Ezekiel 37:1-14 (NIV)
37 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. 2 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. 3 He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”
I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”
4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! 5 This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. 6 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.’”
7 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. 8 I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.
9 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.’” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.
11 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.’ 12 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. 13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 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.’”
What do you call a group of rabbits hopping backwards? A receding hare line. That joke was posted by a friend on my Facebook timeline this week, and I was only slightly hurt that she thought of me when she first heard it.
I can easily be one of those “used to could” guys. I used to be able to do this and I used to be able to do that. I used to be able to run a mile in under six minutes. I used to be able to bench press over 300 pounds. I used to be able to touch my toes, to see my toes. I used to be able to jump pretty well. And sometimes I have a strange and unhealthy desire to see if I can still do those things yet today.
Last week I found myself standing under a basketball hoop. I am writing this just days before the tipoff of the men’s NCAA Final Four and “used to could” Kevin is showing his ugly head. I used to be able to grab the rim pretty well and could even dunk a small ball in my best days (never a regulation ball, God keeps me humble, ‘cause I believe that stuff). As I stood under that basketball hoop days before the Final Four, I thought to myself, “Can I still touch the rim?” Of course thinking it wasn’t enough. I wanted to know for sure.
So without warming up and without any attempt to stretch, I took a bit of a running start, bent my knees, and flung my 34-year-old body toward the iron hanging 10 feet above the ground.
I found out the answer to the question, “Can I still touch the rim?” and the answer is yes, but at a cost. My hamstring hurt the rest of the day. Jacob wrestled, I jumped, and we both came away with a limp.
They say that getting older isn’t for wimps. Not only do our bodies suffer but often other things change that make us feel uncomfortable as well. Things that we have no control over change and we long for the way things used to be. I remember when I was able to buy gas for less than one dollar a gallon and we never locked our cars or houses. I’m old enough to remember when stores were closed on Sunday, or at least closed early. The pews in churches used to be full and “Christian values” –whatever that means – were held by the majority of society.
There has been much in the Christian news circles over the last few months about a group of people often referred to as “millennials.” Millennials is a term used to describe young adults born after 1980; men and women in their 20’s and early 30’s. And the reason that this group has been in the news so much lately is because they seem to have disappeared. Disappeared, that is, from the church.
Look around our church and try to count how many people we have in their twenties? I count one.
So Christians all around the world begin to ask, “What must we do to bring the millennials back?” What must we change, what must we do differently? I think that this is a good question to be asking, but it just might be the wrong question. I think that rather than asking what we can do differently to bring a certain group back to the church, or what can we do to gain more power in the wider culture around us, we need to be asking what is God doing and where is God moving today. Because, my friends, the world around us is bursting with new life.
Our Old Testament passage for this morning is one of the best known visions in all of the Bible. The prophet Ezekiel is led by the spirit of God into a valley filled with bones, dry bones. We aren’t told early in the passage, but these are human bones, and they have been dead for some time.
I love the interaction between God and Ezekiel in this valley of dry bones. God asks Ezekiel if these bones can live again, to which Ezekiel says, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know,” which is the nice way of saying, “Not a chance.”
This place is a valley of death and desolation.
It isn’t until later that God reveals that these dry bones represent whole house of Israel. And in verse 11 the house of Israel says, “Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.”
Those last few words strike me as significant because in the Hebrew Bible any time a covenant was made, the language that was used to describe the making of a covenant was c’rat b’rit, or literally, to cut a covenant. To be cut off seems to suggest a severing of the covenant between God and God’s people.
This is the time of the Babylonian Exile. All of the hopes and dreams of the Israelites had been smashed when their land was overtaken and they were hauled off to a foreign land. Their plans of building homes, vineyards, and families now seemed like a far-off dream.
Can these bones live? God alone knows, but it doesn’t look good.
This seems to reflect what I hear concerning the church today. We are losing millennials. Our churches don’t have children to provide the next generation of leadership. And if the children did show up, what would the church look like by the time they reach adulthood?
Our denomination, like every other denomination, is dealing with some challenging theological issues. I have an opinion, you have an opinion, everyone has an opinion on what we need to be doing. And some have made the decision that they don’t even care to be a part of the conversation any more. One church has already given a letter of intent to withdraw from our conference, and several others have expressed that they are considering doing the same. And let me just be honest, this is not where I want to be. Sometimes I wonder, just like God asked Ezekiel, can these bones live?
Notice this: our text tells us that Ezekiel is led to the valley of dry bones by the spirit. How many people think that Ezekiel wanted to go there? Do you think he would voluntarily pick up and go for a stroll through this valley? I don’t. Remember, touching a dead body was considered an unclean act for an Israelite. And bones are just disgusting. Ezekiel didn’t want to be there, but sometimes the Spirit leads us to places we don’t want to go to teach us something new.
In our scripture we find God giving some very clear instructions to Ezekiel. Prophesy to the bones, prophesy to the breath. Do what I say, be faithful to me, and just see what happens. All at once the bones begin to rattle and shake. Ligaments and tendons cover the bones. The ligaments and tendons are covered with muscles. And the muscles are covered with flesh. Slowly, layer by layer, God restores life to this valley of bones because God has not forgotten his promises or his covenants.
Can these bones live? Absolutely. I don’t know what the church of the 21st century is going to look like, but I can tell you that it will look different from your grandfather’s church, and that is going to be okay. I would expect that Christian churches are going to look a lot more like what we have at Staunton Mennonite Church and less like some of the large expressions that we have come to know. Churches of less than 100 members with simple facilities, part-time staff, and dedicated members. And maybe we will never have the influence that the large churches of the 1980’s were able to wield, swaying governments and politicians through scare tactics, but when was that ever the model of being the church that Jesus spoke of?
No, Jesus spoke of single yeast cells that grow through multiplication, not through coercion and intimidation. You want to know what a healthy church looks like in the 21st century, look around.
Over the last few months we have undergone not one, not two, but three major renovation projects. We purchased an old, run-down house on Grubbert St. that many of us would never choose to live in. Today we have signed rental agreement from a young couple that is excited to live in a newly-renovated property with refinished floors, new heating and air conditioning, new plumbing, a new bathroom, and a completely new sun room. Our nursery, a dark and little room with nothing but the basics is now a space many would be envious of. And the little house on 3rd St. has been showed a couple of times now, with its fresh paint, refinished hardwood floors, and new exterior wall.
Can these bones live? I’m counting on it.
Everywhere around us, after the longest winter in my memory, I am seeing signs of new life. Daffodils and crocuses are blooming. The magnolia tree down the road from us is giving off the most wonderful scent. My children are spending time outside playing in the sandbox, digging in the garden.
Can these bone live? I have no doubt.
But notice one more thing. In our text for today, Ezekiel is not the main actor or main character. The main character is the ruach of God, God’s Spirit. Remember that the Hebrew word for spirit is also translated as “breath” and “wind.” And when you go through this passage, all 14 verses, you will find that ruach is used about 10 times.
Can these bones live? Yes, with the Spirit of the Living God by our side, all things are possible, and I’ve learned to trust in God’s promises.