The scene was gruesome. Worse than any Civil War battlefield, worse than Auschwitz after the Allies had liberated it, worse than Hiroshima after Truman dropped the bomb. The valley before Ezekiel was not filled with dead bodies, or even skeletons, but a sea of scattered, dried, disconnected bones. Bones that were very dry. Ezekiel would have shuddered at this grisly scene. Not only because as a priest he was prohibited from touching a human corpse, but because according to God’s holy law, bodies were left unburied as a sign that they had fallen under God’s curse. (Jeremiah 34:17-20) These people were not only dead, they were damned.
What had happened here? The Lord explains: Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, “Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.” The people of Israel not only felt dead and dry, before God they were dead because they had made two huge mistakes. Their first mistake was not taking God’s Word seriously. For centuries they had laughed at the prophets who warned of God’s judgment for their disobedience and called them to repentance. In fact, that’s why Ezekiel was in Babylon. He was there to remind them that they were prisoners in a foreign country because they had rebelled against God. He was there to preach repentance to them – and to tell them that Jerusalem was about to fall completely. Solomon’s temple, the Lords’ dwelling place, would be burned to the ground. But still, the Israelites didn’t believe it. Not Jerusalem – not David’s city. Not the temple – not the dwelling place of the Lord. Not Judah – God would never do this to the tribe from whom the promised Messiah would come. But it happened just as the Lord said. A year and a half later – 586 B.C. – (Ezekiel 10:18) Nebuchadnezzar’s army steam-rolled Jerusalem and destroyed the temple. (2 Kings 25) When the exiles heard about the fall of Jerusalem (Ezekiel 33:21) – they were stunned in shock and disbelief. They fell from the heights of overconfidence to the depths of utter despair.
It’s still a huge mistake to not take God’s Word and warnings seriously. Just like God chose Judah and gave her every possible advantage – so God has chosen us and given us every possible advantage. We have been baptized, instructed, confirmed, God proclaims his Word to us week after week, he invites us to receive his Son’s body and blood. But just as Judah ignored God’s warnings, so Satan is always whispering in our ears: “You hear that sermon, that Law, that warning – yeah, that’s for other people; not you. God would never actually punish you for your sin; after all, look how many others are doing it and getting away with it.” He tempts us to think that God’s warnings against greed and materialism are only for the rich – or only for the poor – and so we excuse our own love affair with money and things. He tempts us to believe that the warning of the third commandment: we should fear and love God that we do not despise preaching and his Word, but regard it as holy and gladly hear and learn it (SC: 1) only applies to one hour on Sunday mornings. He tempts us to think that we already know everything we need to know about God – and leads us to skip Bible study in favor of Sunday brunch. And you know what – we can probably get away with it for a while. God is patient with us. But to go on ignoring sin and disobedience is like ignoring cancer – it will eventually do to us exactly what it did to Judah – it will destroy us. This gruesome scene is a warning for us: if we don’t learn from Judah’s example, we will experience their same fate.
Maybe that’s what you feel like this morning. Maybe you feel the depression, disappointment and emptiness sin brings. Maybe you feel like your bones are dried up and your hope is gone. If you do, don’t make Judah’s second mistake. Instead of repenting, Judah argued that it was God’s fault that their friends and family were dead, their temple and homes were in shambles, they were exiled and enslaved in a foreign country. But none of it was God’s fault. God did not bring this destruction down on the heads of the Israelites; they brought it on themselves by their disobedience, rebellion, idolatry and adultery, their apathy and impenitence. God had not left Israel. Israel had left God.
Don’t we make that mistake too? Don’t we sometimes blame God for the hardship we experience? It’s God’s fault that I’m struggling to pay the bills or fighting one major medical issue after another or that my marriage is on the rocks or that my children have fallen away. It’s God’s fault that I feel ashamed or guilty or broken. God did not bring pain and sickness and suffering into this world – sin did. God did not force us to spend our money foolishly, he didn’t lead us to be unfaithful in marriage, he doesn’t lead our children astray – the devil does that. Even death itself is not God’s fault. Death is our fault. Paul told the Romans: if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die. (Romans 8:13) The reason our world is in chaos, the reason we feel guilt and shame, the reason our bodies break down and our families break up, the reason we feel hopeless and helpless – is because of our rebellion, our unbelief, our disobedience. Whether you’re looking with Ezekiel at a valley of dry bones or the evening news or looking in the mirror – what you’re seeing at is not God’s fault; you’re seeing the dreadful results of sin.
Can these bones live? Is there any hope? If it’s up to us, no. We can no more breathe money into our bank accounts, breathe love into our marriages, breathe health into our bodies, breathe obedience into our children – than Ezekiel could breathe life into those dead bones. But Ezekiel teaches us that the only proper response to a hopeless situation is to put the ball back in God’s court: O Sovereign LORD, you alone know. And God responded. He told Ezekiel to prophesy [literally: preach] 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.
While preaching may seem like an unlikely cure for death, Ezekiel did what God commanded. He preached to a valley of dead, dry bones. And as he was preaching 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 still no breath of life in them. So the Lord told Ezekiel to do the impossible one more time: breathe life into them. This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Come from the four winds, O breath, 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.
This was more than a fantastic vision. This is what God would do for his people, people who had been destroyed and exiled, people who were without hope and without a future in Babylon. To those who were saying our bones are dried up and our hope is gone God promised I will open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel….then you will know that I the LORD have spoken, and I have done it, declares the LORD. And 70 years later, God kept his Word. In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the LORD…the LORD moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to let God’s people go back to Israel to rebuild the temple, their homes and lives. (Ezra 1:1-4)
If God did this for Israel, can he do the same today? Can our bones, our lives, our families, our faith that have been dried up and deadened by sin be brought back to life? Absolutely, 100% yes! Our Savior allowed his body to be dried out by sin and death for us, so that through faith our dead, dry bones may have the breath of life. The Hebrew word for “breath” (10x) is the same word for “spirit.” Just as God breathed life into those dead, dry bones so he promises to, he longs to fill us, who are dead and dry because of sin, with his life-giving Spirit. How? Don’t overthink it. What did God use to breathe life into those bones? What did Jesus use to call Lazarus out of his tomb? Jesus once told his disciples: the words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life. (John 6:63) The instrument, the one and only instrument, God uses to create life out of death is his Word. God has given us the cure for death – you would think people would be knocking down the doors to get it – but so many forfeit this cure because they don’t want it and can’t understand it.
Here’s the thing, God doesn’t command us to understand it, he commands us to believe it. And the evidence for believing in the power of God’s Word is undeniable, isn’t it? In six normal days God created everything that exists, including mankind – and he did it with nothing but His Word. Abraham and Sarah were old and their bodies were dead but at the word of the Lord, Isaac was born. Judah was as good as dead in Babylon, but God breathed life into them and brought them back to their homes and land and temple. The body of Lazarus had already begun to stink in that hot Middle Eastern grave, but when the Lord of Life spoke, he walked out.
We will never understand how the Word of God can give life, but Jesus swears by it: I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life. (John 5:24) And, we’ve seen the evidence of the Word’s power with our own eyes, haven’t we? Spiritually dead, unbelieving infants are brought to the font where God washes away their sins and breathes life into their hearts, and from the moment they can speak they will tell anyone and everyone that they are Jesus’ little lambs. Spiritually drained, worn out people come forward to eat and drink the life-giving body and blood of their Lord, hear his word: “go in peace, your sins are forgiven” and leave relieved of guilt and reenergized in faith. How many Christians find financial peace, not because their bank accounts are suddenly flush but because they found contentment in God’s gifts and peace in his promises? How many of us were at one time those “young people” that our pastors and families worried about – until God sent someone to preach the Word to us – which brought us back to the path of life? How many marriages have found new life, not just through better communication but by communicating to each other the forgiveness God has freely given them? How many Christians have faced cancer or disease or surgery with confident determination because they trust that God means it when he says never will I leave you; never will I forsake you. (Hebrews 13:6) Not even death itself can shake us when we believe with Martha that [Jesus] is the resurrection and the life. (John 11:25) Still today, God creates hope out of hopelessness and life out of death, and he does it through his Word.
Can these bones live? God asked Ezekiel. As we look at our own hearts, our own lives, our own families and see the dreadful results of sin, we might be asking the same question. With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible. (Matthew 20:26) Doing the impossible – like creating life out of death is God’s specialty – that’s the nature of his grace and the incredible power of his Word. Amen.