September 22, 2002
ENGRAVING OUR HEARTS: SEEKING TO BE
It happened at the Ritter Funeral Home in Emmaus several years ago. My father was a mechanic by trade, and he regularly serviced Mr. Ritters hearse. On this particular occasion, Mr. Ritter told my father of an incident that occurred in the funeral home a few nights before. An elderly woman had died, and she was severely hunch-backed. In order to position her body properly in the casket, Mr. Ritter had to either break her back or strap her in. He chose to do the latter.
On the evening of the viewing, people were parading in front of the casket in the customary way, and extending their condolences to the family. Suddenly the strap that Mr. Ritter had installed to keep this woman lying flat in her casket somehow came undone, and she sat up in front of everyone! Im not certainperhaps he had a few more clients after this strange turn of events. The main viewing room of the Ritter Funeral Home, full of mourners, and the deceased sitting up in her casket.
The setting here in Ezekiel 37 is no less shocking. The prophet, living among his people exiled far away from Jerusalem in Babylonmodern day Iraqhas been relocated by the Spirit of God to an unspecified valley. As he stands there, he finds himself at a viewing of all things. Unlike the scene in Ritters Funeral Home, however, a considerable period of time has passed since the actual death of the departed and the viewing itself. As a result, all that remains of the corpse is a collection of dry bones. Just imagine attending a viewing in which the deceased had died years and years before. I can guarantee you that no one would say, My, doesnt she look natural!
In this case, the viewing apparently takes place on a battlefield long since deserted, but the dead have never been removed or properly buried. It is as if you and I were mysteriously transported to a battlefield in Gettysburg to view the skeletal remains of those who had died there nearly 150 years ago during the Civil War. There isnt even a trace of life in the valleythe bones, according to our text, were very dry.
Ezekiel, our prophetic observer is asked, Can these bones live? O Lord God, he answered, no doubt with a note of sarcasm, only you know. Such a response is of course Ezekiels rather evasive way of saying Not a chance. Why, the sheer idea of such parched and barren bones returning to life makes the scene of the elderly woman sitting up in her casket at Ritters Funeral Home look like an everyday occurrence. These bones are as dead as dead can be, Ezekiel understandably concludes.
Ezekiel, the Lord continues, Go over to those bones and begin speaking to them. It must initially have been the least responsive and least expressive audience in history, although I have occasionally preached in a few churches that might have given them a run for their money! And this is what I want you to say, the Lord instructs Ezekiel:
O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.
And so Ezekiel does. As strange as it must have felt to him, he begins speaking to these seemingly hopeless bones.
Remarkably, as he speaks, the strap holding the bones in place somehow comes loose, and the unthinkable takes place. There is a noise, and the bones begin to rattle. Soon, these same bones attach themselves to each other, latched properly in place. By now, Ezekiel can only starehe is speechless. Sinews and flesh appear, and skin covers all of the bones. Snap out of it, the Lord says to the entranced Ezekiel, and speak again. I am not finished yet, for the refurbished bodies remain lifeless. Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live, Ezekiel obediently cries, and suddenly, the bones sit up in their casket! More than that, they step out of the casket and rise to their feet. The old woman at Ritters Funeral Home never did that. What a startling scene it must have been.
I know how I felt a few days ago just hearing Dave Brown relay the story of Ken Danielsons mother. Ken and I went to college together, and he taught at the college up until last year. This past week, his mother was taken to the emergency room at a hospital in South Carolina. She coded as soon as they arrived at the hospital, so the staff went through the customary and highly regimented 30-minute procedure to try and resuscitate her. There were no results, so the doctor went into the waiting room to share his condolences with the family. He then asked themKen and Debbie were not there yetto come with him into the emergency room where they could view the body. Kens father actually removed the wedding ring from his wifes finger. Suddenly, a sign of life appeared, and the doctor heard a heartbeat through his stethoscope. Can you begin to imagine the excitementthe hopethat settled upon that hospital room as at least the prospect of life emerged? Just a prospect, to be sure. Last I heard, Kens mother was still in intensive care, and for all I know, she may not have survived the weekend. But if simply the possibility of restored life is enough to energize the onlookers, think of what a full recovery would do! Here in our text, Ezekiel watches as this vast collection of abandoned bones rises to full health. Why, the mourners at Ritters Funeral Home would have dropped dead on the spot at such a sight.
It is a remarkable and sweeping vision that Ezekiel experiences, isnt it? The interpretation, however, is actually rather straightforward. According to verses 11-14, all of the people of Israel have diedthey are the deceased. And in fact, their death is more grievous than that of the elderly woman in Emmaus because they died in their prime without ever fulfilling their potential. Though called to be a productive vineyard and a sweet-smelling fragrance before the Lord, Israel died a tragic deathsnatched away by the Babylonian army in 587/86 B.C. like a rebellious teenager torn away from her heart-broken parents. Israel is dead, God the heavenly coroner announces, and Ezekiel surveys the remains.
But if God the heavenly coroner pronounces Israel dead at the scene, God the heavenly physician orders no burial stone. Speak to them, Ezekiel, and tell them that I will open their graves. I will bring them back to the land of Israel, put my spirit within them, and they will live. And history tells us that that is exactly what God did. Within a few years of Ezekiels vision, the people of Israel made their way back to Jerusalem, rebuilt the temple, and reestablished their faith. Israels death in Babylon did give way to a sort of national resurrection. The Spirit of God has a way of bringing dead things back to life.
In our new purpose statement here at the Grantham Church, we state right at the beginning that we seek to be a Spirit-empowered community. There are any number of specific reasons why we deeply desire to be empowered by Gods Spirit, but two that stand out so clearly here in Ezekiel 37 serve as the foundation for all of the rest. To begin with, we seek to be Spirit-empowered because we believe that there is no such thing as a hopeless situation. Can these very dry bones live again? Ezekiel was asked. Can these very dry bones live again? While Ezekiel answered, O Lord God, you know, Jesus responded when confronted with a similarly difficult situation, For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible (Mark 10:27).
As I stand here this morning, I know that there is no shortage of dryness and deadness all around us. We see some of it at a distancethe multitude of conflicts in many regions of the world, including the seemingly endless turmoil in the Middle East and the escalating threat of war with Iraq; the sheer magnitude of hunger and sickness in various countries; the heart-breaking news of our Christian brothers and sisters who lose their lives at alarming rates because of their faith; the decimation of our environment and the misuse of resources that takes place with frightening regularity; and on and on. I wonder how many people in recent months have asked me how to pray for a world that often seems to be out of control. I wonder how many people, including countless Christians, remain inactive because a weighty cloud of helplessness has settled upon them. Can these very dry bones live again? we wonder.
Some of the dryness and deadness, however, we experience close up. Within our own congregation, there are marriages at risk this morning, and some of our families are deeply wounded. We have young people who are discouraged and feel lonely and misunderstood. Some of them face pressures and obstacles in school the likes of which many of us can hardly relate to. It is not easy for our teenagers today to live godly and virtuous lives, and sometimes they feel overwhelmed. We have hurting parents in our midst, and some are not sure what to do anymore. Some of you face seemingly insurmountable obstacles at work, and others labor in anguish over personal struggles and shortcomings. Months and perhaps even years of failure and disappointment make it almost impossible for you to look at yourself in the mirror with any sense of joy or confidence. You feel trapped and lost. Others here today have prayed endlessly for loved ones who have yet to follow Jesus, and you ask yourself, Why bother?
Can these very dry bones live again? we are asked. Is there even the slightest degree of hopea ray of lightin our own valley of abandoned bones? We believe there is. We believe there is hope for the needs of the world, and we believe there is hope for every last person here this morning. In desiring to be a Spirit-empowered church, we affirm that there is no such thing as a hopeless situation. This is our affirmation: These very dry bones can indeed live again.
There is, however, a second reason for our desiring to be Spirit-empowered, and this second reason counters our affirmation with an admission: We cannot bring these very dry bones back to life on our own. We simply cant. We are no more capable of breathing life into deadness than was Ezekiel of restoring those parched and dust-covered bones. Be my instrument, Ezekiel is reminded. I will put my spirit within these people, declares the Lord, and they will live.
Ezekiel, to be sure, had a job to do, and so do we. He was called to prophesy, and we are called to build Gods church. We are to use our gifts, share generously of our resources, plan a meaningful program, and develop local and worldwide outreach strategies. We are, as we phrase it in our purpose statement, to worship God joyfully, follow Jesus faithfully, care for one another graciously, welcome all people warmly, and share Gods reconciling love and peace globally. But as we increasingly seek to do these things, we must always be reminded that we are merely clay in the hands of the potter, dough in the hands of the baker, and an instrument in the hands of the virtuoso. We affirm together: These very dry bones can live again. But we readily admit: only Gods Spirit brings them back to life.
That must have been a sight years ago when that old woman sat up in her casket at Ritters Funeral Home in Emmaus. But after the shock wore off, Mr. Ritter simply came out into the room and strapped her back down again. She was as dead as she was before she sat up. That is not what we see here in Ezekiel 37. When Gods Spirit comes into even the most hopeless situation imaginabledry and dead beyond wordspeople genuinely come back to life. They dont just sit up. They stand up. They breathe. They flourish.