Grace and peace to you on this Advent Sunday, just fourteen days from the celebrated eve of our Savior’s birth.
Today’s reading, the story of the prophet Ezekiel’s bizarre vision of the dry bones, seems like a rather odd text for the Christmas season, doesn’t it? I don’t know about you, but when I read this story my mind instantly goes to some of the zombie apocalypse images smattered about on my Netflix home page. It turns out that weird stories of the walking dead have always been captivating. But here again, when I think of zombies I’m just not thinking of Christmas.
And yet as I sat with this text, dug in and tried to understand it a bit more something occurred to me. To the Israelites living in Babylonian captivity, waiting for something more, this story would have sounded just like Christmas. Why? Well because the dry bones walking testify to God’s promises, not promises to return everything to the way it was; but rather in an altogether unlikely way, to transform what was into something new.
The first-century Jews that we often hear about this time of year — Joseph and Mary’s contemporaries, Zechariah and Elizabeth, the Shepherds and the Wisemen – were anticipating a the coming of the Lord. All things in the Hebrew Bible pointed toward the promise of a coming King, a Priest, a Savior Messiah. But who in their right mind would have guessed that God would come and become all three of these things to us as a baby? This really is stranger than fiction.
As always when we’re in the prophets it’s good to have a little context. As Pastor Mark mentioned last week the Israelites remained an exiled people, commanded to obey God and at all costs called to demonstrate faithfulness and allegiance to YAHWEH alone. And of course we learned that Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in fact demonstrated such faithfulness and were therefore spared from the flames of Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace. But many others weren’t spared, nor was the beloved Temple in Jerusalem spared. The Israelites are bereft. They are inconsolable. And as I suspect most of us can be when we experience deep grief, they are also angry. The words of Psalm 137 give us a clear picture of this:
“By the rivers of Babylon
There we sat down and wept
When we remembered Zion
Upon the willows in the midst of it
We hung our harps
For there our captors demanded of us songs
And our tormentors mirth, saying,
Sing us one of the Songs of Zion.”
And further along in the psalm the psalter responds to his cruel, tormenting slave master with:
“O daughter of Babylon, you devastated one,
How blessed will be the one who repays you
With the recompense with which you have repaid us.
How blessed will be the one who seizes and dashes your little ones against the rock.”
This psalm and the vision of Ezekiel 37 are pictures of devastation. In the Old Testament reference to bones, usually insinuated lament. We’re most familiar with references to Jesus’ bones, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me . . . I am poured out like water, and all of my bones are out of joint…” (Psalm 22).
And just as it must have felt to Jesus on that darkest of Fridays, for the Israelites of Ezekiel’s time all has been lost; the only thing within sight is valley upon valley of despair, resentment, and death. No one in captivity is asking if these dried up bones can walk; frankly, they don’t even have the vision to think possible such a question.
Have you ever found yourself in that kind of stupor? Perhaps you find yourself there now. Maybe you’ve been completely undone by the death of a spouse, a child or dear friend. And perhaps that pain lies just beneath the surface even now. Or perhaps life circumstances have stripped away all security you once knew, and you find yourself exposed like bones in a desert, vulnerable to the elements and dependent upon the mercy of others. Or maybe the dead zone for you has been a relationship seething in unspoken resentment – a suffering marriage or dysfunctional dynamic with a sibling – and you’ve become numb to the pain of unrealized hopes. Others of us are familiar with the slow death of addiction, be it to drugs and alcohol, control, food, sex, or the love of money. I would venture to guess that all of us have visited the valley of dry bones at some point in our lives.
Notice with me in verses one and two that Ezekiel roams right in the middle of this morbid valley, and is led through it not just once, but rather around and around. And while traversing this terrible place he notices how scattered these bones are, and how dry they seem. They’ve been here a while and may have been displaced by animals and the like. They are not skeletons in tact. No, these bones are far beyond the reach of reconfiguration and resuscitation. How peculiar, then, that the LORD asks Ezekiel if the bones can live. Isn’t the LORD the very one providing the desolate vision? Why ask such a futile question?
And yet, Ezekiel answers and his answer is one of the gems of this passage for us. “O Lord God, YOU know.” The grammar is emphatic here. Despite being in the midst of death, capable of seeing nothing else, he trusts in God’s vision. God knows. That DOESN’T mean he hastily claims faith as a cure-all. Notice Ezekiel’s answer isn’t, “Of course these bones can live, LORD.” And with good reason, because let’s face it when we’re really face down in the dirt, destroyed by grief, resentment and the power of death it isn’t helpful to hear someone tritely say, “Oh, God will make it all turn out.” We all know sometimes God doesn’t, and the reasons why that is remain one of the great mysteries of our faith.
No, Ezekiel doesn’t too hastily claim faith here. His answer is much more mature, likely based upon his previous encounters with God. In a manner much like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s answer, Ezekiel affirms that God will bring life IF and WHEN God so chooses. And so whether or not God puts to death the powers of grief, resentment in your life and in mine; whether or not God brings resurrection power now or much, much later — we are called to faithfully persist, to choose obedience, and to claim and practice resilience in the promise that God will never leave us or forsake us.
God doesn’t abandon these bones, but nor does God get them up and at ‘em right away. Ezekiel gives three prophesies in this passage. He speaks to the bones first, and they come together to form a multitude of bodies, but lifeless ones. So Ezekiel must prophesy again, to this time to the breath. And behold, God brings life through the breath, Ruach. And then Ezekiel prophesies a third time to make clear just what these walking dead symbolize, the restoration of Zion. The restoration of those who wept by the foreign rivers of Babylon. The return of hope for a hopeless people.
This Christmas may you and I receive God’s gift of hope. Not hope that things will be the way they were. Not hope that things will be exactly as we want them to be, or right away. But hope in the promise that God wants to breath new life into our circumstances and relationships. This is what the babe, the child of Bethlehem meant for God’s people some 2000 years ago and what he continues to mean for us today. So take a deep breath and invite him in.