As we are all staying at home during COVID-19, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog. — (Rev) Andrew Jensen
Can these Bones Live Again?
Readings: Ezekiel 37:1-14
Today’s lesson resonates with most people as a fun song for kids: “Dem Bones”. It’s kind of like an anatomy lesson. I remember it being presented that way to me when I was small.
It bothers me that we have turned this into a children’s song. I have no objection to Sharon, Lois and Bram but it’s sad that we, as a society have relegated all this powerful Biblical storytelling into something that we treat as light-hearted and, in the process, push aside the experiences of the African-American culture who created this song and the message of the scripture itself.
One thing we should remember as we consider today’s lessons is that in every Biblical language – Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek – the words for breath, wind and spirit are identical: they are the same word.
Our challenge comes through English which insists on borrowing words from every language under the sun and then assigning specific interpretations to each word. It is great for being precise, but it does mess up our understanding of other languages where nuances and subtleties require us to consider which meaning a word might have.
To consider the breath of God blowing like the wind, becoming the spirit that gives us life is not that hard to imagine, but it’s not the way we think.
It does help us understand the traditional Jewish understanding that life begins at birth instead of conception, because when does the first breath happen? At birth! It is, of course, more complex than that but it helps us understand.
That’s the kind of understanding that informed Ezekiel and even Paul in our second lesson. That gives us that wonderful image of the very breath of God being inside of us giving us life and inspiration.
Even the word “inspiration” supports this. It means: the spirit or breath entering us. There’s your linguistic lesson for today!
Consider, now the situation of God’s people when Ezekiel was at work.
Ezekiel was around when the Babylonians conquered Judah and entered Jerusalem destroying the temple, the palaces and taking the people into exile for 70 years. Although they had no idea it would be for that long, they thought it was forever as had already happened to the northern kingdom of Israel.
Ezekiel was around at the same time as Jeremiah and some suggest that Jeremiah was father of Ezekiel. So, when Ezekiel had this vision of a valley of dry bones and he was sent to prophesy to the people of Israel, they were really depressed since they were likely already in exile by this point.
They had lost their identity as a nation. They had lost their ability to go to the temple to worship. They had lost everything which in those days was understood to mean that your god had been defeated along with your nation.
How depressing can you get?
Remember Raiders of the Lost Ark? Like in that movie, the ark of the covenant was taken from the temple, but not to Egypt. It was taken to Babylon and placed at the feet of Marduk, the chief god of Babylon, as a sign of the triumph of the Babylonian god over the God of Judah.
This was a traditional practise in that whole region. Even the Romans did that kind of thing over 5 centuries later during Jesus’ life.
So, the people were discouraged; they were distraught; they were really bummed out!
They felt like they were beyond redemption. How could anything save them?
And Ezekiel is prompted to give them this vision of a valley of dried bones. So dead that there’s not even any moisture left. So abandoned and alone that there’s no one left to bury them. No one to even remember them.
Ezekiel’s not stupid. When God asks if these bones can live again, he knows that the obvious answer – “no” – will probably trip him up. So, he replies: You know. And God shows him, in disturbing detail, how the flesh is regenerated on the bones and the bodies are re-formed.
I’ve seen enough CSI type shows to imagine how gross this would be as a vision. You’d never forget it!! That’s why it was so vivid for Ezekiel and his people. They all knew death; they had all seen decaying animals; they knew what this would look like, even in reverse.
And even with this unforgettable physical revival – it’s not enough. All these bodies in the valley need more: they need the breath, the wind, the spirit of God to return to life.
This reminded the people in exile that physical reality isn’t everything. That even without a temple, a palace, a place to call home, God could still be with them, God could still inspire them.
And there are some scholars who suggest that the idea of the synagogue, the congregation, began there in exile as a way of being the people of God in a new way: cut off from home; still faithful, still connected, still God’s people.
In our present challenging times as we self-isolate, as we socially distance ourselves, as we try not to get sick, and still remain connected, we can take a great deal of comfort from this passage.
The people who first heard about the dry bones had no way of knowing that after 70 years they would be able to return home. But they were.
History has shown us that this message was fulfilled. God restored the people to life and health; not only as a nation, but as a people able to deal with existential challenges. This time in history has served the Jewish people very well. They have since survived multiple exiles and many terrible persecutions
Our present pandemic pales in comparison to some of the historical challenges people have overcome, including people alive today who remember the Great Depression and WWII.
It is hard for us to remember that, when we face the restrictions of our own lives. But let’s take comfort in the knowledge that, over and over, God has helped people through some incredible problems, overcome remarkable obstacles and has inspired us to learn new things from the challenges we have faced.
In this situation, we are so much better off than our ancestors! We have tools of communication that they could only dream of; we have ways of connecting that may not be totally comfortable, but allow us to make sure that being alone only needs to be a physical reality. Our spiritual reality is that we can be connected; we can be loving and helpful; we can be supportive and caring. Every day, even in isolation.
It’s not perfect but it won’t last forever, either. God is there, active and breathing life into the dry bones of our crisis. So we can live, and be part of the whole people of God.