This Sunday, we celebrate Pentecost, when the spirit of God filled the disciples in dramatic fashion following Jesus ascension to heaven. As familiar as the story of Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones is, we easily forget the ‘avalanche of catastrophe’ that led to that moment. The Israelites, conquered and exiled from the promised land, were a living representation of the dry bones. The dry bones needed to become reconnected to live again. So did the Israelites. So do we.
The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3 He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” 4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5 Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6 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.”
7 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. 8 I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. 9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” 10 I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
11 Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ 12 Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14 I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.”
Sunday is Pentecost. It is the day we celebrate God’s creative and uniting Spirit—the force that creates something out of nothing—the Spirit that gives life. It is the same ‘ruach’ (wind, spirit, breath) of God that sweeps over the waters at creation. (Genesis 1:1,2 “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”) . It is the same ‘ruach’ that breathes life into Adam (Genesis 2:7 “then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.”) It is the ‘ruach’ that animates the bones and gives hope in Ezekiel and finally it is the same ruach that inspires and enables the disciples to become Christ’s body in the world. (Acts 2:2,4,43 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting… 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability….43 So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.”)
The Holy Spirit is the way to describe the force that creates and connects. The Holy Spirit is the source of life and ultimately it is our connection to the eternal. It is present in the physical world, in the biological world and the spiritual world. Whatever particles or elements that we call the building blocks of the universe would never combine to build anything without something to connect them. Hydrogen and oxygen might be in abundance but there would be no water. (Nor could we even imagine water if our only experience was with the gaseous elements of hydrogen and oxygen). Whether it is poetic or literal, there has to be something that forms new connections to make something new. The bones stay scattered and all hope is lost unless the spirit animates them. There are no families without connections; there is no love without connections. God is a creator God who wants life for us and wants eternal life for us.
There is a temptation, however, to tame this story. ‘Dem Bones, Dem Bones, Dem Dry Bones’ is a fun tune from childhood. Scattered bones becoming skeletons becoming dancing people is a wonderfully visual image of the dead coming to life and of God’s restorative power. The Holy Spirit can make things new, the Holy Spirit can transform the worst of circumstances. This is indeed the most important take home message of the passage. But to fully appreciate this statement of faith and hope, we must appreciate the avalanche of catastrophe that led to the prophecy.
The Hebrew people had a powerful self understanding of themselves as God’s chosen people. God acted for them and through them. This was the foundational premise and promise of their faith. But now all of the indicators of God’s promises were shattered. The temple was destroyed, the nation humiliated and the people separated from the promised land. They were devastated. Everything they thought they knew and relied upon was gut wrenchingly ripped from them. How could they imagine they were still God’s chosen? How could they imagine anything new or creative could come? How could they trust God?
This is not a place most of us want to enter the story. There are many destructive forces in our world and they are frighteningly common. It is painful to notice the avalanche of catastrophes that uproot the foundations of our lives. In Faith in Real Life, we spoke of a family recovering from the suicide of their adult daughter, the intractable struggles of long term care, the times when depression descends and immobilizes, the dreaded knowledge of a terminal diagnosis, families who are irreconcilable, the deaths in Syria and the Gaza or the repeating genocides of the centuries. In real life, avalanches of catastrophe are happening every day. Sometimes, we watch from afar, sometimes on the fringe and sometimes we are crushed. These are the dramatic times that challenge faith.
In the face of a despair that was beyond imagining, Ezekiel is told to prophesy to the bones. The bones were the disconnected remains of Israel. The bones are what remain when we feel cut off completely from anything that is life giving.
Please notice the sequence and movement of Ezekiel’s prophecy. “Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones…” When we are alone and disconnected, whatever is left must reconnect in order to survive. If you are in the midst of the avalanche, you almost certainly will be numb, if not unconscious. It is hard to get out of bed. It is hard to meet people. It is hard to watch the world go on while yours has been shredded. Connections within yourself and with others are damaged. It is akin to going into shock after severe trauma. You can’t stay in that place but for a time, it is merciful. There is simply too much pain to bear. In such a state, we can only be ministered unto.
But once the initial shock has begun to fade, a different numbness begins. Robotic movement begins, routines get re-established but it is hard to have purpose. The questions, ‘How can I go on?’ Or ‘How can the world survive such cruelty, selfishness and killing?’ begin to form. Ezekiel is called to “Prophesy to the breath,…that they may live.” Life is more than survival. Life is more than the re-establishing routines. We believe that life organized around and dedicated to love is what gives life meaning and purpose. That is a huge faith claim. We must be inspired. We must be reconnected to go on. We must receive the breath of God to reorient our lives from devastation to hope. You’ve seen it happen. It may have happened to you. Even in a strange and foreign landscape, people find ways to affirm life.
And finally, Ezekiel is called to prophesy to the eternal. Even if what we have known is gone, Ezekiel prophesies that God’s promises are steadfast and sure. God’s promises and God’s love, transcend our deaths. At any given time the forces of death and destruction may win. Our lives may be too short to see God’s final victory. But our deepest faith is that we are loved and that love will prevail—even in the midst of avalanches of catastrophe.
We wait (sometimes patiently and sometimes impatiently) for the Lord. We are reminded that his promises are sure and worthy of full acceptance. This is powerful prophesy to a forlorn and desolate people. And it is a powerful prophecy to us. It frees us to do what we can when we can. (The bumper sticker version is it allows us to bloom where we are planted).
One last note. The animation of the bones is not a spectator sport. Ezekiel had to call the bones to life. We must be agents of connection, reminders that connection and love is possible even in the valleys of desolation. When we lose touch with that promise, we must be witnessed to. Without each other, we will fail.
Liturgically, this is the Sunday that we celebrate the birth of the church. Christians, in the midst of grief, were called to love the way Christ loved. Christians were called to witness to love when their leader had been killed and they were being hunted. We, likewise, are called to love one another and to love the world. We must knit together to become the body of Christ. It requires that we hold fast to God’s promises and it requires that we prophesy to each other in the midst of the most catastrophic of avalanches. The Holy Spirit is not always gentle.
Breathe on me, Breath of God,
fill me with life anew,
that I may love as thou dost love,
and do what thou wouldst do. (Edwin Hatch 1878)
LET IT BE SO.