Reading: Ezekiel 37:1-14
The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all round them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’ I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.’ Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.’
So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.’ I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
Then he said to me, ‘Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.’
Can these bones live?
The story of Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones is one of the most important stories in scripture because it poses one of the most important questions of all time: can these bones live? Or, can life come from death?
The story gives us two answers: the rhetorical answer (implied in Ezekiel’s cryptic “O Lord, you know!”) which is “no.” And the divine answer (shown to us in the powerful act of God) which is “yes.”
With God, life can come from death.
It has become common parlance to say that the church is dying. It’s perhaps a narrow view to say so (the church is flourishing across Africa, Asia, and South America), but it’s true for us here in America. Across the country, churches (and particularly mainline denomination churches) are shutting down, closing their doors, fading away; and it’s completely understandable that this would spark fear in the hearts of those faithful Christians who remain. “The church is dying,” we say. And we fear that death. We rail against it! We lament the death or else we get angry and blame the death of the church on the new generation or the old generation or some other force out of our control.
And of course we do these things! Death is scary! Everything in our being screams at us to fight against death. So it makes perfect sense that we would fear “the death of the church” and do whatever we can to stop it.
But let’s remember first that all ministry is God’s ministry and the success or failure of God’s ministry lies in God’s hands, not ours. What may seem like the death of the church to us might actually the start of something new for God. Remember that ours is not a theology of revival but of resurrection. Revival to me implies that life is restored before it is fully lost. Revival reminds me of a stumbling person who catches themself before they fall. But our theology is one of death and resurrection. We believe in a God who did not bring revival but brought resurrection. Jesus died. Completely. He lay in a tomb Friday night to Sunday morning. And then God breathed new life into him. The bones lived. God does not promise that we will not die; rather God promises that when we die, God will not leave us in that death but bring us into new life. Death is still part of the equation, part of the deal.
There’s no doubt that the impending death of the church is scary. But let us remember that things have to die in order to be resurrected. Certainly death is still hard and it is natural for us to want to skip over that difficult part. But it is a necessary difficulty in moving on to resurrection and new life. Without God, the bones can’t live; but with God the bones gain new life!
So it will be with the church. No matter what may befall us, we know that God is with us. And should the church as we know it die, we have a God of resurrection who stands ready to breathe new life into the bones and bring out something redeemed and renewed and revitalized.
So take heart! With God, these bones can live!
Dear God, we look around and wonder at the future of your church. Remind us that you are a God of resurrection. You are a God who does not leave us in death but carries us through it, leading us into new life. In moments when it feels like the church is dying, help us to embrace the death so that we might live into the new life.