Can These Bones Live? A sermon about Ezekiel 37:1-14
On this All Saint’s Day, we continue our sermon series on the prophets. Today we turn to one of the more eccentric cats, Ezekiel. God challenged him to believe by asking, “Can these bones live?”
Ezekiel ministered at a time when everything seemed lost. The massive Babylonian Empire came in with its army and crushed the Judeans. They obliterated the soldiers, destroyed the Temple, and most of the people who were still alive were force-marched hundreds of miles away to live in Babylon.
So, amid this exile, this Babylonian captivity, people felt lost, disorientated, mad, and confused–pretty much like our modern times, but worse. Enter the man of the hour, Ezekiel, to speak words of hope and accountability to the bedraggled people. In the book of Ezekiel, God had asked him to do a lot of strange symbolic actions such as eating a scroll and lying on his side for months at a time.
Ezekiel’s Valley of Dry Bones
In today’s lesson, we find him swept up in a vision in which he is whisked away to a valley. In the valley are dry bones. A valley of bones. The site of a massacre. It’s a metaphor for the loss the people experienced both literally and emotionally.
The captives live in exile without without hope. They lament the loss of their troops from battle, and the innocents were “collateral damage” in the battle. It’s a time of lament.
Everything familiar, including how they worshipped, is gone. They even felt exiled from God.
Ezekiel casts his vision over this valley of dry bones that represent all the loss they’ve endured, and God asks, “Can these bones live?”
By now, the prophet is on to God’s object lessons. I imagine him thinking, “It doesn’t look like it, but who am I to say?” He says to his divine companion, “O God, you know.” Great answer!
Next, God instructs this prophet to preach to the dry bones.
Again, I imagine Elijah thinking, “This is so weird. You want me to preach to bones.”
Our Valley of Dry Bones
As a preacher, I can empathize. I have a similar reaction every week. “This is weird. You want me to preach in an empty sanctuary, staring at a camera lens?” Ezekiel reminds me that with these sermons and all things in life, you just have to be faithful in putting it out there, trusting that God will help it land where it needs to land.
I’ve been thinking that we live in a time that feels like exile. Cut off from familiar worship. Cut off by COVID-19 by what was familiar, comfortable, predictable. We are grieving so many losses but learning to do things in new ways.
It’s easy enough to see the bones. More than 215,000 people have died. I think of the ones I knew. Two people including a 27-year-old Trevor Daniels who was a kid in one of my youth groups. So many others who have fallen sick. I also think about the grief that goes with not having memorial or celebration-of-life service for those we remember today.
I see the way our nation has become so divided—dry bones. The body is divided into red and blue. Black and white. Everything is so politicized. Our country weary from outrage.
Can these bones live?
We see generational poverty, racism, distrust, and finger-pointing everywhere we look. We’ve all seen the chaotic scenarios of possible violence and uprisings in the aftermath of the election.
We turn to the sacred text for a word of hope. God’s voice comes to us as surely as it came to Ezekiel, asking, “Can these bones live?”
“Lord, you know.”
To find our way to a better place, we’d do well to apply the lessons from our story. Ezekiel prophesies to the dry bones in a three-point sermon. Thanks to Anna Carter Florence for her insights into this text.
First, Hope Arises When Scattered Bones Come Together
God tells Ezekiel to proclaim that breath will again enter the dry bones, but first, the bones have to come back together. When he spoke, the bones rattled, came together, and sinews grew and bound them together.
Can we hear the call? The bones will live. There is hope. But we’ve got to find a way to come together. We, mortals, need each other. All this division is death. Can we find a way to do this? It starts with each of us being civil, listening deeply to others with differing perspectives. Can we find common ground and interests with those we disagree? It’s why Bay Shore exists–a source of connection and wholeness in a fragmented world.
When we come together and find the best in each other, the sinews grow, we find common bonds. And things begin to get better.
Second, Everyone Needs to Breathe
The Ezekiel passage mirrors the Adam story in Genesis, where God breathes into the bones to animate them and give them life. Of course, the word for spirit and breath is the same in Hebrew. The call is for each of us to reconnect with our spiritual nature. Not just to play at or give lip-service to religion but to engage in spiritual practices that strengthen our connection to God so that we might revitalize our moral center. The moral center teaches us to forgive, to turn the other cheek, to do unto others and we would have them do unto us, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Realize that Many Can’t Breathe
Right now, there are so many who cannot breathe. Many people have pointed out that George Floyd’s words, “I can’t breathe,” symbolize the effects of systemic racism on so many people today. Everyone needs to breathe. How can we do our part to become anti-racist and advocate for a more just world?
It should not be lost that COVID-19 is a respiratory disease that takes away one’s ability to breathe. Can we do our part to wear masks, social distance, and wash our hands so that people can simply breathe? For us, a mask shouldn’t be a political statement, but a recognition that as people of faith, we are called upon to work toward healing and breath for all.
When we are driven by sharing the spirit, the breath, compassion, and justice, we will see new life come to dry bones. The Spirit of God that we proclaim is every bit as infectious as the coronavirus, only in a good way. How can you do your part to live by the spirit?
Third, Trust in the God of Resurrection
God tells Ezekiel that the bones represent the people who are in despair. The prophet tells the people to trust; God will bring the people back to the land. And he did! After 70 years of exile, the people returned to Jerusalem.
God even says that he will open the graves of those who have died. The kind of faith that we need is the faith we celebrate today in lighting candles for our saints. We trust that the God who took care of them in this life takes care of them in the next. We are Easter People. In faith, we declare that these dry bones can yet live.
God is working in this world for wholeness, for a resurrection of the dry bones. As long as the Easter God is on it, we have reason to hope.
God knows these bones can yet live, and so do we. There is reason to hope. Let us resolve to live as if we know the answer. Be people of hope and healing and wholeness in a fragmented world. It’s a long process, but God’s got this. Live accordingly. Amen.
Sermon preached by David Clark for online service at Bay Shore Community Church in Long Beach, California. Click here to find out more about Bay Shore Church.