For December 3, 2016
An individual bone is a thing of beauty. A skull is captivating. We can study the intricacies of the interlocking bones, trace the openings for nerves and blood vessels that nourished the living animal.
But a pile of bones becomes depressing. We begin to feel the weight of death. And a vast plain littered with a jumble of bones? It is a horror. It tugs at our eyes. We are compelled to see it. But it repulses our hearts. Why? How? When? What shrieking pain? What ocean of grief?
The prophet Ezekiel saw a vision of a vast plain littered with bones, like the American plains after the buffalo exterminators had rampaged through and vultures and time had had their way. Bleached, jumbled bones.
It was a bleak, heart-breaking vista. (See Ezekiel 37)
“Ezekiel,” the heavenly voice calls, “can these bones live again?”
The answer is, of course, not. But Ezekiel is a prophet and he knows that both in dreams and with God everything is possible, so he responds with a very diplomatic, “Lord, you alone know.”
So God tells the prophet, “Prophesy to these bones. Tell them, ‘Bones, O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. This is what God says, “Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and you will live. I will wrap you with sinews and muscles. I will cover you with skin, and put breath into you, and you will live. Then you will know that I am the Lord.”’”
The prophet spoke as he was commanded. The bones rattled themselves together. Sinews and muscles grew themselves around the skeletons then were covered with skin. As a final act, the prophet called on the breath of God to blow into these beautiful bodies and the wind came and the bodies became people. The valley of dry bones became a parade ground of a vast triumphant army.
Then God speaks again to the prophet. In my imagination, God speaks in a whisper, bending close to the prophet’s ear:
Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. You know what they say: We are wasted to nothing but dry bones. All our hope is lost. Our bones are dried, and our hope is lost. We have come to nothing. That is what they say.
But this is what I say: O my people, I will open your graves. I will bring you again into the promised land. I will put my spirit in you, and you will live. I will settle you back in your own land. Then you will know that I am the Lord.
A bit of historical context will give even richer meaning to these words: Centuries earlier the Jewish people had split in a civil war. The northern kingdom, with their capital at Samaria, is commonly called Israel. The southern kingdom, with Jerusalem as its capital was called Judah.
The Jewish people were split in two. Then the northern kingdom, the nation called Israel, the nation with the larger population was captured by Assyria. The population was deported and completely disappeared from history. Evaporated. Gone. Extinct. It was a devastating loss. The only thing that eased the sense of loss among the people in Jerusalem is that they could tell themselves that those Jews up north, those Israelites, were not real Jews. Those people up there are them—not us. And while it’s understandable why God would allow that to happen to them, it could never happen to us. We have God’s promise that our kingdom, our royal line will endure forever.
But now, a hundred fifty years later, Judah was staring at the same fate—extinction. Their capital city, Jerusalem was a pile of rubble. The vast majority of the Jewish people lived in various locations scattered across the empire of Babylon. Ezekiel himself, the prophet, did not live in “the holy land” or Palestine. He lived in a town on the Chebar River in the realm of Babylon. There was no more Jewish “nation.” It appeared they, too, were headed for extinction.
It was against that backdrop that Ezekiel wrote his vision of the Dry Bones. Can dry bones live? Is there any hope of life in a sea of disarticulated skeletons? A sea of bones picked clean by vultures, washed by the rain, bleached by the sun. Is there any hope? I suppose you could convert them into bone meal for fertilizer? Can dry bones live? No, not in the ordinary course of things. Can dry bones live? Yes, if God does something out of the ordinary.
And the hope of the prophets has always been that God will do something out of the ordinary.
This is the heart of prophecy throughout the Jewish scriptures. The ancient Jewish writers recognized human frailty and evil. They understood our susceptibility to the seductions of greed and vengeance, the idolatry of wealth and power. The prophets know that individuals and societies sometimes take themselves down. Over and over and over and over the prophets rebuked those in power, the priests and royalty and wealthy and powerful for their abuse of office. The prophets challenged them to use their power to partner with God in caring for the lowly ones.
The prophets acknowledged that goodness was unlikely. The seductions were too enchanting, too deceptive. The allure would prove irresistible and doom would happen. Things would spiral down. Dark days. Night would come.
Yes. But this was not the last word. God would work a grand reversal. God would bring his people back from darkness. God would cure his people of their infatuation with power and narrowly enjoyed wealth. God would create righteous hearts among his people. Dry bones would live. The valley of dry bones would become the marching ground of the heavenly band.
Hope was the last word. God would make it happen.
This same prophetic rhythm plays through all the prophets of the Old Testament. Humans would fail. Humans would yield to the seductive allure of bullies and idols. The holy civilization would collapse. But that would not be the last word. God would change things.
Swords would be beaten into plowshares.
Every family would have its own pleasant home, its own flourishing fig tree, its own peaceable neighborhood.
This would happen, not because people finally got it. The prophets did not imagine that we would learn from our mistakes. No, the prophets’ bold hope was that God would change the course of history. God would reshape humanity. Peace would reign because God would reign.
We make the most sense of the story of Jesus when we keep this prophetic heritage in mind. The first Christians were sure that Jesus was the heavenly agent who would accomplish this change of history. Jesus was the embodiment of the hope of the prophetic visions. Jesus was the one who would change dry bones into a living people.
With this in mind let’s read again the words of our New Testament reading.
This is how Jesus the Messiah was born. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. But before the marriage took place, while she was still a virgin, she became pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Joseph, her fiancé, was a good man and did not want to disgrace her publicly, so he decided to break the engagement quietly. As he considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. “Joseph, son of David,” the angel said, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit. And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
All of this occurred to fulfill the Lord’s message through his prophet: “Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel, which means ‘God is with us.'” Matthew 1:18-24
Jesus was the fulfillment of the prophetic hope: God would enter humanity. God would change humanity.
This is the center of our holy civilization. We believe Jesus is the future of what it means to be human. Jesus is what God looks like when God walks among us.
When God comes among us, the lame walk, the blind see, the hungry eat, the poor rejoice, the foreigner finds welcome, the wealthy find delight in generosity, the wise find pleasure in teaching, the holy are known for their loving.
This much is exhortation. It is direction for us as we shape the culture of this Holy City, the church. We are a City of Hope. Our public face is hope. We believe goodness will triumph. We help one another hope. When the weight of death and sickness, injustice and disaster overwhelms one or another of us, the rest of us, the community stubbornly persists in hope. Hope is central in our culture. Hope helps to define us. We are people of hope.
We hope that Jesus will, indeed, ultimately have his way. We believe wars will cease. We believe the broken will be made whole. In our worship—both in our music and in our spoken word—we affirm over and over and over again.
The dry bones will live.
God’s spirit will triumph.
Love and justice will flourish.
Our future is correctly pictured as a sunlit verdant plain, populated as far as the eye can see by happy, holy, healthy people. This is our hope. Now and always.