This week we find ourselves still among the Jewish exiles in Babylon, but now there is suddenly a change in the message. Jeremiah told the exiles to settle in and to live their lives in Babylon, because they were not going to come back to their homeland. Then last week, we had a story from Daniel to inspire the exiles to retain their Jewish identity in the face of pressure from the dominant culture to assimilate. Now, in our passage from Ezekiel today, we have a message of resurrection; of dry bones coming to life, and a hope for a return to the land that God had promised them. So, what has changed? Why and how have we gone from a message of “stay where you are,” to a message of hope for return?
Well, let’s start with what we know about Ezekiel. He had been a priest in the temple at Jerusalem, and he was part of the first group of exiles: the royal family, nobles, and other important people that were taken from Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 597 BC. As a priest, he became a prophet for the Jewish people who were in exile in Babylon; that is, he became God’s spokesperson, giving the people the words that God wanted them to hear. But, Ezekiel is also the kind of prophet who has weird, ecstatic visions given by God. For example, in the first chapter of the book of Ezekiel, we see him having a vision of four living creatures, some kind of strange wheeled machine that had eyes in the wheels, and above all this God appearing in human form seated on a throne. God speaks to the exiles in Babylon, through Ezekiel, in strange visions and metaphors. And the exiles don’t always want to hear what God has to say to them through Ezekiel, especially when Ezekiel tells them that the Babylonians will destroy Jerusalem and the temple, and that it will be many years before God allows the exiles to return home. The first part of Ezekiel is filled with messages of God’s righteous and justified punishment upon the people because they followed other gods. It’s no wonder that the people did not want to listen to Ezekiel.
But then, after Jerusalem falls, the messages that God gives to the exiles through Ezekiel change to messages of hope. Suddenly, God is concerned that, because Jerusalem is destroyed and God’s people are scattered, all of the other nations are going to laugh at a God who seems powerless to defend his name and his people. And suddenly, there is now hope that God’s wrath is finished and that God will bring the exiles back to the land of Israel. In the chapter before our lesson today, we hear God promise that God will remove the heart of stone from the people and give them a heart of flesh, so that they will follow God’s statutes and live in a holy manner in the land that God promised them.
This brings us to the vision of the dry bones. Probably the most famous story out of Ezekiel, this may be familiar to us from Sunday school lessons where we sang about, “Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones, now hear the word of the Lord!” And then we sang about “the foot bone connected to the ankle bone,” and so on and so forth. But, we need to look beyond the cute Sunday school songs and look more closely at what is going on here. Again, Ezekiel is speaking to the first group of exiles to Babylon: the royal family and the nobles of Judah. They are hearing the messages that they need to stay put, but they’re not really listening to them. They are hoping against hope that their time in Babylon will be short, that the Babylonians will leave Jerusalem alone, and that they will be able to go home again. But then, the worst news possible reaches their ears: Jerusalem has fallen, and the temple has been destroyed. In an instant, all of their hope is gone. Who are they now? They are a people without a homeland, living in a strange land with strange customs, and where once they enjoyed high status, they are now looked upon as lower class. Everything that they know and they love is gone. And they say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.”
And so, God gives Ezekiel this vision. Many times, when we hear Bible stories, we gloss over the disturbing parts, so I want us to spend a few moments imagining what Ezekiel is seeing in this vision. God leads him through this valley, and it is full of dry bones. And it’s not like Ezekiel is hovering over the bones; he’s walking where God leads, through all of these human bones. Did you ever see Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? If so, I want you to picture the scene where Indiana and his lady friend let themselves down into the catacombs beneath the library in Venice, and they’re walking on skeletons and trying to brush by the skeletons in the walls without touching them. That’s what’s going on here with Ezekiel. And perhaps he is imagining all of the lives these bones represent; all of the lives that fell in battle, or that died of disease, or of natural causes. Those that died too early and too tragically; those that died when they were supposed to. The emotions would be overwhelming, and I’m surprised that Ezekiel did not weep when he saw them.
And then God asks Ezekiel: “Mortal, can these bones live?” I think Ezekiel senses a trick question here. Everything that he knows and all of his experience tells him, “No, these bones cannot live. They have been lying here too long; the life that once lived in them is long gone.” But Ezekiel knows that God would not ask him this question without reason, and so he hedges his bets with a respectful, “O Lord God, you know.” And that’s when the miracle happens: when Ezekiel prophesies as the Lord commands him to, the bones start coming together and flesh reappears on them; and then, when the Lord commands Ezekiel to prophesy to the wind, breath comes into them. And there is a vast multitude of living, breathing people where once there was nothing but the driest of bones.
The Lord tells Ezekiel that the exiles should not give up hope. The Lord’s anger against the people is finished. The Lord is with the people in Babylon, and God will bring them back to the land that God promised them. And God will put God’s spirit in them, so that, when they return to the land and become a nation once more, things will be different this time. They will have a heart of flesh, not one of stone, and they will worship the Lord, and the Lord alone. And all the surrounding nations will see this and will know that God is the Lord, and they will acknowledge that the God of the Jewish people is the one, true God.
This promise that God once spoke to the Jewish exiles in Babylon is a promise for us, too. We may look at our circumstances in our congregations and feel that we, too, are dried up. For example, the choir at St. John’s took the bold step of pulling out many of the old robes that were worn when the choir was much larger than it is now and giving them away to a congregation that can use them. As we removed them from the closet, there was much remembering of the people who used to wear them, and some sadness as we remembered the way things used to be. But when God asks us, “Can these bones live?”, we will not hedge our bets like Ezekiel did. As a people of hope, we can boldly say, “Yes, God, these bones can live, and we know that they will live. And we know this because, through Jesus Christ, you gave us the promise of resurrection from the dead. So we know that, even though things may change around us, we have nothing to fear. Because Jesus lives, we too can and will live.”
The new life that Jesus gives us as congregations may not look like the old life. We are spreading hope in Jesus to everyone we meet in new ways. As St. John’s hosts Family Promise in January and hopefully again in the years to come, the other congregations in the cooperative are joining together to support them. We are looking at creative new ways to reach out to the people around us with the hope that we have in Jesus, such as a combined Blessing of the Animals. We are joining together for worship more often, realizing that our future life in Christ will be more full if we put aside some of the old things that divided us. We are beginning to experience that new and abundant life in Christ right now.
But the promise of resurrection is not quite fulfilled. And we focus on that hope for resurrection during this Advent season. It may seem like Advent is a time of preparation for Christmas, when we remember the birth of Jesus, the baby in the manger who was the Son of God and who grew up to be a teacher who loved all of us, and who died on the cross and rose again on the third day. But more than that, Advent is a season of hope and anticipation, where we look forward to that day when Christ will come again to reign on this earth, and when he will usher in a new creation where there will be no more crying or mourning or pain, and where we will see all of our loved ones again. This is the resurrection that Ezekiel saw in his vision: not only the resurrection of the Jewish people, but also the resurrection of everyone who hopes in God. And this is the resurrection that we, as a people of hope, anticipate. And it is the resurrection that we share with everyone we meet. So do not be afraid: we have this promise from God and the promise is sure. Amen.