Can These Bones Live?
Based on Ezekiel 37
It is a blessing to be with all of you at the mid-point of your season of “Revival”! I am Dan Albrant, and I am appointed to pastor Madison and Rose Park United Methodist Churches. I’m new to the area, but not to Virginia. I have lived in Arlington for more than 25 years, but just relocated here in late June. So I am getting to know the area, the people – and all the connections between all you people. To help out that cause, Pastor Rob invited me to preach here tonight. Not only that, but the Spirit moved Pastors Nykamp, Tucker and myself to rekindle a practice from days gone by where the three churches would routinely gather and fellowship together. This first gathering will happen in October – we will be announcing to all churches the date and how you can be a part of this important ecumenical experience. All that being said by way of introduction, it is important that we prepare our heart and minds to hear the Word that God has given me for all of you. Won’t you please join me in a moment of prayer to our Almighty God?
This being the third night of revival, I’m sure that you brought along your Bibles. Please turn in your Old Testament (nowadays called the Hebrew bible) to the book of Ezekiel. It can be found after Lamentations and before Daniel…depending on the translation and size of type, around page 800. We’re going to be focused on the 37th Chapter of Ezekiel as our text tonight. I’ll give you all just a moment to find your way there. The time we spend together tonight will be centered on the topic, “Can These Bones Live?” It is important to give you all the context of who Ezekiel is and what time period he is active. Ezekiel is a prophet who was called in the time right before the first deportation of the King of Judah and his court from Jerusalem to Babylon. The prophet was thus a contemporary of Jeremiah, but unlike Jeremiah, Ezekiel was deported in this first wave and lived with the exiles in Babylon. Ezekiel doesn’t hear about the subsequent second attack and razing of the Temple until Chapter 33 of this book (about 10 years into his exile). Thus, as we pick up the story tonight, the exiled Israelites are just beginning to come to terms with the fact that there is no Jerusalem to return to. They are destitute and demoralized and seemingly cast off by the God of their ancestors who had promised so much to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The first two-thirds of the book made the case for why the exile had to happen. Then in Chapter 33, there is a change and God begins to talk about restoring God’s people to God and to their land.
In the previous Chapter (36), God has begun to tell the prophet how God is going to redeem the people of Israel. Starting in verse 22, God tells Ezekiel how God will act to restore Israel so that God’s holy name can be sanctified across the nations (that is the world). God pulls them from all the places they have scattered and cleanses them of their sins. Then, in verses 26-28 (read these) God tells exactly how God will bring this about. Then in verses 31 and 32, God speaks of the repentance of the people and how that leads to renewal. God will punish God’s people, but God does not forget God’s promises – thus, God is ever loving and consistent in bringing about God’s preferred plan for us. I want you to remember these things as we move on to Ezekiel’s vision in Chapter 37.
Everything has been set up now for the vision that Ezekiel has of a valley full of the dried up bones representing the people of Israel in their exile from Jerusalem. God asks Ezekiel, “…Mortal, can these bones live?…” Now, first rule of thumb for anyone speaking to God…when God asks you a question, you can be sure that God already knows the answer. Ezekiel is humble and knowledgeable of God by now and replies, “…O Lord GOD, you know….” Great answer – and one to remember for the next time God questions you! God tells the prophet what to say starting in verse 4. From there on, God’s Spirit and Word act on those bones to cover them and to breathe into them the breath of life. You would think that all is terrific and wonderful now, wouldn’t you?!
An interesting truth comes out from the mouths of this new assembly in verse 11, however. Look at what the congregation says, “…Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely….” The children of God, God’s chosen people, have been forcibly removed from their land, the Temple (the house where God lived) along with the rest of Jerusalem has been razed, the surrounding countryside of Judah has been laid to waste, all of the leadership has been sent into exile in a far country. There they will stay for 70 years. The very bones of the whole people of Israel are crying out to God that they have been decimated and isolated and they are without hope.
I’m wondering at this point in my time with you if you are drawing any parallels to how we are perceiving God today? Anyone?! Can I get an amen if there is even one person in this gathering who has seen in the story of the prophet Ezekiel a link to the year 2017? Remember, that this text is every bit of 2500 years old – yet I think that it speaks boldly into our need for revival today in America. After all, here we are living in a post-modern and post-Christendom country and world. Twenty-five percent of Americans (roughly 75 million people) are now “un-affiliated” with any religious institution. All religious denominations, including those professing “non-denominational” ties, are continuing to trend downwards as they have for the past almost 50 years. In fact, the 2015 Pew study findings there are four former Christians for every new convert. The level of apostasy and number of those who follow the lesser gods of celebrity, fame, fortune, busyness, distraction, etc, is at an all-time high – here and around the world. I can’t help but look out and see a valley full of dessicated bones of the Christianity that used to flourish here and across the world. Recently, a couple of long-time ministers looked at me and said that they felt a little sorry for me entering ministry today – they’re glad to be out of it. Truth be told, it would be all too easy to give up hope.
On the other hand…when we really look at what Scripture tells us, from the beginning of the Bible until the very last word, we see reason to hope. We see that we do not have an un-attentive and non-active God. Rather we have a God who wants nothing other than to be in relationship with us. When we sin and when we run after other gods, the God of all Creation comes after us to find us and bring us back. When that God had to punish us, as a parent gives natural consequence punishments to a child, God remains in relationship and ultimately forgives us as we repent and mend our ways. God returns to that promise of fulfillment in verse 23 and beyond. Take a look at what God is saying…once again promising to cleanse and to save so that God’s chosen people will no longer look to lesser gods for companionship and love.
Friends, this is what this “revival” is all about. It’s about us understanding that we are on a path towards our own ruin, and that we need to re-dedicate ourselves to living as God has told us countless times how to live. This does NOT mean that we only live this way on Sundays, or even only on those Sundays where we choose to attend church! It is a deep down and committed turning of the mind and heart away from the world (repentance) and towards our God. Let’s be crystal clear here as we work with the scriptures from Ezekiel…God is saying that through the power of the Holy Spirit and through the proclamation of God’s Word to the people of God, that transformation will occur. God will clean us up, give us a heart of flesh rather than stone, and a brand new spirit. God has put a new David on the throne already – His name, which is above every name, is Jesus. God has already done some of the things that God promised – now it is up to us to get back to right relationship with God.
We do that when we spend time in the spiritual disciplines of prayer, corporate worship including Holy Communion, charity (that is service to the least, last and lost), study and meditation on God’s word, confession of our sins, holding ourselves and other believers accountable, fasting from things that get in the way of God, stewardship of our personal, communal and natural resources, humility and evangelism. Pastors Nykamp, Tucker and I have made a covenant to meet monthly to fellowship and pray with and for each other and our churches. As Pastors we are committed to preaching the Word of God for the people of God. Because of those commitments to God, the Holy Spirit has already moved us to a place of cooperation between our three churches. God’s holy Word is being proclaimed and we can expect that the flesh is going to be coming back onto the bones. We’re seeing people coming back to church. We’re seeing programs like MESA providing services to the needy and being supported by dedicated people like you. God’s Spirit and living Word will continue to move us forward to meet the needs of those less fortunate and spread the gospel to those who haven’t heard it or who have forgotten it. God’s Holy Spirit and God’s Word are at work in the world. Can these bones of Christianity live? We answer together tonight, “O Lord God, you know!” Through the mighty, mysterious and persistent acts of our Almighty God all things are possible. And all God’s people shouted in response, AMEN!