Dem Bones, Dem Bones

Ezekiel 37:1-14

37The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” 4Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord5Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.” 7So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them.9Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” 10I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. 11Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ 12Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord.

John 20:19-31

19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them.  He said, “Peace be with you.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Dem Bones, Dem Bones

Occasionally, I plop down on a bench at the mall, and find myself overhearing other people’s conversations. Recently, I sat across from a couple of older fellows.  The conversation went something like this:  

“Well, Leonard, you’re lookin’ right peaked.  You feelin’ okay?”

“Why, come to think of it, I am a bit weather-beaten!  The ol’ legs just don’t wanna bend, and I been on ‘em so long, these dogs sure are barkin’!”

“Lord, I know the feelin’.  I feel like I’m fallin’ to pieces.  I reckon I better put me in the shop and have ‘em check out the old ticker.”

“I know what ya’ mean!  I get outa bed in the mornin’ and say, ‘Come on ol’ bones, get on up there. Don’t fail me now.”  

Sound familiar?  Do your ol’ bones ever hurt?  Do you find yourself talking to your bones?  Well, in Ezekiel’s very graphic vision, he finds himself talking bones – not his own bones but the bones of his people.  The spirit of God brings Prophet Ezekiel to a valley piled deep with bones.  Dry bones.  Dead bones.  Deader than a doornail.  And the voice of the Lord speaks to Ezekiel’s mind, and it asks, “Mortal, can these bones live?”

And Ezekiel –who is well-acquainted with death– knows full well that they cannot.  But when God calls him “mortal,” Ezekial knows that the Lord is pulling rank on him, and he better rethink his answer.  In other words, Ezekiel is sharply reminded of Who he is talking to.  So, he decides to defer to God.  “O Lord God,” he says, “only you know if these bones can live.”

“Right,” says God, “now prophesy to these bones.  Tell them to hear the word of the Lord because Yahweh is going to bring them back to life.”

And so Ezekiel speaks to the bones.

And, in the dream/the vision, something starts to happen:  There is movement among the bones, ever so slight, a twitch, and then another . . . They begin to clack and rattle against each other as, joint by joint, they configure into skeletons. Then sinew, and flesh, and skin appear.  They are now carcasses of those who were slain, but they are not yet animate beings.

Now I am wanting to make a joke about what Ezekiel must have eaten before he went to bed.  This vision is unsettling, even grotesque.  It is a nightmare:  Recognizable dead bodies now litter the valley once filled with heaps of bones.  But then God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the breath, to say to the breath:  Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.”  And Ezekiel prophesies as instructed, and the breath comes into             

 

the bodies, and they begin to breathe, and they come to their feet forming a vast multitude.

Despite its PG13 graphic content, the story of Ezekiel and the dry bones is known all over the world.  More than 80,000 references to this passage can be found on Google:  artwork, songs, stories, interpretations, etc.  You can plug  “Dem Bones” into your search engine and find dozens of videos of children singing and doing the Dry Bones dance.  In most of them, however, the lyrics have been scrubbed clean of all references to Ezekiel, prophecy or God.  Instead, the song is used to teach children the basics of the human skeleton!  “The ankle bone’s connected to the knee bone, the knee bone’s connected to the hip bone, the hip bone’s connected to the backbone.”

As catchy as this is, we don’t want an anatomy lesson this morning!  We want to know what in the world this ancient vision meant? Why is it a significant Old Testament story, and what can it mean now, for us?

Because of its inclusion in the lectionary readings for Lent, the story’s connection to resurrection is often the theme that is emphasized.  But I think the message that God wanted Ezekiel to convey was much more immediate to his audience.

You see, Ezekiel, along with Isaiah, was prophet to a people in exile.  We’ve talked a lot about the exile in Sunday School lately — the roughly 60 years when many of the Israelites were forced to leave Judah and live as captives in Babylon. It was a well-documented historical event during which the exiles — many  of whom were educated, prominent, and successful– were marched out of Judah, leaving behind their land, their homes, their livestock, their livelihood, and their temple.  

For us, it is hard to understand the significance of Temple and Promised Land to our Jewish ancestors.  We know that God is omnipresent, and we can worship him wherever we wish.  But For Israelites, the Temple was — literally– God’s house.  It was where Yahweh lived!  Pagan cultures likewise believed that each idol lived in and had power over a certain piece of real estate.  To the Jews, the Temple and Canaan were God’s real estate.  When they left the promised land of Canaan, they left God.  

Naturally, this way of thinking made those exiles down in Babylon feel completely cut off, alienated, and dejected.   They exiles were miserable.  They understood their exile to be God’s punishment for their stubborn disobedience, their captors gave no sign of releasing them, and they had zero hope of a future.  They were dry bones. Dead people.  

Here’s the parallel to the gospel reading from John:  On the day after Christ’s crucifixion, his band of followers felt the same way:  cut off, alienated, and dejected. Christ’s lifeless body was now buried in a cave; they had no hope; it was over. They were dry, dead people. But then Christ appears and says, “Peace be with you. He breathes on them and says to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit — the breath, the wind of God– and live.”

To Ezekiel, God says, “Mortal, these bones you are looking at are the whole house of Israel. They believe that they are cut off from God. Therefore prophesy, and say to them: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves; and you shall know that I am the Lord.  I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act.”

And does the Lord do this??  You bet!  In 539 BC.  Cyrus, the King of Persia, conquers Babylon and allows the exiles to go home!  In fact, he directs the Babylonians to give them provisions to take with them — gold, silver, livestock, goods and offerings. It was  truly a “God thing”  — God working through a human agent — King Cyrus– to achieve his purpose.

And so it was a message of hope that Ezekiel brought to the dead souls of the Israelite people: “There is hope. You are not dead.  God is not finished with you yet! No matter how dry, dead, and hopeless you feel, God is ready to blow his breath — his ruach, Spirit– into you.  He is going to raise you up!

Now it’s important to know that Ezekiel didn’t command the bones themselves to rise up!  He didn’t say, “Get it together all you femurs and shoulder blades!  Find a knee bone, you ankle bones!  Get over yourself, and rise up!”

No, the dead can’t raise themselves.  A sick physician cannot heal himself. We can’t pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. We cannot rescue ourselves from our own graves.  Speaking through Ezekiel, God said, “I am going to bring you up from your graves — not something you are going to do.  I am going to put my spirit in you!  I will make you live!”

Those who are familiar with 12-step recovery programs know well that first step: (1) Admit that you are powerless– no better than dead– over whatever it is that you are addicted to, and admit that your life is unmanageable.  The second step?  (2) Believe that only a Power greater than yourself can restore you to sanity.  The principle applies to  drug addiction, alcoholism, compulsive gambling, smoking, pornography, Over-Eaters Anonymous, inability to forgive,and plain old sin –whatever destructive behavior or pattern renders us helpless, hopeless, and dead. The disciples could not bring Christ back to life.  They were hopeless. The Israelites could not save themselves.  And neither can we.

The key piece of the puzzle is God’s SPIRIT — in Hebrew, the same word — ruach– meant both breath and wind.  We can’t define God’s spirit; it can only be experienced.  And it can present in so many ways:  (audience? . . .   )  the grace to accept help, a strong resolve to change, strength to withstand temptation, sudden clarity of thought, acute compassion or empathy, self-acceptance, a teachable spirit, inner peace, and joy.  This Spirit can conquer destructive behaviors, revive dead marriages, restore dead relationships.  It can animate dead hopes.  It positively can’t wait to breath life into dead churches.

I am so glad we now understand that God does not live in a Temple in Jerusalem. We can call upon God whenever and wherever we are.  And no matter who you are, or what you’ve done, or how long we’ve been doing it, it is immaterial to God.  There are no unforgivable sins, and no hopeless situations for God.  He is ready to breathe us back to life.  IHe will give us CPR as soon as we are willing to inhale! The Spirit is there.  It has always been there.  To quote Romans 8:   For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, no angels, nor rulers, no things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor OUR OWN STUBBORN PRIDE, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love, the spirit — the POWER– of God in Christ Jesus.  

“I will put my power in you,” says the Lord, “and you shall live, you shall live, you shall LIVE!” AMEN.