Can These Bones Live?
Preached by Benjamin Vrbicek
At our church, we typically preach through books of the Bible. But a few times a year, we don’t. We pick a theme and spend a few weeks on it. And when we do, we try to make it count, that is, we try to make it so that you get your money’s worth, which is a way of saying we don’t do the expected passages of the Bible. That’s not because the expected passages are not good—they are!—but because the whole Bible is so rich we want you to taste all of it.
Our Christmas series this year has been, “A Very Scary Christmas? How the Incarnation Conquers Fear.” We’ve talked about things that show up in scary movies, things like ghosts and graveyards and other things. And one thing that always shows up in scary movies is death, which is our final topic to cover. Quiet the choice for Christmas Eve, right?
I actually think it is, though. Because one thing that true Christianity is able to do—one thing the true story of Christmas is able to do—is to look straight at the scariest and darkest and most hopeless of situations and offer hope.
What I want to do is read a passage of Scripture from the Old Testament. The passage of Scripture is Ezekiel 37, which is a vision that God gave a prophet and priest named Ezekiel. Before I read it, I’ll say this: there is a sense in which, even if you’ve read this passage before and are familiar with the imagery, there is a sense in which it feels foreign to us. Even the name—Ezekiel—sounds foreign to us, not to mention the fact that it’s some 2,600 years old.
My sermon won’t be a long one. In fact, it will be quite short, so I won’t be explaining everything. But I’ll just point out a few of the keywords and phrases in each section and then offer a few reflections. If you want to follow along with me, you can do so in on the screen or in the Bibles on the rows (page 830).
1 The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. 2 And he led me around among them, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold, they were very dry. 3 And he said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” And I answered, “O Lord God, you know.”
Some phrases worth pointing out:
v. 1, “full of bones”: Okay, so not just a few bones, but lots of bones.
v. 2, “led me around among them”: Think about this. This took time; it wasn’t quick. There was a tour by a tour guide. And after the tour, the only reasonable conclusion is that there is no hope for these bones. For whatever life there might have been in this situation, it’s now expired!
v. 2, “very many on the surface of the valley”: We read this detail, and we have questions, don’t we? Why are these bones on the surface? Whom do they belong to? How did they get here? Was there no one to even bury them? Whatever the answers are, it’s surely a hopeless situation.
v. 2, “and behold, they were very dry”: On the one hand, it’s not that their “dryness” makes is worse because dead is still dead. But on the other hand, it is worse. The dryness communicates the passage of time and with time the leaking of hope. In other words, it’s not only a bad situation, but it’s been bad for a long time.
v. 3, “can these bones live?”: It’s interesting that God asks a question. God knows the answer, but he asks because he wants Ezekiel to come to the answer. Just like in Genesis 3, when God said, “Adam, where are you?” God knew where Adam was; he was hiding. And in the Gospels, Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus didn’t have an identity crisis. No, he want us to wrestle with the question and the answer. Here, God asks, “Can these bones live?” To which the answer is of course, “No. They can’t. The story is over. Go home. It’s done.” That’s not what Ezekiel says, though. I love his answer. Instead of saying yes or no, Ezekiel feels a trick question coming. So, he says, “You know, Lord.” This is like when the police officer pulls you over and asks, “Do you know why I pulled you over?” Your answer is, “Ahhhh, I’m not gonna answer that one. I’m sure you know.”
Next, Ezekiel is told to speak to the bones so that they will live. That’s strange, isn’t it? He obeys anyway, and this is what happens next.
7 So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I prophesied, there was a sound, and behold, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8 And I looked, and behold, there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them. But there was no breath in them. 9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army.
v. 7, “and the bones came together, bone to its bone . . .”: Do you see the picture? From disorder to order. From death to life. Bone to bone, then tendons, then muscles, then skin, then standing upright, then the breath of life.
v. 10, “and breathe on these slain . . . an exceedingly great army”: Ahhh, so now we get the detail that these bones on the surface of the valley were from an army. And they were defeated so soundly in battle that no one was left to bury them. This is absolute devastation. But their place of failure becomes their place of strength.
11 Then he said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. 13 And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. 14 And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the Lord.”
v. 11, “whole house of Israel”: In this verse, we get the historical interpretation that these bones in this vision represent the house of Israel. We need a few historical details for that to sink in. I’ll share the backstory in just a moment.
v. 12, “my people.”: Note, God calls them my people! There was no life in them. They had nothing to offer God. They were dead, but he calls them his people.
v. 12, “Behold they say, Our . . . hope perishes”: They are made alive, and they say, “We are not hopeful.” So God explains more.
v. 13, “open your graves”: God says, “Though you are standing in open graves, I’m going to make you walk back home. I’ll take you from your graves to Promised Land.”
v. 14, “And I will put my Spirit within you”: In the creation account in Genesis 2 when God made Adam, he made Adam from the dirt and then breathed life into him. Here, God makes these bones alive and breathes spiritual life into them.
v. 14, “you shall know that I am the Lord.”: This is an important phrase in Ezekiel. Scholars have even given it the name “the recognition formula” (“Then you shall know . . .”). It’s a phrase used 50 times in Ezekiel. The point is this. When everything wonderful happens, know that God is God. Don’t unwrap a present and fail to realize God is God.
So there we have it: Christmas Eve and a valley of dry bones that come to life.
The historical context is important. So, what’s going on at this time?
Well, King David was a king around 1000 BC. One of David’s grandkids was a man named Rehoboam. When Rehoboam was king, the kingdom split in two: north and south, Israel and Judah.
About 200 years later, the northern kingdom, because of their sin, went into exile; they were crushed by the Assyrians.
About another 150 years after that, around 600 BC, the southern kingdom went into exile, crushed by the Babylonians.
Then, King David and the Camelot that was Israel was crushed and nearly disintegrated. It looked hopeless; it looked like death; it looked like a valley of dry bones.
But then God begins to speak to a priest named Ezekiel while he is 1,000 miles from home in a place called Babylon. There in Babylon, God tells Ezekiel that there is hope—real hope—in the future: the spiritually dead will come to life.
At Christmas time, we tend to focus on familiar passages, passages such as Isaiah 7 about a virgin conceiving and bearing a son. And that’s appropriate. But what we need to realize is that the whole Old Testament can be described as the long wait for Christmas to arrive. This is certainly true of Ezekiel 37. Look at these verses from later in the chapter.
23 They shall not defile themselves anymore with their idols and their detestable things, or with any of their transgressions. But I will save them from all the backslidings in which they have sinned, and will cleanse them; and they shall be my people, and I will be their God. 24 My servant David shall be king over them, and they shall all have one shepherd. They shall walk in my rules and be careful to obey my statutes.
Note, in v. 24 that God speaks of sending his “servant David” to be king.
What? How? King David has been dead for 400 years! He’s gone. It’s like saying George Washington is coming to fix America. He’s gone.
And David’s grandkid did such a lousy job the kingdom split in two and then eventually both kingdoms were exiled to foreign lands. So how exactly is David coming so that, as it says in v. 23, will they “be [God’s] people, and [he] will be their God”?
What’s the answer? The answer is that the New Testament calls Jesus the greater David. Jesus is the King, the true grandson of David, who reigns over his people. He’s the one who takes death and turns it into life.
While Ezekiel 37 maybe a foreign passage to us, John 3:16–17 is not. Look at what Jesus said in this passage.
16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
He who believes in Jesus will not perish. That doesn’t mean we won’t die. We will, but it means that when a person has trusted in Jesus, then after they have died, one day their bones will come back together again and they will live.
Several people here in our church have lost loved ones in the last few weeks. That’s very hard. We had guests from out of town stay with us this week as they traveled to see family. The wife of the couple talked about losing her father this year to a drug overdose. That’s hard. This Christmas feels like dry bones to her.
Others of us, have serious health challenges. Others have significant relationship problems, perhaps even with the people you’ve come to church with tonight. These are dry bones.
And all of us have character flaws and defects and sins that we return to again and again.
In short, many of us this Christmas are wondering, Can dead bones can live? Maybe it’s not so strange to talk about Ezekiel on Christmas.
I mentioned at the beginning that true Christianity, the true story of Christmas, is able to look straight at the scariest and darkest and most hopeless of situations and offer hope, hope of a savior.
There was another man in the Bible who, like Ezekiel, saw a vision. And in many ways, this vision is the answer to Ezekiel’s earlier vision, the vision of restoration and hope forever. The man’s name was John. In Revelation 21:1–4 we read this:
1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
Did you see that phrase again? God dwells with this people, and his people dwell with God. Despite the fact that it seems like only dead bones around us, the story of the universe will end in joy for everyone who knows King David . . . I mean, everyone who knows King Jesus.