There are some passages of scripture, that as you read them, it’s like a cinema plays out in your head. The images are so strong, you can’t help but visualise them. One such passage is the valley of dry bones vision in Ezekiel 37.
Ezekiel finds himself, in a vision in a desert valley full of parched, bleached bones. Can you see it in your head? The sun is blindingly bright, the bleached, white bones lie strewn on the sand, spread out to the horizon. And then God asks Ezekiel an astoundingly stupid question, ‘Can these bones live?’
It’s a nonsense question. Preposterous. Mad. The answer is stunningly obvious – No! There has been no life in these bones for years, decades, centuries. They are deader than dead.
Yet, Ezekiel knows God. He knows that when God asks you questions, they are often tricksy. So, wisely, Ezekiel avoids answering, he simply replies, “O Lord God, you know.”
Ezekiel will not let his limited faith, limit God. Now that’s deep, isn’t it? Ezekiel will not let his limited faith, limit God. Is that a word from God for you today?
God tells Ezekiel to prophesy new life to these dead bones. Declare that sinews and flesh and skin will come back on them and that God’s breath will return to them and restore them to life. And as Ezekiel prophesies, he hears a rattling sound. I can hear that in my head! Can you?
And he looks up and he sees the bones coming together into skeletons. Then sinews and flesh and skin start to cover them until Ezekiel is no longer in a desert of dry bones, but a desert of lifeless cadavers. This is not a passage of scripture to read to little children last thing at night!
Eventually Ezekiel finds himself no longer in a valley of dry bones, but in a valley of lifeless bodies. Everything is there, but the vital breath of life is missing. There’s another powerful statement. Everything is there, but the vital breath of life is missing. Is that a word from God for you today?
But God hasn’t finished yet. He tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the breath, tell it to come upon these slain that they might live. And suddenly, with a gasp, these lifeless bodies take a breath and return to life. “…and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.”
In the lectionary this story is paralleled with the story of the raising to life of Lazarus in John 11. The story starts with Jesus getting a message about his friend Lazarus being ill. Jesus is 2 miles away. He could have been there in 30 minutes’ fast walk. But Jesus delays. One day. Two days. Finally, on the third day Jesus goes.
When Jesus arrives he is told that Lazarus has already been in his tomb 4 days.
N.B. as Jews count time, part days are counted as whole days. Which is why Jesus dying on Good Friday and rising on Easter Sunday is counted as him being dead for 3 days. So, if Lazarus has been in his tomb for 4 days, he must have died almost at the same time that Jesus got the message about him being ill.
The time period is significant. The Jews believed that it took 3 days for the soul to finally separate from the body. So, for them, Lazarus is deader than dead – it is the same reason why Christ’s resurrection also happened after 3 days – God only raises the deader than dead. Just so that we are in no doubt about the awesome power of God.
They lead Jesus to the tomb of Lazarus and Jesus tells them to take away the stone sealing the door. The people say, “You can’t be serious! He has been dead 4 days, you can already smell the stench of decay from here! He is deader than dead!”
This incident is one of the most significant in the gospels. You see, by this point the disciples knew Jesus as a great preacher and teacher, they even knew him as a healer and a deliverer of the spiritually oppressed, they had seen Jesus as a miracle-worker turning water into wine and multiplying loaves and fish. But they need to know Jesus as something more. They needed to know that Jesus is the resurrection and the life.
Jesus prays to God and then commands Lazarus, ‘Come out’. There is a silence, then suddenly they hear it. The gasp as Lazarus takes a first breath. Then there is a shuffling, and Lazarus appears at the entrance of the tomb, still wrapped in the funeral bands. The one who was deader than dead, is now restored to life.
What does this all mean? What are we meant to take away from this?
Perhaps the most obvious application is the state of the Church in England and the Church of England. We now pretty much resemble a valley of dry bones. Since 1905 we have been in continual decline. We have spent 100s of millions of pounds, we have developed dozens of clever strategies and plans, and yet, the decline has continued inexorably.
We now have many, if not the majority of our parishes on life-support. We struggle to keep our buildings going, let alone pay a priest. Many dioceses are ‘selling the family silver’ to continue to fund even the reduced number of priests we currently have. Can these bones live?
Maybe there is also a personal spiritual application. Perhaps you have known a time in your life when God was real to you. You felt his presence, you encountered him in scripture, prayer, and worship. But now, it is all a bit dry and dead. Can these bones live?
What about the image of the lifeless cadavers. Everything is there, but the vital breath of life is missing. Is that a picture of our corporate life of faith? Is there any divine life in our gatherings? If people were to come into our churches would they encounter the living Christ? Would they see a community of people experiencing the living Jesus and enjoying life in all its fullness? Do we need someone to prophesy to the breath?
Maybe you have never experienced Jesus in a real and living way. Perhaps it is all a bit baffling to you to hear people talk about Jesus as a real person, someone they actually engage with. But maybe you are starting to feel a hunger building within you? Maybe you find yourself wishing that you could experience Jesus like other people seem to. Can these bones live?
If you are feeling a stirring within you for something more of God, then be encouraged. The desire for God is already a sign of the activity of God. Let me say that again, the desire for God is already a sign of the activity of God
Jesus said, “All those the Father gives to me will come to me.”
So any desire for God, for an encounter with Jesus, for spiritual life – is, in itself, a sign of the Holy Spirit at work in us. If you like, it’s the sound of bones rattling.
God does not play games. He does not give a desire he has no intention of fulfilling. So if you sense a desire for God, get excited. The bones are rattling. Can these bones live? “O Lord God, you know.”
If this is you, why not respond to God? If God is calling you. If you sense a spiritual hunger growing in you. If you are dissatisfied and want more of God’s full life, for yourself and for our corporate life of faith, then say your “Yes” to God.
Remember Ezekiel, he would not let his limited faith, limit God. Come to Jesus with whatever level of faith you have. As you kneel before Christ, receive his life into you – the vital breath of God. Open yourself to all that Christ offers. Encounter Christ not only as preacher and teacher, not only as healer, deliver of the spiritually oppressed, not only as miracle worker, but encounter Christ in the awesome fullness of who he really is. The one who says to you today, “I am the resurrection and the life.”
“Can these bones live? O Lord God, you know.” Amen.
Image – “File:Ezekiel in the Valley of the Dry Bones MET DP803088.jpg” by Georg Pecham is marked with CC0 1.0.