The Life of a Prophet: Can These Dry Bones Live?

Scripture: Ezekiel 37:1-14

Not everyone is called to be a prophet.

Not all of us are called to that particular life of seeing the world through God’s eyes, of speaking truth to power, of unsettling people with words they would often rather not hear.  Not many of us have heard the voice of God so clearly as to claim to speak for God.  As Paul reminds us, God made some of God’s people apostles, and some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, all for the sake of doing God’s work together (Ephesians 4:11).

But I do believe that we can all live lives that are a little bit more prophetic.  I believe that wherever life takes us, whatever our particular ministry is, we can apply some lessons from the prophets: To be concerned for the orphan and the widow.  To speak up for righteousness and justice.  To boldly believe that God’s call is enough for us, unworthy though we may be.  To weep with God’s people who are hurting.  To cultivate an intimate connection with God’s Word.  These things, as I’ve preached throughout this series, are things all of us can do.

Today we hear again from Ezekiel, our prophet of trippy visions and fantastic sign-acts.  Where we left off last week, Ezekiel was in Babylon, at a precarious time for the Kingdom of Judah.  The Babylonian army had already carted off the first wave of exiles from Jerusalem, the government officials and religious elites, of whom the priest Ezekiel was one.  Ezekiel was commissioned as a prophet by the River Chebar and instructed by God to eat a scroll with God’s Word written on it, words “of mourning and lamentation and woe.”  Those words would let God’s people back in Judah know that the worst was not yet over, that in a few short years Jerusalem would be utterly destroyed.

As we pick back up with Ezekiel today, much later in the book, that thing which was both unthinkable and inevitable has happened.  Jerusalem, God’s own city, has fallen.  The Temple, the place where God’s glory resided, lies in ruins. God’s people are scattered across the empire.  And they who once thought they were indestructible under God’s protection are asking, why has God forsaken us?  It’s a situation the biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann compares to America in the aftermath of 9/11, with its sense of “emotional, political, and theological free fall.”[1]   That’s a feeling that we surely remember especially clearly today.

Ezekiel had prophesied judgment on God’s people for their unfaithfulness, but now that that judgment has come to pass, things are different.  Given the new political and theological landscape, Ezekiel’s message changes.  It is no longer a message of doom, but of what comes after doom.  And what comes after doom?  Hope.

You may have heard it said that God afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted.  This is also a good summary of what God’s prophets do.  There is a time for judgment, to jar people out of their complacency, but there is also a time to deliver a much-needed message of hope to God’s afflicted people.

And so, in the wake of all of this, God gives Ezekiel another vision.

In this vision Ezekiel is transported from Babylon and set down in the middle of a certain valley.  It is a parched, rocky, desolate place.  He looks around him and all he can see for miles are human bones and as he tells us, “they were very dry.”

Somehow the first picture this conjured up for me was of the Elephant Graveyard from the Lion King: this creepy, forbidden, fog-covered wasteland littered with skeletons, the place where the hyenas live.  We might also think of an abandoned battlefield, or maybe one of those pictures of a mass grave from Rwanda in the mid-nineties.  Ezekiel walks all around, slowly taking it all in.

God asks Ezekiel, “Mortal”— (God always calls Ezekiel “mortal”)—“can these bones live?”

It’s an odd question for God to ask of a mere mortal.  The answer would certainly seem to be no; the bones of dead people don’t just put themselves back together and come alive.  But Ezekiel answers in the way I imagine I might, too: “You’re the only one who can answer that, God!”

God just says in response, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.”

Well, surely bones can’t hear the word of the Lord, but this is a vision, so we’ll go along with it, like Ezekiel does, and God continues: “I will cause breath to enter you, and you will live.  I will put sinews on you, and I will cover you with flesh, and wrap you in skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

And as Ezekiel repeats these words to this pile of human rubble, suddenly the bones begin to rattle.  Can you imagine the rattling as all the bones piled up in this valley begin to move?  And the bones begin to come together, and suddenly there are sinews growing on them, and flesh and skin covering them, and then God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the breath, or the wind or the spirit, telling it to fill these lifeless bodies with breath, and the bodies begin to come alive.

It’s really quite a vision.

But as God tells Ezekiel next, it’s not really about the bones.  It’s about the people of Israel, the exiles, people who have seen true horror, who have been cut off from their home and their people and seemingly forsaken by God.  People who, the way they themselves see it, might as well be as dead and dry as those bones.

God tells Ezekiel to tell those people, “I 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.”

What comes after doom?  Hope.

We may not all be called to be prophets but we all know what it is like, from time to time, to feel like those are our bones in that valley—to feel that we are exiles in our own lives, that we are lifeless and forsaken, cut off from everything that matters to us, that there is little hope of anything ever being different or better again.  We know it in personal ways, and we also know it in collective ways, in the wake of events like 9/11.

And so for all of us, Ezekiel’s vision is a reminder that even when all seems lost, God has other plans.  We could call it a foreshadowing of God’s greatest “other plans” yet—the resurrection of Jesus.  Ezekiel reminds us that God has always been a God of resurrection, even in the Old Testament, always bringing life out of death and hope out of despair.  That wasn’t just a one-time thing, and it’s not something that only happens when we are literally dead: when all seems lost, God gives God’s people new life.

But this vision of Ezekiel’s isn’t just an Easter-y message of God’s ultimate power over death and despair—though it is that.  It’s also about the prophet, and his job to speak a powerful word of life into a landscape of death.  The power comes from God, of course: but those bones don’t start rattling until Ezekiel tells them that by God, they shall live.

And how can he do that?  How can he look at those piles of bones and tell them with a straight face to get up?  How can look his fellow exiles in the eye and tell them it will be OK, they’ll go home and know God is with them again?

He can do it because he sees things differently than they do: he sees things the way God sees them.

I like the way one writer put it: “Can these bones live?  Of course not.  But look at them through God’s eyes, and watch bones rushing to their appropriate partners.  Watch as ligaments bind them together, flesh blankets them, and skin seals them tightly.  Watch as God’s Spirit, which heals hopelessness, infuses them, so that they rise up—a great army testifying to the power of Yahweh.  Can corpses be brought forth from graves and become living beings again?  Absurd!  But look through God’s eyes, and watch them come up, receive God’s spirit, and return home.  When we raise our vision to look beyond what our mundane eyes can see, we watch the impossible happen through God’s eyes.”[2]

Looking at this world through God’s eyes means sometimes that we speak a word of protest in the midst of complacency; but it also means speaking a word of hope in the midst of despair.  This, I believe, is a big part of living more prophetically.

Here’s what that doesn’t mean, though: it doesn’t mean offering people platitudes in a shallow response to their suffering.  It doesn’t mean telling people that everything happens for a reason and it’s all part of God’s plan, which sometimes say theologically questionable things about God.  It doesn’t even necessarily mean telling people that it will all be OK.  Maybe it won’t be, in the ways we think of or hope for—but still there can be new life in the dryness and death.

I read that after their land was taken by white settlers and the buffalo killed or driven away, the chief of the Native American Crow Nation found his people in a state probably very much like God’s people newly in exile.  “History ended,” he said.  “The hearts of my people fell to the ground and they could not lift them up again.  There was little singing anywhere.”  But this chief had a dream, maybe not unlike Ezekiel’s vision, and in the dream this is what he learned, and passed on to his people:

-That their traditional way of life was coming to an end.

-That they had to “open [their] imaginations up to a radically different set of future possibilities.”

-That there was hope for a “dignified passage across this abyss, because God is good.”

-And that “we shall get the good back, though at the moment we have no more than a glimmer of what that might mean.”[3]

God’s trusted goodness, of course, does not excuse the damage wrought by the white settlers in the first place (that seems especially important to remember in a week where the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe have been in the news protesting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline) and yet these are powerful words from a prophet to his afflicted people.  What comes after doom?  Hope.

Sometimes speaking that word of hope might not even involve speaking at all: instead, it might mean showing people a glimpse of the life that God promises.  It might mean helping them to see that vision of God’s, of resurrection and newness, of things that can still be different.

There was an essay a few weeks ago in the New York Times titled “Why I Go to Aleppo.”  Aleppo, which has been in the news a lot lately, is the biggest city in Syria and one of the centers of the fighting there, with food and supplies largely cut off.  Its population is now less than tenth of the over two million inhabitants it had before the war began.  This essay was written by a doctor, an American of Syrian origin.  He spends a few weeks a year working there in Aleppo, in a hospital in the basement of a bombed-out building.  There he helps exhausted Syrian doctors and nurses as they treat people coming in from the latest airstrikes and chemical attacks.

This doctor, Samer Attar, was there the day the Twin Towers were attacked fifteen years ago.  He was a medical student at the time, and crammed into an ambulance with nurses and medics to go to the World Trade Center and help.

He wrote, “We wrote our names on the back of our scrubs with black markers in case our bodies needed to be identified. I was scared, but I was surrounded by good people doing the right thing.  I had never felt that way again until I went to Aleppo in August 2013.”

He says one time he treated a boy who got caught in an airstrike during a charity event at his school.  The boy’s father asked why he was speaking in a different language, and the nurse told him that he was an American.  The boy’s father said he had never met an American, and never thought he would.  He couldn’t believe an American doctor would come to Aleppo in this time of war.

“That,” said Dr. Attar, “gave my work a new dimension of meaning: a palpable connection to alleviate the suffering of a people long abandoned.  It lets them know they’re not alone.  It’s … why I go back.”[4]

Maybe it’s too soon to see that there can be life again in Aleppo, life as it is meant to be lived.  Maybe it’s not till the horror is over that we can really start seeing signs of resurrection.  On the other hand, maybe simply being there, risking something, caring, can help people see a little beyond the death and despair.

Just like we’re not all prophets, we’re not all doctors.  But whoever we are, we can all speak a word of life with what we have.  Where there is despair, we can all help show God’s people how things can be hopeful again—even if it is simply to say that they are not alone.  In that, we all can live prophetically.

So when someone asks you, “Can these dry bones live?” You can say, “Yes—by the power of God.”

[1] Walter Brueggemann, Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks, p. 90

[2] Katheryn Pfisterer Darr, “The Book of Ezekiel: Introduction, Commentary and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VI, p. 1503.

[3] Jonathan Lear, Radical Hope, paraphrased in Brueggemann, Reality, Grief, Hope, p. 120-121

[4] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/28/opinion/sunday/why-i-go-to-aleppo.html

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