Sermon written for Kerr Presbyterian Church June 14, 2020 based on Ezekiel 37.
Elder Scott Davis who famously volunteers to teach our junior sermons here at Kerr and I were talking and praying this week about the Lord’s call on our lives to lead in worship. We prayerfully decided to do something different for a few weeks.
We’ve decided to take a short break from the lectionary passages and instead have the congregation pick some of the stories you know and love. Perhaps you know the song that goes, “I love to tell the story—it says: I love to tell the story because I know it’s true. It satisfies my longings, like nothing else can do.”
Scott and I are both feeling like we have a hunger inside of us that we long for Jesus to fill with the stories of old so we are going to put a poll on Facebook, a list of stories from the Bible and when you see your favorites you can like them or love them or if we don’t list your favorite, then please add it to the list. The Scriptures that get the most likes will be the ones that either I will use to preach or Scott will use for the basis of his junior sermon or perhaps both of us will tag team on them. And this summer we are excited to see what the Holy Spirit will do through these stories of faith.
For today, however, we didn’t have time to have you all vote so you are stuck with one of my favorite stories. And I have to admit, it’s an odd one. Probably, I’m the only person in this room who this is one of their favorite stories of the Bible. But I’m hoping that by the end of today you might like it as much as I do. It’s definitely one of the oddest stories of the Bible.
It’s the story of a vision, of a dream of sorts that God gave to Ezekiel. And it is a bit of a creepy story; it sounds like something you would read at a Halloween party. But I love it because it reminds me of the overwhelming power and love of God. So, let’s pray as we open our Bibles to Ezekiel 37.
Lord, as we come to this old, old story, open our ears to hear your words. Open our eyes that we can see you. Open our minds that we might understand. Open our wills that we might live for you this and every day. Amen.
(Read Ezekiel 37:1-14)
Anyone a little creeped out? Bones rattling and then coming back together. Sinews gathering. Flesh coming on to the bones. And then the breath of life entering in.
Honestly. The Bible has the best bed-time stories. You can’t make this stuff up.
So, what is going on here?
Well, Ezekiel was a prophet, a Priest in the Temple in Jerusalem actually, in the 6th Century BCE, about 600 years before the time of Jesus.
We’ve talked about this history some before, perhaps you remember this story. By the time God gives this vision to Ezekiel, the people of the Bible have been suffering for many generations. First war and devastation had come through the hands of the Assyrian Empire which had devastated the northern tribes of ancient Israel.
And now Nebuchadnezzar and the force of the Babylonian Empire is knocking on the door of Jerusalem. They lay siege to the city, cutting off their trade routes. Food & medical supplies cannot be replenished. The people are sick and hungry and dying.
Many who live outside the city walls have already been forced to march to Babylon. And the city is left to fend for itself.
Those who are left inside the city have a mighty task. They feel it is their call to protect the Temple. For the people of the Bible in that time, the Temple wasn’t just a building. This was the place where God has promised to put God’s own spirit. This was God’s house. The people see the Temple as not just a place where they can gather, but as THE place where they can meet God, where prayers can be answered, where true worship can take place. They will defend the Temple with their very lives.
And then in 587 BCE, the unthinkable happens. The Babylonian forces break through the city wall, and they go to the Temple. They take everything. All of the treasures the city has to offer including the sacred objects used in worship. They burn the city to the ground. The Temple topples over. People die or are marched from their homes. It is utter destruction. There is nothing left. A valley of dry bones.
Now at this time, Ezekiel is actually far away from the destruction. He was taken to Babylon in the first wave of deportations and he doesn’t see the city fall with his own eyes. But he is in prayer hundreds of miles away and God speaks to him in a vision. The way Ezekiel explains it is, “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 dry bones.”
God supernaturally enables Ezekiel to see and experience what happening. Ezekiel is not there, but he knows there is death and destruction all around.
I’ve been looking around lately and seeing a lot of dry bones on the ground.
Not really. That would be super creepy. But metaphorically.
I’ve opened the newspaper and seen the dry bones. The dry bones of over 100,000 Americans who have lost their lives to COVID-19 in only 3 months and over 400,000 world-wide who have died, not to mention the 7 million who have tested positive for the disease. I hear the stories of families who cannot see their loved ones in hospitals as they breathe their last breath and of survivors who are still plagued with symptoms weeks after being released from the hospital.
I see the small businesses that are shut down and boarded up because they could not find a way to do business online and could not afford to pay the rent on spaces they couldn’t even use when they had to shut down during the early days of the global pandemic. Unemployment is at the highest it has been since the Great Depression. People are out of work and wondering if they are out of options.
Our national debt is so enormous I cannot even wrap my head around the number and I love numbers. How will we ever pay off this debt? We are enslaving our children and our children’s children to the choices we make today. Creating valleys of dry bones for them to clean up.
I’ve seen the injustice in our nation which happens to our young people simply because of where they are born. When I taught in Philadelphia we were given a certain amount of money per student. This money went to pay teachers and buy textbooks and provide counselors and generally help our students to become the people God had given them the potential to become.
I taught within the Philadelphia city line but if you went just over the city line into the neighboring county, the amount of funding per student doubled. Doubled. Every year. Every child would have twice as much money invested in their education. And as you can imagine because of years of white flight and redlining those who lived within the city limits who received half the funding were primarily children of color and those who lived just beyond the city line were white children.
Forms of racial inequality have been going on for generations but now people are opening their eyes anew and looking around at the dry bones of our nation seeing the injustices.
And I look at the earth itself. We use plastic one time—a plastic fork for our takeout dinner perhaps—and it becomes a waste product that takes thousands of years to biodegrade or it gets into the oceans killing wildlife. More and more valleys of dry bones.
And I see the Spirit of God coming to us in this season of Pentecost and asking: Can these dry bones live?
When the Spirit of God came to Ezekiel and asked him, he gave a truthful answer: “O, Lord God, you know.”
I think Ezekiel was at his wit’s end by the time God came to him. He was living in a place he never chose. He was living a life he never chose. He had been ripped from everyone he loved and everything he knew. He must have felt lonely and completely disillusioned. And the one thing that he believed would always be there: the Temple—the one thing he thought could never be destroyed had now been decimated.
“O, Lord God, you know.”
I feel like the translators should add a little word there. “O, Lord God, ONLY you know.” We don’t know. We don’t know if there is anything to hope for. We don’t know if good can come. We don’t know if we will get through this.
When will a vaccination come? When will jobs return? When will a balanced budget come? When will injustice cease? When will creation be restored?
Is there a when? Is it an if? Could it be possible? Is it possible to stand in hope? O, Lord God, only you know.
God doesn’t answer the question with words. Instead God goes to work.
Bones start to rattle. And then they reconnect. “The toe bone connected to the heel bone. The heal bone connected to the ankle bone. The ankle bone shin bone. Now hear the word of the Lord. Them bones them bones gonna walk around. Now hear the word of the Lord.”
Then the sinews attach them together and the skin comes on to the body. But it’s not enough. It’s not enough to just have a body.
The Spirit of the Lord, the breath of God is needed to breathe new life in so wind is gathered from the four corners of the world and new life is breathed into what is dead.
I don’t know about you, but I need this story today. This is our God.
We often think of the resurrection of Jesus when we think of God bringing dead things to life, but God is has always been at work bringing dead things to life. This is our God. This is what God does. God is a miracle worker.
The Bible says that we are dead in our transgressions. In other words, the sin in our lives, the evil we have done, the ways we have turned from God, both the ways we turn from God individually and collectively as a society, these things have caused us to be dead. We might look like we are alive but we are actually those bones with skin on them walking around with no spirit in them. We need a fresh breathing of the Holy Spirit to make us alive in Christ.
We need for God to show us the valley of dry bones—to show us the ways in which we are dead. To show us the ways in which we as individuals harm others without meaning to. To show us the ways in which our society is unjust and needs to change so that we will truly be the nation that lives up to the ideals we proclaim of liberty and justice for all. We need the Lord to open our eyes to the everyday ways we contribute to harming the earth and give us a vision for renewal instead.
And the Good News of the Gospel is, that’s who God is! That’s what God does.
When we are at our moments when we start to look around and wonder if all hope is lost, if anything can be done, if anything can change, that’s when God breaks in. Sometimes in the most odd ways we can imagine—with images of valleys of bones—whatever it takes to get our attention.
And so I’m hopeful. And I look around and I see signs of hope.
You know, this is not easy right now. It’s not easy to figure out how to worship during this coronavirus outbreak. We have some in our congregation who are feeling really disconnected during this time and who are asking to be back in the building. Now we know that God does not live in the building. We know that the Spirit of God is within us. We know that WE are the church and the church has never been about the building.
But it is true that it is harder for some of us to gather virtually than it is for others of us. And so it is important to begin meeting together in the building for those who cannot meet online. But while we are here we have to prioritize one other’s safety. And that is odd. It’s odd to not run up and hug you all after not seeing you in person for so long. It’s odd to be wearing masks in church. It’s odd to not sing our praises aloud to God.
But we are doing it. Can you see it? Can you see God bringing the bones together? God connecting a toe bone to a heel bone as people in this space gather with people who are in a virtual space? Can you feel the healing come as we seek not our own interests but the interests of those around us. As we choose to make sacrifices—as we make concessions like sitting in a different seat far from our friends and wearing a space helmet to preach so that we keep one another healthy.
Have you seen the Lord at work as whole police forces have knelt down beside protesters in the streets, vowing to never let what happened to George Floyd happen again? Can you feel the sinews binding us together?
Do you know that even with all the horrors coronavirus has caused it has done some good for the earth? Pollution levels are the lowest they have been in ten years and people are realizing they can make one trip to the grocery store every week or every other week instead of daily trips so that they save on gas and help protect the environment. Can you feel the world beginning to heal?
Families have rediscovered game nights and backyard fun instead of the continuous wave of consumerism and media. Individuals are choosing saving instead of debt, making me hopeful for our nation. Do you feel the breath of God at work?
We are finding new ways to come alive. Regrowing bone is slow work. I don’t expect the coronavirus pandemic to be over soon. I think we will be doing this for quite some time, possibly a year. And so we are going to keep evaluating what is working and what is not. We are new to this and we are going to fail sometimes.
But I have hope. I have hope because I know our God. I know our God who rattles bones and connects sinews. I have hope because I know our God who breathes into us new life. I have hope because even in the most difficult days of all of human history, God was present. And God is present now.
So let us pray together.