Life Breathed into Dry Bones: Sermon for Pipestone Circuit Winkel

"The Vision of the Valley of Dry Bones" by Gustave Dore
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“Thus says the Lord God to these bones: ‘Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon 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’” (Ezekiel 37:13-14).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord 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 dry bones, dead and 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, Ezekiel. And the Counselor with whom he speaks is the Holy Ghost, the Spirit of the Lord, who has brought Ezekiel to this valley. And the “dead people,” “the dry bones,” that Ezekiel sees are the Israelite refugees returning from Babylonian exile.
As Ezekiel writes this, Israel is, for all intents and purposes, dead and gone. The ten northern tribes were conquered by Assyria 150 years earlier. They had been wiped out and replenished with foreigners transplanted from other vanquished nations. Now the southern tribes are captives in Babylon, far from the rubble and rabble 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 burden to declare their final judgment. That’s what they’ve got coming, isn’t it? All that God had given them is gone because of their own stubborn refusal to trust Him and 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 faithful. 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 the previous chapter, Ezekiel preached scathing Law to them to convict them of their pride and self-conceit. Here, in our text, the prophet must overcome their reluctance to accept the Good News of restoration. It seems too good to be true, so rather than rejoice, they have fallen into doubt and despair. “Our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off,” they lament (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, yes, but still lifeless human bodies. Dead people. They have no breath. Like Adam of old, they need the Spirit of God to breathe life into them. So God tells Ezekiel to prophesy again. The prophet obeys. 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 appear as unlikely as expecting a vast array of skeletons to come to life again on their own. 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.
That’s right… for all people! You see, the Lord must 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 on Palm Sunday, so that the King of the Jews might be led outside the city to die on a cross, so that the One who is the Resurrection and the Life might Himself rise on the third day. Simply put, the Lord raises that nation from the dead in Babylon so that He might raise all His people from the dead.
The primary purpose of this passage (as with all Scripture) is to point to Christ and His work of salvation. Still there is application to you and me as individuals, and in our service as called and ordained servants of the Word, as the Lord bids us to preach the breath of God into dry bones,
Have you ever looked out over the pews on Sunday morning, and thought to yourself: “I see dead people! I’ve been called to preach God’s Word to dry bones, dead people lost in sin, dried up in doubt and despair, concerned about their prospects for the future, many of whom don’t even yet realize the seriousness of their condition. Can these bones live?”
Yes, they will. Against all odds, Christ’s Church will prevail. The people may have given up. They may be weighed down by doubt and despair. But the Lord will give life to His Church. He will bring His people into His kingdom. He will raise them as a people from death to life, to be a blessing to others. And miraculously, in His mercy and grace, He will use you as His chosen instrument.
A few lessons to keep in mind in the meanwhile:
First, God does it all. Dry bones can’t make themselves alive, and it is only the Lord who made those bones who can give them life again. The people of Israel couldn’t restore themselves as a people—it was the Lord who brought them back and made them a people again. So it is with me and you and the people under our pastoral care. It is not our word, but God’s Word that brings new life. It is the Holy Spirit who calls, gathers, enlightens, sanctifies, and keeps us with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. God does it all.
Actually, you and I and the people to whom we minister were in worse shape than the bones of Ezekiel’s vision. We’d never been alive in the first place. We were dead in the trespasses and sins. But the Lord makes alive! God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.
This not your own doing, but it is His. This is good, because He gets the job done for sure. The dead can’t make themselves alive anyway. Neither can you. Even if you could, you’d always have to wonder if you really had. After all, sinners often think they’re alive when they’re still dead in sin. But because God makes you alive, your life in Him is certain—as certain as Christ’s death on the cross for you. It is not a resurrection to a life of slavery and groveling, but a seat in the heavenly places and the immeasurable riches of God’s grace. It is all gift, all for the sake of Jesus.
Second, because of Jesus, God’s Word that resurrects a nation in Ezekiel is for you and God’s people, too—not as a nation, but as individuals. Because Christ has died for your sins and is risen again, the Lord now promises: “I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O My people... And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O My people. And I will put My Spirit within you, and you shall live... Then you shall know that I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it(Ezekiel 37:12-14).
This is a far greater promise, with farther reaching implications, for the Babylonians were merciful and weak compared to the grave. A captive in Babylon would still have some sort of life even if his nation was erased from the earth. Death provides no such amenities: as the wages of sin, it takes everything and permits nothing. But Christ has conquered death—He has taken this greatest enemy captive. Now He says, “I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, because you are My people.” This comfort is for you when you face death, and it is comfort for you when it is given you to mourn those who have died in the faith. The Lord is faithful to His people. He will raise them up from their graves.
Third, while the Lord spoke life to the dry bones and deliverance to Israel, He did it through the prophet Ezekiel. This is profound and significant: this message is not rare or far away, but the Lord entrusts this Word to His Church and calls upon His men to proclaim it.
The Lord calls upon His pastors to preach it publicly, that you might tell others that Christ has conquered death—that they, too, might be delivered from their graves and have eternal life. Every time people hear you speak this Gospel, the Lord declares to them, “I have died and risen so that I might open up your grave and give you eternal life.” What a privilege: He doesn’t have to, but the Lord gives to you the joy of declaring His deliverance to all.
Many will reject the message, believing that it’s too good to be true, that their bones are dried up, their hope is lost, and they are cut off. Many Israelites in Babylon rejected the Lord’s promise when Ezekiel proclaimed it too, and many would not make the trip back when God kept His promise; but their unbelief did not make the promise any less true. So it is today: the Lord does not force this life on anyone, but His promise remains true and all who believe will be saved.
Many will ignore the message because they consider it far too common to have any real value. Sadly, proclamation of the Gospel grows rarer than people think these days as other messages replace it while sleepy Christians don’t realize. But even where the Gospel is proclaimed often, its common-ness and familiarity is no proof that it is of little value—that’s the devil’s argument. Rather, because sin and death constantly threaten, the Lord constantly assures you that you are His, that He has died and risen again to give you eternal life.
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: For Jesus' sake, you are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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