Rev. Belinda Groves
It is hard to think of a passage of Scripture that is more relevant for the place we find ourselves in this morning than Ezekiel 37:1-14. Yet we should not be surprised that the Scriptures that have been chosen to accompany us in Lent, to accompany us in this time of remembering Jesus and his journey towards the cross, are not afraid to confront head on the reality of death and despair or the reality of divine life and hope!
In our Old Testament reading for this morning, in Ezekiel’s vision ‘…the hand of the Lord comes upon him and brings him out by the spirit of the Lord and sets him down in the middle of the valley filled with bones.’
As many of you know Ezekiel was a priest who was carried into exile with the first wave of Israelites after their defeat by Babylon in 597BCE. He was there amongst that already broken hearted group of people when they heard the terrible, unimaginable news that Jerusalem had been totally destroyed, the temple, the dwelling place of God in their thinking, razed to the ground, and, again, the armies of Judah slaughtered and shamed by being left to rot where they died.
It is likely then that this valley of dry bones in Ezekiel’s vision is an actual place. It is not named, but its identification as ‘the valley’ in the original text suggests a particular place. In the same way that we refer to ‘the twin towers’…or people may refer to 2020, as I heard ABC journalist Andrew Probyn do a few days ago, as ‘the year God forgot’.
And what is overwhelming when Ezekiel finds himself in this valley is the number of bones… The valley was “…full of bones….there were very many lying in the valley…they were very dry.” This is not just the valley of the shadow of death, but the valley of the reality of death.
What has struck me as I have snatched moments to read commentaries this week – in the midst of all that has been happening – is that the commentaries speak as though this image in Ezekiel is – and perhaps this was true only a few weeks ago – completely removed from our experience. They speak of ancient archaeological digs as the nearest equivalent, or visits to old battlefields and battlefield graveyards. But for us, the valley of dry bones is now uncomfortably real and uncomfortably close. It is there in that terrible ascending curve, it is there in the rising death toll we hear on the news, in the words of Italian medical staff saying they no longer have time to count the dead, in the footage of buildings repurposed as morgues, in the words of our Prime Minister that, “We should brace ourselves for some uncomfortable images…”
And these same commentaries are a little harsh on the prophet and priest Ezekiel for his somewhat cagey response when God asks him, “Mortal, can these bones live?” His answer, “O Lord God, you know.”
But for me, looking at where he is standing and what he knows, Ezekiel’s response is extraordinary. Despite all he is seeing – all he has seen – despite the pain and grief and shame and anger and despair he has felt and continues to feel – that he can respond to God with even just that slightest possibility of faith in God’s intervention in this situation is wonderful. That for me this is a sign of life and hope in this passage.
And then Ezekiel is instructed to prophesy to the dry bones, and he does, and as this incredible passage of Scripture says – and I can do no better than just read it again…
Suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds. O breath, and breath upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’”
What becomes clear is that the dry bones in Ezekiel’s vision are not the bones of the dead – resurrection is not in the mind of the 6th century Ezekiel – but the bones of the living. The dry bones that have been reanimated in this vision are the ‘whole house of Israel’ – the ones who say of themselves ‘our bones are dried up’.
According to Old Testament Professor Rolf Jacobsen, bones in the Old Testament are an “idiomatic way of referring to one’s deepest self, or in the case of ‘our bones’, a way for the community to refer to its most essential self (thus…when Adam, in search of a partner finally find Eve, he cries, ‘This at last is bone of my bones.’” Idioms making reference to bone appear throughout the psalms, and the English language has inherited them when we speak of ‘getting down to the bones of the matter’ or ‘I can feel it in my bones’ or ‘coming too close to the bone’.
Ezekiel’s community were shattered. Worn to the bone – to use an English idiom. Not only were they a defeated people, a captive people, but everything that constituted their essential self – Jerusalem, the temple, the Davidic monarchy – had been swept away. They felt that they no longer were a people, they no longer had a place, they no longer had a God.
Our current situation is not as dire as that, but as I stand in this empty church, preaching to empty pews – though I know you are all there behind this camera in front of me – I get a small glimpse of how they felt. And in all the disruption of the last few weeks; plans abandoned, public places deserted, restaurants, cafes, businesses closed, people stood down or let go – we get a small glimpse of how they felt.
But what Ezekiel’s vision says to his people is although they feel – in their innermost selves – like dried-up bones, that hope is gone, that God has forgotten them – this not the case.
For moving over and around the dry bones – just as in the beginning at creation – is the Spirit of God. For urging the prophet to prophesy, “I will cause breath to enter you…you shall live…you shall know that I am the Lord,” is the Spirit of God. That reanimating bodies that are lifeless and hopeless is the Spirit of God. That calling to the four winds – still the same word as spirit in Hebrew – is the Spirit of God. That helping them to stand on their feet again is the Spirit of God. That putting God’s very spirit within them is the Spirit of God.
In just fourteen verses, the word ‘ruach’ which variously means ‘breath’, ‘wind” and God’s own spirit. occurs nine times. The Spirit of God has not abandoned God’s people. Even in the driest and most desolate of times the Spirit of God is with them. The Spirit of God will sustain them, and the Spirit of God will restore them. Their bones will live.
And Ezekiel’s message is also a message for us. That even in this time of empty churches, of lost jobs and lost opportunities, of broken hearts, God has not forgotten us. The Spirit of God is with us. The Spirit of God is within us. The Spirit of God is moving and mending and restoring and raising. Our bones too with live.
Prayers of Intercession
Our prayers this morning are written by Rev Porter Taylor and come from resources for responding to Covid 19 that Doug Hynd sent my way this week. Thankyou Doug. Let’s pray.
O Lord our God, accept the fervent prayers of your people as we cry out to you; in the multitude of your mercies, look with compassion upon us and all of your creation; for you are gracious, O lover of souls, giver of life, and to you we give glory, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and for ever.
Gracious God, the comfort of all who sorrow, the strength of all who suffer: Let the cry of those who grieve come to you, that they may find your mercy present with them in all their afflictions; and give us, we pray, the strength to serve them for the sake of him who suffered for us, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.
Let us also pray
For a swift end to COVID-19.
For those infected and those who have been exposed; grant them strength, healing, and protection. For their loved ones and caretakers; grant them peace, comfort, and endurance.
For those leading nations; grant them sound minds, courage, and humility.
For physicians, nurses, technicians, researchers, administrators, and all other healthcare employees around the world; grant them strength by your life-giving Spirit, wisdom, and resources to do the work before them.
For those who must work, despite the threat of sickness; grant them protection and continued provision.
For those who have become unemployed or underemployed during this pandemic; grant them comfort, wisdom, and financial provision.
For churches and their ministers and staff and leadership; grant them discernment and creativity to lead and minister in unprecedented circumstances.
For parents and families; grant them wisdom, patience and joy.
For children; grant them protection from fear.
For those for whom home is not a safe haven; grant them refuge.
For those who are alone; grant them a sense of your nearness and love.
For all navigating decisions during this time of uncertainty and fear; grant them your peace.
…O God, your unfailing providence sustains the world we live in and the life we live; grant that we may never forget that your spirit, the Spirit of God is with us and within us. Amen.