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Can these Bones Live?

Lent 5, Common Lectionary Year A     

Ezekiel 37:1-14

©2014 Rev. Elisabeth R. Jones

Audio file

Well, we’ve done it now! We’ve done our faithful duty of passing on to a new generation that most wonderful of Spirituals, “Dem Bones!” It’s so much fun watching the mini-anatomy lesson, as this song so delightfully re-clothes those dry bones in a fun, in toe-tapping rhythm.

But this is not a fun text. It’s not a children’s anatomy lesson; it’s not some lame ancient, irrelevant biblical narrative to be forgotten by the time lunch is cleared away. This ghastly, apocalyptic vision of disarticulated, desiccated human bones strewn across a valley floor, one of the richest texts in Scripture, has inspired 1.9 million Google references signalling Jewish and Christian religious art, music, from Spiritual to Slash Metal, drama from Rabbinic midrash to zombie apocalypse movies…. All of which suggest that there is indeed a profound resonance for our day and age with this strange word picture text.

It takes on even deeper resonance when we know something about the circumstances that gave rise to the vision in the first place; A hundred years or so before this was written, Israel’s northern kingdom was invaded and annihilated by the empire of Assyria. The people disappeared –the tribes of Israel were lost.

And then, in Ezekiel’s time, it was happening again; the Kingdom of Judah fell to Babylon. Jerusalem was flattened (imagine London, Dresden, after the blitz and retaliation). Judah’s leaders and inhabitants were all forcibly displaced  (think 1 million Syrians displaced by the current civil war). This was a real, not imagined threat of forcible erasure of a nation.

And the result?

Crippling, existential, fear. A legitimate sense of complete political impotence. A sense of abandonment, provoking both a theological or spiritual question which we’ve asked already this Lent, “Is God with us or not?”   “Will we survive?  Will we be swallowed up? Will there be descendants who speak our language, worship our God, dance and sing our songs?”

(And you wonder if this is a text that speaks to today’s local and global context??)

Ezekiel, prophet of God, is called to see the world in spiritually perceptive ways, and Ezekiel was the best of the best of God’s Seers. God’s Spirit, Ruach is her name, leads Ezekiel, “round and round” the valley, to take in every hopeless, dry bone. Every conceivable hope and dream of humankind, crushed, smashed, into a bone-yard of disconnected, utterly desolating fears. Into the dead silence, Ruach asks the question, “Mortal one, can these bones live?”

Can these bones live? National, political, regional, personal identity. Can these bones live?

Spiritual, religious, ecclesiological dreams of a faithful future, seemingly abandoned in the dust of indifference; Can these bones live?

Bones called grief, anguish, unfinished, unrequited love, relationships gone violently wrong, addictions, incurable diseases, Can these bones live?

Over-forestation, overfishing, overharvesting, desertification, salinated water-tables, oil-spills, overpopulation, starvation, blight, human-wrought drought, flood, fire. Can these bones live?

There is, we know, no easy answer to those questions. But plenty of attempts are made.

The politics of fear, coming up with closed minded protectionist ‘solutions’, provoking despair and cynicism, not hope. Then there’s the judgmental escapism of doom-saying, scandalmongers and  bone-rattling scape-goaters; deadly, not live-giving. Anyone right-minded mortal one would logically answer: there’s no life to be had in bones that are dead and desiccated.

And indeed, Ezekiel’s answer “Great God, you’re the one who knows.” looks at first like a cop out, a prevarication.

But I don’t believe it is. It’s the hinge that turns this from zombie apocalypse, or death metal into Gospel.

For Ezekiel, is the best of God’s Seers, he knows God. “Can these bones live?” from the breath – the Ruach of God has to be an invitation to hope and to wonder. For Ruach, by her nature, is breath and life. Her only answer to death is always life.

So he says the only thing we can say, “Great God, you know.”

And with that, God unleashes Spirit over the desolate valley!!!

God begins again the hard work of recreation; rebirth, rebuilding, restoration, resurrection.

But did you notice how God does it? “Mortal…” that’s you and me. “Prophesy!

“Speak a word of God, of life, of hope, to these bones!”

“Into all the deadness of your life, your circumstance, your politics, your faith, your environment, your loves and your dreams, prophesy……! Say to them, “Listen for the Breath, the life, the spirit, the creative word, of God. Prophesy. You. Mortal One.”

God’s work of resurrection is done when we, mortals, dare to prophesy, to utter God’s words of hope and life across the bone-yards of despair and broken dreams.

The anthem does a wonderful job of telling the story as Ezekiel and God do. God’s resurrecting work within the fabric of creation, of bringing life to dead places, is slow, detailed, careful work. It takes us time for the rattling bones to find each other, to knit together with sinew, flesh and muscle, and skin, “toe bone to foot bone, to ankle bone to knee bone.”

And it’s crazy work. We get to be like wild-eyed Ezekiel the Seer, standing up in the death-valleys of broken dreams, and preach  life to death itself, in all its guises.   It is crazy work; rebuilding church, breathing God’s life into dead tradition so it lives with God’s welcome, promise, hope and purpose. Can these bones live?

Rebuilding culture, rebuilding nations by prophesying God’s demands for justice, equity, honesty, generosity. Can these bones live?

Rebuilding families, breathing God’s unconditional, forgiving, healing love, rich with memory and wisdom. Can these bones live?

Well, mortal ones, even if we have to call upon the four winds to fill our lungs, fill our lives, our actions, with life in the face of defeat, despair and even death, then, by the grace of God, Yes. “Dese bones gwaine rise again!”


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