Life Breathed into Dry Bones


The Vision of the Valley of Dry Bones
Gustave Dore
The text for this Day of Pentecost is our Old Testament lesson, Ezekiel 37:1-14, which has already been read.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

It sounds almost like a scene out of one of my favorite movies, The Sixth Sense.  The young man talks to his counselor, a ghost.

“I see dead people.”

“In your dreams?”

“No.”

“While you’re awake.”

“Yes.”

“Dead people like, in graves?  In coffins?

“No, they’re in a valley, a valley of bones.  Dry bones.  Long dead and completely lifeless bones.”

But this is not a Hollywood movie; it is a biblical account.  The young man who sees dead people is the thirty-year-old prophet, Elijah.  And the Counselor with whom he speaks is the Holy Ghost, the Spirit of the Lord, who has brought Elijah to this valley.  And the “dead people,” “the dry bones,” that Elijah sees are the Israelite refugees returning from Babylonian exile. 

As Elijah writes this, Israel is, for all intents and purposes, dead and gone.  The ten northern tribes were conquered by Assyria 150 years earlier.  They were wiped from the face of the earth and replenished with foreigners transplanted from other vanquished nations.  Now the southern tribes are captives in Babylon, far from the rubble that was once Jerusalem.  That is how nations and peoples disappear in the ancient world.   Resistance is futile; you will be assimilated.

Ezekiel is the prophet called by God to speak to the remnant of Israel held captive in Babylon, and one would think that it will be his job to put the nation to bed and say goodnight.  All that God gave them is gone because of their own stubborn refusal to follow His Word.  But the Lord declares that He has different plans for His rebellious people.  Even if they are faithless to Him, He will remain steadfast.  He will not forget His promises.  That’s Good News, right?

Unfortunately, the faith of the child of God is constantly threatened by two opposite dangers: overconfidence and despair.  This is certainly true of the people of Israel.  In chapter 36, the prophet had preached scathing Law to them in order to convict them of their pride and self-conceit.  Here, in our text, Ezekiel has to now overcome their reluctance to accept the Gospel of restoration.  Because the heart of the exiles was “deceitful…and desperately sick” (Jeremiah 17:9), they did not greet the glorious promise of redemption with jubilation, but with the doleful lament of despair: “Our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off” (Ezekiel 37:11).

In His mercy and grace, the Lord grants Ezekiel a vision of a valley of dry bones that is to convince his hearers that their despair grows out of their refusal to believe in a Creator who “calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:17).  They are struggling because they do not trust in the One for Whom “nothing will be impossible” (Luke 1:37) according to His Word.

God’s question to Ezekiel—“Can these bones live?”—normally would have to be answered in the negative.  Ezekiel’s reply is interesting.  He says, “O Lord God, You know,” implying that only the Person who made all those bones could make them alive again.  The Lord promises to do just that. 

At His command, Ezekiel prophesies to these lifeless bones the Word of the Lord, and there is a rattling noise as bone comes together with bone.  To Ezekiel the valley seems no longer to be full of disconnected bones but of skeletons—an improvement to be sure, but still not exactly the poster children for life.

Ezekiel prophesies again, sinews and flesh fill out the bones.  Now the valley resembles a battlefield littered with corpses.  Human bodies, but still lifeless human bodies—a miracle in itself, but not enough.  They’re still dead people.  They have no breath.  Like Adam of old, they still need the Spirit of God to breathe life into them.  So God tells Ezekiel to prophesy again.  The prophet obeys, and breath enters the army of corpses.  They come to life and stand up. 

Through this vision, God reveals how He will recreate His people now apparently lost in Babylon.  Humanly speaking, Israel’s hopes for survival appear dead and buried in the exile.  Prospects of national revival are as unlikely as expecting a vast array of skeletons, dried and dismembered, to come to life again on their own.  It just isn’t going to happen.

Yet at God’s command, death must surrender its victims.  Against all odds, Israel will continue.  The Lord will give life to the nation.  He will bring the people back to their land.  He will raise them as a people from death to life, to be a blessing to all people—to be a blessing for you. 

That’s right… for you!  You see, the Lord has to bring Israel back so that a virgin might conceive and give birth to a Son in Bethlehem.  It is necessary that Jerusalem and the temple might be rebuilt, so that the Son of David might enter the city triumphantly at Passover, so that the King of the Jews might be led outside the city walls to a cross.  Simply put, the Lord raises that nation from the dead in Babylon so that He might raise you from the dead for the sake of Christ.  

In all of this we see the creative power of the Holy Spirit at work through the Word of God.  Don’t underestimate the Word; don’t ignore it.  By it all things hold together.  The Word creates, renews, sanctifies, and enlivens.  It rattles your, dry dead bones.  Bodies long dead are resurrected with new muscle and tendon and flesh and blood and skin.  All by the preached Word; yet not by the word of the preacher, but by the power of the Holy Spirit who breathes life into dry bones. 

Wouldn’t you love to have been there to watch Elijah preach life into dry bones?  Or maybe not?  It’s a little too weird, perhaps.  It would be much easier to chalk it up to a dream, a hallucination, or a vision—anything but real.  Then we could safely file it away in the past with those “primitive people and their silly superstitions.”  We are far too sophisticated to think that dry dead bones can shake, rattle, and roll their way together and live, just because someone preaches at them. 

The same could be said of the conception of Jesus.  A young virgin in some hick town in Galilee is told by an angel that the Holy Spirit will come upon her?  The power of the Most High will overshadow her?  She will conceive, and give birth to a son—the Son of God?  Inconceivable!  Can’t be!

Or how about Christ’s bodily resurrection?  It’s terribly inconvenient and uncomfortable to the old Adam in us to think that the tomb of a dead man is empty, His body risen.  Yet that’s the point of Pastor Peter’s Pentecost sermon: Jesus was not abandoned to the grave.  His body did not see decay.  God has vindicated Jesus by raising Him bodily from the grave.  “And we are all witnesses of the fact.”

Yes, this is the same Peter who wept bitterly when he shamefully denied His Lord three times just hours after he had proudly claimed: “Don’t worry, Jesus.  I’ve got Your back.  Even if the rest of these guys fall away, I’ll stand beside You.”  The same Peter who hid with the rest of the Twelve in the locked room for fear of the Jews.  Now he’s boldly proclaiming Christ’s death and resurrection and calling the crowd to “repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

What happened that Peter and his brothers, who just fifty days earlier had been so timid and frightened, would now preach boldly and fearlessly?  Jesus had been raised from the dead.  Jesus had breathed on them, bestowed His Holy Spirit, forgiven their sins, and then sent them out to forgive sins.  And that made all the difference in the world.

The creation of Adam.  The valley of dry bones restored to life.  The nation of Israel returned to her land.  The annunciation and incarnation of Jesus.  Christ’s resurrection.  His equipping the apostles for their ongoing work of testifying to His death and resurrection.  The Pentecost miracle.  What do these all have in common (besides the fact that they are impossible through natural means)? 

This: The Holy Spirit breathes life where there was not life.  And this is the case from creation all the way to Pentecost.  But the Holy Spirit didn’t stop on the day of Pentecost.  He continues to breathe life into dry bones like you and me. 

Like the exiles returning from Israel, there are times when we need to be shaken ourselves.  We need to have our bones rattled by the Word that says, “You are no more alive than those dry and dusty bones.  Dead in sin.  Dead in iniquity.  Dead in transgression.  Dead in lust and idolatry.  If you persist in this state you will be dead for eternity.  Not just physically dead, but spiritually dead.  Hellishly dead. 

But brought to contrition and repentance, we also need to hear the life restoring Gospel: Those bones of yours can live, and do live.  Not by your efforts, of course.  After all, what can bones do to live?  But God, being rich in mercy, has made you alive together with Christ.  You have been saved by grace through faith.  And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.  And how does He do it?  “Not by might, nor by power, but My Spirit,” says the Lord—the Spirit who works through the Word.  For that is how the Spirit works—solely through the Word. 

We confess the Holy Spirit, “the Lord and Giver of Life.”  By the Spirit-Breath of God, we breathe; we have life.  The Spirit and the Word; the Word and the Spirit—the two always go together.  You can’t have one without the other.  The Holy Spirit is a preacher—calling, gathering, enlightening, and sanctifying, stirring up faith, forgiving sin, bearing fruit—all by the Word He causes to be preached, the Sacraments through which He bestows His gifts.

When that little congregation gathered together at Pentecost, there was the sound of rushing wind.  The Breath of Jesus blowing over His Church.  And there were tongues like fire, separating and resting on all the disciples.  Wind and fire were the unique elements of that first Pentecost.  They were like the fireworks and balloons at a grand opening.  God was inaugurating the Last Days.  The time of the end had come.  Christ had died on the cross for the redemption of the world.  He was raised again to life, for forty days being seen by over 500 eyewitnesses.  Jesus had ascended to the right hand of the Father, disappeared into a heavenly cloud, out of sight but not absent; rather, truly present by Word and Spirit.

Peter preached that day.  He preached boldly to thousands, where fifty days before he was afraid to even admit to a servant girl that he was one of Jesus’ disciples.  The resurrection of Jesus and the Spirit will do that to you—turn cowards into courageous preachers of good news.  Filled with the Spirit, the disciples spoke in a variety of languages and dialects, and everyone who was in Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost heard the preaching of Jesus in His own native tongue.  It certainly was a marvelous, miraculous sight to behold.

But most the time the Holy Spirit flies under the radar.  He does not seek to draw attention to Himself, but to point to Christ.  He operates discreetly—even hidden—hidden in simple things like Word, water, and bread and wine.  This is even true of the day of Pentecost.  The lasting gift of Pentecost is not rushing wind or tongues of fire or speaking in fluent foreign languages.  The lasting gift is the Spirit-breathed Word of God.  The Word of God preached out of the mouths of men with the very breath of Jesus.  “The sins you forgive are forgiven.” 

At the end of that Pentecost day, three thousand were baptized.  Three thousand were born again by water and the Spirit.  Three thousand had the Word have its faith creating, faith enlivening way with them.  Three thousand were joined to Jesus in His death, His life, His glory.  Three thousand were clothed with Christ.  Three thousand became members of Christ’s body, continuing in the teaching of the apostles, in the breaking of the Bread, and in the prayers.  Three thousand who were dead in their trespasses and sins, were born to new life by the power of the Word and the Spirit.

Your personal Pentecost is your baptismal day, whenever and where that was.  There you were joined to Jesus by the Word and Spirit in the water.  And in a real sense, every Sunday is Pentecost when you hear that your sins are forgiven in Jesus, that your death is answered for in Jesus, that your life is hidden in Jesus, and His life—His own Body and Blood—are hidden in you.  Through these means of grace, the Holy Spirit breathes life into your dry bones.  You, who were once dead in your trespasses and sins, are given new life, eternal life. 

And this will be brought to completion on the Last Day.  The forgiveness of sin that the Spirit applied to you in the Gospel will bear its ultimate fruit in you.  The Lord and Giver of Life, sent from the Father and the Son, will raise your body from the grave.  Your dry dead bones will not only be raised to life, but to everlasting life!  Never to die again!  To be forever with the Lord! 

Can these bones live?  Yes, they can!  As surely as Christ is risen from the dead is sure, these bones can live.  As surely as the Word and breath of the Spirit blow over them, they will live.  As surely as the Holy Spirit breathes new life in Christ in you, you will live—you will live forever.  Just as surely as He brings you this Word of the Lord to you today:  You are forgiven for all of your sins.” 

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

A Hospice for Sinners

Small Church Sunday

A Wonderful Mystery: An Address for the Wedding of James & Rebecca Dubro