Can These Bones Live?

by David Baer, December 10, 2017

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Text: Ezekiel 37:1-14

Back in 2006, about a year after Hurricane Katrina had devastated New Orleans, our presbytery sent several groups down to help with the cleanup effort. When we drove through the Lower Ninth Ward, which had been a poor neighborhood before the storm, it was as though someone had set off a bomb. We saw empty lots, with concrete front steps and metal plumbing reaching up toward homes that weren’t there anymore. Among all this wreckage stood a dilapidated-looking church, and there was a sign in front of that church. The sign was entitled “Restoration,” and it read: “Can these bones live? O ye dry bones hear the word of the Lord! Can these bones live? These bones shall live; and ye shall know that I am the Lord! So I prophesied.”

Can these bones live? That’s God’s question to Ezekiel. God has shown him a valley filled with human bones. They are dry. They come from people that are long dead, and they are scattered about like so much refuse. God tells him that these bones are the whole house of Israel, the family of people God chose to be a blessing to the whole world. Only they’re not of much use to anybody right now. Their land has been conquered. They have been taken captive and carted off to foreign lands. They have been cut off from the Temple in Jerusalem, where they met God in worship. What’s more, it looks like God’s plan, the one we’ve been talking about all this fall, has failed. Whenever God tries to bless people, they just mess it up. They forget God. They start worshiping idols. They oppress the poor and vulnerable among them. They turn away from the blessing God gives, and they bring disaster on themselves. It’s not just the fortunes of God’s people that are in ruins, but God’s blessing, God’s covenant itself. God leads Ezekiel all through the valley, the heaps and heaps of dry bones, and God asks, “Can these bones live?”

We ask ourselves that question too, sometimes. After a devastating natural disaster that takes away everything you own, that robs you of neighbors and loved ones. After a relationship that once felt so lifegiving and secure can no longer bear the weight of disappointment and heartache, and it comes to an end. After you lose a job that you invested so much of your passion and self-worth into. After you get a diagnosis that changes life forever. The very structure of your life, the bones, are lying scattered on the ground. And God asks, “Can these bones live?”

Ezekiel gives a safe answer, “You know, O God.” But really, what else can he say? It’s actually very freeing to be able to say these words. It means that when my life runs up on the rocks, it’s OK if I don’t have all the answers, if I don’t know what the next step is. It’s OK. All I need to know is that God knows. Will life go on after the worst happens? Will I work again? Will I love again? Can these bones live? You know, O God!

Ezekiel doesn’t know whether the bones can live. But God tells him to prophesy to the bones, to deliver God’s promise to them: “I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live,” God says. The Hebrew word for breath is ruach. It means breath, but it can also mean wind or spirit. When we read the creation story early this fall, we read about the ruach of God hovering over the surface of the water, where everything was dark and empty, with no order or form. God’s ruach blows over bleak and hopeless places to make a new beginning of them. Do you remember the story of God’s ruach, the Spirit of the Lord, coming over the shepherd boy David when God chose him to be king? God’s ruach makes become who we already are in God’s eyes—generous, loving, courageous, and good. God’s ruach brings new life to what is dead or disordered. God’s ruach creates new possibilities where all was hopeless. Can these bones live? By themselves, no, they can’t. They are dry and dead. But God’s ruach can bring life to lifeless bones.

The bones begin to come together, sinew and flesh and skin covering them, and finally the ruach; and the people, for that’s what the bones have become, the people stand at attention, a vast multitude covering the valley. The vision is coming to an end, and God tells Ezekiel to tell his people this: you say that you are dead as a people, cut off, and without hope, but I will lift you out of your graves and bring you home.

“Can these bones live?” God asked Ezekiel. And Ezekiel said, “You, Lord, are the one who knows.” Sometimes our lives seem to be a valley of dry bones–the hurts we’ve caused other people, the relationships that have gone off the rails, the hostility and destructiveness that have come to dominate public life in our country. And sometimes we can see a way forward, but sometimes we can’t. And that puts us in a place of faith and vulnerability. Because we don’t know if the bones can live. We don’t have the power to raise them and clothe them with flesh and skin. We don’t have breath to give them that can bring them to life.

But we do have a voice. “Prophesy to the bones,” God says to Ezekiel. In the hopeless and hurting valleys of bones in our lives, in our families, in our neighborhoods, in our country, we have a voice to speak about what God has done, and what God has promised. Jesus has come alongside us into the bleak valleys. He stretched wide is arms and offered up his own flesh and bones, and surrendered his breath, his spirit. And God raised him, setting loose in this world the power that brings life out of death. “Prophesy to the bones,” God says. Tell them that it’s not the end, that help is on the way. Where have you experienced God’s power to bring life and hope? Prophesy to the bones, prophesy to us, use your voice like Ezekiel: “Thus says the Lord, I will open your graves, I will bring you home, you shall live!”

The Advent Season is about waiting, watching, preparing. Part of that preparation is taking stock of why it is that God coming to be with us comes as such good news. It means walking through our own valley of dry bones, the ruins of our hopes. But it’s not a lonely or silent waiting we do. Whatever you may be facing this morning, know that God’s ruach, God’s Spirit is breathing into you. The prophet’s voice offers hope to a scattered people. It still offers hope to those whose lives are upended by natural disasters, to nations wearied and bruised from years of conflict, to you, today, when you wonder what might possibly come next. Can these bones live? God asks. You know, O Lord. You are the one who knows right now. But one day we will know too. We will know that you are the Lord when you lift us out of our graves, and put your ruach within us, and take us home. Amen.