A sermon on Ezekiel 37 by Richard Keith on Sunday 21 August 2022
There is an old Irish proverb that says, “Hope is the physician of each misery.” Meaning that hope is the solution to every problem and nothing is too hard when we have hope. With hope in our heart every difficulty is an opportunity. With hope as our guide nothing we try is impossible. But life without hope is like eating bread and still starving to death. Without hope a soldier is a casualty waiting to happen. Without hope a footballer is just a speed bump on the way to the goal. Without hope ten pin bowling is a guaranteed gutter ball.
German philosopher Friedrich Nietschke, however, said that hope is the worst of all evils, because it prolongs our torments. While we hope, we push through the pain. While we hope, we keep trying even though we keep failing. Hope creates the opportunity for disappointment. When the pain of continual disappointment gets too much it is sometimes easier to give up and let go of our hope.
The Israelites in exile with Ezekiel had given up and let go of their hope. All they had loved had been taken away from them. Their home, their family, their freedom, and then the greatest disappointment of all, the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple. They felt like dead men walking. They said,
“Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone. We are cut off.”
Cut off from home. Cut off from God. Cut off from his blessing.
Those words quoted by the Lord in Ezekiel chapter 37, verse 11, explain the extraordinary vision that Ezekiel saw in that chapter. He was taken by the Spirit of the Lord to a broad flat valley. A valley that was full of bones. The Lord led Ezekiel through them and among them so that he could not avoid them and was forced to look at them. He could see that the bones were completely dry as if they were from the bodies of soldiers slain in a battle from ancient history. Long dead. Worse still, they had been left unburied, left on the surface of the earth exposed to the sky and the birds and animals as if they were from the bodies of men who had died under a curse and had suffered the final indignity, to have no lasting rest. They neither stank nor bore any fragment of their former humanity. They just lay there in heaps, stark white, a testimony to the fragility of human lives and to the futility of human hopes and dreams.
And as Ezekiel gazed in fascinated horror upon this grisly scene the Lord asked him, “Can these bones live?”
From anyone else it would have been a stupid question. But it came from the Lord who had proven himself to Ezekiel to be the true and living God, the king who reigns above all other kings, the only master of history, the holy God who judges sin and iniquity, the jealous God who will not tolerate any rival among his people. Who was Ezekiel to tell the creator, the one who made everything out of nothing, what he could or couldn’t do?
In fact, Ezekiel knew that with the Lord such a miracle was never a question of ability. The Lord could do whatever he wanted. The real issue was of willingness. The Lord could do it if he wanted. But did he want to?
Lastly, all this is happening in a vision. Like last week when we read about how Ezekiel was taken by the Spirit to Jerusalem. And how he dug through a wall to see what was going on inside a room. Ezekiel wasn’t literally flying through the air. He didn’t got a sledge hammer to break through the bricks and plaster and someone else had to come along after him to fix it. It was all happening in a vision. Like you might have a dream. It doesn’t mean it isn’t true. It just means that spiritual truths are being portrayed in a visual form. Ezekiel isn’t in a literal valley full of bones. He is seeing visually portrayed the despair of his fellow exiles. They believe they are doomed. They believe they are all going to die for nothing. Their hopes are as dead as dry bones. So who knows what can happen in a vision? Can these bones live? Ezekiel answered,
“O Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”
So the Lord commanded Ezekiel,
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.’
And it happened. This is the power of the word of God. It achieves the purpose for which the Lord expresses it. In the same way that the Lord said, “Let there be light,” and there was light, so what the Lord plans he says, and what he speaks happens. His word is the expression of his will and the will of the Lord comes to pass. So the word of the Lord through his prophet happened, and Ezekiel saw the bones join together and assume flesh and skin.
But they were not yet alive. They were like standing corpses. People who had only just died. Creatures from a horror story. One thing was missing. The breath of life. But just as God had made man in the very beginning taking him from the dust of the earth and moulding his shape and then giving him the kiss of life, so now the Lord said to Ezekiel,
Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’
And they did. And where there had only been a heap of bones, stood a vast host of living, breathing people. The message to the exiles was clear. They had given up hope. They felt dead and gone, cut off from God and his blessing, as if they were under a curse. But God can do whatever he wants through his word, the expression of his will, and through his Spirit, his life-giving breath of hope. And his will for them was that their hope would live on. He would restore them and bless them. He would restore them to their land and they would know that he is the Lord.
Can these bones live? Yes they can. Through his Word that utters his will. And through his Spirit, his life-giving breath.
In John chapter 20 the disciples in Jerusalem felt like dead men walking too. Three days earlier they had done nothing while the soldiers came and took Jesus away. They had done nothing except run away. Worse still, Peter had not even had the courage to say that he knew him, but had denied him three times. Only John had had the courage to go to the scene of the cross and watch the events to their bitter end. And now Jesus was dead.
The disciples we see in John chapter 20 were not expecting Jesus to rise from the dead. They were men who have suffered enough disappointment. They had given up and let go of their hope. Though they stuffed bread in their mouths they were wasting away in fear and despair. They were huddled indoors with the doors securely locked, certain that the next knock on the door would be the authorities to take them to their deaths. They were like men under a curse.
Fifty days later they were changed men. They were walking through the streets. They were shouting the name of Jesus from the rooftops. They were being dragged off to prison and praising the name of Christ in their cells. Their message was, “Jesus is alive.” The only sensible explanation of this sudden change is the narrative recorded in John chapter 20. That Jesus himself, the living Word of God appeared to them and showed them his scars. He was the one had died under the curse. The curse of God’s wrath and judgment. But he had been vindicated and proven right and unjustly condemned. He proved to them his risen, victorious life and called them again to their mission to the world, to finish what he had begun, the spread of the good news of God.
As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.
And what does the living Word of God give them to turn their fear into courage and their despair into hope?
And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
He gave them his Spirit of life and hope. Can these bones live? Yes they can.
Ephesians chapter 2 teaches us that without God we too are dead men walking. Dead in our transgressions and sins. We walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Without God all the signs of life we display, of skill and craftsmanship and invention and discovery and achievement and music and art and literature are but the rattling of old dry bones. Without God we have no hope, and the hopes we cling to are only illusions. We are like people under a curse. By nature we are objects of wrath.
But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ.
And what are the two agents of this amazing transformation? The same that God revealed in Ezekiel 37: his word of life and his Spirit of hope. For his word expressing his will. And his will is that none should die, but that we turn from our sins and live. For God sent his Son, the living Word of God, to suffer our death and stand under our curse that in him we might find life and receive the blessing of God. Although we might seem like dry bones, in Christ God clothes us in his flesh and stand us on our feet. And the second agent of our resurrection is the Spirit of hope, God’s life-giving breath who gives us the kiss of life, who gives us faith to trust in Christ, who fills our hearts with the love of God, who gives us strength and courage to follow Christ.
Hope is the physician of each misery. And the worst that Satan can do to you is to rob you of your hope. Through fear, through grief, through continual disappointment, to erode away your courage and to undermine the basis our your hope.
But the message of the gospel is that God can do whatever he wants. It is not a question of ability, but of willingness. And his will for our lives is that our hope will live on. Though we feel like dead men walking he will bring us alive and he will bless us so that we may know that he is the Lord.
Can these bones of ours live? Can our hopes be restored? Can all of God’s promises be fulfilled in us?
Yes they can.