Staunton Mennonite Church
The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” 4Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.” 7So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. 9Then he said to me, “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.” 10I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. 11Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ 12Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord.
Have you ever felt like you are still alive for a purpose? Have you ever been in a situation where you could have died and you realized that it is only by the grace of God that you are alive? Maybe you were involved in a bad car accident and lived to tell about it. Maybe you were supposed to be in a place like New Orleans during the fall of 2005, but for some reason you could not be there and a natural disaster struck that very place.
I have never told this story to anyone before and now it will be available to everyone on the world wide web. But when I was a teenager, I was changing a tire on my dad’s farm truck up in the barn. I had the truck jacked up on a bottle jack, so the area in contact with the axle of the truck was only slightly larger than a half dollar. I took off all of the lug nuts and the wheel fell off the hub and fell over on the ground. Knowing that this barn floor was uneven and that the bottle jack was not the sturdiest way to balance the truck during the time I needed to fix the leaky tire, I decided to crawl back under the truck to put a jack stand underneath to help support the over 6,000 lb. vehicle.
As I was lying on my back I saw the truck begin to move. I looked at the jack and I knew it was going to go. And like they say, everything seemed to be in slow motion. All I could do was close my eyes. And when I opened them again, the axle of the 6,000 lb. behemoth was inches away from my nose. The hub of the truck had landed on the wheel that I had pulled off just minutes ago. If I had rolled that tire out of the way or if the truck had fallen a few inches one way or another, I wouldn’t be up here talking with you today.
I remember that day, after I had stopped shaking, I remember thinking, “God has a reason for me to live. There is something that I am supposed to do. Because I shouldn’t be alive right now.” And there have been other cases in my life that I believe have strengthened my conviction that I have a purpose for living. I could tell you more later if you wish.
But I am not alone. I am not the only one here that is here for a purpose. Maybe you can’t recall a single moment in your life where you believe you should have or could have died, but you have a purpose here on earth. We are not “dry bones”. We are alive, and we are alive for a reason.
Today we are going to look at Ezekiel 37:1-14 and we are going to see that God has a plan for his people, even when God’s people are in exile. And this morning I want to explore two options for God’s people in exile. The first option is to assimilate to the rest of society, therefore becoming insignificant in society. The second option is to remain who God has called us to be, a people called to new life.
This passage from Ezekiel is a story that many of us have heard since we were little kids. You may have sung the song, “Them bones, them bones gonna walk around.” We laugh, it is fun for us today. But I assume this was anything but fun for Ezekiel when he had this vision.
The text says that Ezekiel was led by the spirit into the middle of a valley and the valley was full of bones, dry bones. These were bones of people that had been dead for a while. The flesh was all gone and there was no life left in them. That would be pretty eerie, just being around all of those bones. Especially for Ezekiel, an Israelite who knew that touching a corpse would make him ceremonially unclean.
God says to Ezekiel, “Can these bones live?” And I bet Ezekiel is looking at these bones and thinking, “Is this a trick question? I think it is a little late for any medical or homeopathic treatment to save these guys.” But Ezekiel is wise. I bet he doesn’t say what he is thinking and instead he cleans it up a little for God and he skirts around the question a bit and says, “O Lord God, you know.” He is saying, “It doesn’t look too good for these bones from where I am standing, but hey, it is your call, you’re God.”
So what does God say back to Ezekiel? He tells him to prophesy. “Prophesy to the bones, speak to them that I the Lord will give them life. I will cover you with flesh and give you breath. And you will know that I am the LORD.”
Ezekiel does as he is told. He prophesizes to the dry bones. And he begins to hear something rattle. They are moving, they are shaking. They are coming together to form bodies. And then they are covered with sinews, that is tendons, and flesh. These bodies were restored to their previous form. They looked like people again.
Well, that is a good story and all. But what is the point? Is the point that God is powerful and mighty, that God can give life even to old dry bones? No, that isn’t the point. It is true, but it isn’t the point of the passage. If we look at verse 11, God says to Ezekiel that these bones represent the whole house of Israel. And the house of Israel is saying, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.”
Why so gloom, house of Israel? What’s the problem? Well, they don’t have a lot of hope right now. They are in exile in Babylon. The powerful nation to the east has come in and overtaken Jerusalem and taken the Jews and spread them out in a foreign land to keep them from being able to form an army and fight back. They were separated from family and friends. They were separated from their homes. They were separated from the Promised Land. This is why the Israelites feel like dry bones. The life has been zapped out of them. This once powerful and important nation was now reduced to a bunch of powerless aliens living in a foreign land.
I kind of know how the Israelites are feeling. Because, guess what? Guess who are the dry bones of the 21st century? It is no longer the Israelites, but the Christians. It seems to me that we Christians have become exiles in our own land. Sure, a large number of Americans would claim to be Christians if you asked them. But why are they Christians? Because their parents were Christians, or because they haven’t picked a religion they like better yet. It is hard to say why so many people claim to be Christians in the United States. But regardless of how many people claim to be Christians, it is clear to me that many people are not living as Christians. Anyone who claims to be in Christ should walk as he walked, 1 John 2:6.
Now it would be hard for me to give you numbers on who is and who is not walking as Jesus walked. That is kind of up to interpretation of what it means to walk as Jesus walked. But there are other ways that I can show you that Christians are becoming exiles in our own land. We can look at the decline in church attendance. The Europeans seem to be leading the way toward secularization. Stuart Murray, editor of Anabaptism Today and chair of the Anabaptist network in the United Kingdom, estimates that at the current rate of decline, the Methodist Church in the United Kingdom will lose its last member in 2037. The Church of Scotland will close its last congregation in 2033. The Church of Wales will be unsustainable by 2020 (from Frost: Exiles).
But this shrinking church phenomenon is not just something that is seen across the pond. It is something that has been happening right here in our own back yard. A Barna poll done in the late 1990’s revealed that only 37% of Americans attend church most Sundays out of the year. Now, 10 years later, I would estimate that number to be even lower.
Even our own denomination, Mennonite Church, USA, has shown significant decline in church attendance and membership. Last year, Conrad Kanagy published a book called “Road Signs for the Journey.” In this book, Kanagy documents the membership of the two denominations that merged to make MCUSA in 2002, comparing membership data from polls taken in 1972, 1989, and in 2006. Kanagy’s findings are discouraging to say the least. The two most striking numbers are that membership has declined by over 11,000 people since 1989. The average age in MCUSA is 54 year old, five years older than 1989. We are getting smaller in number and older in age. And these two things are related, because it is the young adults that are falling out of the church left and right.
If you look around this congregation, it is no secret that we are getting older and grayer. But we are not alone. Most churches of MCUSA are as well. Most churches in the United States are growing older and grayer. And this book by Conrad Kanagy shows us some of the details and these numbers are being plastered everywhere we look. We read these numbers published in our denominational newsletters and periodicals. We hear about them at our conference and district gatherings. Guess what? I get the point. Something needs to be done. I am very thankful for Kanagy’s work and we can learn from it. I especially appreciate his book’s attempt to articulate the current status of MCUSA in a prophetic manner. Now let’s stop talking about the negative things that have been happening to the church and let’s start focusing on how we can start to do something about it!
As we look at our scripture again for today, we can see that God’s people are not intended to be dry bones. When Ezekiel first prophesizes to the bones, they return to their original form as human bodies. But they are not quite done yet. The end of verse 8 tells us that there was no breath in these bodies. They need the breath of God to truly have life. And this breathing of life into these lifeless bodies reminds us of when God breathed life into the nostrils of the first man. When we look at the original Hebrew word here, it is ruach, the same word used for spirit.
So in order for these bodies to have true life, they need Yahweh’s ruach, the breath, the spirit of God. And when Ezekiel prophesizes to these lifeless bodies, they lived and stood on their feet in vast multitudes.
There are plenty of lifeless Christian bodies in our world today. Lifeless because we have not received Yahweh’s ruach. While our churches decline in attendance, as Christians lose their significance within society, we can either go with the flow, becoming just like everyone else around us. Secular, pagan, caught up in personal finances and power. Or we can pray for a renewal. We can pray for Yahweh’s Ruach, the breath of God to breathe new life into his chosen people, the church. And it is happening. There is a new wave of Christians receiving new life, reviving the church in our own neighborhoods.
Within two miles of my home, there are two new church plants. One is called “The Table,” which describes itself as an emerging church of Mennonite Church USA. This project, which began only a few years ago, is attracting young adults that had previously fallen away from the church. People that decided the church was insignificant and irrelevant are now in charge of this budding congregation. Even in this early stage of their existence, The Table is attracting around 50 people, mostly young adults, on a Sunday morning. Every week after worship, they go into one another’s homes to continue the fellowship over lunch. There are some exciting things happening at The Table.
Just down the road from us is what is being called The Early Church. This is a group of socially active individuals that said, “Hey, there is an entire demographic here in town not being reached. We need to start a church that ministers to the poor, the homeless, and the needy.” And while I don’t know how they are doing as far as numbers go, I know that this church is serving God and reaching people that had been previously overlooked.
Here in Staunton, my friend Seth Hankee and his wife Melissa have been working on a ministry that began in their own basement in the fall of 2004. They call this ministry La Fa, short for the Spanish, La Familia, or the family. The Hankee’s vision is to minister to young adults, between the ages of 20 and 30. La Fa became a place where young adults come to deal with the difficult questions in life, worship together, study the Bible, and grow in community. And today La Fa has outgrown Seth’s basement and meets at Grace Christian School, attracting up to 60 people for their Tuesday large group gatherings. That’s 60 young adults that might otherwise not be involved in church at all.
Yes, we Christians may be in exile in our own country. We may at times feel as if we are insignificant to society. We may be losing members left and right. But we are not dry bones yet. As a minority in our society, we are not insignificant. As a minority we have a voice that stands in contrast to that of the wider society around us. We don’t have to assimilate to the rest of society. No, we need to remain unique, adhering to our Christian beliefs. Because we belong to a different kingdom. We are not a part of the kingdom of the world, we are a part of the kingdom of God.
When I had that 6,000 lb truck over my face, I realized that God had a purpose for me. And that purpose was not to just go with the flow, to be like everyone else in my community. God wants me to have a voice in my community. God could have allowed me to become dry bones, but instead he breathed new life into me. And I believe God wants to do the same thing to his church. The church, as God’s chosen people may feel like dry bones, insignificant in their own society where Christians are becoming a minority. But my brothers and sisters, we cannot allow that to happen. We must pray for Yahweh’s Ruach, for the renewing breath of God upon us, within us. May we all know the new life that God breathes into his people. May we not be dry bones in exile, but living creatures in the kingdom of God.