On the last Sunday of Lent, I preached from John 12:20-33. It’s the story of Jesus after his entry into Jerusalem, and this passage involves three things. First, there were those who wanted to see Jesus; secondly, Jesus warned that those who loved life in this world would lose theirs; and, finally, Jesus described what following him really meant. I used three phrases to capture these three points: focusing on Jesus, forsaking the world system, and following faithfully. Here’s the podcast of the sermon:
Ezekiel 37:1-141 The hand of the LORD was upon 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. 2 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. 3 He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”
I said, “O Sovereign LORD, you alone know.”4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD!
5 This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. 6 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.’ “
7 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. 8 I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.
9 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 from the four winds, O breath, 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 whole house 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: O 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.’ “
Back From The Grave
In 1974, peasants digging a well near the city of Xian, China, broke through the dirt into a pit where the scene before them was amazing. Scores of clay soldiers, the size of full-grown men, filled the dirt before them. Little did they know that they had uncovered the burial ground of the first emperor of China and his army of 7,000 life-size terracotta soldiers. The now-famous Xian Terracotta Warriors are from the Qin dynasty, and accompanied the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huangdi to his burial. Shi Huangdi was a powerful ruler who united the warlords in China, unified the Chinese language, and connected ancient fortifications into what is now called the Great Wall of China.
The terracotta army now boasts more members, as archaeologists have opened other excavations which have unearthed more soldiers, bronze chariots, horses, weaponry, and other artifacts. The excavation site is so extensive that the Xian Terracotta Soldiers are called by many the eighth wonder of the world.
Like the ancient Egyptian pharaohs, Qin Shi Huangdi aspired to immortality. And, to insure that his next-world success was equal to his achievement in this world, he commissioned artisans to sculpt this vast army of soldiers to march with him from this life into the next. The detailing is so fine that the treads on the bottom of their footwear are still visible, and every face in this vast army is unique and wears a different expression.
Ezekiel’s Vision of Dry Bones
But, about 350 years before the emperor Qin Shi Huangdi, the prophet Ezekiel sees his own vast army spread out before him. Only in Ezekiel’s vision, the army is in disarray. Individual warriors are dismembered, the flesh has disappeared from their bones, and this disjointed valley of dry bones is all that is left of the once mighty army. Quite a contrast to the emperor’s fully-armed terracotta brigades.
The setting is the Babylonian captivity of Israel. In 597 BC, Ezekiel was taken from his homeland and exiled to Babylon under the reign of Nebuchadnezzar. In 593 BC, God called Ezekiel to prophesy to his fellow exiles that things would get worse before they got better. God’s call to Ezekiel was this –
3 He said: “Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites, to a rebellious nation that has rebelled against me; they and their fathers have been in revolt against me to this very day. 4 The people to whom I am sending you are obstinate and stubborn. Say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says.’ 5 And whether they listen or fail to listen—for they are a rebellious house—they will know that a prophet has been among them. 6 And you, son of man, do not be afraid of them or their words. Do not be afraid, though briers and thorns are all around you and you live among scorpions. Do not be afraid of what they say or terrified by them, though they are a rebellious house. 7 You must speak my words to them, whether they listen or fail to listen, for they are rebellious. 8 But you, son of man, listen to what I say to you. Do not rebel like that rebellious house; open your mouth and eat what I give you.”
9 Then I looked, and I saw a hand stretched out to me. In it was a scroll, 10 which he unrolled before me. On both sides of it were written words of lament and mourning and woe. Ezekiel 2:1-10 NIV
Ezekiel’s message was not “the prosperity gospel” or “I’m OK, you’re OK!” Ezekiel preached that if the people thought things were bad now, just wait, they will get worse. He prophesied that Jerusalem, the home of the magnificent Temple of God, built by Solomon, would be destroyed. Ezekiel even acted out this judgment with a miniature model of the city of Jerusalem. The people were outraged until Ezekiel’s words came true in 586 and 587 BC, when Jerusalem was totally destroyed. In Ezekiel chapter 10, Ezekiel recounts his vision of the departure of the glory of the Lord from the Temple itself.
But with chapter 37, Ezekiel begins to prophesy of the restoration of the nation, and that’s what we have in this vision of the valley of dry bones — a vision of restoration, life from death, a revivification of God’s people.
Can These Bones Live?
So, this is the nation of Israel, depicted as dry bones scattered throughout the floor of a valley. God leads Ezekiel back-and-forth among the bones. Ezekiel records “I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry.” In the midst of that scene of death and hopelessness, God asks Ezekiel, “Can these bones live?” Ezekiel wisely replies, “O Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”
Ezekiel is right, only God knows if life is possible again. Up to this point, Ezekiel’s messages have been those of doom and gloom. Sermons explaining why God is judging Israel, sermons predicting that Jerusalem will be destroyed. Sermons that also speak judgment against the very nations that God is using to chasten Israel. No one escapes Ezekiel’s vision of God’s work.
Then God says to Ezekiel –
Remember creation? What happens there? God’s words speak creation into being. The writer of Genesis writes, “And God said…” and the earth is formed, the sun and moon hung in place, the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and animals appear on land, and man takes his place in God’s good world. All because God’s word spoke it into being. And, at the end of every creative day, God looks at his work and pronounces it good.
John begins his gospel in similar fashion, as he tells the story of Jesus in a unique manner:
So, Jesus becomes the living word, the logos of God, the word of God to the world he has created. The word of life, and the word of hope, and the word of love.
This valley of dry bones that Ezekiel sees is dead. There is no life in it. No possibility of self-healing, or spontaneous organization, or of natural restoration. But, God says, “Hear the word of the Lord!” These bones that cannot hear, can now hear God. These bones that do not form a living organic system, of which ears are an organ, can now hear God. These bones that cannot gather themselves together in a coherent, functioning body, can now hear this creative word of the Lord. For they know this voice. It is part of their DNA. It is in the cells of their being. It is that voice which gave them life in the beginning. It is the only voice they can hear. It is the only voice they can obey.
And what does God say? What is the word of the Lord to these dry bones?
Just as God breathed into Adam the breath of life, so He breathes into these dry bones that creative breath that gives life. This is creation all over again. This is God’s recreative act for the nation of Israel. Old bones, new life. The word of the Lord, the people of God, the life-giving breath, all together again.
But, God goes on:
Not only is God reviving them, he is making them new. Recreating them as they were intended to be. Not dry bones that can hear. Not dry bones that can move around, but bones that now have muscle and tendon and flesh attached to them. Bones that are covered with skin. Bones that become the building blocks for God’s people, again.
So, Ezekiel preaches that message. And guess what happens? Ezekiel says, “there was as noise, a rattling sound” and the bones come together. Now this is where the song, Them Bones, Them Bones, Them Dry Bones, takes its lyrics.
The foot bone connnected to the leg bone,
The leg bone connected to the knee bone,
Now hear the word of the Lord.
And hear they do, until all the bones have come together, until muscle and tendon and flesh cover them, until breath enters these recreated bodies, and they stand, in Ezekiel’s words, as a vast army. And then God explains to Ezekiel, what must be all too obvious now.
These bones are the house of Israel — without hope, without life, cut off from God, defeated, and dead. But, God says, “I’m going to open their graves. I’m going to bring them up from the pit. I’m going to bring them back to the land of Israel.” God goes on, “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!”
And sure enough, about 70-years after they are taken captive, the nation returns to rebuild the city of Jerusalem, to repair the Temple, and to occupy its land again — the land that God gave them, and brought them back to.
A Lesson for Lent
Now what does all that have to do with Lent? you might ask. Well, let me tell you a story:
In Japan, there is a Shinto temple, called a shrine, that is about 2000-years old. The shrine is located in the city of Ise, and is often called the most sacred shrine in all of Japan. Several years ago, the Japanese government submitted the shrine to UNESCO, the United Nations agency that catalogs ancient historic sites around the world. The Japanese were proud of the shrine, believing it to be the oldest continually existing religious shrine in the world.
But, here’s the amazing part. UNESCO didn’t believe their claims because the shrine is built of wood. They said, “this can’t be the same building that was originally constructed. It would have deteriorated by now.” So, the Japanese had to explain about the buildings.
It seems that every 20-years, the entire shrine is torn down and rebuilt. This process has been going on since 690 AD, when the first rebuilding took place. The entire wooden shrine is taken down, and wood is cut from the same forest that furnished wood for the original shrine building, hundreds of years ago. The last time the shrine was rebuilt was 1993, and it is slated for rebuilding in 2013, again.
UNESCO was not impressed. They said the building was what they were interested in, not the on-going religious life of the community, and so they denied the government’s request to list the shrine in their records.
UNESCO’s viewpoint is very much like Israel’s and our own today. Israel’s confidence was in the place — the land, the city of Jerusalem, the Temple of God. They believed that as long as they had the Temple, they had God on their side regardless of their political alliances, idolatry, or other breaches of their covenant relationship with God. God showed them otherwise.
We find it very easy to criticize the Jews — “Of course, the Temple and God aren’t the same” we are quick to point out. But, then we become attached to buildings, traditions, history, and practice, as though those things were more important than our relationship with God.
Periodically, God takes apart the church and remakes it, just to remind us that our relationship is with Him, and it is the Word of the Lord that gives life, not our plans, and pride, and priorities. It is God’s Spirit that moves where it wills, breathing life into dead bodies, and revitalizing the people of God.
The history of the Christian church contains many examples of God’s tearing down and rebuilding his people. A few of the high points in that process include:
- The Desert Fathers and Mothers who fled the institutional church of North Africa and Egypt, left the cities, and found refuge in the desert. There they recovered a spirituality based, not on politics, but on prayer.
- The Celtic Christian church from about 500-1,000 AD, flourished as first Patrick and then others preached the good news of God to receptive Irishmen, who were already worshipping the creation, and who then embraced the Creator.
- The Friends of God emerged in the 13th century to reclaim a spirituality that was both mystical and devoted to God, in the midst of the political intrigue of the organized Church.
- The Reformation in 1517, when scripture was given a place of primacy over tradition, and faith was emphasized over works as the path to salvation.
- The Great Awakenings of both England and the United States in the early colonial period roused working people to become followers of Christ, and created movements like the Methodists and Baptists with their revivalistic approaches.
Today, God is still in the business of taking apart and remaking his church — of gathering the dry bones and putting flesh on them, and breathing life into them, again. And, that is what Lent is about. This time of reflection and confession and repentance. It is about getting ready for God’s creative breath to blow over us, again. To raise us from our own graves, to fill us with his spirit, to revive us again. Not to be the same people, but to be new people, recreated, remade, redeemed, and revived.
But, unlike our Japanese friends who take down and rebuild their own temple every 20-years, God is both the demolition and construction crew on his on-going project called the Church. We are his people, the sheep of his pasture, this is his work, and it is marvelous in our eyes.
A Personal Story
Let me tell you a more personal story. Several months ago, when things weren’t going too well, I wondered if I was the pastor you needed. In my attempts to lead the church in a new direction, I realized that I had pushed too fast and too hard, and had changed too much. In addition, people had left the church, and few new members had joined. This was of great concern to me, because I do love this church, I love this town, and I know that God brought us here. Debbie and I prayed many days together about what we should do. Now, don’t worry, we’re still here and have no plans to go anywhere else. But, let me continue.
Now this is where the story gets weird. I want you to know that I think this part is weird, so you will realize that this doesn’t happen to me all the time. In our praying about what we should do, Debbie kept telling me to be patient that the “sheep were coming.” It didn’t look like the sheep were coming to me, but she assured me they were.
One night, I had a dream. I saw the letters S-A-U-B-R-I-G in big block letters, like they had been printed on a large sheet of paper. That was it — “saubrig.” When I woke up, I wrote the letters down, because I felt there was some significance to them. But what?
So, I did what anybody does now — I turned on my computer and googled, S-A-U-B-R-I-G. What I got back were a bunch of references in some foreign language that I did not recognize. But, one entry was in English. It was an article about ancient Yorkshire surnames and place names. Not exciting reading, but as I scrolled down through the article, there it was, the word saubrig. Only it was two words — sau brig. Let me read you the article at this point –
Isn’t that amazing? And that settled it for me. I knew that in spite of my mistakes that God was still at work. And, that this is the sheeptown’s dock, the gathering point. I believe the sheep are coming. I believe they are coming here to this place, to this town, to this church, to our community, to this congregation.
And, what God is doing, is taking down the old, and rebuilding the new. What God is doing is breathing new life into our tired dry bones. That which looks like death and disorganization to us, looks like hope, and joy, and love to God. The Spirit of God is breathing into this church the breath of life. God is putting muscle and tendon on bones and covering them with flesh.
One day we will rise from the valley of our uncertainty, and from the grave of our discouragement. One day we will stand like a mighty army, not made from clay, but made from the hand of God. That day is not long from us, for God is at work now.
Can these bones live? O Sovereign Lord, you know!