Before we can start today, I must get this out of the way. I cannot read this narrative of Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones without reverting to the Sunday School teacher part of my brain. You know where I’m going with this.
Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones, Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones, Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones, Now shake dem skeleton bones!
But the meaning of this passage goes much deeper than a campfire song or a Sunday school level of understanding. Ezekiel has a very important message that is still relevant in the 21st century. But to get to that message we must first look at what this passage is not. Across the history of Biblical interpretation there have been some misconceptions about this narrative.
First, this is not a literal happening. Ezekiel is very clear that the dry bones coming back to life are a metaphor for the nation of Israel, who, during his lifetime were in exile. “These bones are the whole house of Israel” Ezekiel said. This is important. It’s important because this text has often been used to “prove” bodily resurrection. In other words, at the end of time, in the “end of days” as it’s called in the Psalms, all our bodies will pop up from our graves and we will walk the earth again. Today, we might envision zombies if we think about people coming out of their graves, but this was a very real concern for the medieval church and to be honest, for some Christians still today. But, as I said, this isn’t, and never was, intended to be taken as a literal event.
That’s the first misconception and the second is this: that biblical prophecy somehow predicts of our future. Ezekiel wasn’t a fortuneteller. Instead, he was addressing his community, he was interpreting what he believed God wanted his people to be and do in their time and context. We can draw wonderful lessons from Biblical prophecy, but let’s not try is predict the future based on it. That simply doesn’t make any sense.
So, that being said, what do we do with this wonderful narrative? Well, since “it’s obvious to us that Ezekiel’s intent was more metaphorical than physiological,” it becomes apparent that “his vision was about the eventual return his people to Israel.”[i] Remember, his people, the nation of Israel, had been marched off into exile by the Babylonians. So, this entire prophecy is about restoring hope to refugees now living in a foreign land. And this is a common theme in the Hebrew Scriptures as well as in the New Testament. Kelton Cobb writes, “At the core of biblical narrative is the story of displacement; of having wandered a long way from home and longing to return. This is the underlying plot of being cast out of Eden, of being foreigners in Egypt, of the journey to the promised land,” and, as we’ve seen here in this text, “the longing of the exiles in Babylon to return to the land of their fathers”[ii] and mothers.
Longing. That’s a key word here. A longing of the heart. A longing, however, that seemed hopeless. The dry bones in this narrative represent that sense of hopelessness that the exiles felt as they were longing to find their way home again. A hopelessness that unfortunately came true for most, if not all of them. You see, they were in exile for about 70 years and considering the short life expectancy in that day, it’s logical to conclude that, most likely, none of those marched off to exile ever made it back to Israel. But, their decedents, their children and grandchildren were the ones who eventually came back home. And that was the “hope” Ezekiel was promoting; a hope for the next generation.
And this is where I think Ezekiel can really help us as well. We sometimes experience hopelessness. We too feel dry, parched. We sometimes feel like God has left us in a desert wilderness and forgotten about our needs, our desires, our well-being. We long for a “spiritual resurrection.” But, here’s the good news. God is still around; still loving, still leading, still calling, Still-Speaking in the world today. There are many other voices crying out in our culture as well. Some of them are good, some are bad, and some of them are downright evil. The challenge for us is to filter out the harmful voices, the hurtful words, the illogical hatred, the unabated greed, and listen carefully for the voice of God.
God is Still-Speaking in many ways and I’m convinced that God is speaking to the Church, our church and the wider Church, with a voice of change; of transformation, of reformation. God is speaking to us words of renewal, restoration, and hope. And this is where we intersect with Ezekiel. The key element of his metaphor was that of God “breathing” life back into dry bones, right? And the word “breath” here, as translated from Hebrew, the original language of the Old Testament, has multiple meanings in English. The word in Hebrew is “ru-ah.” Ru-ah literally means breath, wind, and spirit. When we do biblical translation the tone and mood, and the immediate context of the passage determine which English word we choose, but thing to remember here is that wind, spirit, and breath are all one-in-the-same.
So, when God breathed the breath of life into humanity in the second creation story in Genesis, the author was saying that God breathed the Spirit of God into humanity. Isn’t that a beautiful thought? Think about it. The very breath of God, the very Spirit of the Divine is within us and has been within us and all of creation from the very beginning. And in his description of the spiritual resurrection of the dry bones, Ezekiel reminds us of this. He reminds us that God can and will breath the breath of life into that which is dried up.
Remember now, Ezekiel, like most of the prophets, was speaking to the whole nation. The breath of God, the Spirit of the Divine, was not only for the individual, but for the whole community. So, this narrative of God breathing life back into the dry bones can also be a metaphor for the church today.
Far too often I’ve heard and read that the church is “done.” I’ve heard the Church described archaic, irrelevant, and useless in the post-modern world. And yet, despite this “culture of disbelief,” there are congregations, like ours, that are discovering new vitality. We are discovering that we are a “God -breathed” community of faith. Now, I don’t think we’re any better or worse than the church of the 1950’s, just different. The Church reflects culture and culture is changing rapidly. So, the question becomes: how do we keep up? How do we stay relevant? Well, I think any congregation can thrive if they become a place where people can sense God’s renewing Spirit and healing breath at work. We can continue to be a place where it is evident that God is in the process of making all things new.
That’s all well and good you might say, but “How exactly do we do that?” Good question. And while I don’t have all the answers, I do know that the answer isn’t going come from theories about church growth or by beating ourselves up because there are less people attending on Sunday mornings. But I do believe that we are vital and relevant when we intentionally cultivate the Divine presence. When we are aware of God’s presence through the spiritual practices that have characterized Christian discipleship throughout the centuries; hospitality and a wide welcome to all, prayer and devotional reading, service and outreach, fellowship and worship.[iii] These are the keys to the now and future church.
Now, this might be uncomfortable for us, because to do the “inner-work” of cultivating the Spirit’s presence in the Church, we must be open to our authentic selves, warts and all![iv] And this is key! It’s key because we must do the “inner-work” before we can fully participate the “outer-work.” The outer-work of seeking justice for the marginalized, healing for those who are struggling, and peace for all.
One final thought today. Can God breathe life back into lives of those who are lost? Can God breathe life back into our nation? The world? The earth itself? Can God make those dry bones dance again?
In the name of the One who breathed into each of us the very breath of life, Amen.
[i] Kelton Cobb. Feasting on the Word; Year A, Vol. 2. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor eds., (Westminster John Knox Press. 2010) pg. 122
[iii] Cf. Diana Butler Bass, Christianity for the Rest of Us, pg. 7, quotes one pastor as “You preach the gospel, offer hospitality, and pay attention to worship and people’s spiritual lives. Frankly, you take Christianity seriously as a way of life.” Cf. also Thomas R. Kelly, Testament of Devotion, pg. 35, who says, “Practice comes first in religion, not theory or dogma.”
[iv] Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak, pgs. 11, 15, 36, 77-78, 91-94. He says we promote the “truth that sets us free” by cultivating our true selves created in the image of God through practice of “inner work” together in community—and in so doing we contribute toward making the world around us a more hopeful, joyful, and loving place.