Hope in a time of dry bones


Scripture: Ezekiel 37: 1-14 Nigel Bunce

Today’s Scripture offers hope in a time of dry bones.  The prophet Ezekiel had a vision in which God showed him a valley of dry bones.  They represented the people of Israel, who were in exile in Babylon. Everything seemed hopeless. It seemed that God had abandoned them.  Most of the captured generation had died. Surely this was the end of Israel. Yet this vision offered hope to a despairing people that their situation would improve.  

The parallel with  refugees today

The Israelites despaired that they would never return home. Their children had only ever lived in Babylon. Many had assimilated into Babylonian culture. Some had even married Babylonian locals. Even if they could go home, their Temple had been destroyed. How would they worship God? This must be how people in refugee camps around the world must feel. Though they long to go home, it’s not possible.

That’s the situation for Syrians stuck in refugee camps in Turkey. For the Palestinians, displaced after 1948 to camps in Jordan, they have been refugees for over 70 years. Like many of those Israelites, most Palestinian refugees have never known the land from which their parents and grandparents had to leave. And even if they could go “back”, their homes and farms were confiscated decades ago.

In the vision, God commanded Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones. The bones came together; they became covered with flesh and sinews and skin. The imagery of the story is compelling (at least, to me). I imagine the valley with piles of dry bones and row upon row of skulls. I think of the horrific accounts of discovering mass graves. Imagine Auschwitz, or Srebenica, or Rwanda.

Ezekiel’s vision led to a happier ending

Can these bones live? Picture from https://www.christian-article-bank.com/can-these-bones-live/

Can these bones live?  When Ezekiel prophesied as God told him, the bones rattled and came together. But they did not have the strength to stand up. They had no breath. So God told Ezekiel to prophesy again, to breathe life into them. They stood up and lived, a great multitude.

Ezekiel’s words recall the creation of the first man in Genesis [2: 7]. “God breathed into the man’s nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul.” They also reminded me about what I said last week when Jesus healed a blind man, in Mark’s Gospel [8: 22-26]. The healing miracle happened in two stages. That’s how many of us come to faith: gradually, not all at once. Even in a vision, Ezekiel had to listen to God twice.

After Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of the dry bones, the Israelites returned from exile. They built a new and better Temple. A great flowering of Jewish religion and culture took place. They saw this as God’s power to deliver them from exile. It reminded them that God had brought their ancestors from slavery in Egypt centuries before.

Today’s worries about COVID-19

So Ezekiel’s vision is a metaphor for God’s ability to restore hope in a time of dry bones. A defeated and despairing people thought that their God had abandoned them. Right now, we are worrying, even if not (yet) despairing, about COVID-19. How bad will it be? How long will the emergency last? For those of working age, will my job still exist when this is over? For retirees, what will happen to my retirement savings?

As with an ordinary coin, there are two sides to the issue. Right now, we focus on the catastrophe. Yes, there really is a real likelihood that our health services will be overwhelmed, and that many people will die. Those will be truly tragic events. Many families will grieve the loss of loved ones.

But the other side of the coin is that most people will not die. They will return to work and schools. Churches, theatres, restaurants and sports stadiums will reopen. People will socialize again. For a while at least, people will be more careful about trying to have savings to cover unexpected situations. Business owners will try to shorten their supply chains. 

How this relates to our local parish community

As I said before, Ezekiel’s vision is a metaphor for God’s ability to restore hope in a time of dry bones to a defeated and despairing people. Each week, we at St. George’s pray for families in trouble, and for those who are sick. I think that we are really asking God to offer hope to those in despair, just as in Ezekiel’s vision. Also, of course, we are praying to move our own hearts towards compassion and action.

On the subject of despair, it’s a common refrain today that the main-line Protestant churches in Canada (Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and United) are dying, that we are also just valleys of dry bones. Some observers blame what they call the liberal-Protestant approach to Christianity. They say it’s wishy-washy and allows you to believe what you like. What’s needed, they say, is a return to the doctrine that we are all unredeemable sinners. That God made a holy sacrifice of his Son for us. That God offers redemption and justification through repentance and faith in Jesus.

My personal ‘take’ on the Gospels

I don’t doubt for a moment the importance of repentance and faith in Jesus.  But personally, and I have said this many times, the Pauline doctrine of sin and guilt is not what I take from the Gospels. I see the love, compassion, inclusion, and social justice that Jesus showed in his teachings, and as he dealt with people he met on his travels. These concepts are what we promise when we make or renew our vows at a baptism. Some people may call these ideals wishy-washy, but I don’t. They are very hard to live up to. Faith is a matter of what is in our hearts and in our lives, not what is on our lips.

Because I know that I find it very difficult – consistently – to respect and make room for other people who seem to be different in terms of race, language, religion, and so on. Truly to follow Jesus is to become like him. Jesus did not talk about healing people. He didn’t set up a focus group to decide how best to set about it. He just got on and did it. “Faith without works is dead” [James 2: 17]. Thanks, James, for reminding us that faith and works are complementary, not mutually exclusive, aspects of Christianity.

Every week, the first page of our service bulletin includes these words. “Whoever you are and wherever you are in your journey of life, you are welcome in this place.” They echo Solomon’s prayer when he dedicated the Temple in Jerusalem. Everyone should be welcome there, the foreigner from a distant land as much as a member of the people of Israel [1 Kings 8: 41-43].

Ezekiel’s vision is relevant today

In that spirit, may God give us at St. George’s the same message as Ezekiel received twenty-five hundred years ago, “I will lay sinews upon your dry bones and put breath in you, and you shall live.” May God inspire us to be lively and living community of disciples. Even, perhaps especially, at this time, when everything seems to be dark and we risk losing hope.

Ezekiel’s vision is a metaphor for God’s ability to restore hope in a time of dry bones. Can dry bones live again?  Of course they can, with God’s help.  The sun will shine again. We won’t always be in the valley of the shadow of death. Green pastures and cool waters await us. So let us look with confidence to Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and sits at the right hand of the throne of God [Hebrews 12: 2]. Amen.