One of the fun things about being a parent is watching my children develop in their gifts and talents. Each one of our five children have an area in which they excel. The important thing as a parent is not for me to compare them but to celebrate their unique talents.
I get to experience the same thing as a pastor. Thankfully not all of us have the same talents, otherwise we would be pretty stick with what we could do. I love discovering the areas where people are passionate and gifted. Now if only I could figure out what I was good at.
Would you believe that even God has a specialty? That may seem strange when you think of God being able to do absolutely everything. While never limited by his ability, God has certain areas that seem to rise above the rest. If I had to state what God’s specialty was, I would have to say that it is bringing life from death.
We automatically think of that in the sense of literal life and death. After all, the foundation of Christianity is the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus really did die and he really did return to life. He shares that miracle with us. We really will die and we will one day share in his resurrection. This is very important.
But God’s resurrection power is not limited to the afterlife. God’s specialty includes bringing life from death even outside of the literal death and life. God takes people who feel dead inside and fills them with abundant life. I like this verse: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10) It is something more than just simply being alive.
Ezekiel 37 and the vision of the dry bones is one of the more dramatic illustrations of this principle. Let’s take a look and try to understand how this affects us.
Ezekiel and the Dry Bones
Ezekiel is a pretty wild book with some spectacular visions. It really keeps us on our toes as we try to interpret it. The basic historical context is important. Ezekiel was active during the time of the exile. Jerusalem the city and the temple had been destroyed by the Babylonians. Many of the Jews had been exiled into Babylon, including Ezekiel. It was a very dark time for the Jewish people. Not only had they lost their political independence, they had lost their temple, the one place they were able to fully worship God. It must have been absolutely devastating.
This didn’t mean that God had abandoned them. We find numerous prophecies in Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel about God’s plan for restoration. But sometimes you need more than just words and that is where this vision comes in.
Ezekiel was shown a valley filled with dry bones. That would be horrible for any of us to experience. We see such scenes in movies and it seems like the least desirable place to be. It was worse for Ezekiel. None of us would want to see bones but the Jews had very strong beliefs about the burial and care for the dead. It was very important for bodies to be buried, and to be buried in the proper way, as soon after death as possible. We see this in the Gospels with the hurry to get Jesus in the tomb after his crucifixion but before the Sabbath started. The fact that the bodies are only bones and that the bones are very dry tells us that the bodies had been left unburied for a long time. This was a place of horror for a good Jew like Ezekiel.
God asked Ezekiel if these dry bones could live. The obvious answer was no, but Ezekiel tossed the question back to God. God then had Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones. We think of prophecy as predicting the future but most often it is simply the proclaiming the truth of God. In this case, the truth was that God would bring them back to life. Sure enough, bones attached to bones, and they were covered with muscle and skin. They looked a lot better but they weren’t truly alive. Then God had Ezekiel prophesy that breath would enter them. It did and they became a mighty living army.
This is both amazing and really weird. In truth, it was an elaborate picture of what God would do with Israel. At that time, Israel was in a bad place, little more than a pile of bleached bones. But this was not the end. God was going to bring them back together. Not only would they be regathered, but God would breathe into them. There is a play on words here. The Hebrew words for breath, wind and Spirit are all exactly the same. Just as breath entered into the dead bodies bringing them to life, the Holy Spirit would be poured out upon Israel, bringing them back to spiritual life. This was an incredible miracle dramatically made real to Ezekiel to give him and his audience hope.
I could try and apply this to us as individuals. When we feel dead, God brings us back together and breathes new life into us. I could but I won’t. I would prefer to talk about the church.
The passage in Ezekiel is about the people of God, in that context, the people of Israel. The people of God today includes us as a local congregation. What does this mean for us?
In the Ezekiel passage, we discover a scene that looks completely hopeless. Both the pile of dead bones and the state of Israel during the exile.
I don’t see us in anywhere the same situation. I am very hopeful about the future of this church and am excited about what I am seeing and the ministry that is taking place.
And yet we face the same things that most churches face, a limit to our resources. This includes money, people, time, building, etc. We can see what we want to become but are not sure, with our current limitations, we are going to get there. There are two things from the Ezekiel passage that I want to focus on.
The first is that you cannot judge based on what you currently see. Ezekiel, when he first saw the pile of bones, couldn’t have anticipated that soon there would be a mighty and living army standing in front of him. In the same way, Ezekiel living in Babylonian exile couldn’t have anticipated that in less than a century that the Babylonians would be conquered and that not only would the Persians allow the Jews to return to Jerusalem, they would even help pay for the rebuilding. There was nothing in the present situation that would hint at the great things coming.
For as long as I have been involved in church, people have looked at the present state and have tried to extrapolate to the future. That would be fine, except that leaves out God’s specialty of breathing in new life.
That brings us to the second thing and that is the change comes by the power of the Holy Spirit. As Baptists, we tend to speak of Jesus more than the Spirit. Yet Jesus told his disciples that it was better that he leave because that meant they would receive the Spirit. God makes it clear to Ezekiel that the hope for Israel was in the coming of the Holy Spirit. We have the Holy Spirit in us as individual believers and in our gathering of worship. The Holy Spirit is here and powerful enough to do anything. The Holy Spirit is available to guide and provide, to lead and equip. Do you feel discouraged by what we lack? What about what we have? We have the Spirit. If the Spirit could give life to dry bones, he could do much more with this living and loving congregation.
I used to belong to a tradition that put a lot of emphasis on revival. Unfortunately, their definition of revival was more frequent and longer worship services with louder sermons. I still believe in revival but my definition has expanded. Revival is about God breathing his Spirit into the church, producing new life that spills out all over the place. God can revive anything. Even us. This is his specialty. God loves to breathe his Spirit and bring transformation and the present state of affairs has very little to do with it. Please join me in inviting the Holy Spirit to do his work among us.