can these bones live

Here are some sermon notes for a sermon I am not preaching this Sunday ... if I was the sermon might go something like this. Ezekiel 37:1-14 is as fresh and new as ever ...

- Ezekiel is set down in a valley full of bones. It is a vision he recognizes. He and his contemporaries have been marched to Babylon and witnessed fields filled with the bones of dead soldiers. They are suffering post-traumatic stress disorder. “There were very many … and they were very dry”. This is a scene of carnage, without hope. The smell of death is everywhere. The LORD asks Ezekiel “Can these bones live?” The obvious answer is ‘No way’. But Ezekiel knows he is dealing with the LORD who has liberated an enslaved people from super-power Egypt. He turns it back to his questioner: “O LORD God, you know.”

- Notice that the text refers to the “LORD” eleven times. It means that in the Hebrew Bible the name of God given to Moses at the burning bush – “YHWH” – is named here. (I notice with dismay that many in the church have forgotten – or have never known – the coded way in which this precious name is remembered with the capitalization of LORD in the text alerting us to the unspeakable but not unknowable Name). This is not a generic god. This is the specific God met in the story of the people of Israel – in the call of Abraham and Sarah, of Isaac and Jacob; in the Exodus and in the covenant made at Mt. Sinai. For Christians, this is the same God who is met in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The God who asks us as we look at Jesus on the Cross: “Can these bones live?”

- The text begins as if on Good Friday. It begins in death. It begins in a place of despair meaning literally “without spirit, without hope”. Notice the places of deep despair: In the world of politics – frightening set backs in care for the environment, in the search for peace and justice in the Middle East, in the droughts of Africa; in the church; in the neighbourhood; in the family; in the heart and soul. With Ezekiel's congregation we say "Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’”  

- In response to Ezekiel the LORD commands him to preach – “to prophesy” – to the dead bones. He is not to tell the bones to get up or to get busy or to be better or to have hope. His sermons will not be instructions on what to do. A people dead to hope, a people in despair, will not respond to more calls to action. Instead, Ezekiel is to tell them what the LORD is going to do. It is an outrageous divine promise: “Thus says the LORD God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you … and put breath in you”. In Hebrew the word “ruah” can be translated as “breath”, “wind” or “spirit”. The LORD promises to inspire those overwhelmed by despair with Holy Spirit – life spirit (think of the hymn / prayer “Breathe on me, breath of God”). The result will be life – “and you shall live”. This is an extraordinary promise. God will breathe life into dead hopes and dead visions. The bones – the people – will be the graced recipients of this outpouring of the LORD’s power to make new.

- Ezekiel preaches this Word of the LORD, this Holy announcement, to a congregation that is dead on the inside (the death hidden under a false front and thin veneer of optimism). The response is a rattling noise, a slow coming together. Hearing the promise of God brings energy for life to the people. Remember the power of this passage for African American slaves when they hear it preached. No wonder they respond by singing: “the foot bone connected to the ankle bone, the ankle bone connected to the kneed bone …” This is not a trivial campfire song, it is divine promise sung into their bones about life coming out of death, about the hope of freedom welling up within when they have given up on imagining that they might ever be liberated.

- The bones are now embodied. But there is no life in them. Now the LORD instructs Ezekiel to preach – “to prophesy” – to the breath / wind / spirit: “Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain.” The sermon is no longer directed to the congregation but instead calls down the Holy Spirit “that they may live.” I wonder when a congregation ever hears their preacher address the Holy Spirit? Here Ezekiel teaches us to preach to the spirit / wind / breath of God: “Fulfill your promise, get down here, fill us with your energy for the future.” Ezekiel reports that with this second sermon “the breath came into them and they lived.” It is a holy miracle, one that we preachers from time to time are privileged to witness. In announcing the extraordinary capacity of the LORD to create life out of death, to bring hope where there is none, to make a blessed future out of a wretched present we hear the sounds of dry bones rattling, we notice congregations standing taller, finding energy, responding to the promises of God. 

- The text is full of promises. It is about what the LORD intends to do in the future: “I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves … I will put my spirit within you”. It is a looking forward. In Christian terms, this is a Holy Saturday text, located between the terrible ending of Good Friday and the impossible possibility of newness on Easter Sunday. On this long Saturday when the future is deeply in doubt the temptation to despair is huge. On Holy Saturday it is widely assumed that it is all over, that death and injustice has triumphed. For many, Holy Saturday is the location where much of life is lived. In this bleak place the LORD instructs preachers to announce what the LORD is up to in the days to come. Then – when the life comes, when the Spirit is outpoured, when the dry bones are reinvigorated – “then you shall know that I am the LORD.” Three times the text returns to this phrase – “then you shall know that I am the LORD.” This is the issue for Ezekiel’s flock and for us. We do not know that the God met in the Exodus and on the Cross is the LORD anymore. We are waiting to witness the life-giving power of the LORD. When that power sweeps over us, wakes us up, turns us around, lifts us and inspires us - then we will know that it really is the LORD. It is the reason that the church relies upon the testimony of witnesses who tell the truth about the Easter power of the God met in Jesus Christ who has to lifted them out of grief into joy, out of despair into hope, out of addiction into sobriety, out of apathy into compassion, out of fear into trust, out of death into life.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you. So important to remember the potential impact of preaching!!