Sermon: 5 Lessons for a Pandemic


Here’s the text of the sermon I preached this morning in our first GoToMeeting.com worship experience. We had some technical issues, but a good first effort. 

Ezekiel 37:1-14

37 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 back and forth 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?”

I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath[a] enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’”

So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.

11 Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’”

The Story of Ezekiel and the Valley of Dry Bones

The book of Ezekiel is a strange and wonderful book of prophecy and stories. Years ago I had a book titled, The Bible and Flying Saucers. I bought it at a markdown from its original price, so I’m pretty sure it was not a best-seller. But, the book’s thesis was that the Bible talked about flying saucers, and it cited the vision Ezekiel had of the “wheel-in-the-wheel, way up in the middle of the air” as evidence of an flying saucer powered by a gyroscope.

Needless to say, I discarded that book several years ago.

But, this passage is probably the most popular passage in the book of Ezekiel. The valley of dry bones gives us that famous spiritual, “Dem Bones,” by James Weldon Johnson.

Intro 1

Ezekiel connected dem dry bones,

Ezekiel connected dem dry bones,

Ezekiel in the Valley of Dry Bones,

Now hear the word of the Lord.

Verse 1

Toe bone connected to the foot bone

Foot bone connected to the heel bone

Heel bone connected to the ankle bone

Ankle bone connected to the shin bone

Shin bone connected to the knee bone

Knee bone connected to the thigh bone

Thigh bone connected to the hip bone

Hip bone connected to the back bone

Back bone connected to the shoulder bone

Shoulder bone connected to the neck bone

Neck bone connected to the head bone

Now hear the word of the Lord.

Finale

Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones.

Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones.

Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones.

Now hear the word of the Lord.

If we were all together today, we’d sing a couple of rounds of ‘Dem Bones just to put us in the mood for dealing with this passage.

But as jaunty and fun as ‘Dem Bones is, the context of this passage is anything but fun. The backstory for this passage goes like this:

Ezekiel was preparing for the priesthood in Jerusalem about 597 BC. But then, out of nowhere, the Babylonian empire invaded Judah and the city of Jerusalem. In the ancient world when a powerful empire invaded a smaller country, the purpose wasn’t to destroy the invaded country. The purpose was to turn it into a vassal kingdom, paying tribute and contributing goods and people to the service of the empire.

So, Ezekiel finds his plans disrupted. And when his wife dies, God tells Ezekiel not to mourn for her, as an example for the nation of Judah not to mourn for the destruction of the Temple.

For 10 years Babylon carries off the king of Judah, and seeks to subjugate the Jews under its rule. But they resist. Finally, Babylon tires of the resistance of the Jews, and lays siege to Jerusalem. The siege goes on for 2 years. People starve, they get sick, they die. And yet they resist.

Finally, in 587-586 BC, Babylon’s patience is exhausted and the Babylonian army overruns the city of Jerusalem, destroys it, and in the process destroys Solomon’s Temple – the dwelling place of God in the eyes of the Jews of that day.

About 150 years before, in 722-721 BC, the Assyrians had invaded the northern kingdom of Israel and carried the tribes of Israel off, dispersing them throughout the Assyrian empire.

So, Ezekiel begins to prophesy in about 592 BC, and prophesies through the destruction of Jerusalem. And then, in 586 BC, more Jews are carried off to Babylon in what is known as the Babylonian captivity. It had only been about 800 years or so since the Jews escaped bondage in Egypt, and now they were captive again.

Five Lessons from the Valley of Dry Bones:

  1. There are questions we cannot answer. V. 1-3

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 back and forth 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?”

I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”

Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones is like no other vision in the Bible. The dry bones, of course, refer to the lifeless state of God’s people. They have been defeated, their culture destroyed, their sacred Temple torn down with impunity, their lives disrupted, their families torn apart, and many have died in the process.

So, God asks Ezekiel, “Can these bones live?”

Of course, bones don’t live by themselves. And, these aren’t the fresh carcasses of Israel’s devastation. They are dry bones, with no life left in them. They are scattered, disjointed, incapable of pulling themselves together into a living thing.

So, when God asks Ezekiel, “Can these bones live?” Ezekiel shrugs, and gives an answer that comes from despair and hopelessness.

Ezekiel might as well have said, “I have no idea if these bones can live or not.”

But what he does say is, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”

Today, there are questions we cannot answer about the coronavirus and its effects on our lives. Just three Sundays ago we met for worship. We were joking about hand sanitizers, bumping elbows, and not holding hands after communion. The virus seemed like a distant threat that surely would not get here to little Chatham.

But then we heard that one of our own, Landon Spradlin, had collapsed on his way home from ministering in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. And for days we prayed for Landon, Jean, Caroline and Landon’s children.

And then the unthinkable – early Wednesday morning we awoke to the news on Facebook that Landon had succumbed to the effects of the coronavirus. And suddenly, all the answers we had to the questions about the virus, how long it would last, what our government should do, what we should do, how we were going to live – all of those questions suddenly had no answers.

Like Ezekiel, we were shocked, discouraged, disoriented, and confused.

But while we and Ezekiel did not know the answer, God does. Which brings us to our second point:

  1. There is a future we cannot guarantee – but God can. Vs. 4-6

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath[a] enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’”

God says to Ezekiel, preach to these bones. Now Ezekiel had one up on me, because I can’t see anything (except Debbie sitting here). So, at least Ezekiel had an audience of sorts.

“Preach to the bones and tell them what I’m going to do,” God commands.

And God promises to make “breath” enter the bones, and to connect them again. And to put sinews and muscles and skin back over them. And to stand them up and bring them to life again.

Obviously, Ezekiel wasn’t able to do that. Only God could. And God’s promise was to his people who could see no way forward, whose leaders had been rendered ineffective, and who had no one to turn to for help – except God.

And even before they turn to God, God turns to them with a promise for a future they cannot guarantee alone. But God can.

And, if that sounds familiar it is because that is where we are globally and as a nation. Our emergency plans have failed us, our scientists aren’t sure about all the characteristics of this disease, and within one week the world’s richest and most powerful economy came crashing down.

No one can predict what will happen next – with the virus, with the economy, with school with work, with our regular routines. And, so we find ourselves cast upon the mercy of God.

  1. All we can do isn’t enough. V. 7-8

Now that’s discouraging. So, Ezekiel preaches to the bones, and things start to happen. The bones come together, the tendons and flesh cover them, and the skin appears again.

But, there was no breath in them.

Now the word that is translated breath, is the Hebrew word, ruach. Which can be translated breath, wind or spirit.

  • At creation, after God formed Adam from the dust of the earth, Adam was alive only after God breathed into him the breath of life.
  • When Jesus talked to Nicodemus, he spoke of the Spirit that blew where the Spirit wanted to blow, like a wind in the tree tops.
  • At Pentecost, the Spirit comes as a mighty, rushing wind, filling the place and the apostles with the presence and power of God.

After Ezekiel has done all he can, it’s not enough. The bones come together, but the Spirit, the breath, the life-force of God, is not present to animate them.

  1. While all we can do isn’t enough, what God does makes the difference. V. 9-10

God commands Ezekiel to prophesy to the breath. He commands the breath to come from the four winds and breathe into these who have been killed, so that they may live.

Ezekiel does so, and before him a miracle happens – into the lifeless, inanimate bodies of the dead, the breath – the spirit – the breath enters.

The transformation is instantaneous and remarkable. The came to life, they stood up and they were a vast and mighty army!

  1. Finally, God explains it all to Ezekiel. V. 11-14

11 Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’”

And, here’s the point of the explanation –

Resurrection, which is what the valley of dry bones symbolizes –

Resurrection isn’t just about opening graves and standing up corpses.

Resurrection is the work of God…

Undoing the destruction of death…

Through the new life of the Spirit.

And that is our hope today. That is our confidence. None us of knows what will happen tomorrow, or in two weeks, or in two months. We want things to be different. We want people to be healthy and not sick. We want life to return to normal.

But right now, in the midst of confusion and uncertainty, we look to God. And this the same God who promised his people, who also could not see the future, that he was with them, that he cared for them, and that his spirit would sustain them, and resurrect them to new vitality.

And that is our prayer today, in Jesus’ name.

 

 

4 thoughts on “Sermon: 5 Lessons for a Pandemic”

  1. Chuck,

    Thank you for your leadership during these trying times.

    We have been working on helping the most vulnerable elderly saints by providing live streaming services via the traditional landline with Phonelivestreaming.com.

    Thanks for sharing if you know of any churches who could use this in their ministry.

    Hugh 651 894 4681

  2. I just discovered your blog today and I’m so thankful to God for it! I added my subscription to it. Your messages are profound and inspiring. Thank you.

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