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Making Change: Changing Our Perspective

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Ezekiel 37:1-14

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. The Lord led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. The Lord said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then the Lord said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: 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.” So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then the Lord said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. Then the Lord said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord.

I’m always hesitant to preach on this scripture.  We all have seen images of mass graves, and I’m afraid that’s how you’ll hear the story of this valley of dry bones.  Plus, I know some of you would like nothing more than to bring back to life someone you loved.  I want to remind you that this is solely a vision, a metaphor, and not real.  Plus, these bones are not the dead—they are the living.  I’ll explain what I mean, but first I need to remind you of the context for this story.

“This vision dates to the period of Israel’s history known as the Babylonian Exile.  In 597 BCE, the armies of Babylon forced the capitulation of the rebellious city Jerusalem and deported the Judean king and many Judean leaders to Babylon (2 Kings 24:10-16).  Ten years later, in 587/6 BCE, after Jerusalem had rebelled again, the Babylonians razed Jerusalem and its temple and deported a second wave of Judean leaders.  Among the first wave of the deported was the young Ezekiel, whom God later called in Babylon to the office of prophet.  For those deportees forced to live in Babylon, the future seemed a black hole into which the people were destined to disappear.  A century-and-a-half previously, many citizens of Judah’s sister kingdom Israel had been similarly deported, had lost their identity, and had faded into the mists of history–the so-called lost tribes of Israel.  The exile was more than just a crisis of physical suffering and communal identity.  It also necessitated a crisis of faith.  The key symbols of Judean faith—Jerusalem, its temple, its people, and the Davidic monarchy—had been destroyed.  According to the theological rationality of the ancient world, many exiled Judeans assumed that their deity had been defeated by a stronger deity from Babylon.  The people wondered if the Lord was truly lord and truly faithful.”[1]

For those of you who like academic titles, that’s the historical criticism of the text—meaning the attempt to study the world behind the text, what was happening in history when it was written.  Now we move to the literary criticism, which means we look at the literary genre of the text in order to shed more light on it today.

“Behind the vision in Ezekiel 37 are two literary forms—the communal lament psalm and the prophetic message of deliverance.  In communal laments, the people poured out their pain in fervent cries for deliverance.  Toward the end of [this passage], we hear the words of lament of the deported people: ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely’ (v. 11).  One finds similar language in the lament psalms.

‘My strength fails because of my misery, and my bones waste away’ (Ps 31:10).

‘My bones are shaking with terror’ (6:2).

‘My bones burn like a furnace’ (102:3).

The reference to ‘bones’ here is an idiomatic way of referring to one’s deepest self, or, in the case of ‘our bones,’ a way for the community to refer to its most essential self. What we learn from this is that Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones is a poetic and prophetic response to the situation of God’s people—to their sense of hopelessness, to their situation of being cut off from their land, their temple, and–they think!–from their God.  The people use a common idiom of their time to express their helplessness and hopelessness.  They say, ‘Our bones are dried up.’

So Ezekiel shows them a vision of exactly that: dry bones.”[2]  Basically, this vision is God saying, “You feel like your bones are dry? your hope is lost?  OK, let’s start there. Let’s start there, at how you’re feeling, and then I’ll show you what I can do.”

And God shows them something they never could have dreamed.  “Mortal, can these bones live?” God asks Ezekiel as they overlook the valley in his vision.  From Ezekiel’s point of view, there is no evidence that they can.  From his perspective, the scene is completely lacking in life of any kind.  So Ezekiel just answers, “You know, Lord.”  The answer is a bit of a cop-out on Ezekiel’s part.   He doesn’t want to say the bones can live when he has little to no faith that they can.  He doesn’t want to say the bones can’t live and be reprimanded for his lack of faith.  So he says “You know, Lord,” which is the equivalent of “Only God knows!”

Then God tells him to prophesy to the bones.  Ezekiel does as he is told, and so begins God’s miraculous work of reversal.  First the bones come back together, then sinew and muscle, and then flesh.  They stand. But they do not yet breathe.  Ezekiel needs to be reminded—along with every other preacher—that it is not the preaching that brings people to life.  It is not the rattling of bones that brings people to life.  It is God’s Spirit. God’s breath. God’s mighty ruach in Hebrew, which means wind, breath, and spirit.  This is the word that is used in Genesis 2 when God creates a human being  and then breathes into the creature the breath of life. Ruach.  This is the word used in 1 Samuel when young David is anointed to one day become king—the spirit of the Lord came upon him—ruach.

This is the word used in Isaiah when the prophet proclaims “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me because God has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.” Ruach.  And the word appears ten times in our fourteen verses for today, with phrases such as “I will cause breath to enter you” and “Come from the four winds, O breath” and “I will put my spirit within you and you shall live.” Ruach.

It is the Spirit of God—and only the Spirit of God—who can bring life where there is no life.  This is not ultimately a story of resurrection, where the dead are brought back to life.  This is a story of creation.  God’s ruach “initiated the whole human enterprise by making humans from dust and breathing into them the breath, ruah, of life (Genesis 2:7).  God likewise initiated the entire Israelite project, choosing to take slaves from Egypt, giving them God’s own law, and bringing them to a good land—and doing this with minimal cooperation (Ezekiel 20:5-14).  Now, Ezekiel says, God will take the initiative yet again: God’s spirit will bring new life to a people [who feel] dead as bones.”[3]

Maybe you know the feeling.  Maybe you know it now, or maybe you remember it and hope never to feel it again. Maybe you have experienced a grief so great, a relationship so bad, a trauma so life-changing, that you understand what it means to feel like your bones are wasting away, your bones are dried up, your soul is cut off from hope. From where you stand, there is no cause for hope.  But from God’s perspective, there is always hope.  Into your empty spaces, God breathes.  Into your anxious places, God breathes.  Into your hopeless situation, God breathes.  And it is new life and it is creation and God says “It is good.”

We are living in a time where hope is hard to come by.  We are living in a time of extremism and hatred,  violence and despair.  From where we stand, life is getting scarier each day.  But from God’s perspective, there is life just waiting to be created.  We just have to be open to it, and that means being open to change.

Please forgive me for singing when I’m still getting over a cold, but this song is too perfect to let my pride get in the way of sharing it.

There is hurting in my family,

There is sorrow in my town,

There is panic all across the nation,

And there is wailing the whole world round.


But I am open, and I am willing

For to be hopeless would seem so strange.

It dishonors those who go before us,

So lift me up to the light of change.


May the children see more clearly,

May the elders be more wise,

May the winds of change caress us,

Even though it burns our eyes.


So I am open, and I am willing

For to be hopeless would seem so strange.

It dishonors those who go before us,

So lift me up to the light of change.

Today is All Saints Day, the day we remember those who have gone before us, those who inspired us, who challenged us, those who pointed us toward God.  They weren’t perfect, but they gave us a glimpse of the divine.  We remember that they also undoubtedly experienced times when they felt hopeless, lifeless, like dry bones.  To give up hope now would dishonor them and all they experienced.  So let us move forward with hope.  Because God is present, we can get a new perspective.  Because God is present, we have breath. Ruach.

[1] Jacobson, Rolf. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=39

[2] Jacobson, Rolf.

[3] Tull, Patricia. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3200. (Note: the English transliteration is spelled differently by different scholars—as rua, ruah, and ruach. It is the same Hebrew word.


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