“Resurrected by a Certain Hope” (Ezekiel 37:1-14)
The Fifth Sunday in Lent (March 29, 2020)
The Old Testament Lesson appointed for this 5th Sunday in Lent, as you heard earlier, is from Ezekiel chapter 37. In this text we hear Ezekiel relating to us that God showed to him a valley floor strewn with countless numbers of human remains. All that was left were dried up and dusty bones. In fact, God more than showed him these bones. Ezekiel states: “He led me around among them.” In other words, Ezekiel got a real up close and personal view of these bones. So much so, that Ezekiel observes that there were “many” and “they were very dry.” This means that these bones had laid there a long, long, time. No sinew or flesh remained. There was no sign of life in them.
Knowing what we do about the manifold ancient battles and how the bodies of the slain enemies were often left to rot in the hot Middle Eastern sun, such a sight was certainly not out of the question. However, it is evident from Ezekiel’s wording that most likely God had put him in some sort of ecstatic state rather than transporting him to a certain physical locale to give him an actual, onsite, look. The phrases “the hand of the LORD was upon me” as well as “in the Spirit of the LORD” are often used in reference to prophetic trances or ecstasy. (See 1:3, 3:14, 22; 33:22; 40:1). One scholar points out “that scenes littered with bones are frequent in Mesopotamian curses and/or victory boasts” (H. Hummel, p. 1075). I believe it is safe to say, then, that this was a vision given to Ezekiel.
That being said, it is somewhat immaterial whether God showed Ezekiel this valley floor strewn with dried up, old, bones” via a vision or by way of his physical eyes. Either way, it remains a most morose and grim sight. It’s a scene totally absent of life and hope. The LORD even asked Ezekiel, “Son of man, can these bones live?” Impossible, right? Dead things can’t make themselves alive. Ezekiel, however, played it very smart. He answered, “O Lord GOD, you know.” Of course, God knows. Who better to know than the Creator of life?
Instead of trying to instruct Ezekiel on what He Himself could do and how He could do it, God commanded Ezekiel: “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD.” Talk about seeming useless! I mean, it must have appeared to Ezekiel as futile as my whole exercise here this morning. I don’t even know if anyone is or will be listening to me out there in cyberspace or if my words will resonate in any positive way with anyone who might hear them. All I see is a bunch of empty pews. Can these wooden pews live again?
Here’s the whole point, though: preaching God’s Word to the dead, dried up, bones, even to empty pews, might seem pointless to you and me, but is not to God. After all, it is by His Word that God breathes life into lifeless flesh. Here we are taken back to the beginning. Remember these words, “Then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature” (Gen. 2:7). By His Word God gives life and resurrects the dead to life. Jesus said to the corpse of Lazarus after lying in his tomb for four days, “Lazarus, come out.” That’s all it took and the dead body of Lazarus came walking out of his tomb fully alive!
“Say to them,” The LORD said to Ezekiel, “O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: ‘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.’”
Those words of the LORD accomplished what they said. Suddenly, Ezekiel heard a loud rattling sound. The bones began clashing together assembling themselves into full skeletons. Then he saw sinews and cartilage and muscle and flesh fly up and immediately attach themselves to these bones and then skin covered them. The sight must have been mind-blowing! You and I can only imagine it.
But despite all this, there remained a problem. Whole human bodies now strewn over the valley floor but they were not alive. Like in the beginning when the LORD God formed the first man from the soil of the earth and shaped his body, these bodies were fully formed by not alive. They were not living persons yet. They required God’s breath to fill them and that they might once again be alive.
Accordingly, the LORD commanded Ezekiel to prophesy, preach His Word, a second time. “Prophesy to the breath,” The LORD said, “prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord God: ‘Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.’ So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army.’”
Talk about, exciting! What could we witness in this world that could even come close to this “lifting up to life”; this resurrection of the dead”? A whole vast army standing on their feet again, breathing, ready to live life and to fight battles!
Nothing like seeing that last enemy death being defeated and life return. Wouldn’t that transform the trajectory of things in our world right now! Everyone is waiting on baited breath just to see a “flattening of the curve” of new cases of Covid-19 infections and the ever increasing number of deaths. Imagine if the disease’s murderous rampage was suddenly halted and the tens of thousands of its victims were suddenly made to rise from their graves and back on to their feet! It excites the imagination to be sure!
Can this resurrection to life by God’s Word give us any hope in our situation? Most definitely! This vision teaches us that God the Holy Spirit in His grace brings that which is dead to life through the proclamation of God’s Word. By His Word alone He makes the dead to live! It is all about resurrecting the dead and making them alive in faith in Jesus Christ.
I know, right now, we are consumed with the march of the Covid-19 virus and the death and destruction it leaves in its wake. Even though it is a wakeup call, it can also serve to blind us to the real valley of bones in which we actually find ourselves. Spiritually speaking, totally apart from this latest crisis, our world today is nothing but a barren desert of dry bones. I hear the voices lamenting everywhere, “Is this plague a sign that we are in the last days, that the world is about to end?” My answer, “Yes, but one needs to see it in the throes of the manifold plagues, wars, rumors of wars, famines, devastating earthquakes, and the innumerable tragedies and tribulations that have warred against mankind from the days of Jesus’ first coming. He warned us. He also said, “These are but the beginning of the birth pains, but the end is not yet” (Mt. 24:8).
These physical tribulations are but the physical signs of the real spiritual road to death and perdition our world is on. Our present crisis is nothing but God’s hand of prophecy upon us to cause us to see the real valley of dry bones that we are walking among. True godliness is all but vanished. Speaking prophetically, St. Paul wrote two millennia ago: “But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power.” (2 Tim. 3:1-5)
Does this not sound eerily like life in our days? Honor and respect for authority, respect for others and adherence to God’s Word seem to have all but vanished. Faith appears dead. On any given Sunday only a small percentage of those who claim to be Christians consistently gather to hear God’s Word and receive the gifts He desires to give them in His Holy Supper. Is there any life given by the Spirit of God left in and among us? We are in the last days.
Like being hunkered down, sheltered in place, can cause our anxieties and fears of what lies ahead to spike and our hopes to crash like the stock market, so can our hopes for eternal victory become nothing but dry dust. It all can easily make each one of us wonder, “Does God still love me? Has He really forgiven me or will I have to spend eternity in the torments of hell? Is heaven for real or when I die will that just be it, my life over?”
Interestingly, this passage containing Ezekiel’s vision was not directed toward the dead of the world in general, but rather to the dead among those who once were the people of God; Israel, God’s chosen people. After all, God interprets the whole metaphor contained in Ezekiel’s vision Himself. He observes: “...these bones are the whole house of Israel.” At the time this prophesy was proclaimed, Israel was already in captivity in Babylon. In fact, Ezekiel carried out his whole ministry in this foreign land. This had all come about because the people of Israel had abandoned God for the idols of other nations. They had forsaken God’s Word so they could hear the false prophesies of others. They had abandoned God’s proscribed worship so they could worship in their own way. This meant they could go to all sorts of other high places, other than where God had promised to meet them. There in those places they chose, they would offer sacrifices to false gods.
Further complicating matters was that Israel was not “whole” as a nation. By this time the Northern tribes and the Southern tribes, primarily Judah, were utterly divided. In fact, for several hundred years by this time the people of the Northern tribes, who were still living, had been scattered all over the map. Those who had not been destroyed by the Assyrians had been taken captive and sent all over the empire. These refugees of Israel had even intermarried with the other nations. For all practical purposes, then, the nation was no more. It was dead and buried!
The people of Israel were dried up bones. They had cut themselves off from God and the eternal life He alone could give them. The remnant of the Northern Tribes as well as the people of Judah were exiled in foreign lands, far away from their Promised Land and the place where God had promised to meet them, in His Holy Temple, where He further promised He would forgive them ... heal them... a give them life. Spiritually, there was no longer any life in them. Their hope of salvation was nothing but dust.
But to these poor, old, dried up bones, God in His grace gave Ezekiel His Words to revive them, raise them up in true faith and hope once again; that is: to raise them from the dead. The LORD said to them, “Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the Lord."
Here in these words is also our comfort. God meant for these Spirit-filled , life-giving, hope igniting, words to be for more than the dried up and dead of the Old Covenant Israel. He also meant them to enliven those of us under the New Covenant in our valley of bones. We know this because in the second half of the chapter the LORD calls upon Ezekiel to prophesy much more specifically how the LORD would raise them up. Ezekiel proclaims, “Thus says the Lord GOD… ‘Behold, I will take the people of Israel from the nations among which they have gone, and will gather them from all around, and bring them to their own land. And I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel. And one king shall be king over them all, and they shall be no longer two nations, and no longer divided into two kingdoms…I will save them from all the backslidings in which they have sinned, and will cleanse them; and they shall be my people, and I will be their God. My servant David shall be king over them, and they shall all have one shepherd. ...David my servant shall be their prince forever. I will make a covenant of peace with them. It shall be an everlasting covenant with them. And I will set them in their land and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary in their midst forevermore. My dwelling place shall be with them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.’”
This prophecy has never been fulfilled in the truly earthly sense. There has never been a descendent of David to physically rule from the mountains of Israel and bring back into one all the tribes of Israel, establishing an eternal reign of peace. The throne of David in Israel has had no occupant for over 2 millennia. That’s because this prophecy is not about a physical kingdom on earth. It is not about an earthly king. It’s a spiritual kingdom; a kingdom characterized by the cleansing away of the sins of God’s people… all of God’s people. In that promise of spiritual cleansing hope is revived and the dead are resurrected. The ruler who establishes this kingdom is a True Shepherd, not a shepherd boy who becomes a king. This Shepherd brings into one flock all His sheep (Jn 10:16). This Shepherd is the LORD Himself (Ps. 23:1).
So where are the dead being made alive today? Where the prophesy of the Lord is being proclaimed, of course! You and I call this prophecy the Gospel; the Good News about He who is the heir of David… The Good Shepherd who has laid down His life for every sinner… Who has conquered sin and death…Who is the very tabernacle of the LORD among us in flesh of our flesh… Whose very name “Jesus” means “The LORD Saves.”
God told Ezekiel to prophesy His Word to the dead bones and His breath would enter them and they would come alive. Later God said to His people that He would open their graves and raise them up by placing His Spirit in them. In the Hebrew the word for breath and the word for spirit is the same word; ruach.
Where do we see God’s breath and the Spirit as one? In God Himself. The Spirit of God breathes life into that which is dead. It is the Spirit who gives witness to Jesus and who gives one the new birth of faith (Jn. 3, Ro. 12:3). It is the Spirit who through Holy Baptism raises to life one who is dead in his sins by means of Jesus’ death in his place (Ro. 6) Jesus has said, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life” (Jn 6:63).
The prophecy of Jesus; that is, the words of God concerning Jesus victory over sin and death for you, lifts both your spirit and your body up from death to life. That Good News revives your spirit that even in the face of your sins and even pandemics and social distancing, Jesus’ victory through His exile into suffering and death in your place gives you the hope that this plague and all that it has done to disrupt your life, will not last forever. From His own cross of suffering Jesus has proclaimed your absolution and that His Work of your redemption “is finished!” Thanks to Your Shepherd, your sins are forgiven and even if this world kills you, your exile and your isolation will end and you will live with Him in His spacious mansion forever. His resurrection is the proof of that victory and brings hope even to your body with the knowledge that just as the dry, dusty, bones of Ezekiel’s vision were raised to stand on the earth so your dead and decayed body will also be raised up to stand before God in His holy presence on the last day.
Your hopes have been raised up made certain in Jesus’ wonderful words of prophecy: “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” (Jn. 6:40)… “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears my Word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death to life” (Jn 5:24)…..“I am the Resurrection and the Life; He who believes in Me shall live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me shall never die” (Jn 11:25)….“Truly, truly, I say to you, the hour is coming and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God; those who hears shall live” (Jn 5:25).
Friends in Christ, be at peace. Live in hope! Amen.