Ezekiel 37:1-14 – Dead Places & New Things

A reflection by Dan Spragg

The Sahara Desert used to be green and lush with water and fish and plants and all sorts of animals, and humans. The Kiffian people and the Ternerian people both inhabited this fertile land. One group ate rough grains, drank from local water sources, and didn’t travel very far. The other group was smaller in size and depended on hunting and fishing for their food sources. These two groups existed a thousand years apart and yet were found buried together. Palaeontologists have been able to determine age, sex, general health, diet, diseases, injuries as well as general lifestyle, and working conditions of the people as well as what kind of animals were in the area – Hippo, Crocodiles, and Fish.[1] They have done all this remarkable work by unearthing, excavating, and examining bones that were discovered almost by chance in the year 2000. If you’ve got the September 2008 edition of National Geographic Magazine it’s worth ‘digging’ it out.

Has anyone read the Kathy Reichs novels that feature Dr. Temperance Brennan? I haven’t, but I’ve watched the television series inspired by the book – ‘Bones’.[2] Anyone else? I learned from watching ‘Bones’ that bones can tell us a lot. Bones tell a story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. A lot can be learned from examining bones. Good insights into the reality of things are there to be discovered.

Looking into the reality of things, or looking into the current state of play is part of the work of Lent as we journey with Jesus toward the cross. As we remind ourselves what it is to walk the road of faith with Jesus we are encouraged to take some moments of self-reflection and remember that part of journeying the road of faith is to take an honest look at ourselves, an examination of sorts, to get a feel for our current reality. What are the bones of our faith life telling us? Where are we on our faith journey? Do we find ourselves in the lush green meadows of Psalm 23? Or, are we descending into the valley? Or, indeed, do we find ourselves already in that valley where if we look around all we see are dry bones? Now, it can be a hard undertaking to look honestly at ourselves to see where we are. And it can be hard to then own what we discover and get about doing the work that it tells us is needed. This is, of course, if we want to be on a journey of faith, to be growing in our faith. Faith can’t help but want to evolve and grow with us but it is a thing that requires our participation. Sometimes we do find ourselves in a valley of dry bones because we have stopped participating in our faith. Equally, we can find ourselves in a valley of dry bones through circumstances out of our control. What’s important is, to be honest, and name the situation for what it is. We have to acknowledge the reality no matter how uncomfortable that is. Taking a look at our current state of play on the road of faith is important to do on an individual level, this goes without saying! But it’s a useful thing to do for a community of faith, a church, as well. Ezekiel’s vision was a picture of Israel as a whole despite the fact that at the time they were an exiled, dispersed, and dislocated people. What does an analysis of the spiritual bones of our church tell us? What is this season we are in? This is an important question of awareness and discernment for all leaders and participants within the church community.

I wonder what it was like for Ezekiel as he awoke to this vision in front of him. A desolate valley, piles of bones, dislocated, dry. I wonder how long it was before the reality of what he was looking at sank in. I’m not surprised that Ezekiel is obedient and humble in his response before God at this moment. The interactions between God and Ezekiel are interesting for us to take note of. A useful question, as we listen to this passage is, ‘who is God?’ and we could ask as we listen to this passage, ‘who is Ezekiel?’ As God is leading Ezekiel through this scene he is addressed as ‘Son of man’, another translation says, ‘Human one’. It is as if in this moment of witnessing such a distressing scene, Ezekiel’s dependence on God is being emphasised. Who is Ezekiel in this scene? Utterly human, humble, yet obedient, willing to listen to God and trusting of God. And, who is God in this scene? God is the one who leads Ezekiel to see the reality that is before him. God is the one who offers the potential of something new. And, God is the source of this new life. God is also the one who wants to be known – ‘so that they know I am the Lord,’ God says. So we see here that God is at the front, leading. And God is the source of the new thing that is to come. And we can see that this valley of dry bones, this place of desolation, this isn’t what God wants. God’s desire is for new life, for the people to be flourishing once again. As we ask who God is and who Ezekiel is it’s also important to take note of how they are together. God wants to be known – God wants relationship. God wants this new life to take place with a sense of togetherness. Ezekiel was a prophet and so God calls Ezekiel to be part of what God wanted to do by prophesying. God did not ask Ezekiel the prophet to become a shepherd. God did not ask Ezekiel the prophet to build a house. God did not ask Ezekiel the prophet to look after the tax return. God invited Ezekiel to be part of this process of new life by asking Ezekiel to be himself. Time and time again I believe this is how God is with us. God invites us into a vision for new life and our role is to be humble, to be obedient, and to simply be ourselves.

It is the only way we can attempt to revitalise a state of desolation – partnership with the source of life itself. How do we revitalise our faith, our connection to God, and our spiritual walk? How do we revitalise our community? How do we revitalise the church, when perhaps examining the reality could lead to hopelessness? Well, I know we can’t do any of these without a connection to the source of life. It is God’s Spirit that brings life. God’s Spirit gives new form and new substance to old, tired, and dry places. And it’s our saying yes, our partnership in this process that serves as the catalyst for new things to grow just as we see with Ezekiel in his valley of dry bones. God is in the business of new life. It’s safe to say that dry bones are not the end vision that God wants for us. Verse 14 tells us this (from the Common English Bible translation) – “I will put my breath in you and you will live. I will plant you in your fertile land…” What God wants for us is life and wholeness and flourishing. There is an overwhelming sense of this throughout the larger biblical story. In the creation stories in Genesis, we see that it is God who both forms and fills things of life. The earth and the sky are formed and then they are filled with plants and animals and the sun, moon, and stars. Human beings are formed from the dust of the ground and filled with life from the breath of God. This vision of Ezekiel is very similar. The bones are formed and joined together but it is not until receiving the breath, the spirit of God, that they come to life. Our gospel reading today told of Lazurus being well and truly dead, and then in a compassion-fueled collaboration between the person of Jesus and the Spirit of God in him, Lazarus is brought to new life. And as we are in the lead-up to Easter we cannot help but think about Jesus’ death and resurrection. God is in the business of restoration, the business of bringing new life into being.

Hope. This is what it comes down to. In the midst of dry and desolate places; places where our souls feel old and weary; places where a flourishing vision of the future of our church is hard to find; hope. In dry places, there is always hope because the God we are invited to partner with is the God of life. Partnership with this God is always the catalyst for a hoped-for future to become our new reality. Dry and desolate places are uncomfortable and digging around and examining why and how we got there is not a pleasant business, but we are always to have hope because with God we have no choice but to be hopeful. As we take notice of where we are – God is with us, leading us into a place of seeing. As we examine what we find – God is with us, leading us around to get the full picture. And as we respond to God with who we are in humility – God is with us encouraging us to participate and collaborate in the new thing coming to be. God offers hope and invites us into a partnership so that we can step into new life.

We must examine the bones of our faith. We must confront the realities of being the church in 21st Century New Zealand. At times neither of these things will be comfortable! But, with God, we must remember, that in what we discover there is always the invitation into something new. The invitation to continue the journey of faith both individually and collectively is always at hand – a vision of new life is always on offer – perhaps especially when we find ourselves in dark and desolate places.

An unpublished poem by Artist Dempsy R. Calhoun captures this sense of seeing reality for what it is and seeing why it is good for us to not shy away from looking. I finish with this:

Bone lay scattered and artifactual

Wind-rowed like dead branches

Whose tree bodies repeat the desiccation

All hope bleached and lost

Living moisture evaporated

Calcified memories of what was

Or seeds of what could be

Wandering shareds of vessels

That once trimmed with pure energy

Where honor and dishonor wrestled

Stripped of living water to walk the hills

Needing only gravity to line the valley

It was never about the bones anyway

Rather a glimpse of pure power

A reminder of who’s in charge of restoration

Real hope lies in the Source[3]

[1] See https://paulsereno.uchicago.edu/discoveries/people_of_the_green_sahara/

[2] See https://kathyreichs.com/bones/

[3] As seen in, Feasting on the Word, Commentary on Ezekiel 37:1-14, Year A, Vol 2, p124.