In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
A little question to start with; what do tonight’s reading from Ezekiel, Chapter 3 of the Book of Ecclesiastes and Chapter 21 of the book of Isaiah have in common?
The answer? They’ve all provided inspiration to popular songs. The verse from Isaiah gave us Bob Dylan’s ‘All along the Watchtower’, Ecclesiastes gave us the Byrds’ ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’ and Ezekiel 37 gave us the song ‘Dem Bones’. And you’ll be gratified to hear that I don’t intend to sing any of these!
Our reading tonight is perhaps one of the most memorable and evocative stories from the Old Testament Prophets. Ezekiel is one of the three major prophets of the Old Testament, along with Isaiah and Jeremiah, and his message is pretty straight-forward. The people of Israel – a holy people, of the holy temple, in a holy land – have yet again broken their relationship with God and they have been punished.
An interesting fact about the Book of Ezekiel is that the events and prophecies in it can be dated with greater accuracy than any of the other prophetic books in the Old Testament. Ezekiel received his call from God to be prophet in 593BC, and his last dated writing was 571BC – 22 years which covered the period in which Jerusalem fell, the temple was destroyed and the people of Israel exiled to Babylon. Ezekiel was also widowed during this period, and as a member of the priestly class he must have been devastated at the events in his personal life and the life of the people of God.
There was a phrase used by the people when all seemed lost and there was no hope; they would say ‘Our bones are dried up’ – and so it’s perhaps no surprise that God gives Ezekiel this terrifying vision of a valley full of dead bones.
What do you have in your mind’s eye?
For me, I think of Ezekiel standing on a raised piece of ground, looking around him, down a long, wide, limitless valley. And bones. As far as the eye can see, a sea of disconnected, random bones – nothing holding anything together in the form of a skeleton. Bones that have been there for so long that every bit of flesh has been long since eaten or rotted away. Bones jumbled in to random piles – a skull here, ribs there, leg bones and arm bones, the small bones of the hands and feet disconnected and lying around like piles of pebbles.
This represents the current situation and possible future of the people of Israel – a dead people, shattered and rent asunder, disconnected from themselves, from each other, and God.
When Ezekiel had visions, they pulled no punches, and left nothing to the imagination.
God then asks him to prophesy to these bones – and as he does so, Ezekiel sees the bones start assembling themselves in to skeletons. The bones just don’t come together higgeldy-piggeldy; they come together with structure and form – in the words of that song I mentioned:
Toe bone connected to the foot bone
Foot bone connected to the heel bone
Heel bone connected to the ankle bone
And so on until the skeletons are reformed. And that’s not all – as he prophesied, sinews were laid upon the bones, joining them together, then flesh, and finally skin. The valley was now full of bodies – perfect in every way – except they’re still not alive.
And God urges Ezekiel to prophesy again – this time to the ‘breath’ :
“Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live”
Now this isn’t just God doing a massive exercise in mouth to mouth resuscitation; we’re not just talking about air being blown in to the lungs of these bodies to make them live. The Hebrew word used here is ‘ruarch’, which has three meanings; wind, breath and the spirit of God – what we would call the Holy Spirit. Ezekiel is prophesying for the Holy Spirit to fill these husks and turn them in to living, breathing people.
In verses 11 to 14 God explains the vision he has given to Ezekiel; and despite the apocalyptic setting it’s actually good news. Despite everything that’s happened, things will be OK;
“I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil.”
The multitude of people raised in that valley will return to their homeland, Israel, and hence to the good graces of God. The relationship with God will be repaired; they will return home.
How often do we find ourselves in Ezekiel’s valley? Those times when our less than wise and perhaps even mean-minded – dare I use the word sinful? – actions and behaviour seem to have brought us to a place where one or more of our relationships is dry bones and devastation; our plans are dismembered and scattered around us, and all we can see is the skeletal remains of what was once our future, and is now just dry, lifeless ruin? I know I’ve been there a few times in my 55 years.
There are times when we’ve done all that we can do, to fix the damage, but we’re still left with a valley of dry bones. Broken relationships with friends, family, damaged careers, debts, misery and despair. All broken apart like those skeletons that Ezekiel saw in his vision.
We settle down and start trying to fix things; we might manage to get things looking good again. Rather than a total mess we get things looking sort of like what they were before we broke them; but they’re still not quite right. The bones are connected, sinew and flesh has been laid, but there is still no spark of life. Our relationships are not as they were – trust is not there. Love may not be there. The Holy Spirit is certainly not there.
And that’s when we need to be humble, and pray, and ask for forgiveness and ask that God’s grace work through us to properly repair these fractured relationships.
You may remember these words sometimes used in our morning prayers or at Communion;
“The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit : a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. “
And this is what we need to bring to God so that His breath may re-animate these once-dead relationships. Things may not be perfect, but they will be way better than when we found ourselves plonked down in that valley with the mass of dead, dry, disconnected bones.
Reader Joe Pritchard
Readings for the sermon and links: