Sunday’s sermon: Salvation Comes in the Breath

Text used – Ezekiel 37:1-14

  • When I was a kid, we used to listen to a particular cassette tape in the car all the time: Anne Murray’s “There’s a Hippo in my Tub.” (If you have kids or grandkids and haven’t tried out Anne Murray’s music, I highly encourage it. You can find them all on YouTube.) On that album, there’s a particular song I’ve been thinking about this week. It’s a song called “Why Oh Why.”
    • Premise: adult trying to get a child to go to sleep → child is full of questions
    • Starts off innocently enough:
      • Q: Why does a camel drink water? → A: Because a camel gets thirsty just like you and me and everybody else does.
    • Devolves from there:
      • Q: Why can’t a mouse eat a streetcar? → A: Because a mouse’s stomach isn’t big enough to hold a streetcar.
      • Q: Why can’t a cow have kittens? → A: Because … well, uhhh … because cows have little calves and cats have little kittens, and besides, dear, it’s easier that way.
    • Unanswerable questions, right? They certainly come from more than just kids.
      • Silly ones
        • Which came first – the chicken or the egg?
        • Why is the objective of golf to play the least amount of golf?
        • Why can’t a mouse eat a streetcar?
        • Mom, kids, and I came up with a really fun car game for this while we were up north last summer: What’s the opposite of _____________? (something that doesn’t have an opposite) → What’s the opposite of cloud? What’s the opposite of train? What’s the opposite of purple?
      • Serious ones
        • How big is the universe?
        • What is heaven like?
        • What’s my purpose here?
        • How long, O Lord?
    • The question posed in our Scripture reading this morning seems to be just such a question: “Human one, can these bones live again?”[1] Can these bones live again? [PAUSE] A seemingly-unanswerable question, right?
      • Hear the unanswerable nature of that question in the response given in Scripture: I said, “Lord God, only you know.” → The Biblical version of “God only knows,” right?
        • Said with exasperation?
        • Said with confusion?
        • Said with resignation?
        • Said with hope?
        • Said with faith?
        • Another unanswerable question. But how does God’s seemingly-unanswerable question continue to impart answers about God’s hope for us today?
  • To move that particular questions into the “answerable” category, we need to first understand a little bit more about Ezekiel, both the prophet and the book.
    • Greatest context comes from the beginning of Ezekiel – text: In the thirteenth year, on the fifth day of the fourth month, I was with the exiles at the Chebar River when the heavens opened and I saw visions of God.[2] → You may have caught that word “exiles,” and if you did, you might have also guessed that Ezekiel is yet another one of those prophets who spoke God’s word to the people during the Babylonian exile. So Ezekiel is a contemporary of both Isaiah and Jeremiah (though we have to remember that the Babylonian exile spanned an entire lifetime, so being contemporaries doesn’t mean that Ezekiel actually knew either Isaiah or Jeremiah). → a few differences
      • Ezekiel’s role in society (from the intro to Ezek in The CEB Study Bible): Though known to readers as a prophet, Ezekiel was first and foremost a priest in the Lord’s temple in Jerusalem. As a temple priest, he belonged to a select, privileged, educated class in Judah’s ancient society.[3]
      • Tone of Ezekiel → Ezekiel is unwaveringly blunt and even harsh in his words of judgment for the people and the nation of Judah. The God portrayed in the book of Ezekiel is not a kind and compassionate God at all.
        • Rev. Dr. Katheryn Pfisterer Darr (author and Prof. of Hebrew Scripture at Boston University’s School of Theology): Ezekiel’s oracles of judgment are filled with passion and utterly devoid of sentimentality. The God we witness through Ezekiel’s words is consumed by wrath, bent on violence, and hungry for vengeance.[4]
      • Form of Ezekiel: As we’ve seen over the past few Sunday, Isaiah and Jeremiah are more accounts of conversations between the prophets and God while Ezekiel’s prophecies come more from visions and oracles. → scholars break these into 3 general section[5]
        • chs. 1-24: sign acts and oracles of doom against Judah and Jerusalem
        • chs. 25-32: oracles against foreign nations and rulers
        • chs. 33-48: oracles concerning Israel’s future restoration → And it’s in this final section that we find our Scripture reading for today – Ezekiel’s infamous vision of the valley full of dry bones.
  • So let’s dig into that vision a little more.
    • Significant that in his vision, God places Ezekiel “in the middle of a certain valley”
      • Makes it fairly clear that Ezekiel himself is right there in the midst of the strain and brokenness, the lostness and sinfulness of the rest of the people → God didn’t set Ezekiel on the rim of the valley so he could look down on all those dry bones. God didn’t hover Ezekiel over the whole scene. God placed Ezekiel smack dab in the middle of the valley in and amongst all the rest of the dry bones, including even God’s own prophet in the deficiency and parchedness.
      • Being placed in the center of the valley also ensures that Ezekiel will be able to see it all – that Ezekiel will be able to witness and attest to the full extent of all that lies in the valley → From the center of the valley, Ezekiel cannot miss a single bone or dust cloud. He will be fully exposed – physically and visually – to the arid nature of the valley and the desiccated state of the bones. No matter where he looks, Ezekiel cannot help but see. He cannot help but witness.
        • Element of longevity/endurance to this placement – Heb. “set me down” = settle, remain, camp, wait[6] → implies that this is more than a brief visit – that God is doing more than breezing Ezekiel through this scene → There is purpose to Ezekiel’s visit to this valley of dry bones, and here he will remain until God’s message is delivered in full.
        • Just to be sure of this, God takes Ezekiel on a little tour through the valley – text: While I was in the Lord’s spirit, [God] led me out and set me down in the middle of a certain valley. It was full of bones. [The Lord] led me through them all around, and I saw that there were a great many of them on the valley floor, and they were very dry.[7]
          • Again, we see in the Hebrew just how important it is that Ezekiel fully witness the nature and state of his surroundings. → Heb. “hinneh” (that little, attention-grabbing word) = untranslated before both the phrase “there were a great many of them on the valley floor” and the phrase “they were very dry”[8]
    • Come to our seemingly-unanswerable question – text: [The Lord] asked me, “Human one, can these bones live again?” I said, “Lord God, only you know.”[9] → But instead of giving Ezekiel a simple answer that he could take back to the people, God chose to enact an answer instead.
      • Answer that comes in three phases, each set in motion by God
  • First phase = reassembly
    • Ezekiel prophecies to the bones as God commanded → bones come together → sinews cover the bones → flesh covers the sinew → skin covers the flesh
    • But at the completion of this first phase, there’s still something missing – text: There was still no breath in them.[10]
  • Second phase = BREATH
    • God to Ezekiel: [The Lord] said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, human one! Say to the breath, The Lord God proclaims: Come from the four winds, breath! Breathe into these dead bodies and let them live.”[11]
    • Ezekiel does as God commands → breath enters the throng of bodies before him → text: When they breath entered them, they came to life and stood on their feet, an extraordinarily large company.[12] → need to take a step back for a minute and talk about this breath because this is The Key
      • Heb. “breath” = ruach – word for wind, air, breath, and spirit → So those dry, lifeless bodies that populated the valley all around Ezekiel were devoid of God’s spirit. The spirit of God was not in them. Hold onto that nugget for a while in your mind.
  • Final phase = rising up – text: [The Lord] said to me, “Human one, these bones are the entire house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope has perished. We are completely finished.’ So now, prophesy and say to them, The Lord God proclaims: I’m opening your graves! I will raise you up from your graves, my people, and I will bring you to Israel’s fertile land. You will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and raise you up from your graves, my people.”[13] → concludes with God’s promise and reassurance that God will, indeed, do this
    • But none of this could happen without the breath … without the spirit. Without the spirit of God, these bones would remain lifeless. Dry. Scattered, broken, and incomplete. But with God’s breath … God’s spirit … within them, it’s a whole different story.
      • Rev. Dr. Lisa Thompson (author, ordained Baptist minister, and Assoc. Prof. of Black Homiletics and Liturgics at the Vanderbilt University’s Divinity School): The restoration will not stop with breath; it will attend to the fleshiest matters of this situated reality from muscles to skin tissues. These bones are to become upright, Spirit-filled flesh once again. And the Holy One is the acting agent who offers the word that life can come again, precipitates the reassembly of the bones, brings forth the breath from the winds, and restores muscles and flesh.[14]
  • So what do we do with this idea of God’s spirit?
    • More often read this oracle from Ezek on Pentecost – the day when we celebrate the Holy Spirit – God’s Spirit – alighting on the disciples after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension back into heaven → We say that’s what we celebrate … we say that’s what we believe … and yet in the mainline Protestant church in particular, we seem to have forgotten about the Holy Spirit or, worse yet, intentionally neglected the person and work of the Holy Spirit altogether.
      • From Becoming a Blessed Church: Forming a Church of Spiritual Purpose, Presence, and Power by N. Graham Standish: Many of today’s mainline members fear the Holy Spirit because of what they see in the Pentecostal movement, which tends to focus mostly on the Holy Spirit. … Unfortunately, too many of our churches, by ignoring and remaining closed to the Holy Spirit, have developed respiratory failure. Since we no longer breathe with the breath of the Holy Spirit, we neither aspire to become open to the Spirit nor allow ourselves to be inspired by the Holy Spirit. As a result, our churches eventually expire. We suffer such chronic respiratory failure – the failure to breathe in the Spirit and life – that our churches eventually take their last breath and die.[15] → Friends, especially in this time in which we find ourselves feeling dry and depleted, utterly spent and discarded on the valley floor, it is essential – literally, the essence … the very intrinsic nature of our faith – that we remember the power of God’s Holy Spirit with us and among us.
    • In our churches and in our lives today, we find ourselves in this time of Advent – this time of waiting.
      • Waiting for the birth of the Savior – the birth of Salvation … waiting for Salvation to come … and to come again
      • Waiting so often involves waiting in the midst of unanswered questions … questions that feel scattered around us as prominent and devastated as those dry bones
        • Rev. Dr. Thompson: As we end this calendar year, we may survey the places in our world that lay waiting for an infusion from the holy-life-force. We are living in a global pandemic. We’ve had continual racial unrest, migration crises and border struggles, wildfires, and oil spills. Ongoing social and personal upheaval are not foreign conditions in our immediate neighborhoods or across the globe. The vibrancy of life sustained eludes us daily. And yet, the mysterium tremendum of the passage is: the presence of death, loss, and grief do not thwart the uncertain but emboldened participation in the tangible possibilities of life renewed. This may be an invitation to imagine these places of participation in very concrete ways for our contemporary contexts, even as we hope against hope in a full forward-facing recovery to come.
          • Spirit that raises dry bones to new life and purpose
          • Spirit that is aching to bring about the birth of the Christ-child in our midst and in our hearts
          • Spirit that can breathe new life and new hope into even the most desolate waiting … Amen.

[1] Ezek 37:3.

[2] Ezek 1:1.

[3] John T. Strong. “Ezekiel: Introduction” from The CEB Study Bible. (Nashville: Common English Bible, 2013), OT 1315.

[4] Katheryn Pfisterer Darr. “The Book of Ezekiel: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 6. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001), 1085.

[5] Ibid, 1089.

[6] Exegesis by Rev. Elana Keppel Levy: https://somuchbible.com/word-studies/annotated-scripture/ezekiel-371-14d/.

[7] Ezek 37:1-2.

[8] Levy.

[9] Ezek 37:3.

[10] Ezek 37:8.

[11] Ezek 37:9.

[12] Ezek 37:10b.

[13] Ezek 37:11-13.

[14] Lisa Thompson. “Commentary on Ezekiel 37:1-14” from Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/ezekiel-valley-of-dry-bones/commentary-on-ezekiel-371-14-10.

[15] N. Graham Standish. Becoming a Blessed Church: Forming a Church of Spiritual Purpose, Presence, and Power, 2nd ed. (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2016), 33.