Can These Bones Live?

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Tue, 04/04/2017 - 8:30pm

Ezekiel 37:1-14, Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church, April 2, 2017, Lent 5 

            When Becca and I were in New Mexico, we went to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, the Georgia O’Keefe Home and Studio, and the Georgia O’Keefe ranch called Ghost Ranch. Some of her most famous paintings are those of cow skulls combined with flowers or landscapes. In her house, there was a skull of an elk with antlers hanging on a wall. We saw photos of Georgia picking up skulls she found out in the desert and bringing them home. When I first met Becca, she had a white skull like that decorating her apartment; I found out later it was a horse. At some point over the last 38 years we lost that skull. I’m sure she thinks I threw it away! I find them a little creepy.

            In Ezekiel 37, the prophet has a vision of a field full of skulls and bones. This is a vision he is given in a trance state, not something that actually happened, and it is all symbolic, a kind of parable. But Ezekiel finds himself in a valley full of bones. In Israel, a “valley” is what we would usually call a plain—a flat place that isn’t mountainous. The few broad plains were the sites of most battles, because they were the only places that could hold large armies. We don’t know the name of this battlefield, but it was a battlefield like Gettysburg or Shiloh where thousands of men were killed. Ezekiel must have assumed these bones were the men of Jerusalem and Judah who had been killed by the Babylonians. The Babylonians completely crushed the Jews, destroying the holy city, its temple and its walls, ending the monarchy established by God.

            Can you imagine yourself in a field of bones like that, even in a dream? Do you remember the scene in The Lion King in which young Simba and Nala wander into the elephant graveyard? It’s a dark scene: as far as the eye can see there are the huge bones of elephants—ribs, tusks, skulls—like a kind of macabre jungle-gym for the kids to climb on, but painted in gray shades out of the adult sensibility that this is a place of death. Suddenly, out of one of the skeletons come three hyenas running to attack the lion cubs, and you realize why the bones are so clean. There are animals who live on dead flesh. Ezekiel finds himself in a place like that, but full of human bones, never buried, just lying out in the sun to bleach, picked clean by buzzards, rodents, and insects—and maybe hyenas. The humans have been dead a long time and the bones are very dry.

            The most shocking photos I’ve ever seen of anything like that came from the “killing fields” in Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge carried out genocide against ethnic Vietnamese, Chinese, and Thais, plus Cambodian Christians and Buddhist monks. The government killed at least two million of its own citizens. The photos show huge piles of human bones. There are storage racks with hundreds of skulls on the upper shelf and random bones on the bottom shelf. Sometimes just the skulls were arranged on the ground in neat rows and columns as if they were the white markers in the Chinese-Japanese board game of Go. Just search Google Images for “Cambodian genocide bones’ and you will be horrified. But that is the kind of horrifying image Ezekiel saw and that he wants his listeners to see.

            The whole point is that they are dead, dead, dead. Yahweh asks the prophet a question, “Can these bones live?” You’d think it was a rhetorical question to which the answer would be “No, duh.” But Ezekiel gives a cautious response to God, knowing that God is supposed to be able to do anything, and he wouldn’t want to offend him. “Lord God, you know.” Who am I to tell you what is possible? This is what Ezekiel hears himself saying to God in his vision, and already you have a clue that God might do something with these bones.

            At this point I think we ought to stop and clarify that this vision is not about what is going to happen to you when you die, or what Jews thought would happen in the Resurrection. God is very clear what this vision is about. At the end, in verse 11, he says, “These bones are the whole house of Israel.” These bones represent your whole nation, Ezekiel, the people with whom I made an eternal covenant. Your nation is dead. You have no capital, no temple, no king, no walls, and your most accomplished people were taken (like you) to the great city Babylon for re-education. They are becoming less Jewish every day as they assimilate. Some of them think I am dead, or powerless, because I did not save them from slaughter.” That’s what the bones mean in the original setting—although they can mean a lot of other things to us today.

            So Ezekiel is standing in the midst of these symbolic bones, which no doubt looked perfectly real to him in his vision, and God says to him, “Preach to the bones.” How can the dead hear good news? That is one of the mysteries that Paul notices in the New Testament: it is the preaching of good news that brings the dead to life. The first piece of good news is “I will cause my breath to enter you.” That reminds us of God breathing into Adam, the first man, which gave him life. But the Hebrew word for breath (ruach) is also the word for wind and the word for spirit. We get the wind image a few verses later, but it is the Spirit of God which gives life to the dead.

            Then it starts to happen. Ezekiel hears the bones rattling, and he looks and somehow the bones are rearranging themselves into skeletons, finding their old partners. Then ligaments start joining the bones together, then muscle covers them, then skin. So instead of a field of bones, Ezekiel finds himself standing in a field of corpses. They are bodies now, but they are still dead.

            So God tells the prophet to preach now to the breath (or wind or spirit). Tell that spirit to breathe on the dead and bring them back to life. When God’s breath blows upon those corpses, the come to life and stand on their feet, a huge crowd. Once they were dry bones, hopeless, and now they are not only human, they are a people again. They are the reconstituted people of Israel, a nation once again. And that is God’s message for Ezekiel to proclaim to the people. Your nation may be dead now, but I am going to make you alive again. I will put my spirit in you and bring you back to your own land and you will be a nation again. And that is in fact what happened within fifty years. The empire of Babylon fell, and the new Persian regime allowed to Jews to go back and rebuild Jerusalem. It would be like Turkey saying the Armenians could return to their homeland and form their own nation, or China letting the Dalai Lama re-establish the nation of Tibet. It was something impossible that came true.

            When we take a lesson for the covenant people Israel and apply it to today, we shouldn’t apply it to a secular nation like the United States but to rather the people who live in the new covenant—the church. Ezekiel says that Israel is as dead as those dry bones. He’s not going to stay on that message, but in order to speak to the hopeless he has to start there. Even though you are dead, God can make you alive again.

            The season of Lent is a time for self-examination and repentance for the church. While this text from Ezekiel is ultimately a text of hope, it starts with the question of whether these bones can live. Can the church live again? Is there any sense in which Harbor Church is dry bones? Are there parts of our life which are dead? Part of our reorganization is intended to cut off limbs that have been dead for a while so that we can focus on the parts that have life. Tony Pappas led Bible studies on the letters to the churches at the beginning of the book of Revelation. One church is in the city of Sardis. Jesus says to them, “You have a reputation for being alive—but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what little remains, for even what is left is almost dead.” He tells them to go back to what they believed at first and have wandered away from. But Jesus also tells them there are some in the church who are still faithful to him. If you conquer as they do, you will all be clothed like them in white and have your names in the book of life (Rev. 3:1-5 NLT).

            I don’t think Harbor Church is dead, but I don’t think we are fully alive either—alive the way we would be if God’s Spirit breathed into us and energized us and made us stand up. We face the same problems as 90% of the white Protestant churches in this country. As we think together as a church about our vision for the future, the solution is not going to be a program or a gimmick to adjust to a new demographic, or even the stereotypical young pastor with kids. The solution is going to be an alignment with God’s Spirit, taking God’s breath in deeply and allowing ourselves to be filled so that we become more fully alive, more fully human, more like Jesus. It may seem impossible for any church to reach the Gen X and Millennial residents of the island who on the surface show no interest in God, but that is just the point of Ezekiel’s vision. God is able to bring life to the dead. God is able to bring hope to the hopeless. God is able to do what would be completely impossible for us acting on our own. As Dr. King said on his last night, “I may not get there with you, but we as a people will reach the Promised Land.”

            God’s Spirit is also at work in the world. Any given day you can turn on the news and think the situation is hopeless. There is a shortage of everything but pessimism. The ligaments that joined the bones together seem to be coming off, and our skeletal institutions are threatening to fall into a pile of dry bones. But the Lord God continues to ask, “Can these bones live?” Is it possible for God’s kingdom to come and for his will to be done on earth? Is it possible for the world to be renewed as the gospel promises? Is Jesus still the one who can make everything new?

            If you take a tour across America you are going to find dead bones everywhere. So many dead towns in Appalachia and in the Rust Belt, towns with more drugs than jobs, people escaping if they can. Can God’s Spirit give life to those towns? Yes, he can, through a reconstituting of community just as he brought Israel back together, and through the new lives the Spirit gives those who have been forgiven and healed. Is the situation in the inner city of Chicago hopeless? Its name has become, as the Bible says happened to Israel’s name, a byword, a synonym for failure. But every city is full of people God loves—he loved the great and wicked city of Nineveh, to the surprise of the prophet Jonah. Any city that seems like dry bones to us, beyond hope, is a place where the Spirit of God can breathe life again. Let us be people who believe in the coming of the kingdom and the pouring out of the Spirit, not people who want to escape this world and save ourselves, but people who continue to trust in the power of God to transform this world and set it right. 

            As we approach the Lord’s Table this morning, we do so in the spirit of Lent, examining ourselves, turning away from sin and creating room in ourselves for the life of our Savior. Part of Lent is acknowledging that we are not fully alive. There are parts of each of us that are dead to God and need to be made alive. There are corners we have sealed off from the breath of the Spirit. And here’s what’s worse: we have made peace with our condition because we think the situation is hopeless. It is not hopeless. Whatever is dead can be made alive by God’s Spirit. The offer of forgiveness that Jesus repeats again and again at this table does not mean merely that you can have the record expunged. It means that you can be made new, filled not with regret or frustration, but with joy and hope through the Spirit. May that be your experience today.