Sunday sermon from April 6, 2014
Text: Ezekiel 37:1-14
Preached by the Rev. Matt Gaventa
So you want to know how to resurrect the dead?
Ezekiel does, too. I’m wiling to bet the book of Ezekiel isn’t exactly the most dog-earned part of your family Bible so indulge me in a bit of introduction. If you want to know how to resurrect the dead, Ezekiel does, too, because of all of the prophetic voices of the Old Testament there is nobody who lives with loss and grief and death quite like Ezekiel. Of course we have prophets who stood in the courts of power and spoke God’s most uncomfortable truths; of course we have prophets who stood on the brink of exile and warned of God’s imminent judgment; of course we even have in the wistful and hopeful words of the second half of the book of Isaiah the voice of one who could see his way back to the promised land and so preached with joy and expectation. But Ezekiel is something different. Our best Biblical historians believe that he was born in Jerusalem but at the very end of the reign of the kings of Israel, which is to say that as a young man Ezekiel witnessed the fall of the city at the hands of the Babylonians.
Perhaps he wasn’t old enough to prophesy about the destruction like Jeremiah or Isaiah, but he was certainly old enough to remember — so that by the time he enters his prophetic work, the city has already been destroyed; those Jews who survived the battle have already been taken into exile, but Ezekiel is old enough to remember how things used to be. Which is to say that it’s not enough to simply refer to him as the prophet of exile. After all, Israel will stay in Babylon for generations, and soon enough those who can recall the great city in her glory will long since have died off, but here in this particular moment the wound is so fresh and the memory so acute and Jerusalem isn’t this vague dream of something better but rather the very specific memory of something just passed, like it was yesterday, of people taken away, of friends and family left behind. Surely there is no prophet who can match Ezekiel for living inside the shadow of grief and loss and that nostalgic longing for what used to be. So you want to know how to resurrect the dead? Ezekiel does, too.
And then we land on today’s text, which is certainly the first cut on every “Ezekiel’s Great Hits” album ever produced: the story of the valley of dry bones. Ezekiel has a vision wherein the hand of the Lord leads him out of the city of Babylon, back out into that wilderness that Israel knows so well; the Lord led him out of the city into a valley covered with bones – dry bones, in particular, which is to say that it was not a valley of the freshly fallen but of those long since dead, and he asks the very simple question that resonates at the heart of the text: “Mortal, can these bones live?” And there’s no question of the symbolism of the moment: for Ezekiel, the valley of dry bones can be nothing other than the symbol of Israel’s lost kingdom. In one sense of course each skeleton lying in that valley represents someone fallen in the great siege and battle that brought Jerusalem to its knees; but in another, broader, sense, the valley of dry bones represents not just Israel’s fallen soldiers but also the death of the the Kingdom itself, the death of Israel’s place among the nations, the death of Israel’s place within God’s plan for the fullness of time? How could this valley of bones be anything but the mass grave wherein lie all of Israel’s hopes and dreams, all of its most rigidly-held convictions, indeed its entire perspective on the slow unfolding of history? And how, for a prophet who could still close his eyes and hear the sounds of the old city bouncing through his memory, how could this question dangle with any more temptation: “Mortal, can these bones live?”
You want to know how to resurrect the dead?
Of course you do. But much like Ezekiel, it’s not just those fallen soldiers that we mourn. No, you know as well as I do that on Sunday mornings we gather in these pews – we Christians all around the world, but especially those of us dangling from the old language of the mainline church – that we gather in these pews and mourn not just the bones of those who have gone on ahead but also the death of something we can so easily remember. Back when the pews were just a little bit more full. Back when the sounds of children more audibly bounced through the sanctuary. Back before we were closing churches and losing churches and turning churches into condominiums and used bookstores – really, what does it say about the lost relevance of the church when an empty sanctuary can of all things become a used book store? According to Pew Research, in the late 1970’s about 26% of the baby-boom generation attended worship services “weekly or almost weekly.” In 2010, among the millennial generation, that number was at 18%; so, even adjusting for the tendencies of younger generations to wander away before coming back, still, across the board, numbers are dropping and pews are emptier and it’s not just here. It’s everywhere. And the trend line is terrifying — not just here, but everywhere.
So you want to know how to resurrect the dead?
Well, I’ve teased it long enough. And the truth is that in this text, God makes it look pretty easy. God says to Ezekiel, “Prophesy to these bones; tell them to hear the word of the Lord, and they will live, and I will put my breath in them” and Ezekiel does as he’s told and, he prophesies, he relays the words of the Lord, and sure enough, he then describes hearing a noise, a rattling, the bones popping back into one another, reassembling into the skeletons of the lost, wrapping skin and flesh around their brittle frames and yet, nevertheless, standing lifeless. And so God instructs him again: prophesy to the breath itself, prophesy to the wind, and bid it come enter these bones and give them spirit and give them life, and Ezekiel does as he’s told, and sure enough, the breath comes in, and he describes them all coming to life, standing on their feet, a vast multitude. Which is to say that this text is nothing if not firmly convinced of the power of prophesy. You want to raise the dead? Prophesy. You want to raise the dead? Preach the good news. You want to raise the dead? Preach the Word of the Lord, and look, all that is lost will be returned, all the dead will be reborn, all that for which you mourn will live again.
You want to resurrect the church? This text makes it sound so easy. Just preach the Gospel. Just preach the Gospel. How do you bring a church back from the brink? How do you fight against the twin forces of secularization and consumerism and rebuild a church just like it was? If there were ever a text for a preacher on a power-trip, surely this would be it, like somehow I or any of the thousands of preachers this morning who stand with some humility before the text and before God and before you and try to turn dry bones into pew-fulls of bodies, like any of us could do so if only every word was perfectly chosen and every gesture perfectly timed and every i dotted and every t crossed and as long as we preached the Gospel to its utmost then certainly these bones might yet live.
But of course it’s not just us. Because churches don’t just try and preach the Gospel on Sundays between about 11:25 and quarter til’ the hour. We take to the streets in mission. We take to the streets in outreach. And of course those are good things, and don’t hear me saying otherwise, because the question isn’t “What does God require of us?” but rather “How do we resurrect the dead?” And if I’m honest I’ll admit that for every congregation I’ve heard imply that you could resurrect a church with preaching, I’ve heard as many preachers imply that you could do the same thing with mission, that again, as long as every detail was perfectly chosen, as longs we found exactly the right cause, as long as we engaged exactly the correct avenues of community support, as long as we leveraged our commitment of resources to exactly the correct degree, then by the magic alchemy of Ezekiel here in this valley that somehow our prophetic act would bring the church back to life, and we could resurrect the dead with just this one simple trick. “Mortal, can these bones live?” Well, sure, as long as the youth group is well-funded, and the kitchen committee well-organized, and the international mission trips well-attended, and of course the preacher well-spoken. As long as we grease the wheels of prophesy. People will come.
But notice that before Ezekiel gets to any of the programmatic decisions, there’s something else on his mind. “Mortal, can these bones live?” and Ezekiel says, “O Lord God, you know.” “O Lord God, you know.” At first it sounds like Ezekiel’s just ducking the question, like he thinks it’s a trick: Can these bones live? “I dunno, God, you tell me.” But there’s something more powerful happening here, in that after everything: after the siege, after the fall, after the exile, with all evidence to suggest that God had indeed given up Israel to the ghosts of history, that Ezekiel can nonetheless stare at the wilderness bones of his people and affirm that God is still in charge. “O Lord God, you know.” O Lord God, whose wisdom we don’t always understand, whose mercy we don’t always perceive, whose ways we don’t always appreciate, O Lord God who let our enemy to the gates of the city and led us back into the wilderness, O Lord God, can we live again? Can we be restored? Can the great city thrive as it once did? For as much reason as Ezekiel might have to think that God has given up on Israel, nonetheless, he doesn’t give up on God. Mortal, can these bones live? O Lord God, you know.
Ezekiel knows that his kingdom survives or falls, that his people live or die, not first on the back of their prophetic gifts but rather on the will and providence of God. And it sounds simple, but of course it’s oh-so complicated. Because how tempting is it always to think that God’s church is something that rests on our abilities? How tempting is it to think that it’s in our hands — that our worship team, and our music program, and our Christian Education, and our mission & outreach, and all the things that we do, that somewhere in that mix there either is or isn’t the magic formula that brings dry bones to life? You could fill your days sifting through the endless stream of church punditry identifying the three, five, ten, or twelve steps necessary to revitalize churches; you’d hear the same tropes over and over again: hospitality, inclusivity, intergenerational ministry, community-formation, mission and outreach, spiritual discipline – is that 12? – but I tell you that the only force in the history of the human endeavor that has ever brought a church back to life has been the grace of God. The only force that has ever breathed new breath into congregations or denominations or any somewhat-dusty gathering of God’s people has been the power of God. How seductive it is to think that church is something we can bring back to life, when indeed the very breath of this place is the breath of the Holy Spirit itself!
This past week I sat across the table from a man whose church is in the process of leaving our denomination. And we talked about his reasons for supporting the move, reasons I’ve heard before; as politely as we could we danced around the fundamental questions of Biblical interpretation that have ruptured so many churches and so many denominations. And then afterwards he looked at me and asked with some longing in his eyes: You know how many churches are leaving; you know how many churches are dying off; are the people in charge even paying attention? And one of the folks I was with gave some answer about how of course the church talks about decline – in fact some days I feel like it’s all we talk about – but that it’s also true that not everybody agrees with one another and people hold to different principles and different theology and we try to hold it all in the balance. I held my tongue on the answer I wish I’d given, maybe because it feels like such a pithy confirmation class kind of answer, and so I didn’t say the hard part, which is that none of us are the ones in charge. That this is God’s church and God is the one in charge.
Of course saying so doesn’t make it easier. Most days I think it makes it feel even murkier, when we have to admit that we don’t always know what God is doing. That we can’t always see what God sees. That when we look at the numbers and we look at the graphs and we look at the survey results and the trend lines and we feel the dryness setting into the bones of these places that we love, how hard is it to admit that we don’t entirely know what God is doing. And yet God is the one doing it. God who breathed life into the first dust of the world. God who brought his people out of the wilderness time and time again. God transformed the whole valley of bones into the multitude of his people. God who died for us and then rolled away the gravestone. I don’t always know what God is doing but I know that God is the one doing it. I don’t always know what we will be except that I know we will be whatever God wants us to be, because I know that in God’s power, all things are possible.
You want to know how to resurrect the dead? Of course you do. I do, too. But that’s not the point. God knows how. O Lord God, you know.