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6th June 2021

Raised Again?

Passage: Ezekiel 37;1-14

The prophet Ezekiel was staring at a world in ruins. His nation of Israel had been invaded and ultimately destroyed. Living in exile with his people, news had reached them that their holy city of Jerusalem and their temple-the focus of their worship and their whole national identity- had been burned to the ground. There was nothing left of the place they had once lived or of the people they had once been.
Today we stand with many people who are looking at their world in ruins. Families have been bereaved or torn apart by lockdown; jobs have been lost; homes are under threat; children’s education and upbringing have been seriously disrupted; the High Street, like the church, was already under threat before the pandemic, now survival looks even less likely. Add to all this the growing threat of climate change and natural disaster; plus the never-ending international conflicts and we too, can say that we look at a world in ruins.
Ezekiel was a well- informed man, who understood how the world worked. He knew all about politics and economics, culture and society. He was not going to fob his people off with religious platitudes. But he needed to say something. And, as I see it, either he must abandon faith and tell his people that, in his opinion, they had been wasting their time on a god who did not exist or he had to give a message from a real God, offering authentic hope.
Let’s hear the story, then, of Ezekiel’s famous vision- the valley of the dry bones. Listen for what we might find in this that offers any realistic hope today.
EZEKIEL 37, verses 1- 14
The hand of the LORD was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the LORD and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry.
He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” I said, “Sovereign LORD, you alone know.”
Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the LORD.’ ”
So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’ ” So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a great host.
Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the LORD have spoken, and I have done it, declares the LORD.’ ”

Well, what do you make of this story? The bones represent total lifelessness. Once a person’s body is reduced to dry bones, they are far beyond the reach of resuscitation. Ezekiel is looking at a hopeless situation.
The question, well Ezekiel, can these bones live? And the answer, Lord, you alone know that tell us a lot about Ezekiel. From his own knowledge of medical science, there is no way these bones can ever be restored to life. But he acknowledges a greater power and a greater wisdom than his own in the universe: Lord, only you know the answer. And this is not a naïve fatalism: whatever will be, will be. Leave it all to God. This is faith: faith which trusts a greater power and acknowledges a greater wisdom than our own. And, to Ezekiel, this power and wisdom are revealed not only in the “spiritual highs” of temple worship but also through the politics and economics of the nations; in the cultures and social structures by which we live. Ezekiel’s message, over and over again, is that God has ultimate sovereignty over all. Ezekiel admits that hope for a better world must come from God because every other power has let us down.

So, to this man of faith, instructions are given: first, order the bones to come together. See the tendons, flesh, skin re-form. Start putting the structures back together. Is this not how we are told to deal with a crisis? Get back into a routine: eat, sleep, exercise, see your friends, interests, clean up your house: small steps made in a tentative spirit of hope- that your life is worth re-building.

Then second, Call on the wind to enter these bodies that they may live. No matter how diligent we are in getting the routines of life back together, it is always some time before we say, “I finally feel like “me” again.” There is a big step between going through the motions of life to actually living.
In the Bible the wind is used as a metaphor for the Spirit of God. “Call on the wind, the Spirit of God, Ezekiel, to enter these lifeless bodies, that they may live.” Only then did they rise up. Remember Jesus’ words: “I am come that you might have life and have it more abundantly.” We can put the pieces of our lives back together but it is God’s Spirit that will make us alive again.

We have a very powerful message here: that there is hope even in the face of utter desolation if this hope is rooted in God.
I just wonder if that still sounds a bit naïve? After all, history has a nasty habit of repeating itself. Remember how the war to end all wars was followed by another within twenty years? No-one seriously believes that there will never be another pandemic. Ezekiel had further visions of a nation restored and re-united after years of bitter division. He had a vision of a new temple built in Jerusalem. And yes, to a certain extent these visions came to pass until the next superpower invaded and the next internal division arose and the temple was destroyed again.
If you read the history of the Christian church you will find records of the-church-as-it-was-known dwindling to nothing but then a revival of faith until the next downfall. Are we wasting our time on God?

The question which struck me for the first time about this vision was “what were these people being restored to life for?” Without a purpose in life, we remain victims of whatever our culture dictates. Ezekiel was living in a world which had been decimated by a culture of violence, greed and power struggles. So “what were these people being restored to life for?” They were being restored to create an alternative culture- a culture of justice, peace, compassion and the worship of a Being greater than themselves. Without this alternative culture, the world would simply continue to be devastated by violence, greed and power struggles.

Let me tell you about the vision Ezekiel had of the new temple. It started with details of the building, how impressive and lovely it was. Fair enough- we are looking forward to fresh flowers on the rostrum again, an entrance through which people can walk freely and space to gather and talk, even share food and drink again.
But the structure alone was not enough to make it a holy place. We are told that, when all was ready, the “glory of the Lord” entered the temple. What will it take for the glory of the Lord to fill this place? It is not about the numbers present, although it is always wonderful to see the church filled. It is not even about everything being done perfectly, although that is nice too… It is about hearts and lives being open to the presence and the power of God. And I have felt that during times when there were only a handful of people present in a church but the depth of their longing for God was palpable. The glory of the Lord fills a place where the people long to receive Him.
And what happened next was that a river flowed from the temple out into the city. And this water enabled flowers and fruits and trees to grow. And the streets bore leaves which, it was said, were for the healing of the nations. The temple was not simply a special place for one special group of people to gather. It was a place from which healing for the whole world would ultimately come about. Why were these people restored to life? Why was the temple rebuilt? So that God’s purposes might come to pass in the world. Lose that purpose and life would be decimated yet again.
So: Walking the Way: One More Step. That is what it has all been about this past year and more. Following the Way of Jesus one step at a time. And whilst life in general is very still much one step at a time, it is hard to predict whether our lives, our nation, our church, our world can ever be raised to life again.
But from Ezekiel’s story, I see just three steps we might take. Number One: Pray. We cannot enter the mind of God or receive the wisdom of God unless we pray, opening our lives to God. You may not see a vision of dry bones. You may not particularly want to see a vision of dry bones… but inspiration, vision and power come to those who persistently wait upon the Lord. Pray for yourselves. Pray for this church. Pray for our world.
Number Two: Commit. Commit to just one or two things to get your life, our church, our nation back on track. Take these small steps in the faith that your life is worth living, this church is worth saving, our world is worth something better than where it is right now.
Number Three: Become a holy people. Believe in the Spirit of God coming to life in you. Be open to the vision of an alternative culture which will save rather than destroy and trust that vision as being from God.
For if we live for the purpose God intends, then yes, I believe that our lives will be raised again. For The Lord our God has declared it.