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“The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. And he led me around among them. And behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold, they were very dry.”
So what was this that the Spirit of the Lord swept His prophet off to see? Was it a graveyard? Strange graveyard. Cemeteries don’t leave the bodies on the surface. They bury them.
Was it a battlefield? Maybe. What a disastrous battle it must have been.
But this is neither graveyard nor battlefield. “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel.” These are the people of God. This is the holy, Christian Church all gathered together in one place.
Now that’s a surprise. I would have guessed that these were the bones of pagans who dance around idols, worship trees and sacrificed their children, whom the Lord stuck down.
But no, these are the people of God. And if you ran the DNA of those bones, it would be a perfect match to ours.
If we’re going to understand what’s going on here we’ve got to understand that this is a ‘VISION.’ That’s what Ezekiel means when he says, “the Lord brought me out in the SPIRIT OF THE LORD.” It’s the same language as we hear with John’s REVELATION. John writes, “I was in the spirit on the Lord’s day…”
When a prophet has a VISION, he is given to see things the way God sees things. He sees things from the heavenly perspective rather than the earthly perspective.
A valley full of very dry bones. That’s the way that God sees His people Israel, His church. Interestingly, they may not see themselves that way at all. They may see themselves as living and healthy and vibrant. They’re happy and healthy and successful and the kids are all doing well in school. But God sees ‘dry bones.’
From God’s perspective, (which by the way is the only perspective that really matters), His people are like a field of dry bones. The Spirit tells John to write to the Church at Sardis, “You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead.” (Rev. 3:1).
Jesus described the situation to His disciples like this, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not remain in me, he is thrown away like a branch and wither; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.” (John 15:5-6)
That’s what’s happened here. God’s people did not remain in Him. As we will hear them say, “we are indeed cut off.” And ‘cut off’ from God, their faith has dried up and they have not hope that God cares about them or their lives any more. Lacking faith in God, they bear no fruit – and we’re not talking about apples and pears and peaches, but ‘love and joy and peace and patience and goodness and self-control.’ The fruit of the Spirit.
So, now comes the big question. “Son of man, can these bones live?” In other words, is there any hope for the people of God or does God intend to bundle them up and throw the whole Church into the fire?
Ezekiel knows he’s being set up for something here, he just doesn’t know what it is. So he plays it safe, “O Lord God, you know.” Which again, is the same as with John in his vision. An angel asked John, “who are these clothed in white robes and from where have they come?” And John replies, “Sir, you know.” (Rev. 7:14).
And of course, there is hope for God’s dry-boned people. They may have cut themselves off from God but God will never cut Himself off from them. And with God, all things are possible. He can raise the dead and He can revive a bone dry faith.
And here’s how He doesn’t do it. “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, ‘O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.” To ‘prophesy’ is just a fancy word for ‘preach.’
The Spirit tells His prophet to PREACH the WORD to His people. Same thing that’s happening right here and now in this valley of dry bones.
The Spirit writes the sermon and gives it to His prophet to preach. “Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath (or Spirit or wind, it’s all the same word in the Hebrew) to enter you, AND YOU SHALL LIVE.”
REALLY? Is the Spirit really suggesting that preaching has the power to restore life to His dry-boned, dead-faithed people? Absolutely!
Much later, Paul will write to the Corinthians saying that this is EXACTLY how God creates faith and restores faith. “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.” (1 Corinthians 1:21)
So, the prophet preaches the Word. Not just any word, but the “thus saith the Lord” word. It seems so silly, so weak. And even Ezekiel seems surprised at the power that a good sermon has. “As I preached, there was a sound, and behold, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. And I looked, and behold, there were sinew on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them.”
In other words, the Word did exactly what it promised. With one exception. “But there was no breath in them.”
This all goes back to the beginning and how we were created. “And the Lord God formed the man of the dust from the ground…” Dust is ‘very dry,’ ‘lifeless.’ “And He breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.” (Gen.2:7) The man was not a living creature apart from the ‘breath of God,’ or the ‘Spirit of God.’
So now, the Spirit tells the prophet to preach to the Spirit. “Come from the four winds, O breath (or Spirit or wind) and breathe on these slain, that they may LIVE.” If the prophet had had the Lutheran Service Book he could have sung our Opening Hymn: “Come down of Love Divine, seek out this soul of mine…”, or “Come, Holy Ghost, God and Lord, with all Your graces now outpoured on each believer’s mind and heart; your fervent love to them impart…” (LSB #503, #497)
And sure enough, “the breath came into them AND THEY LIVED and stood on their feet an exceedingly great army.”
Now the VISION is over the Lord tells Ezekiel what the VISION means. “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.”
Like I said, if you ran the DNA on those bones you’d find it to be a perfect match to ours. So, let’s talk about how this happens. How does faith become dry? I think we would all agree that are times when our faith becomes pretty dry, our hope in God becomes pretty thin.
How does it happen that our Lord Jesus Christ and His cross can go from being the center of our life to as distant from us as a star in a distant galaxy?
How does it happen that someone can say, ‘I was baptized and raised in the church, confirmed in the faith and was even on the board of trustees. But I haven’t been to church in years.
First of all, I agree with the Lutheran pastor, Helmut Thielicke who said that it is rarely the case that someone rejects God by raising their fist in the air and cursing Him. Occasionally I’ll hear someone say that the ‘church really let me down.’ But even that’s not about God as much as the people of God. Typically it happens much more subtly than that. It’s more like a drifting away than a running away.
I’d like to point to three ways that I think this drift towards dryness happens. And all three are based on the same premise, that the vibrancy or lack of vibrancy of our faith depends on our involvement with God’s Word.
First, the primary place where this ‘hearing the word’ takes place is right here in Sunday worship. When regular attendance in worship becomes occasional rather than regular, faith gets drier.
One of you said to me a little while ago, ‘I missed a couple of Sundays in a row because of weather and you know, it was hard to get back into the groove again.’ It’s like you can feel your faith become dryer and dryer the longer you’re away from worship.
Regular, every Sunday worship attendance is the cornerstone for a living and active faith.
Second, faith becomes dry and lifeless when our exposure to God’s Word is limited to the weekly, Divine Service. How quickly does the faith that is created and strengthened here in the 90 minutes of the Divine Service get swallowed up in the busyness of our lives?
Somewhere I read that the average time that people remember what the sermon was about is 27 minutes. After that, it’s lost in the activity of the day. Involvement with God’s Word needs to happen daily.
And to that point I’ll add that faith is strengthened exponentially when we are engaged with God’s Word with other people. When husbands and wives read and discuss the word together, when parents read and discuss the Word with their children, when people get together for study and discussion of God’s Word.
Some of you have indicated an interest in organizing a small group with others for bible study and prayer together knowing the effect that mutual discussion and encouragement in God’s Word has on our faith. I say, go for it.
Third, faith becomes weak and dry if it is not exercised and practiced. Knowledge of God’s Word that rarely gets used becomes dryer and dryer. Faith grows when we hear God’s Word and His promise to us and then step out and do something that is based on that Word and Promise of God. Faith grows in both confidence and joy when we take risks and make sacrifices, trusting that God will give us His strength and provide all that we need to be His faithful servants in the world. But faith that never gets exercised becomes weaker and weaker.
There are lots more ways that faith becomes dry and hope is lost and before we even realize it, we are indeed cut off from God. It can certainly happen to us just as it did to Israel. Faith needs to be fed and the food that it grows and becomes stronger on is God’s Word.
The people of Israel in Ezekiel’s day heard the Word of God preached to their faithless lives and that which was dead became alive. The same thing happened on the day of Pentecost when the Spirit blew and the Apostles preached and 3000 dry-boned skeletons came to life.
This morning, we have had the wonderful privilege of witnessing that same Spirit that blew on Israel in the valley and the 3000 in Jerusalem, blow His life giving breath into Fenn. And we pray that his faith will continue to get stronger and stronger and remain living and active.
With God, it’s never hopeless. We are never so dry that the Spirit of God cannot breath new life into us through His Word, and raise us up from a dead to a living and active faith in Him.
“Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will open your graves, and raise you up from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you and you shall live… Then you shall know that I am the Lord; I have spoken; and I will do it, declares the Lord.”