New Life for the Valley of Dry Bones
Ezekiel 37:1-14 May 17, 2020
Have you ever gotten some tune stuck in your head?
Maybe it’s a tune you hadn’t heard in years, and you have no idea why you’re mentally playing it over and over.
That happened to me last Monday.
I was cleaning the pool when it dawned on me that I had been playing a song fragment over and over for hours.
“Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones, dem bones … now hear the word of the Lord.”
So, I went to YouTube and found a rendition from the Delta Rhythm Boys.
- Play segment of video (Delta Rhythm Boys, “Dry Bones”)
This probably came from a performance in the 1950s.
Producers prohibited African American groups from moving their bodies very much when singing, which is why they barely sway in this video … and it gives us perspective about why a few years later Chuck Berry and Little Richard were so revolutionary.
Anyway, when I was a kid, this was nothing more to me than a catchy tune, but it actually comes from an important Old Testament scripture, Ezekiel 37:1-14 that has a lot to say to us today.
Ezekiel was a prophet, someone anointed to speak for God.
When Ezekiel spoke these words in the sixth century BC, he had been living in forced exile in Babylon for twenty years.
He missed the sights and sounds of his home in Jerusalem.
He missed his old friends, and he especially missed going to the Temple for worship.
But he knew that Jerusalem and its Great Temple had been leveled by his captors and so there would be no going home as he had known it.
According to the theology of the time, the exiled Judeans assumed that their deity – YHWH – had been defeated by a stronger deity from Babylon.
The people wondered if YHWH was truly Lord or if He was caring and faithful to His people.
You may have had experiences when you wondered if all this god-stuff was for real.
Despite your most heart-felt prayers, you lost a loved one.
You struggled with a disease.
You never had the career success you deserve.
The rapid spread of the Coronavirus has forced a lot of people to ask. “Where is God?”
There are some simplistic answers that now ring hollow – like God will protect people who have just enough faith.
And there are a lot of people who hadn’t given much thought to divine matters before who are now turning to God.
Some are looking for basic answers, especially why would God allow the spread of death and suffering.
God didn’t cause the pandemic – suffering in one form another has always been with us.
We could have all sorts of theological speculations – but in the end, they mean nothing.
When I was diagnosed with prostate cancer, I didn’t care where it came from.
All I wanted was God’s healing.
God doesn’t make all our problems disappear.
But God does walk with us through our challenges, and to the extent we allow, God will give us strength, guidance and comfort to become compassionate and resilient as we work through them.
God promises to stay close:
Isaiah 41:10 “Fear not, for I am with you; Be not dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, Yes, I will help you, I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.”
And, there will be forces rooted in human sin and evil that will seek to divide us (,) to scapegoat and exploit the vulnerable and encourage behaviors that will inhibit healing.
So, there is a sense that the pandemic is a test from God.
God didn’t create the virus to test us, but since we are in it, we are being tested.
Will we reach out, serve the poor, grow in compassion, become more resilient?
Or, will we scapegoat the vulnerable, become bitter, and seek power and security in tribalism?
I am deeply concerned about the growing and aggressive movement toward the latter.
I just saw a picture of demonstrators waving American flags where one was carrying a sign that said, “Sacrifice the weak and reopen Tennessee”.
That is exactly the total opposite of what Jesus taught, yet it is a growing sentiment.
And especially as we know that African Americans are bearing disproportionate suffering and death from this virus, we can’t miss its between-lines-message.
This virus is pushing us to decide who we are as a people, and we’d better be sure the church that represents Jesus’ values is at the table and getting a vote.
Back to Ezekiel, God didn’t parachute in right away and carry the Hebrew people out of Babylon.
God had a plan for them, but it was a plan that would unfold over time.
To encourage them in the meantime, God led Ezekiel to a valley littered with human bones.
Historians tell us that this probably had been the site of a battle many years before.
Victors often would not allow a proper burial of the defeated soldiers, so their bodies would be left to be picked dry by vultures and wild animals.
Underlying Ezekiel’s vision, bones were a frequent metaphor in the Old Testament for our deepest self, such as
Psalm 31:10 My strength fails because of my misery, and my bones waste away, and
Proverbs 17:22 A joyful heart is good medicine,
But a broken spirit dries up the bones.
So, addressing the valley of bones, Ezekiel was speaking to his people’s souls.
Here’s how scripture reports it.
- Play dramatized reading of Ezekiel 37:1-14 here.
In the next couple of verses, God says that the exiled people may have lost hope – but God will breathe new life into them.
Now bear in mind that when Ezekiel spoke this prophesy, he and his countrymen were still captives in a hostile land, and there was no end in sight.
Yes, fifty years later the nation would be allowed to return home and rebuild Jerusalem – but at the time they felt abandoned by God.
There, they composed psalms of lament, like Psalm 137
Psalm 137:1,4 By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion. (but)
How can we sing the songs of the Lord
while in a foreign land?
There may be some areas in your life that feel dry, desolate or desperate.
Certainly, this pandemic is top of mind.
But you may be in other wilderness places: grieving the loss of a loved one; suffering through a disease; burned-out but stuck in a career; just going through the motions of an empty marriage; unable to shake an addiction; or weighed down by debt.
God meets us in our wilderness – in those places where our best efforts aren’t enough, in those places where only God’s Spirit can bring new life.
Notice that the scattered bones could only be assembled into a skeleton
– the semblance of a person – until God’s breath was breathed into them.
The Hebrew word here for breath is ruach, and we encounter it throughout scripture as the breath of God, the spirit of God, and the winds.
Ezekiel 37:9 This is what the Sovereign Lord says: “Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.”
In addition to this passage, ruach is the actor at the moment of creation.
Genesis 1:2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God (ruach) was hovering over the waters.
God is in the restoration business – deep, heart-level restoration, not shallow cover-up.
We may try to cover up our fears with busyness.
We may try (to) deflect our shame with career trophies or trophy wives.
We may try to numb our spiritual emptiness with any number of addictions.
But that’s not God’s way.
We’ll only have the full, abundant life Jesus promises when we allow the Spirit of God – the breath of God – into our hearts.
God is the creator and the sustainer of all; we live because of and by the grace of God’s breath.
I’m going to leave you with a prayer that invites God into your dry places.
It begins with naming your wilderness, naming where you’ve found yourself in the darkness, or naming where you are facing fear.
Then you claim God’s promise to be with you to walk through that time or to guide you through that tough decision.
Philippians 4:13 I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
Finally, ask God to help you sustain you – to keep the faith even when there appears to be no end in sight, no guarantee … even where you’re feeling stir-crazy, discouraged and seeing nothing but stark wilderness around you.
- To prayer