These Old Bones

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, April 2, 2017
Scripture: Ezekiel 37:1-14

About a year ago this time, my dog, Boo, and I were taking our daily walk in the woods, when he and I sniffed out a box turtle that had just died.  I’ve since read that box turtles on average live for 50 years, and some even live up to a hundred years.  So, this turtle could easily have been my age when it died.

I noted where the dead turtle lay and then left it alone to let nature run its course.  So, that was around March, early April.  This past late October, I took a look and there was the turtle shell, now emptied of its occupant.  So, I gathered up all the pieces of the shell and a fair number of bones that hadn’t been scattered off in the woods.

I cleaned everything up.  Some of the plates on the shell, called “scutes”, had started to flake off, so I glued those back on.  I attached the two bottom panels; those are called the plastron.  I sprayed a few coats of lacquer on everything, and I restored the turtle’s bones back into its shell, which seemed like the right place to keep them.

And, here it is, all finished.  I keep the restored shell and bones sitting on the corner of my desk in the Pastor’s Study here at the church, because I think it’s attractive.  Every so often, I take a look at it; most of the time, it just sits there on the corner unnoticed.

What if, one day, while I’m busily at work, the shell started to twitch around over there on its corner of the desk.  And then, not only is the shell twitching around, but I start hearing the click-clacking of the bones dancing around inside of the shell.  The shell would have my full attention.

Suddenly, four little legs pop out, front and back, and then slowly the turtle’s head emerges from the shell, it stretches out its long neck, and then it begins crawling across the desk.

I would let out such a yell!  There are three ways out of the Pastor’s Study, not counting the windows, and I would be out one way or the other in a hurry.

My turtle come back to life, as frightening as that might be, is nothing compared to what Ezekiel describes happened to him.  God takes hold of Ezekiel, he says in verse 1, and takes him away somewhere, and plops him down in a field of bones.   Thousands and thousands of human bones lie there before God and Ezekiel.  As if that weren’t horrifying enough, Ezekiel says in verse 2, God then drags him to and fro across this vast field of bones.

Then, God asks Ezekiel in verse 3, “What do you think, you mortal man, can these bones live?

It’s a very specific way in which God addresses Ezekiel throughout this experience:  “son of man”.   Here in verse 3, and then in verse 9, and a third time, in verse 11.  “Son of man, son of man, son of man.”

The word here translated as “man” when spoken in this way by God always meant one thing:  remember, human, you are mortal; do what you may to survive for as many years as you can and then you die.  From dust you have come, to dust you shall return.”

As if Ezekiel, standing here in the middle of these acres and acres of human remains, needed any verbal reinforcement of his mortality.

Ezekiel’s entire life has been one constant reminder of that fact, the tenuousness of his existence.  He and his people have lived on the edge of extinction for generations now.  Well over a hundred years before Ezekiel’s first breath, the brutal Assyrian army had overrun and destroyed ten of the twelve tribes that lay north of Judah.

The two remaining tribes in the southern kingdom of Judah were allowed to continue to exist only as they remained subservient to the Assyrian king and then to the Babylonians after they defeated the Assyrians.

Twice, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar has sent in his troops in to Judah to clean house, killing rebels, hauling citizens away into captivity back in Babylon.  Ezekiel who served as a priest in Jerusalem was among the first group of Jews Nebuchadnezzar deported back as prisoners.

When yet a third rebellion broke out, Nebuchadnezzar decided the Jews were just was not worth the bother.  He sent his army back into Judah this time to lay absolute waste to the land.  The army plundered Jerusalem, and then leveled it all to the ground; there was nothing left of the once glorious realm of King David.

In our time, our military veterans could appreciate Ezekiel’s horror from what they themselves witnessed in warfare.  Refugees of war-torn territories in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria could appreciate what Ezekiel himself had experienced in his lifetime.  Decade after decade and generation after generation with its casualties, it’s devastation:  this was Ezekiel’s own life-experience; he understood mortality.

But, you and I don’t have to be thrown into the absolute depths of war’s fearsome destruction to appreciate something of what’s happening here.  We simply have to consider, honestly, our own frightening losses, the experiences that remind us of our own mortality.  We might allow ourselves to sit, open-eyed as no doubt Ezekiel’s eyes were opened wide, and to confront what we fear even now is slipping away from us.

Story’s told of a man who saw another man much larger than himself, brawny and tough.  The first man said with great admiration, “I think if I was as big and tough as you, I’d go out in the woods and find me a big bear to wrestle!”  The second man looks back at the first man and says, “well, you know, there’s lots of little bears out in the woods, too.”

We all have our own personal-sized bears to wrestle with.  We don’t have to encounter the worst thing that anyone might possibly go through; we just have to experience our own personal worst thing and deal with that.  Or, even better, allow God to deal with that experience along with us.

“Son of man, can these bones live?”  Coming from any other source, we would be right to be offended.  We would be justified if we answered harshly, how thoughtless a question!  how unfeeling to ask such a thing of a person!   How cruel a taunt to throw in the face of ones who have suffered as Ezekiel and his people have suffered, seeing their fellow citizens slaughtered.

Such a question coming even from Go might cause us to turn away.  Ezekiel comes close to such a reaction.  He will venture no commitment of himself in answering God.  In his mind, in his heart, in his soul, he simply can’t go there.  So, instead, Ezekiel replies, “O Lord God, you…you know.”

Ezekiel sounds reverent in his reply, and on the surface, he is being reverent.  After all, he’s a priest and a prophet; he knows how he should talk to God.  But, God has stood Ezekiel on a precipice of faith and asked Ezekiel to jump, and Ezekiel just can’t do it.  Ezekiel is frozen in place:  he won’t actually bolt and run away from God, but neither can he throw himself into this impossibility, not even with God—”such a question only you can answer, God.”

Cynicism perhaps has formed a tough callous over Ezekiel’s faith.  He dare not expose himself to fresh hurt; he can bear no more wounds from trusting God.   Maybe despair has eaten its way through whatever personal resilience remained in his psyche.  He himself may be as dried up as these old bones there at his feet.

Ezekiel doesn’t doubt that God has the power to accomplish whatever God wants to do, but maybe that’s the issue for Ezekiel:  does God care any longer to do good for them?  Because Ezekiel is no fool, he knows that whatever this is that’s now happening, it is about Israel.  It is about his people and the promise God made in covenant with them through Abraham.  Would God restore life to these long dead descendents of the Covenant?  Would God make live a vital witness among the nations?

God tells Ezekiel in verse 4, “prophesy to these old, dead bones Ezekiel.  Say to them, ‘hear the word of the Lord’.”  Whatever the state of Ezekiel’s faith, he is obedient.  He prophesies even to old, dead bones.

Those bones start swirling and clicking and clacking across this plain, bones searching for their mating parts, reassembling themselves into whole skeletons now lying there in this vast valley.

But, this grotesque show isn’t finished yet.  No!  Ezekiel watches in stupefied horror as thin shoots of ligament and tendon begin stretching out, wrapping around those joints, joining them tightly back together, bone to socket.  Muscles begin massing around limbs and torsos and heads, sealing up appendages, closing around organs.  Thankfully, finally, skin starts growing, covering up this bizarre display of human anatomy not meant to be seen.

But, still, Ezekiel’s mandate is not completed.  “Prophesy, Ezekiel,” says God in verse 9.  “Prophesy to the wind.  Come winds from the four corners of the earth and fill up these dead people with breath that they might live.”

And the winds of the earth do just that.  From east and west, from north and south, the winds race into that great open plain, bodies twist and turn as the winds wrap around them, and suddenly, with a great gasp an army of lungs draw in and breath out and, verse 10 says, “they lived, and stood up upon their feet, an exceedingly great host.”

God says to Ezekiel, “my people exist as though they were buried in their graves.  Therefore prophesy to them,” God commands Ezekiel in verses 12 and 13 and 14, “and say, Thus says the Lord:  Behold, I will open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you home…and you will know that I am the Lord…and I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live.”

They couldn’t accomplish this for themselves, these daughters and sons of mortal flesh.  But, God who commands the resources of all creation, who gives life and who delights in life, God can and God will raise up people who bear witness of God among all the rest of the human family.

That’s you.  That’s me.  That is this congregation:  we all together children of our ancestors, inheritors in a long-lived faith; a living faith at times seeming to die out, yet by God’s grace, a faith which God reanimates and reinvigorates in such people even as ourselves to live vibrantly in witness of God in this generation.

At what precipice of faith has God placed you?  At what precipice of faith has God placed University Baptist Church?  What do we see lying before us which bridles our faith?

Can these bones live?  It’s not a trick question.  It’s God’s invitation to welcome God’s refreshing Spirit, restoring whatever violence of life has robbed from us.   Can these bones live?