Hope and a future: Duncan’s sermon on Ezekiel 37

Dry bones

Today, we were thinking about the famous vision of the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel 37.  This, Duncan said, like all the other passages we have been looking at in previous weeks relates to the time many of the Jews were in exile in Babylon – having been forced-marched over 1000 miles to reach there after Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians in 587BC.

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. He led me to and fro among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, ‘Son of man, can these bones live?’ (Ezekiel 37:1-3)

Whereas the prophet Jeremiah (whose writings we looked at a couple of weeks ago) remained in Jerusalem and was writing from there to the Jews in exile, Ezekiel was with the people in their exile experience, witnessing first hand the anguish people’s anguish.

Aftermath of the Rwanda genocide

Duncan described a visit he paid to Rwanda while visiting friends in Africa a decade ago. He told us:

Rwanda is an achingly beautiful country. It was so green and lush. But its is infamous for a 100-day massacre which took place in 1994, when nearly one million people were killed while the world looked on, or perhaps more honestly, looked the other way.

It’s impossible to drive anywhere in Rwanda without seeing evidence of the genocide. We came across a church in the countryside built with corrugated iron, and we saw a young lady in her 20s sitting at a table at the front door. She had been in another part of the country when the genocide began. All her family and all her relatives had fled to the church thinking that it was a place of sanctuary. No-one would desecrate a church building.

The killers arrived and every person in the church was either hacked to death or shot, including all her family. She was the only one of her family left, and she saw her life now as one of keeping their memory alive, and testifying to what happened.

In Europe, we bury the bodies and tend to make the burial area as beautiful as possible.

In Rwanda, the practice was very different. In one church we saw, 50,000 people were interred inside the building, and indeed in the crypt below the building coffins were stacked high. And it was even more disturbing to see row upon row of shelves with human skeletons, bones piles high.

These places were unspeakably terrible to visit, and as I read about the Valley of Dry Bones in Ezekiel 37, in my mind’s eye I am seeing all these dry skulls and bones piled high to the ceilings in Uganda.

Cut off

The Jewish people in exile had lost everything – their homes, their freedom, their Temple in Jerusalem. Ezekiel 37 contains a lament for their situation – ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ (v11)

They feel ‘cut off’ from everything safe and familiar – many of them probably wondered if they were cut off from God too. And cut off from the past, they see no hope for the future – ‘our hope is gone.’

There’s nothing more painful, Duncan said, than seeing bones, bones similar to our bones, lying on the ground. But metaphorically, we don’t need to go far to encounter ‘dry bones.’ We see dry bones in broken relationships, broken communities, broken families, shattered by betrayal, anger, abuse, addiction. We see dry bones in Christian churches which have been divided. We see dry bones in fractured political crisis within nationals, and internationally.

And we can’t turn the clock back to better days. ‘…we are cut off’ (v11)

A vision of hope

Into the despair and hopelessness of the exiled Jews, Ezekiel brings a God-given vision of new life and new hope. In response to the word of the Lord spoken by Ezekiel the bones come together, skeletons are reformed, tendons and flesh appear, then skin – and finally, breath. ‘Breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet – a vast army.’ (v10)

Often, Duncan suggested, we have a deep sense of nostalgia – we want to turn the clock back. We think of joyful times in our lives, of people we loved who are no longer with us, we hanker and hunger for a sweet remembered past.

But Ezekiel’s message is saying to his first audience and to us. ‘Sorry, there’s no going back.’  Even if the Jews are able to go back to Jerusalem, it will not be to the same Jerusalem they had known in the past, or heard of from their parents.

Ezekiel points us to a different future – but it’s a hopeful future.

Resurrection

Reading Ezekiel as we do in the light of the New Testament, this passage speaks to us of resurrection. The future is not simply a return to, or a repeat of the past – it is a new kind of life breathed into being by the Spirit of God. ‘I will put breath in you, and you will come to life.’ (v6)

We may be going through ‘exile’ experiences of pain and loss, when we wonder if we are ‘cut off’ from God. But this is Advent, a time when we remember that God came among us, and despite the difficulties and challenges of our lives, we trust and hope that he will come again.

The Holy Spirit

And the One who came, Jesus, gave us the promise of the Holy Spirit.  Duncan pointed out that in the first 14 verses of Ezekiel 37 there are no fewer than 9 references to the work and presence of God’s Spirit. The word ‘ruach’ in Hebrew is translated both ‘Spirit’, ‘breath’ and ‘wind.’  Despite their fears, God’s life-giving Spirit is as near to them as breath.

The message to the Exiles, and the good news about Jesus is not an immunity from struggle and hardship from life. But it assures us of the presence of God with us in whatever the future may hold.

A future with God

‘You not only have a past with God, you also have a future,’ Duncan said. God will be with us, and we will know it! – ‘Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’ (v14)

Duncan concluded:

Don’t worry! Be hopeful!  The promise is always for life, new life, transformation. As individuals and a community of faith we are sustained by the word of God and the breath of God. When we have no hope, we hear the promise made to the people in exile – ‘My Spirit will give you breath and you will live again.’ (v14)

The image is by Abraham Rattner (American, 1895–1978)

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