Prophesy to the Bones
Sunday, March 26, 2023
Fifth Sunday in Lent | Year A
Prophesy to the Bones
Life Giver, put your breath in us and let us live abundantly. Revive and restore us, O God. Amen.
Ezekiel 37:1-14 in conversation with John 11:1-45
37 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. 2 He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3 He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” 4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5 Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6 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.”
7 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. 8 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. 9 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.” 10 I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
11 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.’ 12 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. 13 And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14 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.
All readings for this Sunday:
Ezekiel 37:1-14 • Psalm 130 • Romans 8:6-11 • John 11:1-45
When do you have an awareness of your bones?
How do you feel in your bones?
How does breath function for us physically?
What is the spiritual significance of breath? How are breath and Spirit connected?
Where do you need an infusion of new life, hope, and vitality?
By Cheryl A. Lindsay
A bone is an object of structure…a foundation. While bones are normally covered and not seen directly, their importance and contribution cannot be denied. Even in hiding, we recognize their value and worth. You have good bones, we might say to someone with a pleasing facial structure. To a really kind person, we say you don’t have a mean bone in your body. Bones shape who we are and reveal our nature. Bones are found in our innermost selves – when we experience hurt and deep wounds, we’re cut to the bone. When we have a certainty about something, we say we know it in our bones.
In this passage, God takes Ezekiel, through a vision, to a valley of bones. Ezekiel lived as a prophet during the period of Babylonian exile. The chosen people of God had been taken from the land that God promised them, the holy city of Jerusalem was destroyed, and they were now held captive under the rule of a people who did not honor them nor their God. They began to question the promises of God that seemed based on their occupation of Jerusalem and having a descendant of Abraham and David on the throne. In their confusion and disappointment, they began to lose hope and turn away from God and embrace the gods and customs of their Babylonian captors.
It is in this environment that God raises up Ezekiel as a prophet.
The prologue of the book (1:1–3) introduces its main character, Ezekiel, a priest who was exiled in the first deportation of 597 BCE. This opening marks Ezekiel as part of the elite class, whose work supported the royal ideology of the time. The oracles in the book express the experience of destruction and exile from this specific social location. Ezekiel represents the male elite of the preexilic period who lost status, prestige, and honor in the fall of their city.
Corrine L. Carvalho
In the focus passage, God gives Ezekiel a vision and spiritually transports him into a valley filled with bones. And God leads Ezekiel through this valley so that he can get a really good look at them. The first thing he notices is how dry they are.
Sometimes in life, we get transported into a valley. There’s a diagnosis of illness that leads to uncertainty. Relationships that were loving and tender become sour and argumentative. We lose a job, lose a loved one, lose our way in the world in which we thought we were living. Things were going well and then all of a sudden we enter a valley.
And what do we find in the valley? Bones. Ezekiel was taken to a place littered with bones–dry with no flesh or connective tissue. The raw structure is exposed, enabling us to note what is really there at the core.
What do our bones look like? When we go past the outer layers, deeper than our skin, past the connective tissue, what do our bones look like? Are they strong and solid…or frail and brittle? Do our bones hold us up or weigh us down? When you think of your deepest self, down in your bones, does that show through or is that place so hidden that no one can even recognize it? If God chose to transport you into yourself, would you find yourself in a valley of dry bones?
I imagine that Ezekiel’s bones were dry. As one who represented the formerly powerful and privileged members of his society, he was called to prophesy to his circle, his peers, and to himself. The Holy One asks him directly, “Can these bones live?” Certainly, in the vision, the bones in question focus on those scattered around the prophet, but it’s hard to imagine that they did not also include those of Ezekiel as well, especially when we consider his response. “Only you know” is not a mere affirmation of the sovereignty of God. It’s an expression of weariness and hopelessness that does not even dare to imagine the impossible even in a vision. Imagine not having enough hope to even dream. That’s the state of Ezekiel’s soul.
We note that a vision is given to a person first, then the messenger conveys its content and meaning after they have done their own work of wrestling with it. Everyone does not see the vision, it’s extremely limited in scope due to its very nature. The vision is an encouragement for the person given this gift so they can imagine what had been–even for them–unimaginable.
Ezekiel turns the question back over to God. But God doesn’t answer the question, they tell Ezekiel to do something–prophesy to the bones. In other words, speak a word of revitalization into the dry places. Speak a word of hope into spaces of despair. Carriers of the divine image, create a new world through the divinely-inspired word. The fate and future of the bones do not depend upon your belief but they do need your creative acts:
In the end, the vision of the future that is being proposed has as its objective the return, the reuniting of the dispersed and the restoration of the community. Although it may sound utopian, it is entirely possible.
Samuel E. Almada
Ezekiel was transported into a vision of a valley of dry bones. He did not go there physically. The Book of Ezekiel is unique in that the prophet encounters God in a number of ways, but is particular marked by visions– the gift to see what the average person was unable to see. In fact, most prophets we find in the Bible did not have visions that God gave to Ezekiel. So when God places his hand upon Ezekiel, God is moving him spiritually. In the same way, God does not ask a question about what can happen physically – can these bones be physically transformed from dry and dead to teeming with life. No, what God is asking is – can you believe that I can take a place overcome with death and make it teem with life?
We note that the narrative is held together by the key term ruaḥ. It occurs ten times in all and here, as elsewhere, can be translated “spirit,” “breath,” or “wind” according to the context. It was the spirit that led Ezekiel out into the plain strewn with the bones of the slain. He is to proclaim that God will bring them together and instill life-giving breath in them. The result of the prophesying, accompanied by a noise and a rattling…is accomplished in two stages. The first (vs. 7–8) is the assembling of the bones into skeletons and the transformation of the skeletons into cadavers with sinews, flesh, and skin. Only then (vs. 9–10) is Ezekiel commanded to summon the life-giving breath from the four winds to give life to this array of zombies. There takes place, therefore, a reenactment of the primal act of creation, when God formed humanity from the dust of the ground and breathed into its nostrils the breath of life (Gen. 2:7). The explanation (vs. 11–14), which, surprisingly, shifts the scene from a battlefield to a cemetery, applies the process to the community. It is the spirit activated through prophetic preaching which bonds the community together and gives it the will to live and accept its future. When that future becomes reality with the return to the land, the community will finally acknowledge the truth of the prophetic word.
Surrendering to the will of God, Ezekiel moves in obedience to the instruction of God. When he does, something happens. At first, it seems as though things are shifting because the rattling comes first. And when we surrender to God’s will and move in obedience, the first reaction can often seem to not be a good thing. We might hear some rattling. All those bones moving can cause quite a sound and if you’ve ever heard the sound of bone against bone, you know it does not sound good. Still something is happening, and if we can just get past the initial reaction, before you know it, the bones start to become connected as the sinews grow and soften that first bone upon bone contact. Then the flesh comes…muscle to cover the structure and skin to protect the muscle and before you know it, you can’t even see the bones anymore–just the body.
That’s when God breathes spirit into the body. And the body lives–not just those dry bones–the entire body becomes filled with new life. And the body stands… strong… connected… together… beautiful… and moving.
Prophesy to the bones.
Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent:
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study.
Air fled my chest, and a tingling sensation sprang up and down my spine. I thought I’d never breathe again, but I heard him coughing like he was too full of air, like he had taken all my breath from me.
I think about that moment when I try to figure out when it all changed. When did he reach out like he was falling all over again and grab my heart with both hands and hold on like his life depended on it? When did I start holding on with him? He knows that I did, because that’s what’s making him so bold to ask what he’s asking of me now. He wouldn’t have done it otherwise. And by the same vein I wouldn’t be sitting here thinking about saying yes. Because that’s how much of me he has, and I’m thinking it wouldn’t be a great thing to let the rest of me go too. It’s just like standing in front of those stairs again. Can I break this fall? Inside that man is every notion of what I know about myself. He stands tall, like there’s a force inside him drawing him up to his full height, and that same force makes me feel large as well. Our eyes on the world are great and unyielding, like we’ve seen too much to close them now. We say the words we want to say and don’t care about the consequences. I know a bigger hell comes of keeping your mouth shut. We’re that much alike. And yet he doesn’t know what he’s asking of me. For what he wants, I’d have to deny myself in a way that would dismantle every aspect of my humanity. And his, too, but that doesn’t seem to concern him, perhaps because he’s already done it for so long. Maybe that’s why I’ve loved him—he’s burned himself down to this purity, and it’s all I can see of him. I can’t see anything else.
“Jeannette, the only people who would give a damn are the ones who give a damn for you,” he said. “You don’t have people like that in this world.”
Not in this world.
Because I do think of Papa. That’s what gives me pause. That and the love of my Creator, my Alpha and my Omega. Anyone might look at me and wonder how, in all my strangeness, I could demand love of any human being. I know I’m unusual to look at, with pale skin telling one story about myself and tight coils of light-brown hair telling another. And I’m hard in ways most admired women are soft. I used to think my half sister, Calista, imprinted the world like a cloud. But my papa’s my excuse for everything I’m about to tell you. I was born of great love, and Papa bore me well in that love for as long as he could. I was a beloved child. I think I knew that before I knew anything else. So now I can’t settle for anything less than such love. That’s just the truth of who I am.
— Sophfronia Scott, Wild, Beautiful, and Free
For further reflection:
“We went down into the silent garden. Dawn is the time when nothing breathes, the hour of silence. Everything is transfixed, only the light moves.” — Leonora Carrington
“I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.” — Sylvia Plath
“Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.” — Harper Lee
A preaching commentary on this text (with works cited) is at https://www.ucc.org/what-we-believe/worship/sermon-seeds/.
The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Minister for Worship and Theology (email@example.com), also serves a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below this post on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
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