In the Spirit, Ezekiel finds himself in a valley full of dry bones. It could have been the site of a terrible battle after which the corpses had never been buried or a place of genocide. The bones are very dry. There is no trace or sign of life whatsoever. Yet, the Lord challenges Ezekiel: ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’ (Ezekiel 37.3) It was a ridiculous question. The answer should have been: ‘No way’. The bones needed a respectful burial. Instead, Ezekiel replies ‘O Lord God, you know’. It is the response of a man of faith who keeps open the possibility that God has something up his sleeve, yet he does not want to presume what it is.
God commands Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones; ‘O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.’ (Ezekiel 37.4) What a crazy thing to do. The bones were surely completely deaf! Ezekiel does as he is told. He hears a remarkable rattling sound as these long dead bones roasted by the sun come together, bone by bone. As each skeleton was assembled so the sinews and flesh formed upon them. What a remarkable vision…but there was more. The bones had now become bodies, recognisable as human beings, but they were still dead. There was no breath in them. Once again, Ezekiel is called upon by God to prophesy; to prophesy to the breath: ‘Come from the four winds, O breath and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.’ (Ezekiel 37.9) Breath enters the bodies and they stand on their feet as a vast multitude.
It is a powerful image, a compelling vision which had a very specific purpose. In the Spirit, the Lord tells Ezekiel: ‘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.”’ (Ezekiel 37.11) Ezekiel is speaking to a people who have seen their land ravaged and destroyed by the Babylonians. Leaders have been exiled to Babylon. The city of Jerusalem has been besieged, leaving the vulnerable, women and children to scavenge what little they can. The situation is desperate and yes, the message from the prophets has been that God is behind this hopeless situation because the people would not listen to his voice.
But the prophesy speaks powerfully of an end to this time of death and destruction. ‘I will put my spirit in you and you will 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.’ (Ezekiel 37.14) The fulfilment would come soon with resettlement of Judah and Jerusalem under Ezra and Nehemiah. But it also has a very strong resonance today in Iraq and Syria. Now that so called Islamic state have been driven out of many regions, people who had fled their homes are returning and rebuilding. I have been reading this week about the town of Qaraqosh in Northern Iraq:
‘The streets of Qaraqosh are once again teeming with life. The shops are serving food, and students take buses to continue their studies at Mosul University. It’s been a long road so far, but slowly families are returning to Iraq and Syria after so called Islamic State occupied the region for almost three years.’ (Open Doors Magazine May 2018)
Qaraqosh is a similar size to Wrexham and was known as the Christian capital of Iraq prior to the IS invasion of 2014. Now people are returning from the counties to which they fled including France, Lebanon and Australia as well as more local refugee camps. Although the city is still in a mess, everyone is keen to rebuild and make it beautiful again. Father George, a local priest, had a full church for Easter. He is spear heading a project supported by the mission agency Open Doors to rebuild people’s homes. So far, they have completed 286. One elderly couple, Musa and Ishba are quoted as saying: ‘What helped us was our faith…We can’t live without our faith, we’re very strong in the church.’ (Open Doors Magazine May 2018)
It is a wonderful and heart-warming to hear such stories. The experience of our brothers and sisters across Iraq and many parts of Syria is so similar the dry lifeless bones coming to life to which Ezekiel prophesied all those years before. But what of our experience, yours and mine? Thankfully, our situation is very different. We have not experienced the brutality of war, had our neighbourhood destroyed and been forced to flee to a safer place. Yet, all of us do experience darker passages in our lives which occur for a wide range of complex reasons and circumstances either to ourselves or those who are close to us; illness, bereavement, financial problems, depression, bullying, issues around addictions and substance misuse. We can feel like the dry bones of Ezekiel’s vision, to feel that God has deserted us, even is punishing us and there is no hope. Like the exiles in Babylon, like the exiles from Qaraqosh in refugee camps near Erbil we too might say: “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.”’ (Ezekiel 37.11)
It is into these arid desert places in our lives that God speaks his words of life and hope. It is by his grace, through his Holy Spirit that we can pick up the pieces, that the bones go back together, and we can experience his new life flooding our being. As the writer of the book of Lamentations has it, speaking of the same situation as Ezekiel; ‘For the Lord will not reject forever. Although he causes grief, he will have compassion.’ Lamentations 3.31-32) Yes, there is judgement with God. We suffer for our sin, we suffer because the world is sinful, yet his default position is love and it is that love which brings restoration, life from the dead. When we face the most torrid of situations in our lives, when we are dried up like the bones, let us remember that it is into just such a situation that Ezekiel’s vision speaks hope.
Today, our thoughts are focused on the great outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the disciples of Jesus at the Jewish feast of Pentecost as they were gathered in one place in Jerusalem following Jesus’ resurrection and final parting into heaven. The Holy Spirit does not wait until this moment to make an appearance in the bible’s story. He is brooding over the face of the deep at creation. He is the breath entering Ezekiel’s dry bones, he is the advocate for whom Jesus prays in the reading from John. After Jesus’ ascension, the disciples were a bit like the bones after they had come together and been given flesh, but before the breath had filled them. Jesus had taught them much during two and more years of his ministry. They were witnesses to the crucifixion and resurrection. Jesus had again carefully explained the significance of everything from the scriptures. They were complete and formed as Christian believers, but they were lifeless. The coming of the Holy Spirit rushing through the room like a hurricane and appearing like fire changed all that. They came to life and proclaimed the message powerfully in word and action and three thousand lives were changed that day. (Acts 2.41)
As Christians, we can so often be like the disciples before Pentecost, perfectly formed but lifeless, like the bones in the vision, formed into a body but lacking breath. The simple message from all this is the one Paul gives to Christians at Ephesus and elsewhere: ‘Do not get drunk with wine, …but be filled with the Spirit.’ (Ephesians 5.18) God longs to fill us with his Spirit, but how intentional are we about asking for this gift? Do we have a deep desire for breath of the Holy Spirit to empower our Christian lives? If we had bit more longing, asked with a little more fervour, we are just a bit keener to receive. I believe God could bring so much more new life and hope to our churches and our world.