Can These Bones Live?

We’re going to be in Ezekiel 37 today.

We’re in the season of Easter right now,
and in the weeks following the day of our Jesus’ resurrection,
we’ve been reflecting on resurrection.

We confess the resurrection of the body every week in the Creed.

And we’re in the season of Easter where we celebrate
that Jesus is the beginning of that resurrection.

So we’re asking:

What does the resurrection mean for us?
What does the resurrection mean for today?

Today I want to look a super strange passage.

It’s one of the rare passages in the Hebrew Scriptures
where we find talk of resurrection.

It’s definitely the longest passage about resurrection.

And it’s different than we might think.

A little bit of context before we read the passage.

Ezekiel is this Judean prophet in the early 6th BCE,
living through some really hard things.

His world had fallen apart.

We say that sometimes:
“It feels like things are falling apart.”

We might say that on a really bad day.

You know a really bad day—
that day when we accidentally overslept,
and the line at the bank was too long,
and our coffee spilled in the car,
and we got to to find an unexpected bill in the mailbox.

Bad timing and inconveniences and stressful circumstances
all pile on top of each other until we just blurt out:

“UGH! The world is just falling apart.”

But when I say Ezekiel was living through some really hard things—
that his world had fallen apart—I mean that beyond just a bad day.

Ezekiel feels “the world is falling apart”
in the way we felt on 9/11.

The way a generation before us felt about Pearl Harbor.

The way those in the 14th century felt about bubonic plague,
and the way those in the 5th century felt watching Rome fall.

Ezekiel had watched his homeland of Judea be pillaged and burned,
his beloved city sieged, surrounded, and starved,
his neighbors raped and tortured,
and—worst of all—the temple of Jerusalem torn apart.

I say “worst of all” because the temple of Jerusalem
was considered the center of the world

It’s the place where Yahweh
where God, where the Creator and Sustainer of the universe—
actually, literally dwells on the earth.

When the world is falling apart—on a day like Pearl Harbor or 9/11
we comfort ourselves by remembering that God is still in charge.

This feels like chaos—I don’t understand—but God is still on the throne.

God is still ruling.

The place where we take refuge
is the knowledge that God is still in heaven.

But imagine on 9/11—
sometime shortly after the second tower collapsed—
on the chaos and fear and ruin of that day—
if we saw chunks of the heavens themselves falling from the sky.

If we saw bits of God’s shattered throne falling from the sky.

That’s what the people of God
felt like in Ezekiel’s day.

And they knew that it was all their fault.

Their rebellion, their choices, their sin
had been what had brought this tragedy.

You can endure a lot of tragedy
as long as you feel like God is still in his Temple,
but what happens when the Temple itself is destroyed?

That’s what Ezekiel has gone through.

His world has collapsedeverything has fallen apart
at the most elemental, basic of levels.

And that’s where this passage fits in.

(Ezk 37.1-14) The hand of the LORD was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the LORD and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”

I said, “Sovereign LORD, you alone know.”

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’”

So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.

Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the LORD.’”

It’s a famous passage, but I told you:
super strange.

The scroll of Ezekiel—the book of Ezekiel—is full of these kinds of things:
visions with a sort of hallucinogenic quality.

The hand of the Lord
takes him by spirit of Lord
into a valley (v1).

A valley full of bones.

It’s something from a horror movie.

Something like
the spider Shelob’s cave
in the Lord of the Rings.

Bones and skulls and death everywhere.

God leads Ezekiel back and forth among the bones—
watch your step… don’t trip over that ribcage… careful now.”

And then he asks him (v3):

“Ben Adam—Son of Adam,
can these bones live?”

Ezekiel answers,
“Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”

It’s no surprise that Ezekiel can’t answer.

The Old Testament almost never talks about resurrection—
about the dead being raised.

You’ve got this passage—
which as we’ll see in a minute is actually
a vision, a metaphor, a picture for something else.

And then there are the faintest of poetic hints in Isaiah 26.
And a sliver of a glimpse in Daniel 12.

And that’s basically it.

The Old Testament doesn’t really talk about resurrection.

The Old Testament doesn’t even really talk about the afterlife
about heaven or hell or anything like that.

In the Hebrew Scriptures,
there isn’t a clear picture of the afterlife at all.

The dead just all go to Sheol.

The righteous, the unrighteous—
they all just wind up in Sheol.

In the land of the dead.
In the underworld.

Just to a quiet, shadowy, boring, lifeless place.

It’s only a couple of centuries before Jesus
that the people of God started believing
in the resurrection of the dead.

The belief in resurrection of the dead
was still a relatively new idea in Jesus’s day.

It’s no surprise that Ezekiel didn’t know
whether these bones could live.

People were debating it in Jesus’s own day.

Entire groups of people—like the Sadducees—
didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead.

Can these bones live?

Ezekiel says, “God only knows.”

But there’s nothing less likely.

They’re bones.

The husks of humanity.
The remnants of living.
The leftovers of life.

That’s it.

And then—in this vision—
Ezekiel is told to prophesy to the bones (v4)

“Tell those bones that they’re going to breathe.” (v5)

In dreams, you often do what doesn’t make any sense,
and that’s what happens here.

Ezekiel does what he’s told (v6-8)
and it’s like someone is rewinding a horror movie.

Rattling bones
and crawling tendons
and spreading skin.

And now instead of a valley of dry bones,
you’ve got something slightly more creepy:
a valley of fresh corpses.

“And, now, Son of Adam, (v9) prophesy to the wind, Son of Adam.

“Prophesy to the four winds so that wind
so that breath, so that spirit (they’re all the same word in Hebrew)—
will bring these bodies to life.”

And the dream-like obedience continues
with Ezekiel doing what he’s told
and they all come to life.

They all stand up.
A vast army (v10).

And then the point of the vision arrives.

God explains (v11-14)
that God is going to help his people just like this.

They’re conquered.
The worst has happened.

They saw the world fall apart.
They watched the heavens collapse.

Your world might have fallen apart,
your ideas about God might have collapsed,
your very existence might feel in question

“But I—the Giver of Life—I am still here.”

My people think of themselves as dried up with no hope (v11),
but I am going to bring them back to their own land (v12).

It’s gonna be like raising the dead.

I’m going to breathe my very own Spirit (v14) into people
and settle you all back in your own land.

I know things look hopeless.
I know things actually are hopeless.

But these bones can live.

A couple of reflections as we come to the table this morning.

[slide #1]
There are bones in the world.

God is all-powerful and all-loving,
and yet God allows there to be bones.

Bones in the world.
Bones in our lives.

Things fall apart.

The world is full of beautiful sunsets and laughing children,
but sometimes the world looks like a horror movie too.

We live in a broken world full of bones.

A world that ultimately is our choice, not God choice.

In the great sweep of how the Bible tells the human story,
something deep within us—within humanity
has rebelled against Life itself.

We are why there are bones.
We are why things fall apart.

On the most elemental, terrifying level
our bodies turn to bones.

Our actual, physical bodies are decaying.

But everything else is decaying too.

Careers turn to bones.
Relationships turn to bones.
Attitudes turn to bones.
Loved ones turn to bones.

It takes a little longer but bigger things fall apart too.

Buildings turn to bones, schools turn to bones, societies turn to bones,
governments and economies and cultures turn to bones.

There are bones in the world.

[slide #2]
And Christians are the people
who don’t deny the bones.

Sometimes the church can become the place
where we end up living in a kind of denial about bones.

We put a smile on our face
and try to put a smile on our hearts
and we say to ourselves:

“Jesus has been risen from the dead,
and this world has a future.

“We’re the people of hope in the world,
I better act like it. I better feel it.”

I better smile.
I better experience happiness.
I better feel joy.

And somewhere along the way—if we got honest—
we feel like we have to deny the bones.

Even though we’re stepping through open graves
we’re walking around a boneyard

we feel like we’ve got to have plastic smiles plastered our faces.

I shouldn’t feel that way.
I shouldn’t think those thoughts.
I shouldn’t have those doubts.

I’ve got to be light in a dark world.
I’ve got to be hope in a despairing world.

And there’s so much falling apart around the world…

Even around me.
Even within me.

Maybe it’s better to deny the bones…

But Christians aren’t the people
who deny the bones.

You can’t be
people of the resurrection
if deny the bones.

Christians are the people who admit that there ARE bones.

Of all the people in the world,
Christians ought to be the people
who can stare death and decay most fully in the face.

Who don’t live in denial—
who don’t ignore the boneyard.

Christians don’t deny the bones.

[slide #3]
Christians are the people
who believe bones can live.

That’s what Easter is about.
That’s what the resurrection of Jesus tells us.

It’s not denying that things fall apart,
It’s not about denying the bones—

It’s about believing God’s promise
that these bones can live.

That these bones will live.

The earliest Christians began believing
in an actual, literal resurrection of the dead,
because they had tons of unambiguous Bible verses
in the Old Testament to back up there point.

The earliest Christians began believing
in an actual, literal resurrection of the dead
because they had seen an actual, literal resurrection.

The reason why we believe in the resurrection
isn’t because it’s clearly, unambiguously predicted
in the Old Testament.

The reason why we believe in the resurrection
is because something truly unexplainable happened
in the first century.

The earliest Christians had seen
the body and bones of Jesus emerge from the tomb.

And if THAT could happen…
well, anything could happen.

When God asks us,
“Son of Adam, Daughter of Eve, can these bones live?”
the answer this side of Jesus is “YES.”

Ezekiel had said, “God only knows.”

But if you gaze at Jesus long enough,
you begin to realize that God has shown his hand—

God has let us know
what God only knows.

These bones CAN live.

Whatever bones they are,
wherever they are,
they can live.

That’s the hope.

Not that there aren’t bones.

But that these bones can live.

[slide #4]
The resurrection means we’re to live with…
unflinching realism and unthinkable optimism.

We called to be the most honest, realistic, clear-headed,
straight-talking people in the world.

Yes, that’s a tragedy.
Yes, that’s truly horrible.

Yes, things are falling apart.

We’re called to unflinching realism.

We don’t deny the bones.

We just believe that these bones can live.

There’s an unthinkable optimism on this side of Easter.

God promises that bones will live.

Bones will dance.
Bones will sing.

Not because of anything we can do.
But because God has shown his hand.

God has shown us what he is like.

God CAN raise the dead.
Ezekiel believed that.

Jesus shows us something more.

Not just the power of God—
what God can do.

Jesus shows us the heart of God—
what God will do.

God WILL raise the dead.

Because God LOVES raising the dead.

If we begin to believe this about God—
we begin to see how that the resurrection is revolutionary.

The earliest whispers of resurrection
aren’t just about literal corpses coming to life.

It’s a picture of other things coming to life too.

In Ezekiel’s vision it’s about a nation—a society, a culture
being brought back to life.

Whatever the bones are—

from the smallest, most intimate details of our lives
to the biggest, most complex situations—

from that broken friendship
to that struggling organization
to that unravelling culture—

We are called to an unthinkable optimism.

Those bones can live.

We can work patiently in the present knowing
that God will raise what is dead.

This doesn’t mean like life will like look like we expect.

Ezekiel died in exile.
It was years after his death before these promises come true.

The disciples died announcing Jesus’s resurrection.

They wound up becoming bones themselves
as the announced the power and love of God.

What it does mean is that better things are coming—
the best things are ahead.

Life is long and God is patient.

We’ve got to learn to live patiently.
To work patiently. To wait patiently.

Sometimes God restores things now.
Sometimes it takes years.

Sometimes it will look like we expect.
More often than not, we’re going to be surprised.

And then there’s a lot of resurrection we never see happen.

A whole lot of resurrection
that needs to happen one day in the future.

That’s OK.

There’s more resurrection than we can imagine
coming one day in the future.

May we be the people of resurrection.
May we be the people who don’t deny the bones.

May we be the people learning
to wait patiently and work patiently.

May we be the people of unthinkable optimism.

And may we be the people who announce to the world
that these bones will dance,
these bones will sing,
these bones will live.