Can These Bones Live?
Lord, fill these words of mine with your Spirit
that they may breathe your life into us all.
I imagine I’m not alone in finding I can relate to the dry bones from our Old Testament reading this morning. March has been a tough month for us all, leading us into a strange Lenten desert, a peculiarly arid valley. And Ezekiel’s vision is peculiarly apposite for these days, for it concerns not so much shattered individuals but a broken and dislocated community.
Ezekiel is a prophet of the exile, a prophet whose people are dislocated from their homeland and the spiritual practices that sustained them and that marked them out as the people of God. That context has an unusually familiar ring to it right now, doesn’t it? Who among us would have thought that what we would have to give up for Lent was the habit of meeting together? Who among us would have imagined that we would be exiled from many of the spiritual practices that sustain us as individual people of God and bind us together as a community of faith, not least the Eucharist?
“Can these bones live?” we ask ourselves.
It’s tempting to run straight to the rattling bones and rushing wind, but I want us to linger in the eerie silence that starts the text:
The 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. He led me all round them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.
Take a moment to listen to your surroundings. I expect you don’t hear much at all. If you’re watching on Sunday, that might not be too unusual; but if you’re listening on another day, it’s probably quite different from what you’re used to hearing. As I wrote this sermon, my surroundings were as still as a cottage in the middle of nowhere — a far cry from the normal weekday noises of a street round the corner from Linlithgow Academy!
Ezekiel’s vision, too, begins in silence. The silence covers two short verses but, from verse 2, we get the sense that it must have gone on for a while, because God was leading the prophet “all around” the “very many” bones. Apparently, the phrase “he led me all around” implies that God led Ezekiel around the valley repeatedly. It conjures up such a vivid picture in the mind, doesn’t it? I can just see the prophet stumbling bewildered and disoriented around the glen again and again; nothing to hear but the odd rattle as his foot catches another bone, however much he endeavours to skirt around them; no way out of this deep, dry pit of a place but the hand of the Lord who brought him there.
Out of the depths, I cry to you, O Lord!
It is into this disturbing silence that the voice of the Lord comes. And it comes not first off with a command or a comforting word but a question: “Can these bones live?”
Well, how can they? we might be tempted to retort. All we can see is bones upon bones upon bones. Ain’t no sign of life here. But Ezekiel, in a response that seems to me at once bold and humble, puts the answer back in God’s hands: “O Lord God, you know.”
There’s a lot we can learn from the prophet’s reply. Ezekiel seems to be aware that he’s at the limit of his knowledge and experience. God’s awkward question seems to invite a yes when the only possible answer appears to be a no. Maybe there’s a note of desperation in Ezekiel’s words. After all, he finds himself in a truly disturbing and upsetting situation and here he is being posed an impossible question. But at the same time, there is a tone of trust to his response. It’s as though he’s saying, “Look, Lord, I don’t have a clue what’s going on here. I’ve no idea where I am or why I’m here. But I know that you are faithful and I know that you can do all things.”
I trust in the LORD;
More than sentinels wait for the dawn
We, too, are in a bewildering and disturbing situation, at the limits of our knowledge and experience. It might seem like God has fallen silent. And it might continue to seem that way for a while. We might stumble around and wonder why on earth we are where we are. But God will speak into the silence. I encourage you to listen out for what questions, gentle or awkward, the Lord is asking you in this period of silence, of lockdown, of shielding, of isolation. Listen and respond with the humility, honesty, boldness and trust of Ezekiel.
O Lord God, you know.
You know how broken and fearful we are. You know how alone we are. You know how anxious we are about our relatives, our neighbours, ourselves. You know how uncertain our times are and how that scares us.
O LORD, hear our voice!
Only once Ezekiel has replied does his command to prophesy come. And only as he follows the command does the miracle occur: the bones knit back together, the sinews and flesh appear. But God is not finished, for the bones are not yet alive, so Ezekiel is commanded to prophesy for a second time and the breath of God quickens the slain.
I am the resurrection and the life.
But what does the resurrection of this “vast multitude” mean? The Lord tells Ezekiel that the bones are “the whole house of Israel”. It’s a vision of the revivification of a community. Not only the return of the Jewish people from their exile but, because it’s “the whole house of Israel”, it points to a reunification of the two kingdoms of Judah and Israel. And it refers to the entirety of those communities: not just the devout but the doubting; not just those who serve the Lord wholeheartedly, but those who are sceptical.
Like the raising of Lazarus in today’s Gospel, it is a sign of healing, of what is broken being put back together. To our dispersed and dislocated family of faith, this is a sign of hope. And perhaps we already see inklings of this. Our neighbourhoods, where many people have barely known one another, are suddenly pulling together to help one another. Our fragmented society has begun to reconstitute itself. That is a grace of resurrection even amid the brokenness.
The Lord calls us to hope and trust and follow in what seems like an impossible situation. God will not abandon us to limitless exile and dislocation. God will not remain silent. And God promises that, when we follow and trust and live out our hope, we will see the truth of Jesus’ words, “I am the resurrection and the life.”