Download or listen to Lenten Midweek VI, “When I Open Your Graves” (Ezekiel 37:1-14)
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Ezekiel begins his prophecy among the exiles by the Chebar canal in Babylon. The year is 593 BC. Jerusalem is under siege by Nebuchadnezzar. And God tells Ezekiel that Jerusalem will fall and the Temple will be destroyed. But if there is no city and there is no Temple, the place where God promised to be present in mercy for His people, what sort of future could Israel hope to have? They are like the bones of a vast, dead army scattered across a valley of slaughter. And Yahweh puts Ezekiel down right in the middle of the devastation. Walking around, he can barely avoid stepping on bones; but there is no stench of death. These bones are dried up and there’s no way they’re coming back to life. The dead don’t rise. “Son of man, these bones are all the House of Israel. See, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope has perished; we ourselves are cut off” (Ezekiel 37:11). If you want to know the depth of emotion and the nearly utter hopelessness the exile to Babylon brought out in the people, read the book of Lamentations sometime. For Israel, physical death and spiritual death are not as far apart as they might seem to us. God is life, and if God is gone, life is gone. And this is true, whether or not we realize it. You can be breathing, eating, and drinking, but be dead even as you move through your life. You can gain the whole world, but lose your life—because your life is Christ, and to live without Christ is to starve yourself like a cut-off branch from its vine. In Ezekiel 37, every time you hear “Spirit,” “breath,” or “wind” it is the exact same word. And they cannot be separated out neatly, precisely because Yahweh is behind it all; He is the Creator of all things, and we confess it when we say we believe in the Holy Spirit, “the Lord and Giver of life.” God is life, and if death has come, only God can restore life.
Ezekiel discovers this in a very concrete way: God speaks to the dead, and the dead rise. God’s Word through His servants is exactly as powerful as God’s Word itself. God says, “Speak thus,” and Ezekiel says, “Thus saith Yahweh.” When that Word, even spoken by one among the exiles, comes to the dry bones of Israel, they become a flip-chart of human physiology: first Yahweh pulls together the bones with sinews and tendons, then He puts muscles and flesh on, then He spreads skin over the whole thing. Then, as the wind breathes from one end of the planet to another, so the Spirit breathes life into this vast army. And then the promise to this Church militant: I will bring you back into the Land, and you will be one People, and you will have one King and one Shepherd (37:24ff.).
A new people, a new land, a new David. Again, it bears repeating: death, physical or spiritual, is about as final for us as it gets. Death is to be cut off completely from this world, and we can think of nothing worse. But even dry bones and full graves are nothing for the Lord of life and death, who has already traveled that way. How can we be sure? How can we know that this is not some sort of joke, which we can’t even know is a joke until it’s too late? Because God has done it before. Recall Moses, told by God to go and rescue His people from Egypt. What would be the sign that God was telling the truth? Only a sign that comes after the actual rescue: That Moses would come back to the mountain of the burning bush, and would worship there. Better yet, recall Jesus, told by God to go and rescue His people from sin. What would be the sign that God was telling the truth? A sign after the actual rescue: That Jesus would rise on the third day. Ezekiel in this valley of dry bones is not just a picture of a prophet among his exiled people; it is a picture of the Prophet among His exiled people. Jesus was set down by the Spirit of God, His Spirit, in the middle of the devastation of dead, dry bones, empty of life, lovers of death. We did not know we were cut off from life until Life took on flesh in our midst. The walking dead don’t know they are dead. And then, so we could live, Life Himself was cut off, as Yahweh says through another prophet: “By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people?” (Isaiah 53:8, ESV). “Yahweh has laid on him the iniquity of us all…He poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sins of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors” (53:6, 12). Cut off from the land of the living, so that you will not be; forsaken by God so that your hope cannot perish; thirsty and parched, so that your bones will never be dried up. And even when you lie in your grave, God will come to bring you into the eternal Land of promise with the whole House of Israel, who, like our father Abraham, trust the promise of Yahweh. “And you shall know that I am Yahweh, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people” (Ezekiel 37:13). You have the Spirit of God in you, with the new heart God granted you when you were sprinkled with clean water and washed clean from all your uncleanness and idolatry, just as Ezekiel prophesied. And God has put His servants in your midst, fellow exiles in the land of sin and death, to proclaim His Word: O dry bones! Hear the Word of Yahweh! You shall live! Then you shall know that I am Yahweh; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares Yahweh (37:14). God’s Word is always the last Word for you.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 4/8/14