Ezekiel 37:1-14; 2 Kings 25:1-6
When the Babylonian army destroyed the remnants of the Judean army on the plains of Jericho in 586 BC, the nation of Judah ceased to exist. So come with me to watch the house of Israel die. Stand with me on this hillside, and we will watch the last breath slip from this nation’s lips.
Do you see that dust cloud in the distance? That’s the army of Judah. For 2 years, what was left of the Judean army has been shut up in Jerusalem while the Babylonians besieged the city. Starvation and disease reaped a grim harvest over those 2 years. Yesterday evening, the Babylonians finally breached the wall, and they prepared for their final assault this morning. In the night, what was left of the Judean army crept out of the city to make a run for it. They’re headed for the rugged terrain of the Jordan valley where they might blunt the Babylonians’ numerical and technical advantages. The Babylonian horses and chariots would be largely ineffective in that kind of environment.
No matter. The Judeans won’t make it.
Do you also see that larger cloud of dust behind the Judeans? That is the Babylonian army. In fact, look, even now the mounted elements are enveloping the Judean force, and blocking their advance. The Judean army tries to scatter, but there is nowhere to run. The battle is quick, bloody and completely one-sided. The Judeans are slaughtered where they stand.
After the battle, the Babylonians collect the weapons and the armor of the fallen. Scavengers search for any remaining items of value, even clothing. The bodies lie naked on the valley floor for there is no one to bury them. Wild animals tear apart the remains. Vultures pick the bones clean. The sun bleaches the bones into a brilliant white.
In a very real way, these bones represent the death of a nation. This army was Judah’s last hope. Now there is no hope. The nation of Judah is dead.
Apparently, however, God doesn’t think that even this situation is hopeless. In a vision, God brings the ancient prophet Ezekiel to this valley of death and tells him to prophesy to these dry bones. God tells Ezekiel to preach these bones back to life.
Prophesy, son of man. Prophesy. Speak God’s word. Tell God’s message. Open your mouth and let God’s word out. Prophesy to these bones.
In Ezekiel’s vision, God chooses to bring life to this army of bones through the words of the prophet. On the one hand, God might have said, “Too bad. Dead is dead. And good riddance. These people have been a pain in my side for the last millennium. I’m glad that’s finally over.” On the other, he might have said, “Sit back and watch this, Ezekiel. This is going to be the coolest trick you’ll ever see,” while bringing the bones to life without Ezekiel’s participation. Instead, God told Ezekiel to prophesy to dead, dry bones. “I’m telling you they are going to live, man. Open your mouth, say the words, and they will live. Have a little faith in me.”
And in response to God’s word, Ezekiel cries out: “Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.” As soon as the word’s escape Ezekiel’s mouth, the toe bone connects to the foot bone, and the foot bone connects to the shin bone, and the army of God stands on its feet once more. Within the visionary experience, Ezekiel believed God enough to open his mouth and speak, and he saw that God was true to his word. With the power of God, even these dry bones could live. There was hope after all.
It should be noted that in Ezekiel’s vision, God raised a nation, not just a group of individuals. This vision is not really concerned with individual life after death. This army, God says, is the whole house of Israel. Ezekiel’s message of hope pertains the community of faith as a whole.
Ezekiel’s written words come from a time when he sits with the people in exile. The nation, many believed, was dead forever. The real targets of his prophecy were not dead bones in the Jordan valley, but the members of the lifeless community in exile. His words to the exiles brought life, because his words to the exiles brought hope.
God did indeed bring the community back to life. After 70 years in exile, the community returned home, but something had changed. Jewish life after the exile was considerably different than Judean life before it. Still, by the grace and power of God, the community lived.
This past Sunday, we celebrated the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. We Christians tend to think of the power of the resurrection as it relates to individuals. If we read Ezekiel this way, we may miss the central point of his message. Ezekiel intends to remind his readers that God himself is the source of hope in their life together as the people of God.
It would be hard for us to put ourselves in Ezekiel’s position. To be honest, our communal lives just don’t compare to Judah’s experience of slavery in exile. Still, there are times that we resonate with God’s question, “Can these bones live?” – where the church is dying – where the community is dying – where the institutions that touch our lives are dying.
Like Ezekiel, we walk amidst piles of dry bones, and God asks, “Can these bones live?”
“O sovereign Lord, you alone know.”
We certainly have a message of hope to share with our world. God’s resurrection power changes everything, and we know that this power is not just a dream or a vision, but a reality in Jesus Christ.
Prophesy .. prophesy, sons and daughters of man. Speak my word of hope to the world in which you live. Have a little faith in me, that my word can bring life. Open your mouth, and speak to this generation.
O Lord, open our lips. And our mouths shall proclaim your praise.