My childhood home had one of those rooms with nice draperies, inviting end tables, lamps and a large couch in which no one to my memory ever sat. It was not for regular family use. Christmas morning, sure, parties, yes, but on a normal day to day basis no one sat in that large front room of the home. There was no TV there, no table to gather around but on one of the side tables there was a large Bible. It was one of those ridiculously large family Bibles that no one ever used. A lot of families used to have those, and I think they were used as sort of a record keeping artifact. You would write down family tree in them, keep a history of your children, baptisms, weddings, that sort of thing. My family did not do that, but we still had the Bible. And the thing about that Bible was it was chock full of amazing art. Artwork from famous artists made the stories come to life. Images from Rembrandt and Michelangelo graced the pages. But my favorite ones were the etchings of Gustaf Dore. And without a doubt my favorite one was the vision of the valley of dry bones.
For a young boy the image was simply awesome: A valley full of skeletons and not all of them dead or inanimate. According to the picture some were clearly moving and in various stages of being put back together, some standing up, some with skin already coming up on them. It was like a horror movie scene right there in the family Bible. I was fascinated! Overlooking the whole scene, looking down into the valley shadowed in the background stood a man. Turns out that was Ezekiel, the great prophet of God, his garments waving lightly in the breeze, he was speaking to those bones and as they were caused by the power of the LORD God to live again. Here is the thing, as I have grown older, continued to study the Word of God and engage in these incredible texts, this one still stands out as one of my favorites. Perhaps it even played a role in my career choice, in pursuing a vocation as a preacher of the Word.
The story behind this image is as applicable today as it has ever been. For it is not just about death and life, thought that would have been enough, it is a story about being near to God, being assured of His gifts and blessings. The setting of Ezekiel is not the Promised Land, it is not on the streets of Jerusalem but on the dusty plains of Babylon. They are people in captivity, a people separated from their land, form their homes and most importantly from their place of worship. They longed to return, to be reunited with the location of God’s mercy and promise. The specter rising before them was not just death but of dying separated from the presence of God. In fact, part of what the prophet has told the people is that the Temple itself is to be destroyed. What hope was there for these people? What security can possibly be given? Everything they longed for, everything they rested their hope and assurance on has been taken from them.
All of this lies behind the question asked by God. As He shows the valley of dry bones to the prophet He asks, “Son of man, can these bones live” (Ezekiel 37:3)? Can these people, cut off and without hope, these captives in a foreign land, without a house of worship, without a land to call their home, can they live? No doubt they all longed and prayed for a miracle. They sought for some great working of their God. Surely, He had delivered their ancestors from the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery. He stretched out His mighty arm and brought destruction on the house of Pharaoh. If there was ever a time to do it again, this was it. Perhaps they looked for the waters to turn to blood or a swarm of locust, something to break the resolve of their captors and set them free.
How fitting this text is for us today. In a day when our churches are mostly emptied out of the people of God. A day when a virus has quarantined most of the population and even the people of God feel separated from His gifts. We do not long for a plague to set us free but, rather, we want freedom from a plague. We pray for miracles and hope for the best. We are frustrated and nervous about the future, about the economic destruction this shutdown might bring, about the needs of our neighbors who were struggling even before all this. How will they manage going forward? So, we begin to wonder, where is God in all this? How does any of this fit in with a “bigger plan?” How can we endure?
The Israelites in captivity longed for a rescuer, one who would set them free. What God sent them instead was a preacher, a prophet named Ezekiel. Not a military leader to organize the resistance, not a powerful image of a great warrior who would destroy the hold of the enemy and rally the spirits of God’s people, no, they got a man who was sent to speak the Word of God. He was given the very words to speak, words to answer the question God Himself asked, “Can these bones live?” Is there hope? Is there restoration? Is there still a promise for them? He commands His preacher and says,
“Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the Word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live” (Ezekiel 37:4-5).
The big challenge today is we have grown accustomed to demanding more than mere words. A preacher may provide some comfort, but we want deeds, we want things to happen. Do not just tell me how it is going to be all right, that it is going to be okay because we are all in this together. No, we want you to show me how we get out of it. Demonstrate the path forward! I want some tangible proof it is going to be okay. Amidst our current pandemic we hear politicians say one thing and the CDC say another, while your best friend says something different. We do not trust words. We want more.
But the words the Ezekiel speaks are different. They are not words separated from deeds; they are words that do what they say. They enact what is being spoken. At the command of the LORD, he calls for the bones to come together, for sinews and flesh to grow up around them. He commands the whole valley to not only stand up again but to breathe new life. His words speak of a hope beyond the grave of life after death and a return to the land from which they are separated. The prophet speaks a promise rooted in the action of God.
You see, the Word of God is never removed from action. His words do what they say. When He said, “Let there be light,” there was light. When He speaks of rescue, of hope and salvation, He gives rescue, hope and salvation. For the Word of God is God Himself. It is His action, His doing. As Saint John said, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). It is this Word which calls to Lazarus after he had been dead for four days. Lazarus has no choice but to walk right out of the grave. It is this Word commanding demons to flee before Him and calming winds and the waves. His Word is greater than death, greater than fear and greater than any virus of mankind.
In fact, this Word of God took on all our diseases, every one of them. He took on the sickness of your sin and your death and bore them to the grave and beyond. He continues to promise you life, life beyond the grave, life beyond the virus, life beyond your quarantine and your fear. Who knows where this all goes but he has sent you a preacher. He has sent you one to speak His Word, words tied up in great deeds. Words that do what they say. Today He says to you, “Have no fear, little flock, for you are forgiven all your sins. You will live, even if you die.” So, take a deep breath and know this, these bones will indeed live, for Christ has spoken and He will do it declares the Lord.