a sermon on Ezekiel 37:1-14 and Psalm 130
One of the biggest adjustments for this southern boy living in New York is not the snow or the cold but the extended season of gray that results from a longer winter. This winter’s grays are worse than usual. Spring may have technically begun two weeks ago, but the grays just haven’t gone away yet. The snow that just wouldn’t go away made everything so blah for so long, and the charcoal color of it after weeks of below-freezing temperatures just made it miserable to look out the window for days on end. And now that the snow has melted, we see all the gunk that got piled up on the ground over the past few months: the cigarette butts so well hidden in the snow but now standing out against the gray dirt and brown grass, the litter strewn here there and everywhere by the winds of winter, abandoned gloves and hats just waiting to be reunited with their mates and owners, and the dead grass that reminds us of the winter that seemed like it would never end. By contrast, in the South, by now most trees have their leaves back, the days are consistently warmer, and flowers have burst into bloom everywhere. Now there is much that I have come to love about the seasons of New York, not the least of which is the beautiful fall colors that are simply without compare down South, but when the buds are barely on the trees by Easter even when it is as late as it is this year, this southern boy feels like he’s been stuck in the valley of dry bones for six months!
Our reading from the prophet Ezekiel this morning about that valley of dry bones is another one of those stories that defines us. Like the story of Abraham, it is immortalized in a song that keeps it more vivid in our minds than it might otherwise be. Even so, this is a little different from the other stories that we have considered that define us. This is a vision of God’s intentions for the world, not so much a real and immediate depiction of a historical moment and figure, yet it is no less a real and true depiction of how God is at work around us and through us and in us and no less a faithful reflection on what God promises to make real for us and our world.
When in a vision the prophet Ezekiel found himself in this strange valley of very dry bones, he knew that God was up to something. God started things out by asking Ezekiel a question that only God could answer: “Mortal, can these bones live?” Ezekiel rightfully turned the question back on God, who then commanded him to prophesy to the bones:
O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.
Thus says the Lord God to these bones:
I will cause breath to enter you,
and you shall live.
I will lay sinews on 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.
Then as Ezekiel spoke out across the dry bones, into the gray darkness of the valley, “suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone.” As Ezekiel spoke, the valley of dry bones was transformed by the sights and sounds of life, with bones rattling together and sinews and flesh and skin suddenly appearing on these old, dry bones—but they still weren’t alive. It seems that those bones weren’t just lacking the outer skin of life—they were lacking the inner life that would make them flourish, the breath that would fill them and make them live. So God spoke to Ezekiel and told him to prophesy once again, this time to the wind, the spirit, the breath of life:
Thus says the Lord God:
Come from the four winds, O breath,
and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.
The wind, the spirit, the breath of life came upon these bones, these sinews, this flesh, this skin, these bodies—and they lived. Then God made this vision clear to Ezekiel. These bones were not just any bones but the bones of the people of God, seemingly dead and dry after a long exile and countless attacks from every quarter, ready to be lifted up to new life and shown the path to something new. This valley was not just some place where too many went to die but instead will be the cradle of new life. And these bodies restored to new life will not just be a bunch of automatons set in motion as an automated army but a blessing of God to all the nations because of the spirit, the wind, the breath that blows within them.
So what does this story of dry bones mean for us today? At one level, it seems pretty morbid—and it is. This is a story of death, after all. There were lots and lots of bones in that valley, and they were very dry, very dead. But here God promises that death is only the beginning of the story. Erin Wathen puts it very well:
Death doesn’t ruin the story.
It doesn’t steal the joy of love found or moments shared.
It just creates a new kind of beginning,
the potential to start a new chapter and learn life-giving lessons from some new trip, or relationship, or set-back.
Before the bones can rattle back together, before the sinews and flesh and skin can reappear, before the spirit can breathe life into these bodies, the bones have to be very dry and very dead. Before the spring can emerge with meaning, before the buds can sprout forth in beauty, before new life can take hold, the gray and dreary days of winter must be real. And before we can know the deep and real gift of God’s love, before we can experience the reality of forgiveness, before we can emerge from the depths of pain and hurt, we must experience the separation and frustration of sin.
But all this talk of death is only the beginning, for it helps to make the possibility of new life all the more real. It gives us new sight to see signs of new life even in the midst of the longest winter. It gives us hope for new breath to enter the lifeless bodies around us. And it gives us the promise that death may be a part of our story but will certainly not be the end of it. This story—and so our story, too—does not end with dead, dry bones but with living, breathing bodies filled with new life. Our story does not end with an empty valley but with women and men of all times and places filled with God’s Spirit and made ready to go forth to live out God’s mission in the world. And our story does not end with the gray darkness of winter but with spring taking hold all around us, with flowers bursting into bloom, trees budding with new life, and warm sunlight shining into the dark places of our hearts and lives.
So all the stories that define us—and especially this one—ultimately not only look back on the past but look ahead to the future, reminding us that God has made things new over and over again and promises to do the same with us, too. The stories that define us tell us that the gray days of even the longest winters will eventually be displaced with the burst of color in spring. And the stories that define us assure us that God will not only hear our cries out of the depths but will guide us from all our darkness into the bright light of the new day.
The other day, as I was struggling with these words and wondering when this gray and dreary winter would finally give way to new life, I left the church to take some mail to the post office. On my way out of the church, at the top of the basement stairs, I was greeted with a surprise: the first flowers of spring. At the end of this crazy and full week, even as we still wait for spring to burst forth into its fullness, the first flowers of spring reminded me that there is hope for something new, that God is even now making all things new.
So as we await the fullness of the resurrection, may the words of the psalmist inspire us anew:
O [people of God], hope in the Lord!
For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
and with [God] is great power to redeem.
May the breath, the wind, the Spirit of new life blow into us so that we too might be made new as we await the fullness of the resurrection promised in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.