Monday, April 11, 2011

The Ones Who Had Been Dead: Sermon on Ezekiel 37:1-14

“Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice!” ~Psalm 130:1-2a

You have been there.

The father explaining to the children that mommy has died.

You have been the father, or you have been one of those children.

The mother who is a paramedic arrives at the scene of the accident to see that it is her son who lies bleeding.

You have been that mother.

The couple who sit with the doctor to hear the diagnosis, the very bad news. You have been that patient, you have been that spouse, you have even been that doctor.

The man who hears that he is being “downsized”—that quaint euphemism, the cultural cousin of being “super-sized,” perhaps? You have been that man.

The woman who holds the bills in her hand, and knows—she is not going to make it. She is going to lose the house. You have been that woman.

You have been the father, the mother, the daughter, the son. You have been the sister, the brother, the beloved, the cousin. You have been the woman, the man, the adult, the child. You have known loss. You have known death. You have been to the valley of the dry bones, and walked amidst their clattering emptiness. You have been there.

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice!

I believe most of us have had at least one experience in our lives when we truly felt we were in the depths. When we read stories from scripture like this one, we get it. As a friend wrote this week, “We do not always live in the land of resurrection. These places of dry bones, these decaying bodies, these sealed tombs are real to us.”[i] I would add that, unlike the times of resurrection, which it is so easy to take for granted, to wear lightly on our shoulders like a summer shawl, the times of the dry bones are unforgettable. They are often the turning points, the events around which we find the definition of our lives. There is always a ‘before’ and ‘after.’

Ezekiel 37 is probably the portion of this prophet’s writing most well known to Christians. And I think there are good reasons for that. It contains stunning, memorable imagery, visual and even auditory—we can almost hear the howling of the Spirit-Breath-Wind, and the rattling of the bones. (Every time the text says “breath” I am going to say “Spirit-Breath-Wind,” because there is one word for all three in Hebrew, ruach. So every time the prophet says that word, his audience heard all three.) The passage offers an experience of the Israelites that seems to enter into dialogue with New Testament stories of God’s power triumphing over death. And—to be blunt—there’s a lot of stuff in Ezekiel that you don’t want to read. It’s just plain ugly. For beauty and for hope, this passage is truly one of the highlights.

But beautiful and memorable stories from scripture don’t exist in a vacuum. And it is good for us to pay attention to the story behind this story, the tale of the Babylonian exile. It’s good for us to remember that the prophet himself was one of those taken into captivity in the year 597 BCE. Before the Babylonians invaded, Ezekiel had been a priest in Jerusalem—serving God in the Temple, the holiest place of his people’s living faith. He had been held in honor, a leader among his people. But then came the Babylonians, who laid siege to Jerusalem for two long years, destroying the Temple, bringing with them desolation and destruction and disease and famine. Ezekiel became a priest-in-exile, a priest without a Temple, which is something like a fisherman without the sea. And in the midst of his work, telling the exiled Israelites what had gone wrong and what God wanted them to do about it, Ezekiel’s wife died. And God instructed him not to mourn her, so that he could be an example to his fellow Israelites who should not mourn the loss of the Temple.[ii]

This is the man whom God swept along on this Spirit-Breath-Wind-blown vision, and placed in a valley with bones as far as the eye could see. The image was most likely a familiar one, a memory from the time of the two-year siege—an image of an army that had been utterly routed, whose defeat was so absolute, there was no one left even to tend to the dead. This is story of the man whose desolation is so complete that when God asks him the leading question, “Mortal, can these bones live?” he can only mumble his numb reply—“O Lord God: You know.” In other words, I have no idea.

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice!

The valley of dry bones is everywhere we look.

It’s a seaside village in Japan where the homes and inns were swept out to sea and even the oyster beds and seaweed farms were destroyed by the tsunami.

It’s a village in the Ivory Coast where a thousand people were massacred in a single day.

It’s anywhere in small-town USA where the grind and steam and commotion of manufacturing went silent years ago, leaving boarded up windows and empty warehouses in its wake.

It’s your kitchen table or mine, in the aftermath of a conversation that leaves our eyes dull, and our hearts aching, and our souls crying out to God.

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice!

So we are blown into the valley by God’s Spirit-Breath-Wind. Ezekiel comes out of the dryness of the death his whole community has known, and he knows personally. And we come out of our own dry and dead places—the lost hopes, the lost loved ones, even the loss of creativity and energy that can dissipate when we are overwhelmed with the demands of living.

Then the prophet hears the voice of God.

We’ve been crying, “Lord, hear my voice!” and in response, we hear the voice of God. God is speaking to Ezekiel, and I confess, I have spent at least a little time wondering what the voice of God might sound like. In the film “The Ten Commandments,” it sounded like Charlton Heston—because he was not just Moses in that film, he was also God! In the New Testament, when God speaks to Jesus at his baptism, we aren’t given a description of the sound, only the words. There is one passage that comes to mind where the voice of God is described—and it is not what we expect:

Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. ~1 Kings 19:11-12

The voice of God comes to another prophet in “the sound of sheer silence.” Could that be how it comes to Ezekiel? Could that be how the voice of God comes to us?

Out of the sound of silence, God makes an outrageous, outlandish promise—each bone coming to its bone-home, knit again to its brother bones. And the clattering of the bones witnesses to the delivery of that promise. And then God makes another unbelievable, impossible pledge: the Spirit-Breath-Wind entering the reanimated corpses, making them, not something out of “Dawn of the Dear” or even “Shaun of the Dead,” but real, human, living, sighing creatures. And the howling and moaning of the Spirit-Breath-Wind witnesses to the honoring of that pledge.

“Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel” [Ezekiel 37:11].

I don’t think this is a throwaway line. It’s not just you and me and the prophet any more. We are startled by the sheer numbers of the people, the enormity of the crowd. The outlandish, improbable promises of God are made to a whole people, the whole people of God. The experience of death, the experience of loss, is one that isolates us and separates us—bone falls away from brother bone. The experience of receiving that revivifying, rejuvenating Spirit-Breath-Wind of God is one that knits, mends, and binds us back together. Wholeness begets wholeness—when we receive that healing breath, we are knit together, not only in ourselves, but with one another. Our healing is not ours alone, just as our life is not ours alone. It all happens in God’s community.

You have been there. You have sensed the breath of God warm on your face in the silence of your prayer. You have felt the Spirit settle in your heart like a cat curling up in front of the fire, after a time spent with those you love. You have felt the wind from heaven blow through your hair, sending a tingle down your spine as some words entered your soul—maybe from a hymn, maybe from a child. This is God’s last word: “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” [Ezekiel 37:14]. In the sheer sound of silence God speaks to us. God tells us, “I am here. I am with you, forever, to the ends of the earth.” In knitting us back together, God acts. God tells us, “Look around you at the whole people of God whom I have given you. Find me there.” We have been there, and we will be there again. It is the outrageous, outlandish promise of God. God places the Holy Spirit-Breath-Wind in us, and we will live. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Paul Bellan-Boyer, “Lent 5—I Felt the Lord’s Power” at City Called Heaven


[ii] David G. Garber, “Commentary on First Reading” at



Cynthia said...

Thank you. I really needed to read this.

Fran said...

Now that I have heard you preach, reading something like this is even more powerful. Thank you - like Cynthia, I needed to hear this too.

Robin said...

I didn't tell you how amazing this sermon is. I love the juxtaposition of the howling and the sheer silence; I love the way you gathered so many desert experiences together. Your congregation is so blessed to hear your preaching every week.