The Valley of Dry Bones
“Our hope is lost; we are cut off completely”. Verse 11 of the passage from Ezekiel 37 which we have just read. Ezekiel was writing at a time of great despair for the Jewish people. They had been expelled from their home land Israel and Jerusalem had been sacked. Ezekiel like many of the ruling class had been exiled to Babylon in 597BC. There seemed no possibility of a return to Jerusalem. A time of despair, cut off from the land that had been promised to them by God and cut off from God himself. How resonant that image must have been to those Jews in Babylon who heard it. A valley of dry bones – like the bones of the dead of a defeated army (perhaps the Army of Judah) left to rot in a valley until they were dried in the sun. So utterly defeated that there was no-one left to bury the dead. So comprehensively defeated that hope is extinguished. A more shocking image even than the battlefields of France and Belgium – the rows upon rows of grave stones – are to us.
To emphasise the fact that there is no hope, as God guides Ezekiel through his vision of a valley of dry bones he asks “Mortal, can these bones live?” The obvious answer is ‘No’. But Ezekiel is not so foolish as to present the Creator of the Universe with an impossibility: “O Lord God, you know” he says.
Then God tells him to prophesy to the bones “hear the word of the Lord”. As he does so the bones (rattling all the way) are covered in flesh and muscle and skin. Then God tells him to speak to ‘the breath’ and call upon it to breathe into these dead bodies. Then we read verse 10 ‘breath entered them; they lived and stood on their feet, a vast multitude’.
If God wants to restore the dead bones of Judah, why does he ask Ezekiel’s help? Why does Ezekiel have to ‘prophesy’ to these dead bones and to the breath? It is after all God who is making the miracle happen – the bones are dry – the army is dead. But Ezekiel is asked to do this apparently futile thing of preaching to the dead bones. What’s the point?
I am not sure that we know the answer. But the impression that I get is that although God can do the miraculous himself and by himself, he wants us to be involved. We need to realise that it is him who is performing the miracle – because from our perspective it is impossible. And yet he wants us to be involved – to be in partnership with him in the transformative re-creation that he is performing on the earth.
And this is very important for us today. We are constantly faced with the hopelessness of modern life; with its rush for instant gratification and its focus on the self. The dashed dreams of so many. But also –the fulfilled dreams which are finally seen to be futile. The dreams which die with those who dream them. The dreams of dry bones:
As Christians we have the answer to futility and to hopelessness, but so many have their eyes closed and their ears stopped, in their relentless rush to serve idols which can never satisfy. It is as if they were dead to true life.
In Itchen Valley; in Avington, the task of bearing witness to Jesus Christ may often seem like a hopeless one. A very, very few carry on the burden of the prophetic task in this village. It may seem like the beliefs of those of earlier generations which drove those who did to build this beautiful church – a church built for preaching – are lying like their bones in the graveyard.
The task may seem as hopeless as it did to the Jews in the sixth century.
But within 70 years of the Jewish exile, the Babylonians had been totally defeated by the Medes and Persians and the Jews had been allowed to return to their homeland to re-build the nation that ultimately became the birthplace for Jesus Christ.
Our task is not to change the hearts of those in this community whose hearts and minds are closed to Jesus Christ – God will do that himself. Our task is to continue the prophetic ministry of previous generations – by speaking in this generation of the joy we have in Jesus Christ, without any embarrassment or shame and speaking of that both in what we say and also through what we do in the sometimes mundane work of leading a church community in a village.
And by calling upon the Holy Spirit – that divine breath – to fill the dead with life.
In doing so we are doing something which is of far greater importance than any of the apparent priorities of the day.
If you are not already, can I invite you, to get involved – and join us in this prophetic ministry.
We are keeping hope alive.