1. There in the midst of death stood one man. In the power of the Spirit of the Lord he was brought to this place—a valley of death. There was no hope and no life here, only death and many, many dry bones. Thus the dramatic vision of the prophet Ezekiel begins. There stands the prophet in the midst of a valley filled with dry bones. These were not corpses, nor were they skeletons filling the valley. These were dry, deader than dead piles of bones left from some long-forgotten slaughtering where the victors didn’t even grant their victims the dignity of a proper burial. They left their victims to rot away under the sun and turn into an endless pile of dry bones. As the prophet stands in this valley, there is no life in these bones—their life left them long ago. The prophet Ezekiel stands in the midst of death and hopelessness. This death and hopelessness reflected the condition of Israel. The Lord said to Ezekiel: “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off’” (Ezekiel 37:11). This is the state of Israel in Ezekiel’s day. They are deader than dead. Their hope is lost. The victors have slaughtered their victims and have not even given them the dignity of remaining in their own land. The Israelites have been taken away from their homeland—exiled by the Babylonians. Their cities have been destroyed, the glorious temple of Solomon is in ruins, and there is no hope of the once great kingdom being restored. These men and women will live out their days in exile, struggling to maintain the distinctiveness of their religion to which the Lord God had called them, constantly in fear that their children or their children’s children will turn to the worship of the pagan gods and thus lose their salvation. Israel’s hope is lost. They are deader than dead. They are nothing more than a pile of dry bones.
2. And yet, The Lord asks the prophet a question: “Son of man, can these bones live?” (Ezekiel 37:3). Despite the reality of what lies in front of Ezekiel’s face, he replies: “O Lord GOD, you know” (Ezekiel 37:3). And the Lord spoke to Ezekiel and said: “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live” (Ezekiel 37:4-5). And the prophet obeyed the Lord’s command. He spoke, and as his voice filled the valley, behold, there was a sound. At first it was a small rattling, and then the bones all over the ground began to shake, almost as an earthquake. Then bones began shifting and moving and bone came together with bone, muscles and tendons began to form, and skin covered them. Then the Lord said to Ezekiel: “Prophesy to the wind; prophesy, son of man, and say to the wind, Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O Spirit, and breathe on these slain, that they may live” (Ezekiel 37:9). And the prophet spoke these words as the Lord has commanded him, and the Spirit of God came riding upon the winds and filled the dead men with the breath of life: “and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army” (Ezekiel 37:10). There, in the midst of death and hopelessness, the Lord brings new life through His Word and Spirit. Through the prophet, the Lord God accomplished this and granted new life to these deader than dead, dry bones. These bones are the whole house of Israel, as the Lord said. And His promise is: “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. And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put My Spirit within you, and you shall live” (Ezekiel 37:12b-14a).
3. There in the midst of death stood one man. In the power of the Spirit of the Lord He was brought to this place—a valley of death, so to speak. There was no hope and no life here, only death and many lifeless disciples. Thus the dramatic account of our Lord’s appearance to the disciples in the upper room on Easter evening begins. There stands Jesus in the midst of a metaphorical valley filled with dry bones. The room was filled with fear, hopeless, and confusion. These men might have even wished that they had died in place of their Lord—their purpose and zeal for life left them days ago. But the resurrected Lord Jesus came to stand in the midst of their death and hopelessness. He came to bring them new life through His Word and Sprit. And so, Jesus came to speak peace to these men. They might have thought that after their desertion of their Lord on that night in Gethsemane that He had come to make them like Ezekiel’s pile of dry bones, punishing them for their unfaithfulness. But that could not be further from the truth. He said to them: “Peace be with you” (John 20:21). Jesus had not come to make these men lifeless; He had come to grant these lifeless men new life. They are the dry bones filling Ezekiel’s valley. And with the breath of life that was already in His own lungs, the Lord Jesus breathed on His disciples, granting them the Spirit of life. “I will put My Spirit within you, and you shall live” (Ezekiel 37:14a).
4. But these disciples on Easter evening were not only like the valley of dry bones. Having been given new life by the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead, they now stand in the place of the prophet Ezekiel: “As the Father has sent Me, even so I am sending you” (John 20:21). And as He breathed on them, He said: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (John 20:22). Our Lord Jesus sent His disciples to do an unthinkable thing. The disciples are to stand in the stead and by the command of the Lord Jesus Christ and forgive sins. They are to speak to a world of dry bones that new life might be granted through their absolution. But human reason tells us that can’t be true! Only God can forgive sins. Maybe the disciples could announce God’s forgiveness on His behalf, but they can’t truly forgive sins. And yet, our Lord says: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” The Apostles were commissioned by Christ to stand in His stead and by His command and forgive sins. And contrary to human reason, when the Apostles forgive sins, they are forgiven. Though it does not make sense to human reason, Jesus has made it so.
5. Today, you can have the same confidence in the forgiveness of sins. The same authority to forgive sins has been granted to the church today. As the Apostles spread the forgiveness and life-giving Spirit of Jesus Christ through their ministry, they passed on the ministry and authority granted to them. As Saint Paul said to Timothy: “For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands…By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you” (2 Timothy 1:6, 14). When your pastor speaks the words of absolution to your lifeless, deader than dead soul, you can be certain that by his word, your sins are forgiven. When the called ministers of Christ deal with us by His divine command, this is just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us Himself. Take confidence in this. Place your trust in these words, not because they are mine, but because they are words spoken in the stead and by the command of the Lord Jesus Christ. Yes, you can be forgiven apart from a called minister of Christ pronouncing forgiveness to you. True, you don’t need to go to private confession with the pastor to be assured of you salvation. But why would you not? The Lord Jesus has given His church a great gift to console troubled consciences and to grant confidence in His forgiving Spirit. He calls men to stand in the place of Ezekiel and speak the Word of the Lord. He works through that Word to grant new life to hopeless, deader than dead bones. God’s Spirit grants you new life through the mouth of the pastor. It is contrary to human reason that God would choose to work in this way. But this is what He says. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (John 20:22). All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Jesus, and yet He gives the responsibility to forgive sins in the Christian congregation to called pastors because our Lord desires that we have confidence in His Word. He desires that His forgiveness be tangible. And so the Lord places the responsibility to forgive sins upon the pastor so that with your senses you can see and hear and touch the Lord’s forgiving Word. It is the word of absolution which grants us the benefits of our Lord’s resurrection. It is the word of absolution which makes this promise of God yours: “Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O My people . . . And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put My Spirit within you, and you shall live” (Ezekiel 37:12b, 13-14a).
In Jesus’ name. Amen.