I know it’s customary for preachers to start with a joke or a cute story. But there’s simply no cute way to start a reflection on Ezekiel—it’s a sad story from the very beginning.
It Begins in Exile
In 597 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, laid siege to Jerusalem. The war lasted for over two years and, aside from the casualties of battle, it led to disease and famine on a massive scale. The result was utter despair. The Babylonian army tortured and killed many Judeans, and took the rest, Ezekiel included, into captivity in Babylon. It is a grim sight, indeed. Ezekiel is a priest with no temple over which to preside. He and his people are estranged from the land given to their forefathers and cut off from the center of God’s activity in the world.
One of the bleakest scenes in Ezekiel comes right after the exiled people get word that the temple has been destroyed. Understand that in the Old Testament the temple is seen as the locus of God’s presences in the world. Ezekiel has a vision that before the Temple is destroyed, God’s presence departs from it. Even God himself, it seems, has abandoned Israel!
Life in exile, by the way, is one of the Bible’s primary metaphors for the human condition. So Ezekiel’s story is our story. Exile is a condition of alienation, of separation from our homeland. It’s marked yearning, grief, loneliness, anger and despair—by a sense of being cut off from the center of life and meaning and energy. What we need is make the long journey home to God, in whom we live and move and have our being—God, who, though we have been estranged, has been there all along.
It Doesn’t End There…
Ezekiel doesn’t end with exile, though. The second half of the book is a declaration of God’s promise that one day he will restore the people to their land, and that God himself will return to the Temple.
I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land.
I will cause the cities to be inhabited, and the waste places shall be rebuilt.
The land that was desolate shall be tilled, and you will say “this land that was desolate has become like the garden of Eden”
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean.
I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you.
I will remove the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh
I will put my Spirit within you and you shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers.
You shall be my people, and I will be your God.
The book ends with another vision: “just like the vision that [Ezekiel] had seen when they came to destroy the city,” except this time “the glory of the Lord entered the temple by the gate facing east…and behold, the glory of the Lord filled the temple.”
So we know where we’re headed, but before we get to the people restored to the land and the vision of God dwelling once again in Zion, we have to pass through what the Psalmist calls “the valley of the shadow of death.” That’s the Christian story—the story of Lent and Holy Week and Easter—that life comes to us by way of death, so that death never has the last word.
Ezekiel in the Valley of Dry bones
So in our Old Testament lesson today, Ezekiel is led by the spirit of God into a valley. Now, that word translated “spirit” will be important for our reflection, so let’s talk about it. In Hebrew the word is ruwach. Say it with me: ruwach. One more time: ruwach. Isn’t that beautiful? It means “spirit” as in “the Spirit of God” or “the spirit of a human.” But it can also mean “breath” and “wind” Okay last time, ready? Ruwach. Good! So, the Ruwach of God led Ezekiel into a valley fully of bones. And not just any bones—these are dry bones!
Bones, of course, become dry only after they have been exposed to the elements for a long time. Dry bones are evidence of battles fought many years ago. They are reminders of the long and weary exile and the lives that were lost at its beginning. Dry bones signify a complete loss of hope. The very last thing anyone could imagine when looking to dry bones is the potential life.
Nevertheless, God asks Ezekiel, “Mortal, can these bones live?” The question seems ridiculous and Ezekiel’s answer is appropriately ambiguous: “O, Lord, you know.”
But God’s not going to let his prophet off the hook with an evasion. “Prophesy to the bones,” God says. “Say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.” Now, if this is not the most absurd thing God ever called one of his prophets to do, it’s certainly in the top five. Preach a sermon to the bones! Really? But even as crazy as it sounds, Ezekiel begins preaching to the bones.
The result is nothing less than creepy. At first it’s just a noise—a rattling. But then bones began popping out of the ground and flying together. Then sinews crawled on them, followed by flesh and skin. But still these zombies had no breath in them—they’re just lying there, lifeless and silent. But then the Lord gives Ezekiel a second and equally absurd instruction. This time he says “prophesy to the breath.”
Wait, prophesy to the what?
…Right, to the ruwach.
“Prophesy to the ruwach, and say, ‘Thus says the Lord: Come from the four winds, O’ breath, (O’ ruwach) and breathe on these slain, that they may live.’”
Does this sound familiar?
It should. It’s an intentional echo of Genesis 2 where God breaths into the clay and creates humans in his own image.
Again Ezekiel preached as he was instructed, and the ruwach came into the bodies, and they lived!
Wow! What is scene that is, huh?
In the last four verses of our lesson, Ezekiel tells us what this bizarre image means. “These bones” he says, “are the whole house of Israel.” The story is thus an extended metaphor: the bones are dejected and defeated exiles, like the Jews in Babylon, like us. So Ezekiel’s message is good news for us exiles.
For a third time he is asked to prophesy, but this time the demand doesn’t seem so ridiculous. The hearers are not bones or wind but his people. He prophesies: “Thus says the Lord: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O’ my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. In other words, there is still hope! Even though we find ourselves far from home, defeated, landless, without a temple or a priest, God has not forgotten us. And then the final words of the prophesy: “I will put my Spirit within you…
I will put my Ruwach within you and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land.”
The Non-Return from Exile
But that’s where Ezekiel leaves us: with a promise not yet fulfilled. Through the rest of the book, the Jews remain in exile, their hopes dried up like the bones in that valley. In fact, some sixty years later, when they finally are able to return to their land, they rebuild the temple and have a big grand opening. Ezra tells us that at the ceremony, while the young men were singing and dancing for joy, the old men were weeping. Because, you see, the old men remembered the dedication of the previous temple, so they knew that this time the glory of the Lord had not returned.
The gospel writer Matthew makes the same point in his genealogy. You know, those lists that we always skip over. “Abraham begat Isaac, and Isaac begat Jacob, and hard-word begat hard-word hard-word, and on and on…” Matthew breaks his genealogy into three parts. There are fourteen generations from Abraham, Israel’s patriarch, to David, her greatest King. Then, fourteen generations from David to the exile in Babylon. And finally, fourteen generations from the exile to Christ. Notice what’s missing? There’s no return from exile. It’s one of the most important events in his people’s history and Matthew just leaves it out. The oversight is no mistake. Matthew is trying to make the point that, though they have physically returned to the land, spiritually the people are still in exile. We are still in Babylon. We’re still waiting for Ezekiel’s to be fulfilled.
Well, by the time we get to the New Testament, Ezekiel’s metaphor of resurrection has become a full-blown hope. Many Jews in the first century believed that when the long night of exile had finally come to an end dawn broke on the kingdom of God, that God would speak to the dry bones of Israel and all the dead would be raised to new life. Let’s be careful not to over-spiritualize this text or we’ll miss the point. They actually believed this! Many first century Jews fully expected, when the kingdom of God had come, to bump into their once dead ancestors in the street or at the market. “Hey! Uncle John, haven’t seen you for years…smellin’ a little musty.” The fact that this kind of thing was not happening is one of the ways they knew that the exile was still not over, that spiritually they remained in Babylon.
So one afternoon Jesus goes down to Bethany to visit his friends, Mary and Martha. Their brother Lazarus has been dead for four days now. Death is a lot like exile. It’s about separation, about being cut off from the land of the living. Mary and Martha feel like they are so deeply entrenched in Babylonian captivity that has reached into their own lives and hearts. Have you ever felt like that? The captives in Ezekiel’s day sat down by the rivers of Babylon and wept. And all Mary can think to do is set down and weep. So Jesus weeps with her.
But Jesus knows that the time for weeping has come to an end. He gets up, looks into the tomb and says “Lazarus, come out!” And, get this, Lazarus does! Now, as Jesus discusses with Martha, Lazarus’ resurrection was not the real and final thing—he will die again. But it is a signpost pointing toward the great and final resurrection of which Jesus himself will be the first fruits. It is proof that the long, weary exile is finally coming to an end.
The Great and Final Resurrection
Okay, one more text as we close: John 20. It’s the end of John’s gospel. Jesus has been raised from the dead.
“On the evening of that day, the first day of the week…”
John points out that “it was the first day of the week.” This is a metaphor John uses to say, it is the first day of the new creation—the exile is finally over—the kingdom of God has come!
On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 20When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” 22And when he had said this, he breathed on them.
Remember? Ruwach. But this time we are the dry bones and God’s breath of life is being breathed on us! You, friend, have been drawn into Christ’s resurrection life. So that exile mentality you thought you had to live with—the sense that you have deep in your gut that you are out of place, that thing are just not quite the way they should be, the absence energy and meaning, the yearning to be connected to something bigger than yourself, the grief, the despair—all of it is just the last remnants of a kingdom long since overthrown. Good news, friends: the exile is over…the kingdom has come…and we are home!
So I leave you with the words of St Paul from this morning epistle: “He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit (Ruwach) who dwells in you.”