In his vision Ezekiel stood over a valley filled with dry bones. These bones, as we read, represented the nation of Israel, which had been conquered by the Babylonian empire, and taken into exile.
In exile, Israel lost much of their cultural and religious identity—not to mention their land which had been a sign of God’s promise to them. So, like these bones, they had become scattered and dispossessed.
But in all of this, the Prophet Ezekiel’s oracles are anything but hopeful—in fact, their quite cynical. Much of the book is focused on the judgment of Israel, and he accounts a number of grievances to Israel, many of which added up to unfaithfulness to their covenant with God. So, like the Prophet Jeremiah, Ezekiel thinks that Israel had it coming.
Because of this, Ezekiel doesn’t speak out against Babylon as usurpers of Israel, but instead views them as God’s chosen instrument of punishment. This is the reason that throughout the book, then, the oracles are about judgment, brokenness and being disowned by God.
But toward the end of the book, we have today’s reading, “The Valley of Dry Bones.” This oracle in which the whole of Israel are dry bones scattered in a valley.
It’s here where the cynic Ezekiel is asked, ”Son of man (which means servant), can these bones live?” Of course, Ezekiel gives the only possible right answer, “You know, Lord…” Even so, God makes Ezekiel prophesy to the bones for them to receive flesh and sinew, the breath of the spirit, and eventually life. Ezekiel is not let off easy as simply being a doomsayer. Instead, the one who has until now been the voice of judgment must suddenly be the voice of God’s authority in this vision of renewal.
The power of this account comes mostly from the fact that this sign is one of immense promise. We see here that even in situations where there cannot possibly be life or hope—God calls even dry bones to be made whole and alive once again. Even when doubt and cynicism seek answers to why things seem so wrong or tough—God still promises resurrection even for dry bones…
But, what is so interesting here is how God puts the work of prophesying onto the shoulders of God’s people. We see it in this reading with Ezekiel, and we see something like it in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles—the story of God’s Holy Spirit being poured out.
In that account, we see these disciples who have been with Jesus all throughout his ministry. They’ve been witness to his miracles, his resurrection and even his ascension. They’d been sent out to preach once before—but that was while they still had Jesus to fall back on.
But on this particular Pentecost, the responsibility to share the Gospel was theirs. And suddenly they were given the prophetic charge not to call dry bones to life again, but to call anyone within earshot to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is why we call the Feast of Pentecost the Church’s birthday, because it was then that the disciples were no longer content to hide themselves behind locked doors—but to share the gift of God’s love to anyone.
As we watch the decline not only of mainline denominations like our own, but decline in the whole Church; we may wonder what’s happening. There’s a certain amount of anxiety about this, I think. After all, where will we be as a denomination in 10-20 years? I suppose there’s even an amount of cynicism about it all. Maybe people in general are just too lazy or have their priorities out of line—perhaps it’s the fault of school activities and sports…
While some of these excuses and dark predictions may be our way of coping, they’re not the whole truth.
Somewhere in our hearts we know that people feel less and less connected with church. But even if disconnect accounted for a certain number of people who don’t have a church home—there are still others who have been raised in what has come to be called a “Post-Christian Era,” a time when Christianity (or any religion for that matter) is becoming less relevant to our culture.
But that’s not to say that there isn’t interest, or need for genuine spiritual experience. This is why so many people are doing their best to piece together some semblance of religious belief. But without community—something that is vital to discerning God’s Spirit with us. A Spirit which calls us to be together, and to care for one another.
Without this community of Spirit, it’s not long before we look around and begin seeing piles of dry bones. People who are caught up in the same tough world that we are—but don’t have the comfort and support of a community of faith.
But God has given us the words, the message, the authority of our own stories to go and prophesy; to speak the life-giving words of God to people who have become dead and dry.
We’ve been given the same Spirit that has spoken through the prophets; who gave the disciples utterance of other languages; and raised Jesus from the dead. It’s the same Spirit that is in us and allows us to be the children of God.
Perhaps we’re all just too used to it—like a fish not knowing it’s wet—but the potential that we’re given through this gift is more than we can imagine—and Ezekiel’s vision is evidence of this fact. If the promise is that the Spirit can call dry bones back to life, and that there is enough power to allow people to speak in other languages for the sake of the Gospel; how much more then could we do for a hurting world?
It’s not whether or not we can speak in other languages, or if the Spirit still alights on people’s heads like flames—it’s a matter of how much we can trust our own experience and our own stories to be the prophetic words of God that call people back to life again. Because the good news is not simply that Christ has died and Christ is risen—it’s the fact that his rising again means something to us and to our lives.