It was July and warm. Still, it was pleasant along the Kebar. The river and its canals watered everything brilliant green. And, after five years, even a foreign place grows on one at least some. It was five years since the king had been removed from the heights of Jerusalem. Five years since he and his court and the priests were transplanted by Nebuchadrezzar. Life wasn’t bad. The court still lived, in some comfort actually. Their community had coalesced in that place – with worship and jobs and homes. But it’s never truly good when life is labeled “among the exiles”, as Ezekiel called it.
On the banks of the Kebar, Ezekiel poked the dirt with a stick. He laughed, pondering again his own name and its irony: יְחֶזְקֵ֨אל – “God strengthens…” So his mother had said at his birth. “How about ‘God toughens…’?” he thought, “hardships and beatings, trial and exile – till you’re calloused over!” and whipped the stick off into the water. He was a bit depressed on his 30th birthday. The day on which he would have ascended to service, finally, as a priest in God’s house. But where was God’s house? Far, far away. And ruled by a fool, a puppet king. And what should he say after all of it? Israel’s hopes were dashed. They were exiled, their favor with God gone, their future hopes ruined like Jerusalem itself. That’s how Ezekiel felt – how he knew many of his brothers and sisters felt: dead.
He watched the clouds, pink, full, mirrored in the placid river. And so that’s where he saw it first – thought the river was cracking open with some great light. But it was the sky. He lifted his eyes. An immense cloud of flashing lightning and brilliant light, swirling and approaching – a storm. It’s center a fire like glowing metal, with strange beasts and wheels within wheels and things hard to put to words. Over it all an expanse, like brilliant ice, and a sapphire throne upon it and occupying that throne a glowing man, full of fire, brilliant with light, radiant. “This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD…” And Ezekiel, like any good “son of man” in those kinds of moments, fell face-down, afraid.
And that was how God began, by his Spirit, to speak into Ezekiel and through him to God’s people. With great visions of astounding things, for when Israel was in a dead place – exiled and away; in order to call their attention to the real problem: their relationship with him was near to dead. God warned them that worse was coming. That Jerusalem, though now diminished, would finally be ruined – and it was. That Israel needed to repent, to turn to God and live. That God’s judgment would come – fiery and hot – on Israel and the nations of the world. There would be no escape. That there is a final death worse than this death. And that, if they felt dead now, they should attend to God’s Word for hope. That was Ezekiel’s message – for 36 chapters through years of prophecy and many visions. Up to ch.37 this morning and the valley of dry bones: a picture of death to the fullest extent – a picture of where God’s people were.
We don’t see death this way now. But imagine it – if you happened upon it on a woodsy hike, a human skeleton, bleached and dried and obviously callously left to the elements… you’d freak out! You might get sick – it’s death, remnants of a life! Then maybe call the police. Here? It’s an entire valley – a whole army of people, slaughtered, then left dead in the open to rot and dry out. If you were a Jew, you’d immediately think, “Unclean!” and “What a tragedy! This is a cursed kind of thing! Like God said through Moses, ‘The Lord will cause you to be defeated before your enemies. You will come at them from one direction but flee from them in seven, and you will become a thing of horror to all the kingdoms on earth. Your carcasses will be food for all the birds and the wild animals, and there will be no one to frighten them away. ’” (Dt 28:25-26) What Ezekiel sees is a whole valley of death, death that is disgrace, people purposefully left to rot with no memorial or memory or love. Devastation.
Which is how Israel felt. And what God intended to picture. The Lord said to Ezekiel: “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.’” They’re not the only ones though. About a hundred times the Psalmists said the same thing – psalms of lament – like Psalm 88. I don’t know who Heman the Ezrahite was but obviously he was deep in it, “[Lord] I am set apart with the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave, whom you remember no more, who are cut off from your care…You have taken from me my closest friends and have made me repulsive to them. I am confined and cannot escape; my eyes are dim with grief…Why, LORD, do you reject me?” And it ends with: “darkness is my closest friend.” (88:5, 8, 14, 18)
Have you wandered in that sort of place – picking your way among the bones? Have you felt death inescapable? Situations of life with no possibility? Ruin of good things that does not seem reversible? You look out at the world and understand that Paul’s label “dead in sin” is actually true? And, when you consider that some of that death is your sin, it’s even more depressing?
The Lord asks the pressing question, “Son of man, can these bones live?” And with Ezekiel, you and I are probably tempted to reply with some snark and say, “Is that a joke? Are you looking at the ruin here – of my marriage(s), of my friendship, of my business, of my life, of my friend who disbelieves, of this society that pants after every pagan thing – this is death! There’s no living!”
I could guess about shared devastations we have after these many months – dead things because people have believed or done or chosen things we wouldn’t believe or choose or do. I don’t know yours… But I know my own and the temptations. It’s tempting to do nothing. To despair. To maybe lie down among the bones – accept the death. It’s to be afraid that this world’s death is overpowering; to be afraid of death itself; that the results of sin-general in our lives can’t be righted. Or that our desires to sin cannot be beat. Or that the sins I have done and the wreck they’ve made is too much. “My bones are dried up and my hope is gone!”
But God calls us to repentance this morning with the simple word he gives to Ezekiel, “Prophesy, son of man!” I know, Ezekiel’s call is not yours. He was called long ago to different people. But he was called to a people in a world dead in sin, tempted by the death and devastation all around them. And I bet he was tempted to say nothing too… But God said, “Prophesy!” And he says it to you and me on this Pentecost day – to not be quiet, to repent for saying nothing in the moment of need, to turn away from helpless fear at the visions of death we see around us, to speak…
And what… There are all sorts of things to say, of course. I wonder if God wants us to consider that some solutions are not that great, that something special is needed… Ezekiel’s vision isn’t only of “death” – it’s actually about life. Ezekiel speaks and the bones come together and there’s tendons creeping and muscles growing and flesh comes down and wraps likes a skin-blanket… an army vast and fleshy, but still not alive. “There was no breath [life] in them.” In that same way, there’s lots of stuff you and I could say and do (even godly-sounding stuff – do better! be better!) that can make a fleshy mannequin out of dead things, but that still won’t bring real life.
Did you notice throughout this section, the only time you have Ezekiel’s own words is this line, “Sovereign Lord, you know [whether the bones can live].” Because Ezekiel knew he had no real answers for a valley of dead stuff. And there is nothing Ezekiel or you or I can say that compares with this, “‘This is what the sovereign LORD says: Look, I am about to open your graves and will raise you from your graves, my people. I will bring you to the land of Israel. Then you will know that I am the LORD… I will place my breath in you and you will live… Then you will know that I am the LORD—I have spoken and I will act, declares the LORD.’ ”
For you, sons and daughters of humankind, there’s only one thing to say. It’s to acknowledge that the Lord, with his mighty Spirit has spoken to this world’s death. What Jesus said, before he died and later left his disciples. He left the promise that “the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and remind you of everything I have said to you.” So that when they felt alone, dead, powerless, they would have what they needed of power from God, wisdom from him, encouragement and “Peace…I leave with you; my peace I give to you.” Totally unlike the world’s peace. The peace of one who knew glorious, glowing life and didn’t hoard it for himself, but stepped into our flesh and walked among us with real feet and touched with human hands. The peace of one who reversed death by his Word – turned back sickness, drove out the deadly demon, raised the dead to life. The peace of the one who proved his love by giving up his own life – allowing his flesh to be pierced and tortured and dead. The peace of the one who said before he died, “Father forgive them…” and when he died forgave all our sins. The peace of the one who beat corruption, his and mine, by rising to life. The peace of the one who still rules over all things, in human flesh for people with human flesh, until he comes back in all that glowing glory. The peace that that one is not removed from all this death we see, but brings real life here to this world as his powerful Spirit works faith in hearts to receive the life he’s made.
So, prophesy, son of man – prophesy to the dead bones, over situations you cannot control, into places where you have no expectation of power or results – speak and do not be afraid. Like Ezekiel or Peter prophesy with the Spirit’s power in the mighty Word, so that he can breathe life into the dead world, your failing heart, that tempting moment. In Jesus Christ, God provides the peace of everlasting life and that peace he freely gives to all and that peace overcomes every kind of death. With you he’s left it… He sends you to speak it. Prophesy!