Video of Vespers is here. The sermon begins around the 19:25 mark.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Dry bones. A valley filled with them. God’s Spirit-wind blows Ezekiel into the middle of a wide battle-field, and takes him on a walk. Look around at all these “very dry” bones. Can these bones live? Look at the cemeteries and the graves. Can these people live? What about those who have been consumed by water, or fire, or worms? Can they live? I don’t know what Ezekiel was thinking when God asked him that, but he doesn’t say “yes.” He says, “Lord Yahweh, You know.” God does know, but Israel, you will know too. The day is coming when you will know what God knows. You will know that He is God, and that you are His people.
But God’s people are continually trying to be not His people. Ezekiel is in the land of Babylon, not in Israel. And he’s there because the people refused to listen to God and to worship Him only. Instead, they preferred to have a lot of choices in the gods they wanted to worship. Maybe today it’s Baal. Maybe tomorrow it’s Asherah. And maybe on the Sabbath we’ll go back to Yahweh. This is our life, Yahweh. These are our choices. Who are you to tell us that we can’t decide for ourselves? Don’t you want us to be happy? The problem, of course, is not that God doesn’t want you to be happy. It’s that He knows that if we are left to ourselves, the things we choose because we think they will make us happy will only lead us away from God, who alone will be our joy and our happiness.
We have this bad habit of separating God from various good things. So we talk in general about life, or joy, or happiness, or heaven, but one might get the impression from how we talk about those things that they have nothing to do with God at all. So Martha, after Lazarus has died, talks to Jesus as if He is a special person who has an in with God, who can ask God for stuff, and He will listen to Jesus and give it. Martha thinks of the resurrection on the last day, which is good, but there doesn’t seem to be any connection in her mind between the resurrection on the last day and Jesus. Like when we talk about someone dying and going to heaven, but we say generic things like, “They’re in a better place.” What makes it better? A lack of pain and suffering? Is heaven related to Jesus in any way? Or is He just the means to get to where we want to go?
These dry bones are dried out not because they don’t have life in general, but because they don’t have God, who is life. This is the whole house of Israel, God tells Ezekiel. And they say, our hope has perished, and we are cut off: cut off from Jerusalem, cut off from the Temple, cut off from God. They might be saying the words of the psalmist: “I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am a man who has no strength, like one set loose among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, like those whom You remember no more, for they are cut off from Your hand. … Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and You overwhelm me with all Your waves” (Psalm 88:4-5, 7). Overwhelmed with exile; be ashamed and confounded for your ways, your iniquities and your abominations, O house of Israel (Ezekiel 36:31, 32).
When God gives life to the dead and dry bones of Israel, returning them to life, it is not because they have gotten their lives together. It is not because they’ve done better, or improved, or better kept the commandments of God. God says, “It is not for your sake that I will act, declares the Lord Yahweh; let that be known to you” (Ezekiel 36:32). But it is not known to them until God restores them to the land and makes it fruitful and abundant. “Then you will remember your evil ways, and your deeds that were not good, and you will loathe yourselves for your iniquities and your abominations” (36:31). Only the Spirit of God makes known to us who and what we are. Not only would we never discover on our own that Jesus is the Savior God has sent, but we would never know just how deep our sin and rebellion and idolatry go. This is part of the work of the Spirit: showing us just how dry and dead our bones are.
Saving knowledge of God is backward of how we would expect. We expect it to go like this: we figure out just how sinful we are, then we come to God for forgiveness. But through His prophet Ezekiel, He tells us that it is the opposite: God saves us in Jesus Christ when He is crucified and raised from the dead; then God breathes the Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, into us, so that we believe Jesus and are rejoined to the Father; then we see just how much our sin costs. Then we rejoice all the more to leave behind the dust and death that we couldn’t even recognize when we were in the midst of it. Dead bones do not know they are dead. But when God raises them from the dead, then they know that He is Yahweh their God. “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you…. I will put My Spirit in your heart, and [then] cause you to walk in My statutes and to keep My judgments and do them” (Ezekiel 36:25-27). Say to the dry bones: Hear the word of Yahweh! And somehow they do. Wash with water and the Spirit, and say some words, and God does what He says. I will cause to come into you the Spirit and you will live.
This prophecy that God gives Ezekiel to speak is not a wish. These are not empty words. This is the living voice of the living God, so that when He speaks to dry, dead bones, they become living ones, full of marrow and connected to each other. Death is reversed. Exile is undone. Those who are cut off form the life of God are brought back to the place where God has promised to dwell among them, and the life of God by His Spirit is restored to them.
See, God cannot and will not be separated from the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting. The resurrection and the life are not something that you can have outside of the body of Jesus. He is the resurrection and the life, and you who are joined to Him, who abide in Him, who eat His body and drink His blood—you are the ones who are truly alive, and who will then, therefore, live forever. There is no lasting happiness, or joy, or life, outside of the living God, who has revealed Himself in the life-giving flesh and blood of the eternal Son, made man from the Virgin.
And it is in that life and resurrection that you will know what God knows. Can these dead bones live? Can these bodies live, even though they die? Can we, who only know death, know eternal life? Lord Yahweh, You know. Yes, He knows, because His dead body on the cross is the same as the resurrection body in which He appeared to Mary Magdalene, and the two on the road to Emmaus, and to the other eleven, and to 500 at one time, and to St. Paul on the road to Damascus. God caused Him to be like one who is cut off from the hand of God. Then He set Him loose among the dead and the graves to wreak havoc on death, and bring it to its end. He knows that the dead can live, because He was dead and now is alive. Because He is Yahweh; He has spoken, and He has done it. Now, He says, you will know that I am Yahweh. This is what He said to the people before He brought them out of Egypt: “I will take you to be for Me a people, and I will be to you God, and you will know that I am Yahweh your God” (6:5). You will know this because He will deliver you from slavery in Egypt.
But more than in any other place in the Scriptures, God says through the prophet Ezekiel, “You will know that I am Yahweh.” I counted 21 times just in Ezekiel where God speaks those words. And above all, you will know this in the resurrection. God cannot be separated from the resurrection. Apart from the resurrection, you essentially have no God—or at least, you cannot know Him. Apart from the resurrection of Jesus, we will make up all sorts of nonsense about God. God, who is Life itself; Christ, who is your life, will not be separated from the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. When will Israel know that Yahweh is truly their God? Not in the exile; not in the punishment; not in the wrath; not in the commandment; but in the resurrection: “Thus says the Lord Yahweh: I will open your graves and raise you up from your graves, My people, and I will bring you into the land of Israel. And you will know that I am Yahweh in My opening of your graves and My raising you from your graves, My people. And I will give My Spirit into you and you will live, and I will cause you to rest in your land, and you will know that I am Yahweh, and you will know that I have done it; (this is) the word of Yahweh” (37:12-14).
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, 3/22/23