Ezekiel: A valley full of bones and a prophet who knew his God

My first memory of that Old Testament passage from Ezekiel (37.1-14) is from the days when I was a student. I recall, late one evening sitting with the Chaplain and some other students in a darkened Chapel and as part of our worship the Chaplain read this passage in the most imaginative, moving and vivid way. Somehow, he managed to capture the deep sense of despair which underlies it. We went with Ezekiel as he observed this valley full of dry bones…. the scene perhaps, of a defeat so catastrophic and terrible that there wasn`t even time to bury the dead.

So, whenever I hear this passage I`m transported back to that time. I`m reminded of the impact Scripture can have when it is read, as we might say “with soul”… or at any rate, in an unhurried and reflective way. Not least because this is what Ezekiel is caused to do, isn`t it? Ezekiel is led into this place of despair and called to look slowly and deeply into it. We might say he`s called to `contemplate` this scene. The sense of unhurriedness is emphasised because it seems, he`s given something of a tour of this valley; we`re told, “He led me all round them; there were very many lying in the valley”, and he`s invited to get the texture of this scene… The bones were “very dry”.

So, my first point this morning is to let this passage challenge the quality of our looking and listening. It seems that, just as Ezekiel was taken by “the hand of the Lord” there`s an invitation for us to become more attentive and accept his invitation to look beyond the surface of things. And what`s going on is far more than analysis because secondly, notice from all this looking comes a question: Ezekiel is asked, “Can these dry bones live? Or more to the point: `He said to me “Mortal, can these dry bones live?”

I was once taught to remember that no word of Scripture is there by accident. And clearly, that word `Mortal` says a great deal. But the point is that this simple word puts Ezekiel in a place of humility. He`s asked to wonder and place his all-too-easy and understandable despair before the Lord. In other words, whatever was going to happen (if anything at all!) it certainly wasn`t going to be Ezekiel`s doing! I mean, when looking for the solution to a seemingly intractable problem we sometimes say something like, “God only knows!” don`t we? Well, here`s Ezekiel doing just the same but with a slight twist; he says, “O Lord God… you know.” What I`m getting at is that all the while the humility is reinforced by those words: “O Lord God.. you know.” Ezekiel has to acknowledge his powerlessness; his created-ness. He stands before and recognises exactly who it is that has the power of life and death… and it certainly wasn`t HIM!

But then thirdly notice, Ezekiel is given a job to do… “Prophesy”. There`s sometimes a bit of confusion about that word. Often as not it`s associated with the idea of for-telling the future but that`s not what`s going on here. It`s much more to do with what`s called `forth-telling`. That is to say, the Word of the Lord comes to a person or situation and re-frames it or re-describes it. So, as in this case… Everything looks hopeless for the people of God. To our way of thinking this is perfectly understandable… But the Prophet brings a different perspective… What Walter Brueggemann calls, “A Word from elsewhere.” The Prophet always carries a vision or perspective which is beyond our imagining, calculation or competence.

So firstly, this morning I`m trying to get us to consider this word `contemplation`. I`d like to redeem it from that phrase `contemplating our navel` as if it were the last thing to do with daily living. On the contrary it`s the most `alive` thing we can do… It involves looking, questioning and re-imagining the things that are before us in the presence of the Lord. Humbly framing them against his purposes. And this is what we see in that passage. Far from being a passive affair, Ezekiel is given a job to do.

Firstly, Ezekiel is told to say, “O dry bones, hear the Word of the Lord”. He`s speaking, of course to the people of Israel who are complaining that they are as good as dead… just like these dry bones; devoid of hope. Many years ago, the Minister Colin Morris wrote a book about preaching; it was called: “Raising the Dead”. The title wasn`t a very flattering take on who he thought was in front of him when he was preaching! But the point is that we want to make some very serous claims about the texts we read day by day and Sunday by Sunday. In other words, when Scripture is read you are not on neutral territory. This is or should be, literally awe-inspiring stuff. These are not just words in a dusty old book but: “O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.”

When we say, at the end of a reading “This is the Word of the Lord” this is not an idle statement. It`s a declaration that there is a different story… a different narrative to live by. Because the Word of the Lord… is HIS take on things… which again, re-frames and re-describes our lives; providing a different narrative from the one we might logically or instinctively follow. The point is that what raises the Dead is the Word of the Lord. There is judgement here; life and death. And it`s not just that such re-framing leads from despair to hope; it has the quality of resurrection…. of New creation. Notice those words: “And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people”.

And there`s another thing. This Word not only restores…. it gives the people `shape` as well. Just follow the analogy of the bones. At the Word of the Lord the bones come together don`t they. Disparate pieces become joined and become coherent and alive. This is why we `gather` around the lectern. Not just because it is our common story… but the reading of it leads to a living of it. Obedience to the Word results in a distinctive shape as God`s people. We are a people `formed` by the Word.

And then, of course Ezekiel is called to “Prophesy to the breath.” We have a reference to here to the creation story. In Genesis we`re told: “then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. (Genesis 2.7) So as Ezekiel was obedient; as he prophesied to the breath… they would become a spirited people. “And they lived… and stood on their feet… a vast multitude” (v10) We`re reminded of what Jesus says: “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life”. (John 6.63)

So, where`s this leading? Well two things: Firstly, there`s an invitation to look. To take seriously the all too niche category of `contemplation`. That un-hurried, reflective seeing, without which we won`t begin to discern the situation we`re in … or what the Lord promises to do for us. This is the first thing Ezekiel did as he was led by the hand of the Lord. The issue for me is how easy it is for us to see the world and yes, the sometimes challenging events of our own life through any lens other than Scripture and our common story. I mean, no wonder you despair and say, “whatever is the world coming to?”

This is serious stuff. It`s not just a matter of really thinking, for instance about where you get your `news` from; or really listening to the narrative; the story you are being fed. It`s not just what you listen to but HOW you listen. Because the world forms you as an anxious creature. It whispers to you of scarcity, of competition, isolation, fear and self-protection. So, whenever the cry goes up “What can be done?” we find ourselves living in a closed world; devoid of options. And we say “Lord knows”… And whilst we use the name of the Almighty this is a long way from the humble and hope-filled submission of Ezekiel, based on relationship with the creator God. It`s little more than a cry of despair, isn`t it?

So, secondly, notice Ezekiel spoke the Word of the Lord into that situation. In other words, he can offer an alternative to that narrative that says, “We`re all dried up” because he knows his God. He addresses him not as some distant, unconcerned absentee landlord but as one with whom he is in dialogue: “O Lord God.. you know.” I`m reminded of the title of a book I came across some years ago about someone who had made this transition. It was called, “I dared to call him Father”. Who you think you`re praying to really does matter…

Again, this is about contemplating, looking at the actual events of each day and perceiving them very differently. It`s not just a matter of character; of whether you`re a `glass-half-empty` or a `glass-half-full` sort of person. It`s about the humility we see in Ezekiel. If we say, “O Lord God…. you know,” it`s about `mining` those words and asking, “Well, what is it that the Lord God knows?” that we don`t know or that we easily miss because we`ve been lulled into living in an essentially closed universe, devoid of possibility and hope? That answer, or should we say `that perspective` comes as we become more familiar with his word and his character; through Scripture and importantly, learn to apply it.

For example, I`ve often pointed out this little card (The Ignatian Examen). I`ve called it `Staying in touch` but it`s just a simple exercise you can do each day that`s designed to help you look more deeply at what`s going on in front of you. I mean we all have a choice. We can carry on mumbling with the `woe-is-me generation`; write angry letters if you must and make, “It`ll see me out,” your mantra. Or you can learn from Ezekiel. Who knew himself to be `addressed` rather than `depressed` by circumstances…. Because he knew the God in whom he believed.

Contemplation is the key. It`s through learning to look and learning to apply his Word to what we see before us that there is not just a re-shaping of God`s people; we also become a re-energised a spirited people. The people we`re meant to be.

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