The story of the dry bones that we just read occurred during the middle of the darkest chapter of Jewish history before the Shoah (the Holocaust). The Jews were in exile in Babylon. The Temple was destroyed. And the Babylon exile directly challenged all of the ways that people thought about God.
The exile did away with the simple notion that God would protect his people. It seemed to suggest that God had no people, that God had broken God’s promise to the chosen ones. All the history of Abraham and Sarah, and Moses, Joshua, Ruth, David appeared to have been simply swept away.
It was the end of the world as they knew it, and things definitely did not “feel fine.”
And just as we take offense when somebody even hints that the terrorist attack at 9/11 was deserved, so too, the vast majority of Israelites would have rejected any notion that their exile was deserved. So naturally they would have lamented, and did lament, “Why us?” “By the waters of Babylon there we at down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.” Ps. 137
So we can never understand this famous passage about the dry bones in Ezekiel if we only remember it in the context of a children’s song about “neck bones connected to….” whatever neck bones connect to.
These days of exile were ominous days, empty days, hopeless days.
So when the Spirit of God took Ezekiel to a valley that was full of bones, God wanted to send a perfectly clear message. These were not bones of the newly dead, with flesh still on them, but old, dry bones; they had been there for awhile. Probably only a forensic scientist, or perhaps God herself, could identify some mitochondrial DNA. In short, the scene in Ezekiel was as hopeless as any mass grave in Poland or Cambodia, or Serbia, or Rwanda.
So when Ezekiel surveyed the scene, a valley full of bones – and they were very dry – and God asked him, “Mortal, can these bones live?” the answer was all too clear. Of course not!
But Ezekiel wisely hedged his answer, “O Lord God, you know.”
See, Ezekiel is savvy. He has worked with this God before – he knows you can’t quite pin YHWH down. YHWH is everywhere and nowhere, blowing where and when and how and why he wills.
Because remember, God was not just telling Ezekiel to resuscitate a dead body. God asked Ezekiel to go several steps beyond that – to put together a deconstructed, disassembled, one step short of an absolute decomposed, heap of nothing.
So it is completely absurd to imagine the Spirit of God saying to Ezekiel; “Prophesy to these bones.” The Spirit basically asked Ezekiel to preach to this absurd situation and this absurd congregation of bones. Preach a word that cannot be heard? Preach in the face of utter hopelessness, utter impossibility?
But Ezekiel – God bless him! – started to prophesy! And, as we read, the bones began to reassemble, and sinew was placed upon the bones, and flesh returned. But they still probably looked like part of that traveling science exhibit that came to our Science Center several years ago. Because there was no animation – these were just recreated bodies – until God breathed the divine spark within, until the wind blew and fanned the flame, and the Holy Spirit burst like some combustible power, and there they stood – alive!
You know the Hebrew word for wind can be translated three different ways: as “wind,” “breath,” and “spirit.”
I heard a wonderful connection between the name that God gives himself – “YHWH” and those three translations of “wind,” “breath,” and “spirit.” You see, the name itself is like an intake of a deep breath – when you speak God’s name, you inhale YAH and exhale WAY. Try it with me!. (You feel better now, don’t you? Or at least light headed!)
And think about this: The first act of a baby out of the womb is to take its first breath, and in so doing, that baby claims YHWH as God. Likewise, the last act we ever do, with our final exhale before our death, is to release our self to our creator. YHWH – the first and final word, the alpha and the omega be!
So here we are, right here in the valley of dry bones: life, breath, wind, spirit, recalling, reanimating, re-creating. And since this is the start of our summer schedule and we’re gathered informally here in Fellowship Hall, I want to hear your thoughts about the dry bones in your lives and in our world today. We have a couple of microphones to pass around, so let’s get this conversation started!
[The congregation offered many answers to these questions:
1. What did you notice as the scripture was being read?
2. Where are the places of dry bones today? And how would God have us preach, live, and witness?
3. Where are you seeing examples of God breathing new life into dry bones?]
You know, listening to you today, it seems so clear to me that we live in a day and age that sometimes feels so dry and lifeless. These are ominous times for many. I heard you sharing your fears about lost and threatened jobs, and I read in the paper just last week that the unemployment figure for Ohio is 10.5% .
I also found out just the other day that due to shrinking revenues human service programs are going to be cut. And, of course, who will suffer the most then? The aged, the infirmed, the underclass, the children.
And I hear you wondering how in the world we’re supposed to preach to the dry bones of war and hatred and conflict that can be found all over the globe. I mean, things aren’t getting any better in Afghanistan or in N. Korea, are they?
So it’s no wonder that the words of God to Ezekiel are words that may be bumping around in our own minds: “Can these bones live?”
Can that broken, dry and lifeless relationship in my life be re-born?
Can the forgotten and desolate neighborhoods in our city become lively and hope-filled once more?
Can my life, which feels so empty, be filled with something other than envy, regret, guilt or ear?
Can these bones live? Do we dare to hope?
Well, God told Ezekiel to prophesy. Because God doesn’t do these re-creation things alone. Ezekiel to open his mouth and had speak. Peter had to stand up in the midst of that Pentecostal crowd accused of being drunk and say something.
One or the other of you in that broken relationship has to stop saying, “It’s YOUR problem,” and instead say, “Let’s see if we can work this out with a counselor.”
And there are many initiatives trying to envision what our region of Northeast Ohio might become – many people are trying to speak truth to the question of whether this city can live again. The faith community is beginning to speak, to prophesy, to preach about the divine imperative of sustainability, of making Cleveland the “green city on the blue lake.”
Making Cleveland the healthiest city, and the most educated city, and a destination city open to all may seem like a pipe dream or a waste of time – but you never know. God has done a lot funnier things!
I read in the New Yorker the other week about the reconciliation that is going on in Rwanda. The Hutsi’s and the Tutu’s who have been engaged in a living slaughter for decades and decades are starting to bring their grievances to people’s courts shaped on South Africa’s “Truth and Reconciliation” tribunals. They’re re-building communities – and Rwanda is beginning to find its national identity again.
Into all these places of desolation, God breathes. There is life. And we are all to prophesy – to open our mouths and proclaim a better way, a return, a hope. It will be enough.