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Fifth Sunday in Lent

Preaching and Reading the Old Testament Lessons
With an Eye to the New
This famous vision of the Valley of Dry Bones is given to the prophet Ezekiel in Babylonia shortly after the fall of Jerusalem to Babylonia in 587 B.C. As in 1:3 and 8:1, the prophet is seized "by the hand of the Lord," that is, he is sent into an ecstatic state in which he is given to see new reality.

Israel considers itself to be dead in exile (cf. 33:10; Isaiah 53:8-9). She has lost her land, her temple, her davidic king, her covenant, and her relationship with her God. The forces of death have overwhelmed her, and now her exiles are without the possibility of life, like long-dry bones, scattered aimlessly about a parched and desolate valley. No human help can restore her. She is beyond all hope.

Ezekiel therefore hears the enigmatic question asked him by God, "Son of man, can these bones live?" (v. 3). It is a question that can confront us, too, can it not? When life crumbles in on us and loving relationships are gone; when pain accompanies our every hour and makes normality impossible; when anxieties haunt our nights and days and undermine every security; when evil stalks our city streets and we can trust no stranger; when our world seems bathed in nothing but bloody violence and all goodness seems to be impossible; we too wonder if there can ever be possibility of whole life again. And we feel our hope dried up and our future as nothing but ominous.

Our prophet wisely answers the question from God about the dry bones. Can these bones live? "O Lord God, thou knowest." Human means are not sufficient to overwhelm the forces of death that hold captive our life and world. Try as we may, we seem never able to set all things right. Broken relationships, suffering, crime, violence, and evil -- none of our programs seem to do away with them forever. For every solution, there is a new problem, for every program, an unforeseen shortcoming, and unless healing and restoration are in the hands of God, good life seems impossible. Our bones are dried up; we are clean cut off. O God, will you restore us?

It is unfortunate that this text from Ezekiel has been paired in the lectionary with the gospel lesson in John 11. For that passage talks about the final resurrection of the dead. But this passage from Ezekiel is not looking to bodily resurrection after death. It is talking about the restoration and healing of our life here and now. And it is saying that only God can work that transformation.

Ezekiel therefore is bidden by the Lord to prophesy, to speak the powerful, life-giving Word of God. And as he does so, he is given the vision of the dry bones come together in ordered skeletons. Then there come on the bones sinews and flesh and skin, and they have bodily form. But they as yet have no life in them. They are still the inert dead (vv. 7-8).

The prophet must therefore speak the Word of God once more, summoning from the four winds the breath of life. And as that breath enters the inert forms, they live, and they stand upon their feet, "an exceedingly great host" (vv. 9-10).

In short, the breath that animates the persons in the vision is not to be understood as the Spirit of God. Rather, it is that breath of life, like the first breath of God breathed into Adam at his creation (Genesis 2:7), and like that breath by which God sustains all living creatures alive (Psalm 104:29). Life, our text is saying, is sustained only by the faithfulness of God, for were the Creator to hold his breath, we would return to dead physical matter. We have our life in God, whether we know it or not.

In the last portion of our text, verses 11-14, the Lord interprets the vision for his prophet. Israel has been dead in exile. But like bodies being exhumed from the grave, Israel will be raised up once more by her Lord and returned to her homeland, where she will be granted life and a future and a hope anew (cf. Jeremiah 29:10-11). Israel is not "clean cut off," as she has believed (v. 11). She is not destined simply to wither away and die in a foreign land. God has not deserted her (cf. Isaiah 40:27). Rather, he treasures her as the "apple of his eye" (Deuteronomy 32:10) and loves her and will restore her to a good life. And so there are found in Ezekiel's prophecies, after God's judgments, the promises of a loving God for the good future of his beloved people.

Well, can your bones live? In whatever desperate or insolvable situation you find yourself, do you feel that you are "clean cut off" from your God and that there is no hope for your future except that dreary stereotype of "one damn thing after another"? Have you no hope for anything better, no expectation of good ahead of you?

Speaking of each of us personally, surely some of us are as good as dead spiritually, cut off from all consciousness of anything beyond ourselves. And we're just living out nine-to-five in what have been called "lives of quiet desperation." What we see is all we get and any thought of a spiritual realm or of anything having to do with God is far from our minds and hearts.

Similarly, some among us are as good as dead morally, and we have abandoned all definitions of right and wrong. If it feels good, we do it, don't we? And then we wonder why we feel an unease about the way we are conducting our lives or why there is such chaos in the society that we help mold.

If that is your condition on this fifth Sunday in Lent, or on any other, the words of Ezekiel can give us life too. For he tells us that by the Word of the Lord, we can be transformed -- that we who feel ourselves lost and dead can find ourselves alive again -- alive and whole by the powerful Word of God who is Jesus Christ. Can your bones live again? Yes, in Christ your Lord, who came that you might have life and have it more abundantly.

As for our hopeless, violent, death-dealing world, the Word of God who is our Lord Christ will transform that also. And he promises that beyond the valley of death in which all peoples seem to be captive these days, there is a shining realm of good that is known as the Kingdom of God, where death shall be no more, and sorrow and sighing and pain will have passed away. His kingdom comes, good Christians. Dry bones will live again. And God will be all in all, to all eternity.
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