a sermon on Ezekiel 37:1-14
preached on Pentecost, May 24, 2015, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
Over the years, I’ve gotten to be a big fan of Easter. As a child, it was all about the Easter bunny, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve developed a deeper appreciation of the need to celebrate the resurrection. This strange and wonderful event, after all, is the reason why we Christians exist at all. The death of Jesus was certainly important, but that death would have meant nothing were it not for his resurrection. It made the power of God to bring new life clear once and for all, brought a change in the day of worship from the Saturday sabbath of Judaism to Sunday, the day of resurrection, and reminds us of the new life that has been promised to us and is already coming into being around us.
Today’s reading from the prophet Ezekiel is a perfect bridge between the joys of celebrating the resurrection in the Easter season and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. This story is one of the great resurrection stories, perhaps as appropriate for Easter as for Pentecost, because it has as much to do with new life as it does with the Spirit.
The prophet Ezekiel, writing from the confines of exile in Babylon, tells of a strange vision where death shifts to life by the power of the Spirit of God. God takes him to a strange valley, filled with bones. There were a lot of bones there, and they were very dry. Upon his arrival there, God questioned him quickly: “Mortal, can these bones live?” In that time and place, life seemed utterly impossible. The valley was dry and barren, and the bones were just as dry and just as barren—dead as a doornail, we might say. Those bones were like everything around Ezekiel—bearing hopelessness, mired in darkness and despair, dried up and withering away, decaying beyond belief.
But Ezekiel knew better than to assume that God could not work beyond human visions of death. Soon God was instructing him to prophesy to the bones, to proclaim that they could be alive again, to insist that they were something more than dead, dry bones, to call forth sinews and flesh and skin to cover these bones so that they might live. When Ezekiel did this, he heard a great rattling as the bones came together, “bone to its bone.” As the scattered bones became assembled skeletons, muscles and flesh and skin came upon them, and what once had been a barren valley of lifeless bones was now filled with lifeless bodies.
This first word had put things back together, but it was not enough to bring new life. So Ezekiel turned again to hear God’s voice commanding him, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain,
that they may live.” When he offered this second word as God commanded, breath came upon the lifeless bodies of that deserted valley. What had once been a lifeless valley was now filled with an eager multitude. What had once been a pile of dry bones was now a crowd of standing bodies awaiting new possibilities ahead. What had once been the most certain sign of death was now most definitely very much alive.
After this new life became clear to Ezekiel, God finally explained what it all meant in one final word of proclamation and prophecy. God instructed Ezekiel to follow up his words to the bones of the valley with one more proclamation to the exiled people of Israel, promising them that new life would emerge for them from their graves, that they would return to their homeland, and that they would be filled with the spirit of God and so live in fullness of life.
All the new life in those dry bones came about because of the spirit of God. The great Hebrew word used here is ruach. It’s one of those words you can’t help but love to say, and when you learn everything that it means, it feels even better to say it. Like many words in Hebrew, ruach does not have an exact equivalent in English. Depending on the original context, we can translate ruach as “breath,” “wind,” or “spirit”—the same three words that we so often use to describe the Holy Spirit. Whether it be breath, wind, or spirit, this ruach always comes from God, and even before anyone ever understood it, this ruach was showing us the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit.
God’s ruach brings life to the lifeless, blows through our world to restore all that is broken, and inspires the church to join in God’s work of bringing new life. This ruach is not our own breath, not the wind created by a fan, not the spirit of a departed loved one. This ruach is the Spirit of God, the wind that blew upon the chaotic waters at creation to begin the creation of new life, the breath placed in each of us as we take our first breath outside our mother’s womb, the fiery presence that filled Jesus’ disciples on that first day of Pentecost and helped them to be heard as they spoke to those who gathered in Jerusalem, the spirit that fills our world with the presence of God and guides us the continuing work of resurrection in that valley of dry bones and beyond. God’s ruach blows where it will, guiding us in bringing new life to our world that seems to be ruled by death, bringing the dead to life when we might least expect it, and showing us that we can live in ways that we never imagined we could live before.
As we celebrate this Pentecost, as we look at the myriad ways that God is at work to bring new life into our world, as we see how God can transform the brokenness of our world in bringing together the dry bones of Ezekiel’s valley and the diaspora gathered in Jerusalem, as we join the multitude who rose up in that valley and who responded to the words of the disciples in Jerusalem, we continue the work of the resurrection begun by God on that first Easter that has continued for two millennia. In coming in power on that first Pentecost, in restoring life to those dry bones, in inspiring us for the work of new creation each and every day, the Holy Spirit is the presence of God at work in our world. The Holy Spirit guides our reading and interpretation of scripture, helping us to understand what these ancient words mean to us as God’s people in our world. The Holy Spirit shows us how God wills us to work and to live in hope and new life, encouraging us to set aside the ways of death where we feel led out into valleys of dry bones ourselves so that we can know that power of God to bring new life. And the Holy Spirit breathes new life into us, showing us that we are not the lifeless people of the past, not those dead and dry bones, and not some temporary flicker of a momentary flame but rather reminding us that we are the people of God, inspired for new life each and every day so that God might be glorified through the transformation of our world.
So as the resurrection power of God continues in our world, may we be filled with the breath of God that gives us life, the wind of God that blows us into places we never expected might give us hope, and the Spirit of God that shows us how to walk in newness of life as we are filled with the Holy Spirit this Pentecost and every day until all things are made new in Jesus Christ our Lord. Thanks be to God! Amen.