The Valley of Dry Bones – 2017/11/05

Psalm 19:1-6
John 11:25-26
Ezekiel 37:1-14

Sermon:

I know some people from church have asked why we gave our son such a weird Bible name.  There are a few reasons.  First of all, (CLICK) we wanted a biblical name for our son.  As I’ve talked about many times, I always loved hearing the stories of King David when I was a kid, because I found kinship with this Bible character, just by having the same name.  Before Carissa and I knew anything else about our child, we knew we wanted a biblical name. (CLICK)

Second, we’re big dorks.  This is probably not a surprise to anyone, but while we didn’t know what our child’s name was going to be, we had the first initial picked out.  Carissa’s parents are Art and Barb.  So, when Carissa was born, her family’s initials were “ABC.”  (CLICK) My parents are Bob and Cathy, so when I was born, our family initials were “BCD.”  (CLICK) To continue the tradition of consecutive letters, since “Carissa” and “David” have the C and D, we knew we wanted an “E.” (CLICK)

Now, that actually leaves a couple of good boy names (and a bunch of weird ones).  For example, Elijah would be a good one.  He was an Old Testament prophet who famously never died.  He simply ascended into heaven at the end of his ministry.  He performed many miracles and was very wise.

Personally, I always like the name Ezekiel, though.  It’s a good name – your lawyer, your banker, your doctor, some famous author – he could have a name like Ezekiel – a name with some gravitas, some heft, some authority.  On the other hand, I always thought “Zeke” sounded like a fun guy you would want to hang out with.  You get a serious name, and a fun goofy name.

But more important than how the name sounds is the character himself in the Bible.  (CLICK) Ezekiel was a prophet in the Old Testament, right around the time of Jeremiah.  Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel were around during the Divided Kingdom – that is, the time when Israel in the North and Judah in the South were separate.  They both lived to see the Exile to Babylon (CLICK) – when the Babylonian Empire finally took Judah and its capital Jerusalem, kidnapping all the wealthy and influential people and removing them to Babylon.

This meant that both of them had remarkably difficult jobs to do.  Jeremiah spent his time trying to influence powerful people, using the power of speech and persuasion to get people.  Ezekiel had a much more… shall we say, “colorful” approach to prophecy.

Ezekiel was renowned for his “sign-acts.”  (CLICK) A sign-act is when a prophet does something physical to signify the meaning of his prophecy.  For example, in chapter 4 of Ezekiel, he lay on his side for over a year.  First, on his left side for 390 days, then on his right for 40 days.  This was one day on each side for each year that first Israel, and then Judah, would be without a king; they years they would be in Exile.  Can you imagine, just lying on one side for so long?  The bed sores he must’ve had!  But that’s the whole point:  he was showing people physical signs of the emotional pain they were going through to help drive his message home.

Later, he cooks food over cow dung.  This was prohibited by Jewish law, but he does it to show that, while the people of Judah are in Exile, they’re not going to be in the comfortable bubble of Jerusalem.  They’re going to be around people with different ideas of what is acceptable, including what to eat and how to prepare it.  Jeremiah might’ve been more inclined to tell people that; Ezekiel was inclined to show people.  He wanted them, not just to have an intellectual understanding of what was coming, but for them to have a real, physical, visceral understanding of what lay ahead.

There are other things:  in chapter 12, Ezekiel physically packs up his stuff to demonstrate that the Exile is coming; when his wife dies in chapter 24, he refuses to cry, to symbolize to people that God is not going to cry over the loss of the King and the Temple; after all, God has new things in store.  Ezekiel has a way of making his whole life about what God is doing.  Yes, it’s eccentric; it’s a little batty.  Sometimes, it’s goofy or funny.  But more than anything else, it’s inspiring that someone would take God’s message so to heart that his whole life, the way he conducts himself, the habits and routines of his life, everything – would be about God.  That’s a big thing to live up to, but it’s exactly what any believer should aspire to.  Not cooking your food over cow dung; I mean that devotion to God in your life.

(CLICK) And Ezekiel’s very name means, “God strengthens.”  How else do you describe the physical skill toll this took on him, yet the perseverance he showed in his ministry?  God strengthened him where so many others failed.

But Ezekiel was more than just some weirdo who acted out to show people God’s message.  He was also a deeply spiritual man who received some of the great visions of Scripture.  And in today’s reading, we see perhaps the most famous vision in the whole Bible, as Ezekiel sees the dry bones come to life. (CLICK)

In this vision, Ezekiel is placed in the middle of a valley that’s filled with dry bones.  Incidentally, I love the detail that these are dry bones.  Somehow, it just sounds wrong to call this “the story of Ezekiel and the bones.”  It has to be the dry bones.  That little detail helps us know that the life went out of these bones long ago.  This passage is rich in sensory detail, and it’s important to pay attention to something like that.  God asks if the bones can live, and, skeptically, Ezekiel responds, “Only you know, God.”  God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones.

Ezekiel starts talking, and we hear our second great sensory detail:  the rattling of the bones.  Just imagine a valley full of bones; I have the picture up there to help you visualize it.  If they started to move, surely there would be a rattling.  And as Ezekiel speaks, that rattling continues.  The bones come together in skeletons, and on those skeletons, muscles and tendons and ligaments and skin start to form.  The dry bones have turned into living people!  Surely, this would be a sight unlike anything anyone had ever seen before.

This is to be understood as a message of hope during the Exile.  Much like what we read from Jeremiah last week, this was a message that this Exile would not be permanent, but rather that God would bring back hope from the pit of despair.  The Exile was a critical moment in the history of the Jewish people, because it seemed that all of God’s promises had gone away.  The promised Davidic King?  Gone.  The promise of the Temple, where God would dwell and they would worship forever?  Destroyed.  The promised land they were supposed to enjoy forever?  Distant, thousands of miles away.

Yet, Ezekiel’s vision is about the impossible coming to pass.  It’s about something that not only seems dead coming back, but something that is dead teeming with life.  And while we heard such things in Jeremiah last week, this prophecy from Ezekiel means more to me, because unlike Jeremiah’s specific prophecy about hope for restoration in a particular time and place, Ezekiel’s prophecy is forever.

Today, as you may know, is All Saints’ Sunday.  That’s the first Sunday in November, during which we remember All Saints’ Day.  All Saints’ Day is when the church universal recognizes those who have died; those saints who now rest with their heavenly creator.  And on this day, we remember that Ezekiel’s prophecy is not just about the Israelites 2500 years ago, but it’s about us today, as well.

God is in the business of resurrection.  We see in this passage a vision of Ezekiel that’s more than a vision.  We see that our deaths will come, but that God still has plans for us.  We are never dead to God, though our bones may dry up; though our names may be forgotten by history, God still wishes for us to live.  And in God, we do live.  God raises us up.  And while this doesn’t happen in a way that others can see, it is nonetheless God’s sure promise.  We know it, just as God was able to restore the people of Judah to their rightful home when it seemed impossible, this, too, is something God can, will, and does accomplish for us.

Brothers and sisters, we know that our resurrection comes, because we’ve seen it already.  We have seen it foretold by Ezekiel.  But more importantly, we have seen that Jesus was raised from the dead, the firstfruits of God’s planned harvest.  One day, we may all feast at God’s heavenly banquet table with the redeemed from throughout history, because we have seen the risen Christ, who broke bread with his disciples.

Today, we remember and honor those saints who have gone before us.  And today in worship, we break bread.  As we break bread and share the cup, remember that these are not mere symbols of one meal a long time ago; they are a promise.  They are a promise that the resurrection that met Christ Jesus is our destiny, too.  This meal is not just remembrance, because it is also a foretaste of the feast that awaits us when we meet God again.

Brothers and sisters, we know that death awaits us all.  And therefore we are right to mourn those who have gone before us.  But we are also right to rejoice, knowing that those who have left us already sit at God’s banquet table, awaiting out presence in good time.

And know that today, in this life, whatever troubles you face, whatever exile you find yourself in, God is there to free you from it.  No obstacle is too great for God to overcome, for even death is subject to God.  Amen.