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In the Valley of Dry Bones

A Homily from Ezekiel 37:1-14

© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines

Virginia-Highland Church

March 17, 2002 (Fifth Sunday in Lent)

The popular metaphor to describe the season of Lent is one of a “journey”. Remembering Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, we too enter into a time of sacrifice and reflection during which we travel beside Jesus (and many of the major figures of our faith) through some of the pivotal moments in their stories.

In a sense, our readings for Lent feel something like a theme park ride, the kind that Walt Disney World made so popular. We climb aboard the little car, leaving behind chocolate or cigarettes or something else we value.

Once we’re in, with appropriately somber music playing over the speakers, the car rattles down into the darkness. On the first Sunday, a light to our left shines on the Garden of Eden as all of humanity is cast out of paradise. On our right, Jesus talks with Nicodemus, explaining vividly and beautifully our chance to be born again. Trundling forward we then get a glimpse of Abraham staring off into the distance – preparing to act on faith and begin a great journey that would create a nation. Over the other rail the spotlight shines on the Son of God chatting with a Samaritan woman at the well in the center of a dusty town. Our next stop shows us Moses, his staff raised above the heads of an exhausted, faithless mob as he prepares to bring water from stone. Turning to the opposite side we watch Jesus giving sight to a nameless man who had been so lost that he did not even know whom to seek for help.

These are some of the grandest images of the biblical story. They are reserved for this holy time of year when we seek to find daily ways to remember the sacrifice of Christ. Yet for many of us the Lenten biblical stories could not be confused with a simple amusement park ride or historical diorama. If we came into this season already dwelling in our own grief, already worn down, already saddened by loss or pain; then these stories are too vivid, too raw, too potent for us to sit back and observe dispassionately. They become our stories too. We aren’t the audience, we’re the actors – perhaps wishing we could step outside this “journey” for a while.

Well, whether we have soared above the Lenten stories or found ourselves drowning in them, today, on the fifth Sunday in Lent, the car comes to a stop and we all get off. We walk from here, together. With only one Sunday remaining before Jesus’ final, fatal entry into Jerusalem; we find ourselves faced with biblical scenes that are so unsettling that even the most comfortable among us cannot face them without being shaken. On the New Testament side, we hear Jesus weeping for a dead friend, only to watch as he raises that friend from the dead. A strange thing to behold indeed – the grief of God alongside God’s miraculous power.

But if that isn’t strange enough, we need only look to today’s Hebrew Bible passage. We only have to take a few steps to find ourselves on a sun-bleached plain. Not a blade of grass, not a shrub, not a cactus in sight. No life at all. In fact, the ground is a veritable shrine to death. What at first looked like rocks turns out to be piles bones – small and large ones – fingers and femurs – the only remains of perhaps thousands of bodies discarded to the uncaring elements. At this moment a simple jaunt through biblical history has become a tour through a house of horrors.

We have come to call this place “The Valley of Dry Bones” when we tell this story. It is horrible not simply because of its ghastly, visual images. It is horrible because it reminds us of our own mortality. Standing in the Valley of Dry Bones we have nowhere to rest our eyes. Every single inch of it reminds us that we will someday die. It is a place where we cannot lie to ourselves.

And standing beside us is Ezekiel, a man who should be used to this sort of thing. Ezekiel was the sort of person that we in the South might call a “character.” Ezekiel had the habit of doing strange, and very dramatic, very public things to draw people’s attention to the radical nature of God’s message. He walked around Jerusalem carrying suitcases to let people know that soon they would be exiled. He publicly cooked his food over a fire of human excrement to warn people – as vividly as possible – that they would soon be eating among the unclean Gentiles. As you can imagine, this did not endear him to his neighbors. “Quirky” and “eccentric” probably wouldn’t be strong enough to describe him. Saying that he would have fit in well at Virginia-Highland Baptist Church might come close.

Nevertheless, as odd as Ezekiel’s methods were, he was proven right. He watched as a foreign army trampled God’s holy city and God’s holy temple. He watched as the leaders of God’s chosen people were dragged into exile. In a few short years, Ezekiel watched as every last glimmer of hope for his nation, God’s chosen, was extinguished. With no temple, and surrounded by uncleanliness, worship had become all but impossible (Blenkinsopp 12). All of the hope and potential first given life by God’s covenant with Abraham seem dead and empty. The dream has become a nightmare. All is lost.

And so, in the midst of this dark time, Ezekiel feels the touch of God and finds himself in the Valley of Dry Bones. One commentator [Katheryn Pfisterer Darr New Interp. Bible 1503-4] suggests that, at the end of our story, Ezekiel finally gets to see the world through God’s eyes. That is certainly true, but Ezekiel starts seeing with divine insight at the very moment we find him standing, stunned surrounded on all sides by the grisly reality of death.

In fact, he may not have even left his own living room. The dry bones are all around us; if we look with eyes focused on the eternal instead of the here-and-now. My mother’s mother, Virginia, was a talented artist who made many beautiful things over a long life. When she died and we were organizing her household I found a discarded box of white ceramic tiles. My grandmother had painstakingly sketched seascapes on them, with the intent of painting them. Her eyesight had failed her before she could finish the project. When I held those tiles in my hands, with all their unfulfilled potential cut short by human mortality, I was holding dry bones.

They’re everywhere, if we ignore our instinct to overlook them. Around the world – in fact, around the corner – stand the empty shells of churches. They were once places where Almighty God was worshipped with power, celebration, joy. They had been centers of transformation for their communities, where the sick found aid and the weak found strength. Now they are being turned into loft apartments and concert halls. Dry bones.

They’re everywhere. Most of us have pockets full of them. Each year, there are a few more things we realize we’re never going to do. Unfulfilled dreams become the ballast that, if we didn’t pitch a few of them over the side, would weigh us down so heavily that we could not get out of bed in the morning. They are dry bones, and with Ezekiel we stand in a valley full of them.

God takes Ezekiel for a tour of the valley. Ezekiel has two comments. There are very, very many bones and they are very, very dry.

God asks a question, “Mortal, can these bones live?”

Can they live? What kind of question is that. Of course not. Could my dead grandmother rise from the grave and finish those tiles? Are people, perfectly content with all of their comfortable lives, going to suddenly start rushing to feel empty pews in churches that seem to have no relevance in our world? Are we going to miraculously find the time to do the things we really want to do instead of the things we have to do? Can dead bones come alive?

The obvious answer is “No!” No, no, and no! But Ezekiel is a prophet, and he doesn’t give an obvious answer. Instead, he replies, “Lord God, only you know if they can live.”

It was, apparently, the right answer. God continues, “Then prophesy to these bones.” “Prophesy?” It’s a word that has perhaps in our day been misappropriated, calling to mind images of sweating and shouting. But at its most basic level, to prophesy is to speak with the authority of God in a way that transforms the world or at least how people see it. When faced with an arid valley of death, God instructs Ezekiel to prophesy. God tells the prophet, here is what you say, “O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. Thus says the Lord God to you. I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will give you muscle and tissue, skin and breath, and you shall live and you shall know that I am the LORD.”

That’s it. God says it’s simple. Just tell the stupid bones that they aren’t going to be bones any more. God said so.

Ezekiel does just that, and it works…mostly. He speaks to the bones as God commanded him, and all across the immense valley the bones start to tremble. With a great, rattling sound they fly together, forming skeletons. Then muscles and flesh and skin cover the skeletons; and where once there had only been the litter of countless fragments there stands an army of whole bodies.

But they had no breath, no spirit in them. God has more work for Ezekiel. The prophet is told, “Mortal, prophesy to the spirit, to their very breath.” Ezekiel does, and the Spirit of God, a great wind, gusts into the valley and fills the lungs of the empty bodies. They are alive.

Mortal, can these dry bones live? It’s a trick question. “No!”, because we are mortal. But if we, in turn, ask God, the answer’s easy. God is the bringer of life.

Have no doubt, we stand surrounded by dry bones. There are so many of them that if we only had ears to hear we would notice them crunching under foot when we walk. Our entire world is the valley of broken dreams, the valley of unfulfilled potential, the valley where death ultimately wins and we all try to pretend otherwise…the Valley of Dry Bones.

That’s just the way the world works, and over time we learn to accept that. Ezekiel, though, never learned that lesson. He traded his realism for faith. Not just simple, cursory belief; but faith. Faith that God really does have the power to work miracles.

I’m not sure that, as modern-day believers, we really have that kind of faith. I fear that someday God will take each of us to a point looking over a valley much like Ezekiel’s and God will say, “Mortal, here are the bones of your life. They are what could have been. Could they have lived?”

I’m sure I’ll say something like, “God, there was nothing I could do. You know how the world is – you made it that way. No good deed goes unpunished, and there was only so much time. What could I have done?”

And the part that breaks my heart is that God will say, “Nothing. You could have done nothing. Of course, if you had asked Me, I could have done everything.”

What are we missing out on, what miracles will we never see because we think that all we can count on is ourselves? Have “common sense” and “practicality” so numbed us that the fire of God would have to consume us before we would notice it? The world stands dry and parched, not because it has to be that way but because we, the children of God, have forgotten that we serve a God of miraculous life.

In our text, God turns to Ezekiel and says that this valley is the final resting place of the children of God – the house of Israel. As it so happens, the lifeless bones at the feet of God are not just our potential, they are us. Their cry, our cry, is that “Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost, we are cut off completely.”

This one time of year we face, like it or not, the real, inevitable, inarguable fact that we will die. You will die. I will die. There will someday be nothing left of the bodies we’ve come to love and hate. We must first accept that to hear the next part, and it is the key to the whole story.

God responds, “Thus says the Lord God, I will open your graves and bring you out of them and bring you back to the promised land. You will know that I am the LORD, and then you shall truly live with my spirit inside you.”

Even if we believe that God can miraculously change the world, this last part seems a little far fetched. Bringing dead bones to life is fine as a metaphor for putting our priorities in the right place and trusting God; but literally bringing people back from the dead, bringing us back from the dead, seems a little too good to be true.

It turns out that there’s more to it than that, and in the next two weeks we’ll see it all. We’ll see God in the flesh – Jesus – who, having taught us how to live will now teach us also how to die. And we’ll see Him resurrected and alive.

Nothing else matters. Nothing else matters. Where God is, there is life. There will be life. If we will answer to the voice of God, the sunburnt desert will become the Garden again; and once again God will lean down and with a gentle brush against our lips breathe into us the miraculous spirit of life. This time, for good.