now converge. Here its invocation brings life to bones that are extremely dry. It does the Lord’s bidding as before, but now to gather and to revive. As God breathed the breath of life into the man in Genesis 2, God puts the ruach into these lifeless human forms and they come to life.
Mortal, can these bones live?
It is a staggering vision, and Ezekiel is a superb storyteller. It’s delightful to linger over the details, touring the valley with you and taking in all its horrors and all its wonders. I’m tempted to stop here and let the pure enjoyment of exploration be its own reward, but we would risk missing the main point.
The whole preceding vision grows out of verses 11-14. Ezekiel has been in the dark about its origins until verse 11, and so have we. We’re not very surprised, I think, to hear that this vision concerns the people of Israel. But what I had never noticed before sitting down with this passage this week is that this word of the Lord finds its inspiration in the lament of God’s people in exile.
The Lord, who has bidden the people to hear, has also been listening, attentive as they wept by the distant river Chebar. They lamented, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.”
The Lord hears them out, and partly accepts their assessment of the situation. This vision concretizes the language of the people’s own lament, and takes it a step further. It is as if God replies, “Yes, the situation is as bad as you say, and even worse than you know.” There are no dignified burials, tidy grave clothes, and ritualized mourning here; Israel is more like a defeated army, left as carrion for the vultures and the jackals, exposed before the eyes of everyone.
So the Lord adopts the people’s own haunting image for their plight, but the vision inverts their interpretation. “Can these bones live?” Israel would not evade as Ezekiel did; their clear answer is no. “Our hope is lost. We are cut off completely.” They have forgotten who they are talking to. By God’s spirit—by the ruach that hovered over the waters at creation—the answer is a resounding yes. Israel may be dispersed, disinherited, and despondent. Left to their own devices, it has become apparent that covenant loyalty is beyond their ability, even if they were to regain the land. So the Lord will supply what they can’t: a new heart, a new spirit. The Lord listens to their cry, and the very words of their funeral dirge become the vision of their new life. The Lord gives to them of himself. By God’s spirit, they will come out of their grave like Lazarus, blinking into the sun. And finally they will learn what the Lord has said on repeat in Ezekiel: “Then they shall know that I am the Lord.” “They will be my people. And I will be their God.”
This is a fitting passage for the season of Lent, but not for the reasons that we might assume. It’s coupled with the raising of Lazarus in the lectionary, and it’s easy to read this oracle simply as an Old Covenant precursor to the resurrection, just as early Christians did, and as the lectionary seems to suggest. That’s not an inappropriate extrapolation, but it does mean downplaying part of the explanation that follows.
Like the exiles beside the river Chebar, in the season of Lent we repent, individually and communally. Like the exiles, we may feel that it’s already too late. We take a long hard look at our own valleys of dry bones, and we lament. If we are really honest, we lack what is necessary to revive these bones. We are powerless.
Though desperate for forgiveness ourselves, we are unable to extend it to those who have wronged us. Can these bones live?
Our church fellowships are wracked by factions or hobbled by self-righteousness or even dissolved by disinterest and disengagement. Can these bones live?
We fail continually to put right the racial injustice and prejudice that has plagued our communities for generations. Can these bones live?
We wonder what will become of our nation in ten years’ time. Or in five. If the worst happens, can these bones live?
This season of Lent is a fitting time for such lament. We face our valleys of dry bones, and we name them before the Lord. I have often wondered, what turns a lament psalm to thanksgiving and praise? At least one response to that question lies in the text before us: the Lord hears our words, transforms our vision, and by his spirit even these dry, scattered bones can live.