Underneath a church in Rome, there is a crypt that contains the skeletal remains of 3,700 bodies of Capuchin friars buried by their order. A sign hangs in the crypt that reads: “What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be.” They are ominous words, words that remind us of our mortality. Bones, skeletons, skulls are stark reminders of death, and yet they also tell us a story, a story of the kind of life that the people who once occupied those bones lived. Archaeologists recently unearthed around 200 graves near a vanished lake in the Sahara Desert that indicated the Sahara was, surprisingly, once a fertile area. The bones indicated that there were two different people groups, one group that lived about ten thousand years ago and one group that lived about five thousand years ago. The bones told a story about the people’s sex, age, general health, diet, diseases, injuries, and habits. The bones told a story about their lifestyles, work, and living conditions. Bones tell a story of the kind of life that people have led and a story of their life’s end.
The prophet Ezekiel knew his people well; he was intimately familiar with the pain they had experienced, the kind of lives that they had lived. They felt like they were as good as dead. They have been decimated. The people of Israel have gone from being cast out of Eden to called from their country to being foreigners in Egypt to wandering the wilderness to being exiles who’ve been completely destroyed by foreign armies. Ezekiel has watched Jerusalem get taken down by the Assyrians. After the bloody battle, Assyria’s King Sennacherib said, “With the bodies of the enemy’s warriors I filled the plain.”[i] The Babylonians then took Judah and destroyed their temple. After living under the control of the Babylonians, the Persians then came and destroyed what was left of them. You can imagine the overwhelming defeat of a people who have been taken down by three different foreign enemies. Their cities have been plundered; their leaders have been put in chains; their soldiers have been defeated three times over; many of them have been killed or taken off to a foreign land; their holy space has been desecrated. They have been cut off and destroyed. They have been displaced. They are a long way from home.
When the hand of the Lord comes upon Ezekiel, this prophet, who was no doubt overwhelmed by the pain of his people, gets overtaken by a vision. In this vision, the Lord brings Ezekiel out and sets him down in the middle of a valley, and the valley is full of bones. God leads Ezekiel all around the bones, circling them again and again so Ezekiel can fully take it all in, the magnitude of them, how dry they are. There is no marrow in them, and they are very white. God doesn’t speak this until the very end, but these bones are the whole house of Israel. They are walking around, chanting their own funeral dirge, “Our bones are dried up. Our hope has perished. We ourselves are cut off.” They make it clear that they are wasting away, that there is no reason to live. They speak as if they are already dead.
It seems like the people of Israel can’t live under God’s terms after all. It seems that this covenant people can’t follow God’s will. It seems that the people of the Lord are truly dead and without hope. God asks Ezekiel a piercing question, “Mortal, can these bones live?” Ezekiel can’t answer the question; he throws it back to God, “O Lord God, you know.” Indeed, only the Lord knows. The Lord is the God of Israel, the God who created the world and breathed life into the first human beings; the Lord is the God who birthed a people from Abraham and Sarah, a childless couple in Haran; the Lord is the God who freed this people from slavery in Egypt; the Lord is the God who worked through kings when the people demanded it; the Lord is the God who has called Israel to life again and again, even though they have continued to choose death. They are now in a wasteland of dried up bones, and it is only this same Lord who breathed life into them from the very beginning who can help them live again.
In the vision, the Lord commands Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones, to trust that God can help them live again. He tells him to call out the bones: “O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.” The Lord tells the bones that God will cause breath to enter them, will lay sinews on them, will cause flesh to come upon them, will cover them with skin, and they shall live. You can image how shaken Ezekiel was when he heard the noise in his vision. The vivid rattling leads to the bones coming back together, bone to bone, skeletons rising and being covered with sinews, flesh, and skin. The only thing left to come was breath, and so Ezekiel is to prophesy now to the breath, to command it to come from the four winds and to breathe upon this slain, murdered people, so that they may live. And as he prophesies, these bodies come to life, and they stand on their feet, a vast multitude that cannot be defeated by any army. The third and final time God tells Ezekiel to prophesy and to tell these bones that God will open up their graves and bring them up and back to the land of Israel. It will be the miracle of all miracles for this displaced people to get their nation back. The people of Israel will come back from the dead; they will live again; and they will know that God is the Lord, once and for all.
Notice that this vision is the vision of a whole people group coming back to life, a whole community that has entered the depths of despair; it’s the whole house of Israel that has no hope and that God brings back to life. This passage is not about individuals; it’s about communities. So many people groups in the world have stories of utter despair, stories that end in a valley of dry bones. We’ve made massive graveyards on this earth. There are places all over the world that have been decimated by war, from Germany to Darfur to Iraq to Syria. There are cities destroyed by gang violence, homelessness, and water crises. There are people whose bones will tell the stories of the devastating lives that they have lived; their bones will tell stories about their poverty, the consequences of natural disaster, the toll of being a migrant worker or a refugee. Can these bones live?
As Elie Wiesel reflected on his experience of the Holocaust, he wrote a book called Dawn. In it he says, “Night is purer than day; it is better for thinking and loving and dreaming. At night everything is more intense, more true. The echo of words that have been spoken during the day takes on a new and deeper meaning.” The valley of the dry bones that Ezekiel sees is certainly a night vision, a vision that is clear and pure, intense and true. It’s a dark night of the soul where there is no denying the devastation and despair of the people of Israel. But it’s also a dawn. The light is breaking in. If Israel will let God, God will breathe new life into their bones. Can these bones live? Of course not. But look through God’s eyes, and you will see them rise.
It’s the fifth week of Lent, and we are still in the darkness but the dawn is coming, the light will eventually break through. Lent makes us wrestle with the darkness; it calls us to confess the devastation among us; it challenges us to stop and see the despair that people are experiencing. It allows us to admit the ways in which we too as a people feel dried up, devastated, hopeless. It allows us share the story our bones tell. Sometimes even the church feels like a valley of dry bones. The pervading narrative of decline makes us feel hopeless because we know that some things about the way we’ve always done church are dying. But Ezekiel’s vision teaches us that sometimes you have to let things die before they can truly live again. Sometimes you have to reach utter despair before you’re willing to stop trying to figure it all out yourself, to stop controlling it, and let God breathe new life into it.
John Mark McMillan wrote a song about Ezekiel’s vision called, “Skeleton Bones.” As you listen to its words, think about them as a prayer, a plea to God from us. He says, “Peel back our ribs again and stand inside of our chest. We just wanna’ love you. We just wanna’ love you. Peel back the veil of time and let us see you with our naked eyes. We just wanna’ love you. We just wanna’ love you. Skeleton bones stand at the sound of eternity on the lips of the found and gravestones roll to the rhythm of the sound of you. Skeleton bones stand at the sound of eternity on the lips of the found so separate the doors and let the son of resurrection in. We want your blood to flow inside our body. We want your wind inside our lungs. We just wanna’ love you. We just wanna’ love you.” Do we want God’s wind inside our bones? Are we willing to give up being our own gods and let God’s breath bring us to resurrection? What do we need to let die or cleanse ourselves of as we get closer to the cross and thus closer to the resurrection? When we get to Easter morning, will we ready to let God peel back our ribs for a second time and stand in our chest? Are we willing to love God more than we love anything else? Do we believe that these bones can live?
This morning we are invited to come to the table of the Lord to eat of God’s body and drink of God’s blood, to let God’s blood flow inside our bodies. At the table we are reminded that the cross too was a valley of dry bones and that even when Jesus was hanging from a cross, God hadn’t given up on us yet. Even when we are in utter despair, even when we are completely destroyed, even when all our hope is lost, even when our bones have wasted away, even when we betray God, God is still waiting to fill us with God’s Spirit. Even when it all looks like a wasteland, God is there waiting to breathe new life into us. But we can’t do it alone. We need each other. We will only rise if we do it together. The table isn’t just for me or for you. It’s for all of us. It’s for the community of God’s people. What kind of story do our bones tell? One day when people look back at us what kind of story will they tell about lives? Will there be evidence that we allowed God to breath life into us? When they look at our bones, will they be able to tell that we knew the Lord? When they speak about our stories will it help them to know that the Lord is their God, too? O mortals, can these bones live? Only God knows. Amen.
[i] Katheryn Pfisterer Darr, New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VI .