FIFTH SUNDAY IN LENT
The first part of this post includes a short order for Morning Praise and Prayer with your family or friends.
My sermon and the text on which I wrote it follows the liturgy.
CALL TO PRAISE AND PRAYER
O Lord, open our lips.
And we shall declare your praise.
If you don’t want to sing, you may read the text as if you were saying a prayer.
Come, Christians, Join to Sing (Hymnal #158)
The God Who Stays by Matthew West
PRAYER OF THANKSGIVING
New every morning is your love, great God of light, and all day long you are working for good in the world. Stir up in us desire to serve you, to live peacefully with our neighbors, and to devote each day to your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ the Lord. Amen.
SILENCE & DISCUSSION
Take five to ten minutes to meditate upon the Scriptures that have just been read. Some find it helpful to write their thoughts and questions on paper or in a journal.
After the time of silence, you may share your thoughts and questions about the Scriptures with those who are with you.
SONG OF PRAISE: PSALM 100
Shout triumphantly to the LORD, all the earth!
Serve the LORD with celebration!
Come before him with shouts of joy!
Know that the LORD is God—
he made us; we belong to him.
We are his people,
the sheep of his own pasture.
Enter his gates with thanks;
enter his courtyards with praise!
Thank him! Bless his name!
Because the LORD is good,
his loyal love lasts forever;
his faithfulness lasts generation after generation.
PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE
Following each petition, anyone may offer a brief prayer or intercession. After each prayer, the leader may conclude: Lord, in your mercy, and all may respond together: Hear our prayer.
Together, let us pray for:
the people of this congregation…
those who suffer and those in trouble…
the concerns of our local communities…
the world, its people, and its leaders…
the church universal—its leaders, its members, and its mission…
the communion of saints…
THE LORD’S PRAYER (Hymnal #10 & #894)
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.
Save us from the time or trial, and deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours now and forever. Amen.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with us. Amen.
Signs of peace may be exchanged.
The LORD’s power overcame me, and while I was in the LORD’s spirit, he led me out and set me down in the middle of a certain valley. It was full of bones. 2 He led me through them all around, and I saw that there were a great many of them on the valley floor, and they were very dry. 3 He asked me, “Human one, can these bones live again?”
I said, “LORD God, only you know.”
4 He said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, Dry bones, hear the LORD’s word! 5 The LORD God proclaims to these bones: I am about to put breath in you, and you will live again. 6 I will put sinews on you, place flesh on you, and cover you with skin. When I put breath in you, and you come to life, you will know that I am the LORD.”
7 I prophesied just as I was commanded. There was a great noise as I was prophesying, then a great quaking, and the bones came together, bone by bone. 8 When I looked, suddenly there were sinews on them. The flesh appeared, and then they were covered over with skin. But there was still no breath in them.
9 He said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, human one! Say to the breath, The LORD God proclaims: Come from the four winds, breath! Breathe into these dead bodies and let them live.”
10 I prophesied just as he commanded me. When the breath entered them, they came to life and stood on their feet, an extraordinarily large company.
11 He said to me, “Human one, these bones are the entire house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope has perished. We are completely finished.’ 12 So now, prophesy and say to them, The LORD God proclaims: I’m opening your graves! I will raise you up from your graves, my people, and I will bring you to Israel’s fertile land. 13 You will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and raise you up from your graves, my people. 14 I will put my breath in you, and you will live. I will plant you on your fertile land, and you will know that I am the LORD. I’ve spoken, and I will do it. This is what the LORD says.” (CEB)
You Will Live
This is arguably the most well-known text in Ezekiel. Everyone who attended Sunday school or church camp as a child probably sang the song about how “Ezekiel connected them dry bones, now hear the word of the Lord.”
We know this text. Or, so we think. The problem with such familiarity is that we can stop looking for something new, whether it’s insight, or wisdom, or some revelation about God that we simply didn’t see before. It’s a little ironic that familiarity can dry out our bones and render us unable to hear or to see such newness in God’s revealed word.
Ezekiel’s vision was certainly something new to the Jewish people who were living in Babylon. They were stuck. They were in exile. They were cut off from home: their land, their city, and their temple. They were a conquered people, and they had no way out of their situation. In every way, they felt cut off from God. Even abandoned.
The exile lasted longer than the Exodus. But, unlike the Exodus, there was no pillar of fire and smoke to offer guidance. There was no cloud shrouded mountain to reveal God’s presence among them. There was no tabernacle at which they could worship. The people in Babylonian exile surely felt like they were dried out.
With all that’s happening in the world right now with this pandemic—the real possibility that COVID-19 could hit our community, worry for our elderly family members and friends, being stuck inside our homes, a disruption in our lives that we’ve never experienced in living memory, the fear that there might not be enough toilet paper for everyone—we might wonder how we’ll ever recover the lives we had before the month of March began.
We’re certainly in uncertain times. It’s unnatural for human beings to be isolated. We’re made in God’s image, which means we’re designed for relationships and social community. We’re made to be with each other. For two-thousand years, we Christians have gathered together to offer God our worship, our praise, our prayers, and our tithes. We’ve gathered together to eat, to serve, to study, to offer care.
But we haven’t gathered together as a congregation since March 08. And we won’t gather again until some indefinite date after Easter. Even as we try to find creative ways to stay connected through our social distancing, we might feel a little cut off. Maybe lonely or abandoned.
Maybe we even feel distanced spiritually because we’re distanced socially. Are we thriving, merely surviving, or hanging by a fraying thread? How is it with our soul? In the season of Lent, we’re invited to consider that question and to stop for a moment to seriously consider our dry bones. When we’re made to walk through our own dry valley, what are the dry bones scattered around us? What can we learn from them?
Ezekiel tells us that the Lord’s hand came upon him and brought him to the middle of the valley, which was full of bones. There were a great many bones. And they were very dry. And God asks Ezekiel, “Human one, can these bones live again?” (Ezekiel 37:3 CEB).
I wish I could hear the tone of Ezekiel’s voice as he answers. Was it a powerful and confident reply: Lord God, only you know. If you say they can live, then they can live. Let’s get this resurrection party started!
Or, was the prophet’s reply a timid, uncertain whisper: Lord God, only you know. Everything is so bleak that even life doesn’t feel like life. I don’t know anything anymore. I don’t know how anything can live again. I feel as lifeless as these bones. Only you know.
I kind of feel like Ezekiel’s tone was closer to the latter simply because it’s not easy to give confident answers when life has taken so much from us that we’re dried out and barely hang on. When we’ve suffered for any length of time, it wears on us and grinds us down.
If God were to ask us this question right now, how would we answer? What would our voice sound like as we uttered a reply? And I don’t mean only in light of the present pandemic because I know that life was happening before we even heard of COVID-19. Some us have stared down and struggled with seemingly insurmountable difficulties long before this present crisis. There have been deaths and diagnoses, problems at work and within families. There have been real, fearful, and life-altering events that have weighed on us to our breaking point. Though quite serious and concerning, COVID-19 is merely one new worry among many that have the potential to desiccate our joy, our faith, our hope, our very life.
Can these bones live again?
In this scene, God first told Ezekiel exactly what God would do. God told Ezekiel beforehand, so when it happened, he couldn’t say: Well that was surprising! God always accomplishes what God says, which proves God’s word to us is true every time. Sometimes God does surprise us, but that’s usually because we weren’t listening. Like, when Peter learned that God doesn’t show partiality to one people over the rest of the world (c.f. Acts 10:34). Peter shouldn’t have been surprised. Afterall, Abraham was blessed so that he could be a blessing to all the families of the earth (c.f. Genesis 12:2-3, 18:18). We can trust God will do what God says.
All Ezekiel had to do in this valley was speak the words God told him to speak. “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, Dry bones, hear the LORD’s word! The LORD God proclaims to these bones: I am about to put breath in you, and you will live again. I will put sinews on you, place flesh on you, and cover you with skin. When I put breath in you, and you come to life, you will know that I am the LORD” (Ezekiel 37:4-6 CEB).
We might wonder why God didn’t simply raise the bones to life. Why did God need Ezekiel to do anything? The reality of the matter is that God didn’t need Ezekiel. Yet, God chooses, time and again, to work alongside and in concert with human beings because God is a God who desire relationship. We build relationships by being with others, working with others, conversing with others.
We don’t build relationships by having another person do everything for us, or by doing everything for another. That’s called servitude, not friendship. God deeply desires a relationship with each of us. God knows what we need before we ask, but we’re still told to ask through prayer (c.f. Matthew 6:8-13). Relationship is found in the asking: in the conversation. As three Persons, loving relationship is at the heart of who God is. God wants a loving relationship with us. That’s another one of those matters that, if we were listening, shouldn’t surprise us.
Ezekiel prophesied just as he was commanded. And what I find interesting is the divine impatience going on here. God didn’t even wait for Ezekiel to get all the words out. As soon as Ezekiel starts to speak the bones rattle and quake and come together, bone by bone. Then, suddenly, Ezekiel looked up and there was sinew on the skeletons, then flesh, then skin covered the bodies. But there was still no breath in them.
And here, there seems to be a pause in the text. Ezekiel stops speaking. Maybe he was so amazed at what he saw that words failed him. Ezekiel knew that these bones weren’t just bones, they were cursed. The Hebrew of verse 9 tells us that these bones belonged to people who had been killed and left to rot in the field. That fact, alone, marked these slain as cursed (c.f. 1 Kings 14:11, 21:23-24; Jeremiah 16:4, 34:20; Ezekiel 24:6-8). Yet, God took the dry bones of those whom Ezekiel would have understood as cursed and rebuilt them so that they could live. This was amazing!
Maybe that little seed of doubt in the back of his mind… haven’t you experienced that same seed of doubt where you want to believe, but God help our unbelief? I have. I still do at times. Maybe Ezekiel’s little seed of doubt was as surprised to discover—as we often are—that God meant what God said. In this moment of pause, where Ezekiel stops to watch what’s unfolding before his eyes—God rebuilding the bodies of the cursed from dry bones—it’s in this moment that we can hear God’s excitement, God’s unbridled anticipation, God’s profound desire to give life to the dead so that they’re no longer cursed but living.
God says, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, human one! Say to the breath, The LORD God proclaims: Come from the four winds, breath! Breathe into these dead bodies and let them live” (Ezekiel 37:9 CEB).
God’s like, Why are you stopping, Ezekiel! Prophesy to the breath! Keep going! We’re almost there! Don’t quit now, we haven’t even gotten to the cool part yet! So, Ezekiel prophesied just as he was commanded. The breath entered the bodies of the dead and they came to life. They stood on their feet. An extraordinarily large company.
Then, God speaks another promise to Ezekiel. “Human one, these bones are the entire house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope has perished. We are completely finished.’ So now, prophesy and say to them, The LORD God proclaims: I’m opening your graves! I will raise you up from your graves, my people, and I will bring you to Israel’s fertile land. You will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and raise you up from your graves, my people. I will put my breath in you, and you will live. I will plant you on your fertile land, and you will know that I am the LORD. I’ve spoken, and I will do it. This is what the LORD says” (Ezekiel 37:11-14 CEB).
There is a wordplay going on here that you can’t see easily in English. The Hebrew word for breath, which is found nine times in this text, also means spirit or wind. God tells the people, I will put my Spirit in you, and you will live. Just breathing isn’t enough. We need God’s life-sustaining Spirit. We need God’s breath within us. That’s what God promises us. That’s the gift that God offers to everyone.
One thing Ezekiel’s vision reminds us of is that God holds the last word over everything. God gives life. God restores life. Bad things still happen, even death still happens, but those things don’t have the final say over us. God does. God is with us even when we feel dried up and abandoned.
Even when we feel as broken and desiccated as the bones Ezekiel saw, even when the hardships of life have us feeling like we must be cursed, nothing will stand in the way of God’s promise to restore us and give us life. Restoration is what God wants for us. That’s the promise we have in Jesus Christ. The resurrection of Jesus is representative of that promise. Jesus, God’s Word-Made-Flesh, is the one who said, “Because I live, you will live, too” (John 14:19 CEB).
“Can these bones live again?”
Yeah. They will.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!
Rev. Christopher Millay
First United Methodist Church, Mount Vernon, Indiana; Sunday, 29 March 2020, online: COVID-19.