john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Can these bones live?

    Sourton, Bridestowe, Lydford Communion Services

    Ezekiel 37.1-14, John 11.1-45
    He said to me, 'Mortal, can these bones live?' I answered, 'O Lord God, you know.'
    How astonishing, Ezekiel's wonderful vision of the valley of the dry bones, dead in the desert, the flesh of God slowly covering them, the breath of God slowly entering them, the Spirit of God bringing them springing and dancing to bold new life - an army reborn; a glorious vision of Israel reborn. It's a remarkable passage of scripture, and it is wonderfully suggestive for a preacher who wants to encourage his listeners to ask the question which the passage asks, with today's world and our lives in mind: can these bones live? - the dried-up people and places of the world, the situations which appear most hopeless to us - can these bones live?

    And so, in our mind's eye, let us transfer Ezekiel's vision of the valley of dry bones to the wildernesses we are aware of today, and ask the same question:

    - of the war-torn communities caught in the crossfire between government and Republican forces in the conflicted desert land of Libya, one of the most arid places on earth, we ask - can these bones live?

    - of the destitute people standing in a wasteland which used to be their home in the tsunami-stricken coastal plains of Northern Japan, we ask - can these bones live?

    Can God breathe new life into a devastated nation? It's a question which connects the displaced peoples of today with Ezekiel's people, the Israelites deported to Babylon in the year 597BC. That year the Babylonians took Israel's land - which was God's gift to them and a sign of their relationship with God; they smashed Israel's temple - which was not only the place where they worshipped God but was also the sign of God's presence with them; and they exiled Israel's king, Zedekiah, and executed his sons - which brought an end to the monarchy which traced its line all the way back to David and the promise that there would always be a king of his line on Israel's throne. One commentator says,
    The fall and destruction of Jerusalem was a catastrophe for Israel for, in that experience, they lost those things which were the basis of their religion and their existence as a people. [1]
    Everything these people knew and valued had been lost; they were experiencing a sort of communal death, cut off completely from all which had defined them and sustained them; a people whose bones had dried up. Can these bones live? - no wonder that question was in the mind of Ezekiel, looking at the wilderness his people were in, and with them yearning for the dry bones to live again.

    But let us take another look at the passage, because a remarkable thing emerges about the question we are contemplating today. Can these bones live?- is not a question which Ezekiel asked God. It's a question which God asked Ezekiel. Surveying the scene of dereliction and loss in the valley of dry bones, the Lord said to Ezekiel, 'Mortal, can these bones live?'

    It is God who gives voice to the question which is on the hearts of all the lost people. Can these bones live? - the petition is made by a God who has seen the people's loss, heard their heart's cries, and who longs to help them. He's asking Ezekiel for an answer: 'Mortal, can these bones live?' All God needs is a response from Ezekiel and he can set in motion the events which bring help, healing, restoration, resurrection, to the dry bones before them. Ezekiel seems a little lost for words at this point, maybe a little lost for faith, but five small words emerge from his mouth:
    He said to me, 'Mortal, can these bones live?' I answered, 'O Lord God, you know.'
    That brief exchange is all God needed to start the work of breathing new life into the bones before them.

    That tiny and somewhat tenuous expression of faith from Ezekiel was enough for God to be able to use him as the agent for this astonishing transformation.

    Then he said to me, 'Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: Odry 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.'
    So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone.

    It always amazes us how God can use the most timid people, the most unlikely people, the people of seemingly little faith, to do great things with him. Ezekiel, the exile wrapped up in the laments and loss of his people, had just enough faith to recognise that if anyone could rescue them, God could, if anyone could breathe life into them the Spirit of God was the one to do it. And God used him.

    God needs us to direct him in his work. God needs us to prompt him to channel the power of the Holy Spirit into restorative actions - into resurrection experiences. Just as Jesus needed some prompting from Martha, angry at Jesus who she believed could have saved her brother Lazarus had he been there at the right time.
    Martha said to Jesus, 'Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.' Jesus said to her, 'Your brother will rise again.' Martha said to him, 'I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.' Jesus said to her, 'I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?' She said to him, 'Yes, Lord, I believe....' (John 11.21-27)
    Was it the Spirit who led Jesus to stay away from the terminally-ill Lazarus, to prompt Martha's angry statement of faith, her bitter expression of belief in the transformative power of Jesus? One thing worth noting: just as God had echoed the cries of the people's hearts in the valley of the dried bones, so, standing before his friend Lazarus's tomb, alongside the grieving sisters, Jesus wept.

    And then, in the most unexpected and wonderful response to Martha, Jesus brought her brother back from the dead. At his command the Spirit moved. Breath re-entered the body. The bones of Lazarus lived, moved, and danced again.

    The story of Lazarus in the tomb and the story of Ezekiel in the valley of the dry bones tell us these things: that in situations of devastating loss and despair God knows the cries of our hearts even before we utter them; that God himself brings these cries to the surface - and as we respond by placing our faith in him, he releases his Spirit to revive, resurrect, restore.

    'Mortal, can these bones live?' Do we believe that that question still has currency today? Can we believe that God still asks that question of people who are at their lowest ebb, sharing their pain, yearning to release his Spirit to bring healing and resurrection?

    Let us believe that God is still listening to the cries of our hearts, and asking us whether we believe he can bring new life to the situations which are harming us. And so, let us believe that:

    - to the man who has just come off the phone to his wife's divorce solicitor, confirming the beginning of the end of his marriage, standing in the wreckage of a relationship gone wrong, God says, 'Mortal, can these bones live?'

    - to the woman at a window of a mental hospital, staring through her reflection at the outside world which has so damaged her that she fears she can never return there, God says, 'Mortal, can these bones live?'

    - to the wheelchair-bound patient, looking with his consultant at a set of x-rays of his shattered pelvis, consequence of an accident at work, considering a future of restricted mobility and joblessness, God says, 'Mortal, can these bones live?'

    He said to me, 'Mortal, can these bones live?' I answered, 'O Lord God, you know.'

    Let us pray that those who most need to know that God is alongside them in their suffering, sense the presence of his Spirit at their lowest ebb, hear him asking them to let his Spirit turn their lives around.

    Let us pray that they find even the smallest speck of faith to be able to respond to him, to prompt the release of God's Holy Spirit into the situation, to revive, heal, resurrect, restore.

    To Ezekiel, God offered an astonishing vision of restoration. It is available to all, even those of little faith, broken faith, angry faith. From the Babylonian exile to our world today, this is what God says:
    'O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, ... then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.'

    [1] This section of the talk is based on my earlier sermon, Ezekiel: voice of the exile 10/8/2008, which includes the reference to Charles R. Biggs, Book of Ezekiel; Epworth Commentary, xii.