A Sermon for Lent 5A on Ezekiel 37
They had watched it all destroyed. Their beloved city lay in ruins and their temple to their God torn down. Many lives had been lost before they finally gave up and were taken into captivity. The Babylonians led by Nebuchadnezzar had overpowered the Israelites and led most of the people who had survived back to the land of Babylon.
They lived in exile, away from the comforts of home and the land the grew up in and the smells of food they recognized being cooked for dinner. All of it taken from them and they lived without hope.
And Ezekiel the prophet was among the ones living in Babylon. One day, the hand of the Lord came on him and took him in a vision to a valley in the desert filled with bones. Ezekiel calls it “the valley,” so it must be familiar to him, and possibly the valley where one of the final confrontations took place before Jerusalem fell. The bones had been in the sun a long time and were now bleached white.
“Mortal, can these bones live?” God asks him as they walk around the valley past femurs and skulls and hip bones. He waits a bit, Ezekiel does, before he finally gives his answer. “O Lord God, you know,” he replies, but we aren’t aided by his body language or inflection. Was it “O Lord God, you know”? Or maybe, “O, Lord God, …. you know?” Whichever way he said it, it came out right and God told him to prophesy to the bones, to speak God’s words to these dried up skeletons.
So he begins to speak and the bones started rumbling all around and soon found their right parts and began connecting one to another, rattling as they moved. Once formed together like a plastic model skeleton in biology class, sinews and tendons appeared, and then muscles and finally skin. But, Ezekiel writes, there was no breath in them.
Breath in Hebrew is ruach, also meaning wind and spirit. God instructs Ezekiel to once again prophesy so that the breath, the spirit of God, might enter into these lifeless bodies. So he does, and God’s spirit comes and they begin breathing once more.
And then the most interesting thing happens. God looks over this valley now filled with the living and declares to Ezekiel, “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.’” Did you catch that? These aren’t the ones who had already died when Babylon swept in and devastated Jerusalem years before. No, these bones that come together and have new life breathed into them are the living ones, the house of Israel living in Babylon along the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. They hadn’t died. They had just given up hope.
We’re in the season of deserts as we continue our Lenten journey. Jesus had been out in the wilderness 40 days after his baptism from John. Deserts make us face our fears, our self-worth, to see if who we think God wants us to be is really who we are. Dry times in our lives emerge sometimes out of our own making, but often they are thrust upon us and we don’t know what to do or how to react.
Often, in the desert, we give up hope. We imagine that we’ll never experience life again, that the way it had been for us before—whatever that before is—won’t ever happen again. We imagine that our lives are as good as gone, and despair creeps in all around us. We see nothing but dried up old bones.
Yet, while our inclination is to get on to the good part of this story, the Easter part, when the Spirit of God comes in and breathes new life, maybe, as Professor Katherine Amos puts it, “Maybe God’s question to us this Lent is, ‘What can your spiritual dry bones teach you? What can you learn about yourself and your relationship with the world from the painful difficult paths you are called to walk?’” Those are hard questions to consider, but they embody the questions of Lent.
While I’m as keen on the next person to move as quickly from the pain of life into the restoration of it, I know that life rarely works on our timetables. We see the dry bones of a lost relationship or a painful job situation, or the illness of a loved one or any number of other things, and we want to get through it as quickly as possible. I know that’s true for me when I’ve hit those long dry spells. I wanted it to be over, to move on and find new life. But I couldn’t force it to happen.
So we must walk in the desert. But, and this is the key thing from our text, we must do so without losing hope. We must trust that at some point, in some way, God will send a message of prophecy and the dry bones will rattle and shake and the breath of God will come again and we will be restored.
What brings us consolation in the desert times? How do we maintain our connection to God as we journey in the wilderness? Is it intentionally praying the Jesus prayer (“Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner”) throughout the day? Or journaling our thoughts? Or maybe looking for the signs of life in the desert by doing the Daily Examen? Perhaps it’s not losing connections with friends—something many of us do when hard times hit. Instead of pulling back, we instead should try to invest more in those relationships trusting on the support of those we love.
Or maybe it’s just reading small snatches of Scripture and remembering that God does not leave us alone forever. “Do not fear,” we hear over and over in Scripture. It is hard to keep that in mind when we feel so lost and are needing hope, but I can say with certainty that God keeps God’s promise if we can hold on to hope.
“Mortal, can these bones live?” “O Lord God, you know.” And God does know; listen to what God says. “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. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 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,” says the Lord.” May it be so for us as well. Amen.
 Katherine E. Amos, “Fifth Sunday in Lent: Ezekiel 37:1-4: Pastoral Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Westminster John Knox, 2010. Pg.124.