By Paul Koch –
As a child, we had one of those rooms in our house in which nobody ever sat. Not that you couldn’t sit there: there was a large sofa, some complimentary small tables and lamps, and of course the well-appointed window dressings. It looked like a delightful living room, or family room, or whatever you called that room. It would have been a nice place to sit, just nobody ever did. However, in that room we had a large family Bible. It was the type that was full of beautiful images from the paintings of Rembrandt to the etching of Gustaf Dore.The image of Ezekiel’s prophecy over the valley of dry bones was by far my favorite. It was dark and terrifying, full of half formed skeletons worthy of a modern-day zombie movie. Standing over them in the background was the image of the prophet himself overlooking the scene with a stern resolve. The caption below the picture was taken from the text itself. It was a simple question asked by our Lord, “Can these bones live?”
As I grew up, I learned more about that incredible scene. The valley of the dry bones told the story of God’s people trapped in exile in Babylon. A people who had been torn from their homes. Taken, not only from their usual rhythms of life but from their rhythm of worship as well. The place of sacrifice and mercy was kept out of their reach. They were cut off from His holiness, cut off from their own quest to draw near to their God. With each passing moment their hope grew thinner as they withered away in a foreign land. It seemed as if they had been forgotten there. The God who had delivered their forefathers out of the land of Egypt now seemed content to leave them in their bondage. And each day that passed seemed to confirm their worst fear. There was no going home, no return, no remnant, no hope.
Yet even in Babylon, God had not abandoned His people. God’s prophet was there. This meant that God’s Word was there. And where God’s Word is located God himself is located. So, the Lord takes His prophet to a valley full of dry bones. If you notice in the text, he doesn’t just show him some image in a dream or something like that but actually takes him amongst the bones and has him inspect them. He remarks how dry they are, that there is no doubt that they are dead, lifeless things. This isn’t a weakened people or a dying people but a truly dead people. He asks him, “Son of man, can these bones live?” Now Ezekiel’s answer is perhaps the safest answer you can give when God asks you a question like that. He says, “O Lord God, you know.” Which makes total sense. Only God can possibly know if something that is dead can in fact live again. Only God himself would be able to do such a thing.
There is a sense in which the church today very much resembles that valley of dry bones. We are, after all, a displaced people. A people in the world but not of the world. While you certainly look like more than a pile of dried up bones, at times it feels as if we are perhaps not much better. With each passing week, month and year we notice the slow creep of indifference and apathy. The church is here, but it seems to be a shadow of its former self. All the stats say that the mainline denominations continue to shrink. We lose more members than we gain, we do far more funerals than baptisms. The Word doesn’t seem to be enough. You need to have rock bands and giant multimedia departments to gain and hold on to new members. You must shift the space of the sacred into a space of entertainment. The church has become weak and easily coopted. Think about it, the church can’t even compete with little league practice. How will it compete with a culture of narcissism and relativism that grips our children? It’s a good question then: can these bones live?
Now if we were to get a little more personal we just might find that your skeleton isn’t as well hid as you may like to think. The church may be shot full of all sorts of problems, it may be a dying thing in this world, but you as a Christian aren’t exactly doing much better. You are the ones that God calls saints and His dear children. You make up the church, you are the sheep who hear the Shepherds voice, but how does that actually play out in your life? Is your faith something that you use as a convenient crutch to help you get through the tough times, but when it gets in the way of your agenda you easily and routinely set it aside? I bet you do. You are sinners, sinners through and through. You sin in your thoughts, in your words and in your deeds. There are many in your life that you have hurt and many more that you have failed to help. Your worship and your prayers falter and fall short time and time again. You worry far more about how you are perceived by those who have no real power over your life than you do about the Lord who bled for you on the cross. Perhaps the prophet was actually looking at you. Perhaps God asks concerning you, “Can these bones live?”
Now, as we said Ezekiel gives the perfect and perhaps only answer that you can give. For only God can know about such matters. Only God can speak life into what is dead. God tells Ezekiel to speak, to prophecy to dead dried up bones, to command them to come together. “I will cause breath to enter you” he says, “and you shall live.” God’s Word is spoken by his prophet over the dry bones and they begin to move, the bones begin to join back together. The muscles and tendons grow back, flesh covers them again. It would be like watching decomposition in reverse. Death itself is turned backwards as Ezekiel speaks the Word of God. There they lay, restored but not yet alive. No, as if to drive home the point of who is in control, He then gives a second command for His prophet to speak into these restored people his Spirit, to speak into them the breath of life itself. And when He does, these restored bodies stand up, a great army now fills the valley that was once only dry bones.
Can these bones live? Yes, yes they can. God had not forgotten His people. He had not forsaken them and cut them of from His blessings. No, not even the grave would be able to separate them from the love of the Father. And so, your sins, your failings, your turning away from the blessings of God are not beyond His gift of life and salvation. His love surpasses your understanding. His gifts are more abundant than your needs. This is a God that brings bones back to life by His Word and He brings life to you as well.
Today is Pentecost Sunday, the day that we recall and celebrate the great outpouring of the Spirit as those in Jerusalem heard the Good News proclaimed to them in their own language. The same Spirit that filled the valley of dry bones and promises the resurrection of the dead is the Spirit that filled the hearts and minds of over 3,000 on Pentecost day. And it is this same Spirit of life and salvation that fills you now. The Spirit that comes with the Word of God, the Spirit that when asked if you can live, if you can be saved, if you can be restored, shouts out “Yes, a thousand times over, yes!”
When we take a step back and look at the church today, when we look at the state of things and wonder if these bones can live, we ought not be discouraged. In fact, you ought to be emboldened. Look at the great opportunity you have. Look at the chance that you are given to defy the times, to challenge the status quo. You are the forgiven children of God. You are the baptized, bearers of the Holy Spirit. What can the world do to you? You can make a difference, for to you God says, “Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people… And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the Lord.”