elcome to the Knox Talks blog. Here you can find recent and past sermons relating scripture to a wide variety of topics. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.
Can these Bones Live Again?
Scriptures: Ezekiel 37: 1-14 Romans 8:6-11
Today’s lesson resonates with most people as a fun song for kids: “Dem Bones”, kind of like an anatomy lesson. I remember it being presented that way to me when I was small and when Kiersten and Ian were little it was Sharon, Lois and Bram who taught it to them.
It’s like “Humpty Dumpty” all over again. That children’s rhyme was originally about a violent battle, possibly involving King Richard III, or possibly someone else; scholars disagree.
In this case we have relegated a powerful Biblical story with frankly disturbing imagery into something light-hearted for kids. In the process, we have pushed 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, in context.
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! The theology 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 there are some who 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. 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 the Raiders of the Lost Ark? The ark of the covenant was taken from the temple 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 is 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”, like saying “you tell me”.
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.
As we emerge from the isolation of the pandemic and still take great care to keep each other healthy, we find ourselves wondering about our future. We are conscious of our new financial realities and the fact that we cannot simply go back to being the church the way we used to be. I believe that as we consider our options, 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 challenges pale in comparison to some of the historical challenges people have overcome, including people alive today who remember the Great Depression and World War II. It is hard for us to remember that as we feel anxious about our own future, but let’s take comfort in the knowledge that over and over, God has helped people through some incredible problems, to 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. COVID has required us to learn to use tools of communication that were just science fiction when I was a child. We’ve had people discover Knox through the podcasts and in the Knox Talks blog and become involved as a result.
I am not suggesting that technology will save us – although we should always remain open to unexpected possibilities!
I am saying that this is evidence from our own experience that God is already active, breathing life into our dry bones so we can live, and thrive.
When we gather to develop a vision for the future we will be actively seeking God’s breath, God’s Spirit, to inspire us, and bring us new life.
I hope as many of us as possible can participate in this to discover the new life that God will offer us.