God grabbed the prophet Ezekiel and dropped him into the middle of a valley filled with bones that had been bleached by the sun of any sign of life. They were so dry that even the marrow was gone. Then, as Ezekiel took in this sight, God posed this question: “Can these bones live?” How would you answer that question?
I know that part of me would have answered with a tinge of sarcasm, “are you kidding?” But hopefully, I would follow Ezekiel’s example and simply say: “O Lord God, You know.” That is a prayer of faith that allows for God to do what I may think is impossible.
Each of the Lenten lectionary readings from the Old Testament, speak of acting in faith. Sometimes, the texts describe situations, like in the Garden, where the people demonstrate a lack of faith in God, but there are other texts that tell a different story of faith, like the story of the call of Abram and Sarai to migrate to a strange land so that they and their descendants could be a blessing to all the families of the earth. This morning, scripture takes us into the exile so that we can hear a prophet bring a word of hope to these exiles.
The imagery we encounter in this passage is very powerful. It invites us to imagine a large valley covered with dry, dead, bones. We’ve all seen pictures like this. In this reading, God invites the prophet Ezekiel to preach a revival sermon to a congregation made up of these dry and lifeless bones. While he might have felt a little self-conscious about this assignment, I envision him mounting the pulpit and beginning to preach. Even though this congregation was made up of dry bones, he preached a powerful and bold sermon. He told the bones, on behalf of God: “I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.” At that moment, a revival broke out in that valley.
Something happened in that valley that only Disney animators could “bring to life.” The bones began to rattle, and as they shook, they began to come together, bone to bone, knit together with the sinew that began to form on them. Then, as the skeletons began to take form, flesh and skin covered the bones. Then, Ezekiel looked across the valley, and saw this army of bodies standing before him where dry bones had once lain. It was a grand site, but even though the bodies had formed, they still lacked one thing. That’s why God, told Ezekiel to preach another sermon. In that sermon, Ezekiel called on the four winds to come and breathe life into the bodies. Yes, just as God took that first human at the beginning of creation and breathed life into that body, the four winds came up and filled the bodies with the breath of life. That is, God used the four winds to breathe the Spirit into the bodies. As we ponder this scene, it’s worth noting that the Hebrew word ruach can be translated as breath, wind, and spirit. After the four winds breathed the spirit into the bodies, the revival really broke out across the valley.
As we contemplate this revival, we need to remember that it took place while the nation of Judah experienced the Babylonian Exile. The once proud nation of Judah had been stripped of its monarchy; it’s leading citizens had been carted off to a foreign land; and its city walls and Temple had been demolished. To get a sense of what they were going through, think of places like Aleppo or Mosul. These once great cities, now lie in rubble, as their people are forced into exile.
In thinking through this story, it’s important to remember the promise God made to Abraham and Sarah, that their descendants would become a great nation and be a blessing to all the families of the earth. That promise, which formed this people, now seemed in danger of perishing with the nation of Judah. Despite that sense of doom, God wanted Ezekiel to breathe into these exiles hope that God would fulfill this promise. In other words, God wasn’t finished with them quite yet!
Earlier in the sermon I suggested that Ezekiel preached a revival sermon. While we don’t often speak of revivals in churches like ours, I think this is a great image for us today as a congregation. Luke Powery writes that “the word ‘revival’ stems from the Latin word revivere, which means ‘to live again.’ This definition implies that something has died.”
Down through the ages, revivals have broken out during moments of spiritual dryness. Several of these revivals or awakenings have broken out in our country over the centuries, beginning in the eighteenth century with the “First Great Awakening.” When the “Second Great Awakening,” broke out at the beginning of the nineteenth century, one of the most famous expressions of that revival was held at Cane Ridge in Kentucky. Barton W. Stone was the pastor of a log church that stood out in the middle of a wilderness. When revival fires broke out at Cane Ridge, thousands gathered to hear preaching and share in a communion service. The preaching took place outdoors, while the people who felt called to share in the Supper would file into the small church and partake of the meal. From the reports that came from that event, lots of strange things happened, things that don’t usually take place in our worship services. Then in 1906, a Pentecostal revival broke out in a little storefront church, on Azusa Street in Los Angeles. Something amazing happened during that revival. All kinds of people who didn’t normally hang around together, were brought together by the Spirit of God. The lead preacher was an African American man named William Seymour, but he wasn’t alone in this. There were many preachers, including women preachers. The congregation included white, Latino, black, and Asian, rich and poor. The Spirit moved powerfully through them, and today the Pentecostal movement is expanding exponentially across the globe, even as the Stone-Campbell movement expanded across the frontier in the years after Cane Ridge. In each of these revivals, dry bones were brought back to life by the winds of the Spirit.
While we don’t talk much about revival these days, it’s good to remember that the Disciples of Christ movement was born in the midst of revival fires. While we often talk about Stone and Campbell, we can’t forget the ministry of Walter Scott, who was the evangelist of our movement. He went from town to town preaching a very basic message that he found revealed in Acts 2. He used the “Five-fingered Exercise” to communicate what he believed was the message of salvation: Belief in Jesus, followed by repentance and baptism, which led to forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit—that ruach that brought to life Ezekiel’s dry bones (Acts 2:38).
While Ezekiel’s audience made up of discouraged exiles may have wondered whether they would ever get home, the prophet reaffirmed God’s promise that they would be a nation of blessing. This story, filled with imagery that a Disney animator would love to bring to life, offers hope not only to the exiles but to every generation of believers who may feel as if God had abandoned them. Sometimes we may feel as if we’re experiencing spiritual exile. It might seem as if we’ve reached the end of the road with God. When we feel this burden, we hear Ezekiel responding to God’s call to preach to the dry bones, inviting the four winds to breathe life back into the bones. With God there is always hope.
Sometimes we feel as if our churches are dry bones scattered across the valley floor. We watch as our churches get smaller, and nothing we try in order to turn things around seem to be working. Our culture seems to be getting courser and less responsive to spiritual things. That may mean that an awakening is about to begin.
Diana Butler Bass wrote a book called Christianity after Religion, in which she suggested that a new spiritual awakening was taking shape. I believe that there is something to this. Maybe we’re only at the point at which the bones are beginning to rattle, but the bones are rattling. Something seems to be afoot. Revival is at hand. Of course, as Diana points out, Awakenings take work. Remember that God used Ezekiel to bring revival to the exiles. And, as Diana points out the change that comes with revival can be difficult, but necessary. [Christianity after Religion, pp. 31-32]
Ezekiel stood up to preach, and he shared with the exiles God’s promise that even the dead would once again dwell in the Land! And, God said through Ezekiel, “you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act.”
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
April 2, 2017