This is a sermon I recently preached on Ezekiel, the valley of dry bones, and just holding it all together. Crafting it was a special blessing in the midst of the chaos of my own life which has left me feeling a little breathless lately. Through it, God brought me comfort, so I post it with the hope that you will find some here too dear hearts.
Watch it here in two parts (sorry, technical difficulties) and/or read it below.
Ezekiel 37:1-14 (NRSV)
The hand of the LORD came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord GOD, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the LORD.” So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath Thus says the Lord GOD Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my 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,” says the LORD.
The word of God, for us, the people of God.
Wow. Well, my goodness. That’s an intense and incredible story, and after all that God simply says, “and I will place you on your own soil [another way of saying, I put you safely back home where you belong]; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act.” God tells them that by what God has spoken and what God will do, they will know that this is, in fact, the Lord their God, and what kind of God their God is.
Home is where your heart is. There’s a popular variation of that phrase that says, “Home is where your mom is.” God, our Loving Parent, both Mother and Father, promises that we can and we always will come home to Her no matter how impossible it seems. God will do it—God will bring us home. When I was a child, I tried to go to summer camp three times. Notice I said I tried. Each time, I got so nervous about not knowing the other kids, not being familiar with my surroundings, not having my bed and my family and the things that brought me comfort, that I got profoundly homesick and would sob uncontrollably until the counselors let me call my parents. Each time over the phone, there was some gentle coaxing to stick it out a little longer, a little encouragement to try for something more than I was capable of, and then ultimately a realization that I had hit my limit, and I just needed to come home. And each time, my parents came to get me. They knew my limits and they knew when to draw me close once I had overstepped them. They knew to bring me home, to where my mom was. They also knew to stop sending me to camp and we found other ways to occupy my summers. But when I was stuck there in the midst of it, all I had to do was cry out to them, to let them know that for reasons we might not really have understood just then, I really needed them and I needed to be delivered from my feelings of fear and loneliness. All I had to do was call, and they answered. They came. They gathered me home as a beloved daughter; they didn’t make me fight my way back to feeling okay or getting home on my own. They came and they picked me up.
God does something similar with Ezekiel in the first verse of our passage, literally picking him up in the palm of God’s hand and carrying him, not home, but to a place of desolation, a valley of dry bones. God carries Ezekiel to the valley full of dusty, sun-bleached bones, the remains of his people who had long-since left this life behind, and has him take a good hard look, leading him all around them, with Ezekiel carefully picking his steps around the sharp bony edges and creepy decomposed corpse bits to get up close and personal with this grisly scene. These people were all dead and gone, dozens—maybe hundreds of them—enough people to fill the whole field, probably as far as Ezekiel could see. The sheer sense of loss, of hopeless, must have been overwhelming. I wonder if there was a moment of silence as Ezekiel tried to process what he was seeing in front of him.
And then God breaks in and starts asking some really silly questions.
“So Ezekiel, can these dry bones live again?”
Well, I wonder if Ezekiel thought to himself, the statistics on that really aren’t that good… But he didn’t seem to answer with sarcasm or doubt; he just responded honestly, “I don’t know, Lord. O Lord God, you know.” He’s been a friend of God long enough at this point to know that things are not always what they seem, so perhaps there’s some genuine curiosity there. “Can they? Can these dry bones live again?”
“Well let’s talk about that,” God says. “Speak to them. Speak words of life, and let’s see what happens.” God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to these dry bones, encouraging them back to life. Ezekiel, however unsure he may have felt about it, obeys. He opens his mouth and he speaks the words of comfort God gives him—“Rise up! God is going to put you back together! Live!” He listened to God and he said the words, but it was God Godself who made it happen. Ezekiel does the talking, but God has all the action verbs here: God will bring the bones together piece by piece, God will lay sinews on them, and God will cover them with skin. The language is surprisingly gentle here, almost like a loving Parent covering a weary child with a warm blanket and offering rest. Between Ezekiel’s words and God’s movement, something dramatic begins to happen. The two work together and, rather than a lullaby as God tucks the dry bones back into their bodies, there’s a loud rattling and a cloud of dust and the next thing you know, there before them stand people again. Talk about a miracle!
There’s just one problem. “There was no breath in them.” They were there. They were upright and just barely holding it all together, but the breath of life was still lost. Their chests did not rise and fall with the steady confidence of those filled with hope and the Spirit. Breath, life, hope still eluded them. They are worn out. They’ve been through a lot, and it is a miracle that they are even recognizable as human right now, so it’s not surprising that for a moment there, the vibrance of life represented by the power of a deep strong breath is missing from this crowd. Have you ever felt this way? That life is just hard at the moment, that it’s all just too much, and frankly to be up and physically present is a miracle in and of itself. I have had days where the world asks just a little too much of me, and I think, “You know what, I’m here, I’m showered, and I remembered to put on pants today, so that’s all I’ve got for you. You’re welcome.” There are days when we’re just here and that’s all we have to offer for the moment. When you’ve been dealing with tough stuff for a while, the burnout really does just suck the breath right out of you.
Not all of our struggles are as simple and short-term as my summer camp story earlier. In my case, it was largely an issue of maturity—I just wasn’t ready to be on my own away from home that long yet. In other cases, there are much larger obstacles that seem a lot more daunting and more permanent. There is chronic mental or physical illness that forces us to work with doctors and friends and family to manage it, when we had our hearts desperately set on curing it. There are persistent financial problems that leave us wondering how bills are going to get paid month to month, continually nagging at the back of our minds. There are strained relationships where we can never quite seem to do or say the right thing; we don’t know how to overcome a dysfunctional dynamic that seems to have been in place too long for us to change it now. There are struggles that are just relentless, wearing us down day after day. There are crisis moments, sure, and those have their own acute kind of pain. But then there are the days and weeks and months– maybe even years– where the crisis has passed but the recovery, the living with it, still goes on. Maybe others begin to forget. Maybe they think it was a long time ago and we should be over it by now… but we’re not. It lingers, aching every now and then like the place where a broken bone has healed when a cold front is moving in.
Other times, there isn’t one big crisis that hurts us, but a build-up of lots of little things. Little challenges, small accommodations, ways we don’t quite get what we feel we need and want. The plans we had didn’t quite work out. Oh well, that’s ok. Nothing to make a fuss over. The people we love make hurtful comments, maybe on purpose or maybe without thinking. They didn’t mean it they way. It was a misunderstanding. Or they were just angry, they don’t really think that. People fail to live up to expectations. Sometimes, we fail to live up to expectations. Ah well, it’s not that a big deal. No use crying over spilled milk. We run into lots of little wounds like paper cuts over the course of a life that don’t seem to matter to much at the time, but they can accumulate until they become something really, truly painful.
All these kinds of wounds wear on us, so slowly we might not even notice at first. We might not notice for years. But eventually, there comes a day, when we realize we’re just tired from the simple weight of holding it all together. We might feel like people who are a hair’s breadth away from falling to pieces, into just one more crumpled heap in a valley of dry bones. And God understands that. God aches for us in that.
Nowhere in this story does God scold the dry bones. Nowhere does God blame them for falling apart completely. There is no shame in brokenness; it is just the result of what we’ve been through sometimes. When God and Ezekiel finish reassembling this poor mess into a congregation of God’s people, God doesn’t tell them to take a deep breath and get themselves together. No, God hears their desperation and their exhaustion when they say to God, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are completely cut off.” God hears and understands that they are past their limits, so God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the breath—to the wind—and tell it to return to them. God acknowledges what they have been through—“You were dead. These were your graves. This was too much for you, my loves. This was not your battle to fight alone. This was not something you could just come back from on you own. I am sending you a Comforter. Receive the Breath of Life.”
This is not a self-help story. It is a story of grace. It is a story of mercy about a God who has compassion on our fragile state as human beings. After all, Psalm 103 reassures us that God knows how we were formed; God remembers that we are dust. On Ash Wednesday and in the season of Lent, we remember this too when we tell ourselves and each other, “Dust you are and to dust you shall return. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” But we are dust that God our loving, nurturing Parent has carefully crafted with gentle hands, first out of the earth in Eden to make children in God’s own image, then in a desolate valley in Babylon to reform and revive us when the suffering of life has taken its toll. This story, like Lent, also reminds us that we are not only dust, though.
We are the people of a God who can make dry bones rise and live and hope again. We are the people of a God who sends people to speak words of comfort and healing as God moves among us putting us back together and reviving us piece by piece. We are the people of a God who is always working and moving through Creation to renew and bring life, even when it seems invisible and impossible. Like the season of Lent, this story reminds us that we serve a God who resurrects.
Take comfort in that my brothers and sisters. When you are in the place of just holding it all together, remember that the LORD has spoken and the LORD will act. We see it in Ezekiel, we see it in Jesus Christ, we see it in each other. God is not absent. It is not over. Easter is coming yet.
In the name of the Father….
And of the Son…
And of the Holy Spirit…