Breathe into These Dead Ones and They Will Live (Ezekiel 37)
1. Imagine yourself at one of the great battlefields in American history. It can be the World Trade Center where 3000 died in the September 11 attacks. It can be at Gettysburg where 7800 died in the two-day battle. Or, just down the road from where I grew up, it can be at Shiloh where 35000 died in the three-day battle. Picture yourself there this morning. Not surrounded by the graves of the fallen but the unburied remains. The rotting bones of the fallen lying all around you. That's where Ezekiel finds himself in our text. He doesn't happen there by chance. The Spirit of YHWH brought him here. A great battle has been fought and many soldiers lost their lives. A great battle where all of the house of Israel has fallen. They have said, "Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are clean cut off" (v11). It wasn't a physical battle against a human enemy that had caused this great devastation. It was the sins that had cut them off from God's mercy. They had become overly complacent in what they allowed to influence their lives. They had traded in the truth that God had given them for the lies of society. It's also of importance that Ezekiel notes that the bones were "very dry" (v2). It had been a long time since the house of Israel had fallen. They had been dead for a long time. The influences of the self-centered society had dried everything out and taken all the life out of them. But God had a plan to bring the house of Israel out of this valley of dry bones back into His mercy and life.
2. God asks Ezekiel a question that would be considered an obvious "No," but Ezekiel won't fall into the trap of answering with the obvious answer. God asks, "Son of man, can these bones live?" Ezekiel replies, "Lord YHWH, you know" (v3). God shows that He is the author of life. He says, "Prophesy over these bones ... O dry bones, hear the word of YHWH" (v4). The Word of God makes us alive. The same Word that said, "Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live" (v5), combines with the water of Baptism to make it "a life-giving water, rich in grace" (SC IV, III). This combination of water and Word gives us forgiveness of sins, everlasting life and salvation. The very request of the "dry bones" of the house of Israel. They complained of being dried up, with a lost hope and clean cut off from the mercies of God. Only God could bring them back. And bring them back He does with His Word. He sends His breath--the Holy Spirit--among the bones and life re-enters them. They once again become a strong army in the presence of the God who created them and called them out from among all the nations of the world, showing what we acknowledge when we sing: "Come, holy Light, guide divine, now cause the Word of life to shine. Teach us to know our God aright and call Him Father with delight. From ev'ry error keep us free; let none but Christ our master be that we in living faith abide, in Him our Lord, with all our might confide" (LSB #497.2). As we sing in our most familiar Communion hymn: "Weary am I and heavyladen; with sin my soul is sore oppressed; receive me graciously and gladden my heart, for I am now Thy guest" (LSB #618.4). As the guests of our heavenly Father, standing beside one another in the great resurrected army of the house of Israel, we know what happens when the Holy Spirit arrives.
3. As Ezekiel spoke the Word of God, the Holy Spirit descended upon the dry bones in the valley. The bones rattled together as the breath of God moved among the bones, attaching them to one another (v7). It's the same sensation--that "mighty rushing wind"--that brought the crowd together to hear the Apostles' sermon on the first Chrsitian Pentecost (Acts 2:2). The rattling of the rushing wind causes quite the stir. The rattling in Ezekiel is even called an earthquake (LXX, σεισμός) in some versions. There was an earthquake when the angel descended from Heaven and rolled the stone away from the empty tomb. Resembling the connection between the raising of the dry bones in the valley to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This coming of the Holy Spirit among the dry bones as well as upon the Apostles in Jerusalem is the continuous nature of the Holy Spirit being poured out upon God's people. The same Holy Spirit who resurrects our sinful flesh and begins the journey to the glorified life leads us to sing: "Though death may threaten with disaster, it cannot rob me of my cheer; for He who is of death the master with aid and comfort e'er is near" (LSB #619.4). Jesus promises the resurrection by the power of the Holy Spirit as He was going through His Passion as He told the Eleven: "It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send Him to you" (John 16:7). The Helper has come. And as He made the great army of dry bones, He makes us alive in Jesus Christ so that on the Last Day "we'll gather in song, our hearts aglow, all joy of the heavens sharing, and walk in the light of God's own place, with angels His name adoring" (LSB #503.5). All this is given to us because we have the Holy Spirit within us.
4. The Holy Spirit only comes to those who are brought to life by the Word (v14). It was by Peter's preaching of the Word, as we heard two weeks ago, that the Holy Spirit came upon Cornelius' household EVEN BEFORE Baptism (Acts 10:44-48)! Cornelius was brought to life by the preaching of the Word and the Holy Spirit became his life "ever striving through us in a ceaseless strife ... ever forming in the Church the mind of Christ" (LSB #650.2). When the Holy Spirit comes, He convicts each person concerning sin, righteousness and judgment (John 16:8-11). Through all this, He reveals the new life in Jesus Christ. The new life that brings each of us to our feet just like the dry bones in Ezekiel's vision. God said, "Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the LORD" (vv5-6). God says to the house of Israel, "I will make you whole again. In fact, I will make you more whole than you were when you were alive." C.S. Lewis picks that sentiment up in The Great Divorce. Aside from a bit of bad theology in the book, the one stark difference he makes is the complete difference between Hades and Heaven. Hades, the place of the dead awaiting the final judgment, is a city of perpetual twilight but everyone knows that night will eventually fall. Heaven is presented as more real. He writes (pp. 20-21):
- At first, of course, my attention was caught by my fellow-passengers ... Now that they were in the light, they were transparent--fully transparent when they stood between me and [the landscape], smudgy and imperfectly opaque when they stood in the shadow of some tree. ...
- Then some re-adjustment of the mind or some focussing of my eyes took place, and I saw the whole phenomenon the other way round. The men were as they had always been; as all the men I had known had been perhaps. It was the light, the grass, the trees that were different; made of some different substance, so much solider than things in our country that men were ghosts by comparison. Moved by a sudden thought, I bent down and tried to pluck a daisy which was growing at my feet. The stalk wouldn't break. ... There was a leaf ... lying in the frass beside it. I tried to pick the leaf up: my heart almost cracked with the effort, and I believe I did just raise it. But I had to let it go at once; it was heavier than a sack of coal.
This was the life given to the dry bones as sinews and flesh were put on them as God's breath entered them. A richer life. A more REAL life. A life with meaning because the Holy Spirit guides it. The Holy Spirit that was promised through the prophet Joel that would be poured out on all flesh. The Holy Spirit which allowed the Apostles to speak so that all who were in Jerusalem for the feast could understand them in their native languages. The Holy Spirit that brings you to faith in the same Jesus preached from this pulpit. The Jesus who is more real than we understand or expect. The Jesus that shows us what it means to be REAL humans as He sends the Holy Spirit to breathe life into our dry bones. Amen.