Dry Bones and New Life
Pastor John Ortberg told the very true story of a friend of his also named John who used to work as a denominational official in Minnesota. One of his jobs was to travel to little rural communities where they didn’t have churches to do funerals. He would go out with an undertaker, and they would drive together in the undertaker’s hearse. One time, they were on their way back from a funeral, and John was feeling pretty tired. He decided to take a nap, and since they were in a hearse, he thought, Well, I’ll just lie down in the back of the hearse.
Kind of creepy, when you think about it, but this is a true story. The guy who was driving the hearse pulled into a service station, because he was running low on gas. This was several years ago, and in a small village in the middle of nowhere, and they still offered full service fill ups. Remember that – where you’d pull in and someone would come out and pump your gas for you? Well, the service station attendant was filling up the tank to the hearse and he was kind of freaked out, because there was a body stretched out in the back. While he was filling the tank, John woke up, opened his eyes, knocked on the window and waved at the attendant. Needless to say, it scared the you know what out of the poor attendant. John said he never saw anybody run so fast in his whole life. Finding life where you see, and expect, nothing but death is certainly shocking. The good news of Jesus is that nothing is so dead that God resurrect it. And that includes your life and mine, and the mess we make of things. Turn with me to the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel 37:1-14.
Ezekiel was a Jewish priest living in exile Babylon during the exile of the Jewish people there, after Nebuchadnezzar conquered and ultimately destroyed Jerusalem and the temple to God there. He was a priest who God also called and used as a prophet. Babylon was centered in modern Iraq, and Ezekiel lived with his wife in a house on the Chebar River in a city called Tel Abib, near the modern Iraqi city of Nippur. And God either takes him to see this or gives him a vision, but what Ezekiel sees is a valley or plain covered in dry bones. Look at V. 9. These are the bodies of the slain. This is the remains of a great army slaughtered in battle. In all likelihood, a vision of the armies of Israel, bodies left to rot on the plain after they were slaughtered by Nebuchadnezzar and the mighty armies of Babylon. These aren’t the corpses of the recently slain. No, these bones are dry and bleached. Crows and vultures and other scavengers had long ago finished their work, picking the bones clean. The bones are dry, brittle, and bleached by the sun. They’d been there for a very long time.
As a priest, Ezekiel wasn’t allowed to touch or be near a corpse or the bones of a dead body, and yet God doesn’t just show him the bones from a distance. He walks Ezekiel in, among, and around them. To any person, this would have been a difficult experience. I mean, when you think about it, this feels a lot like something out of a haunted attraction at Halloween, not the pages of Scripture. But to a priest not allowed contact with the dead, whose sensibilities from birth were trained to avoid situations like this, whose every instinct was to leave, this was horrifying.
And to top it all off, these bones were not buried. Doesn’t seem like that big of a deal to us today, but in the ancient near east, and especially among the people of Israel, unburied bodies, unburied bones was the ultimate, final insult. It represented the ultimate degradation and meant that those who were slain were destined for torture and suffering in the afterlife … hell. It represented death under a curse. A cursed death. The cursed death of the armies of Israel, defeated by Babylon because of their unfaithfulness to God.
The curse for breaking their covenant with God is spelled out in Deuteronomy 28:25-26. “The Lord will cause you to be defeated before your enemies. You shall go out one way against them and flee seven ways before them. And you shall be a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth. And your dead body shall be food for all birds of the air and for the beasts of the earth, and there shall be no one to frighten them away.” And it was reinforced by the prophecy of Jeremiah. “Therefore, thus says the Lord: You have not obeyed me by proclaiming liberty, every one to his brother and to his neighbor; behold, I proclaim to you liberty to the sword, to pestilence, and to famine, declares the Lord. I will make you a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth. And the men who transgressed my covenant and did not keep the terms of the covenant that they made before me, I will make them like[a] the calf that they cut in two and passed between its parts – the officials of Judah, the officials of Jerusalem, the eunuchs, the priests, and all the people of the land who passed between the parts of the calf. 20 And I will give them into the hand of their enemies and into the hand of those who seek their lives. Their dead bodies shall be food for the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth” (Jer. 34:17-20). And now the prophet Ezekiel is seeing the ultimate result … the dry, dead bones of those who broke covenant with God and died under the curse of sin.
Dry bones. No more vivid image of hopelessness exists. There is no more hopeless image in all of scripture than the valley of dry bones. Yes, even in Ezekiel’s day they’d seen a resurrection or two performed by a great prophet like Elijah or Elisha. But always with someone who had just recently died. Not bodies completely gone, nothing left but cursed, unburied, dry bones.
The Jews living in exile in Babylon were holding onto the hope that God would act to vindicate them. They held onto the hope that they would return to the land God had promised them, return to the temple where God’s presence lived among them, God would again be their God. And then the news reached them, and Ezekiel, that Jerusalem had fallen, her great walls destroyed, her Temple looted and destroyed. All hope was gone. And they cried out in despair. Look at V. 11. God is quoting the hopeless declaration of the people of God. “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.”
Have you ever felt hopeless? Like truly hopeless? I have. It’s like this sinking feeling in your gut. A realization that nothing is going to help. That there is no way to fix this. “I’ve made too much of a mess of things. There’s no way out of this. There’s no way to make this better.” Maybe it’s a relationship destroyed by your actions, or a friendship lost, or a mistake made that you can’t take back. Maybe it’s a dreaded medical diagnosis. A drunk driving conviction. A failed business. A failed marriage. Addiction. Sin in your life that keeps defeating you.
One man tells the story of talking with one of his teenage sons about an experience he had on a commuter train outside of New York City. He was surrounded by middle-aged, potbellied, balding men who were worn out. Anyone here resemble that image? Their clothes were wrinkled, their shirts were heavy with perspiration as they hunched over in their seats and clutched their copies of The Wall Street Journal. He said, “Dad, they all seemed depressed.”
Have you noticed how few people appear, from the looks of their faces and from their body language, to be really happy? As you observe people from your car or walking in the grocery store or the shopping malls, you see face after face looking tired, worn out, bored, or just drained of any emotion. You can go for hours without encountering a single truly happy person. But you’ll encounter hundreds of defeated, hopeless people. Maybe you’re one of them.
Now look, look at the question God asks Ezekiel. Look at V. 3. “Can these bones live?” Ezekiel knows who he’s standing with, and he’s seen the power of God at work. CAN these bones live? Yeah, if God says so, I guess. WILL these bones, these bones that represent the just, cursed death of those who broke covenant with God again and again and again, WILL these bones live? Ezekiel isn’t so sure about that. Why would God want to restore those who had lived in rebellion against him for so long? So he shrugs and volleys the ball back to God’s side of the court. “Only you know that.”
And then the unthinkable, and kind of creepy and gory, when you picture this in your mind, happens. Look at Vv. 5-8. The exact words Ezekiel said don’t matter, and he knows it. So he doesn’t mention them. This isn’t about what Ezekiel can do. This isn’t about the power of the prophet or saying just the right words. This is about what God can do.
And Ezekiel was a priest. How many animal sacrifices had he performed in his lifetime? He knew exactly how bodies were put together, and he can describe, in detail exactly what happened. First the rattling of the bones as they come together, each bone in each body coming to its proper place. And then the sinews, cartilage, ligaments, and tendons, and then muscle, and then skin. God didn’t just “poof” these bodies back together. He did it parts at a time. Kind of like a reverse zombie thing. I’m telling you, we could do a really cool biblical haunted house at Halloween and scare the you know what out of a lot of people.
But something is missing. The bodies are there, but there is no life in them. We’ve gone from a valley filled with dry bones to a valley filled with lifeless bodies. But God isn’t done yet. Look at Vv. 9-10. He tells Ezekiel to speak again, and again Ezekiel does, and again his words aren’t recorded because they don’t matter, and the Spirit of God breathes life into these lifeless bodies.
Why the intentional, two step process? It all goes back to the story of creation in Genesis 2. Look at Genesis 2:7. “then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.” First God formed the body, and then he stooped down and, placing his mouth near the nostrils on the body, he breathed the spirit of life into the formed body. In the valley of dry bones, as Ezekiel speaks, the bodies are RE-formed and then life is once again breathed into the re-formed bodies. God restores what has been completely, utterly, hopelessly destroyed. God has lifted the curse of those who are hopeless, dead under the curse.
Every day around the world, thousands participate in 12 Step groups. They do so to find hope and healing for desperate situations. And in every one of those meetings, every one of those people declare that … 1. We are powerless over our addictive behavior and our lives have become unmanageable. 2. We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity. And 3. We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understand God. Many of these people follow Christ, many don’t. But every day people with addictions to alcohol, narcotics, nicotine, food, sex, gambling, and pretty much anything else people get addicted to declare that their situation is hopeless, that only God can help, they turn their lives and wills over to God for hope and healing. Truth is, we all need to make that same declaration. Look at Vv. 11-14.
In his book “Following Jesus”, pastor, theologian, and author N.T. Wright says, “We are not to be surprised if living as Christians brings us to the place where we find we are at the end of our own resources, and that we are called to rely on the God who raises the dead.” The image shifts slightly, from the valley of dried bones to a cemetery, but the point is the same. You and I are hopelessly dead. Only God can restore life. And until we really come to the end of ourselves and admit that we can’t root out our sin on our own, we’ll keep on living defeated lives.
God doesn’t resurrect you to leave you lying there lifeless. No! He breathes life into you. And how does God do this? Look back at Ezekiel 36:27. “And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” St. Paul says it this way in the New Testament: “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (Eph. 2:1-2). That’s death. That’s the valley of dry bones. But the valley of dry bones doesn’t get the final say. “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:4-6). In Christ, God can and will bring your dry bones and mine back together, reversing the result of the curse of sin, and breathe life back into us. There is no situation so hopeless that God cannot restore it.
And then Paul goes on. “so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:7-9). Our sure and certain future is NOT based on what you and I can accomplish and overcome in our own strength. No. It is based on God’s DETERMINATION to love and save us. He brings us out of the grave and breathes his life, his Spirit into us. We are raised to life AND given the strength and power to walk in step with God’s spirit.
Does this mean that EVERY marriage will be restored and EVERY disease healed in this life? No. We live in a hard world still ruled by sin. Thousands upon thousands of Israelites were taken to Babylon and lived their entire lives as exiles, never to see their homeland again. BUT, thanks be to God, he has saved us from death, even if we don’t feel dead, AND breathed his life into us. He overcomes the sin that wants to keep us bound up, dead and dry. You have to stop trying to do it yourself, admit you’re powerless to overcome it, and turn yourself and your sin over to God. Not just in your mind. In your heart. In your behavior. There is no honest cry out to God that goes unheard, and the valley of dry bones is proof positive that there is no situation so hopeless that God cannot intervene and rescue and restore. Ultimately, God has done just that in Christ. He loves you, and he wants you to know that your dry bones can live again.
Elmer Bendiner tells the story of a B-17 bomber flying a mission over Germany late in WW2. The plane was hit several times by shells and flak, with some of the hits directly in the fuel tank. Miraculously, the bomber didn’t explode. When it landed, 11 unexploded 20mm shells were taken out of the fuel tank, and when they were dismantled, all were empty of explosives. Inside one shell was a note written in Czech. It read, “This is all we can do for you now.” A member of the Czech underground, working in a German munitions factory, had omitted the explosives in at least 11 of the shells on his assembly line. Talk about a hopeless situation. Exiled, land overrun by Germany. Forced to work for a cause you don’t believe in and make weapons you know will take innocent lives. That worker must have wondered often if the quiet work he was doing to subvert the Nazi war effort was going to make any difference. It was a hopeless situation. But for the crew of that one plane, his small, insignificant effort made a difference. Hope, in a hopeless situation.
As we conclude today, we’re going to sing as we normally do. But before we do that, I’m going to invite the worship team to come forward and play quietly for a few minutes.
Satan wants to destroy you. And if he can’t destroy you because you belong to Christ, he wants to make you and I ineffective in and for God’s kingdom. And I know there are people here this morning he has a hold on through sin. Sin is like a weed. If you don’t root it out completely, it will keep coming back. What I want to do right now is lead you in a brief prayer, and then open up the front of the church for any who wish to come forward to pray, not with someone, but to come forward and pray, asking God to bring life to your hopeless situation, to root out for you the sin that you cannot overcome. So we’re going to pray, and then as the worship team plays quietly for a few minutes, you can come forward. After a few minutes, they’ll move into our closing songs, but don’t feel like you have to go back to your seat then. If you still need to pray, then stay and pray as we sing. Let us pray.