O Dry Bones, Hear the Word of the Lord

Text: Ezekiel 37:1-14

“Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk [of the Word.] Sing aloud to God our strength; shout for joy to the God of Jacob! In distress you called, and I delivered you; I answered you in the secret place of thunder.” We heard these words just a few moments ago in the Introit for the Sunday after Easter. The antiphon originally comes from 1 Peter 2, where the Apostle encourages us to put away all malice and deceit, and to long for the pure spiritual milk of the Word – so that by it we may grow up into salvation. The body of the Introit itself comes from Psalm 81, where God speaks to His people. He reminds them that He brought them out of Egypt, and has yet better things in store, if they would only listen to Him.

Speaking of better things in store, the Lord spoke through Ezekiel in our text of the better things He had in store for the people of Israel. The Lord sent Ezekiel to prophesy to a people in exile. The people Ezekiel ministered to were carried off to Babylon before the final destruction of Jerusalem, which is recounted just a few chapters before our text today. The Lord gave Ezekiel a vision with vivid imagery – of old, dry bones coming back to life. This vision was directed to the people of Israel, who were saying that the Lord had cut them off and that their hope was lost. Using this vivid vision, the Lord spoke through Ezekiel that He would restore His people to life. And, He did so then as He does now, by keeping the promises of His Word.

I.

As you probably know, this passage from Ezekiel is perhaps one of the better-known portions of Scripture. This striking vision of a valley full of dead, dry bones being covered in flesh and coming back to life has been portrayed in various forms of media pretty much forever. This vision was given by the Lord to the prophet Ezekiel. Ezekiel prophesied roughly around the same time and a little after as Jeremiah, the difference with Ezekiel being that he prophesied in Babylon while Jeremiah remained in Jerusalem. Ezekiel’s ministry was also kind of different in that the things that had been prophesied by other prophets were now coming to pass. As in, Jerusalem was starting to fall. This means that, unlike a lot of the other prophets, people listened to Ezekiel.

It was hard not to. True, much of Ezekiel’s prophesying was hard to ignore, but so were their surroundings. Ezekiel prophesied to a people carried off into a distant land, living among people different from them, with a different language and culture. The people of Israel in exile lived among a pluralistic society, meaning, the people there worshiped any number of gods – or none. They lived as strangers in a foreign land. They understood that these things had come to pass as the Lord’s discipline, but they despaired of the Lord’s promises. We heard, “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.[1] The children of Israel in exile were represented by the dry bones, for they felt that they had indeed been cut off from the Lord’s promise and were now without hope in the land of Babylon.

Not so, said the Lord. He told Ezekiel, “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…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.”[2] Though the people felt as if they were withering in a foreign land, cut off from the love of the Lord and without hope, they really weren’t. Instead, the Lord continued to be with them, and, He would bring them back to their own land. They would not wither away into dust and ash, but the Lord will raise them and bring them back. The Lord said He would do it, and He did. Seventy years later, He brought them back to Israel from Babylon. Ezra even tells us that some of those who went into exile lived to see the return.

II.

But what about us? Are we dead, dry bones? Is our hope clean cut off? If we’re being honest, sometimes it feels that way. We live in trying times. Our society is pulling further and further away from the truth of God’s Word. In various places, church attendance is shrinking, and congregations of all denominations are closing. Even in our own ND district, one of our sister congregations will be closing next month. Are we dry bones? Are we cut off? It might feel that way, but, no. We are not cut off, and we are not without hope. For, remember, Christ our Passover Lamb has been sacrificed. And He has been raised.

Our Lord rose from the dead on Easter morning. By His death, He atoned for our sin and, by His rising again, He secured for us eternal life. That first evening, though the doors were locked where they were, Jesus appeared in the midst of His disciples. He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”[3] With these words, Jesus instituted the Office of the Holy Ministry. He called and equipped the Apostles to preach His Word and administer His Sacraments. He gave them, as representatives of His whole Church on earth, the authority to forgive and retain sins. When the Apostles spoke in Christ’s stead that sins were forgiven, they truly were.

This work of Christ through His ministers continues even down to our time. Our Lord Jesus Christ continues to call and equip ministers through His Church. Through them He proclaims His Word to us and by their hands, Christ gives us His own sacraments. When His called ministers speak in His stead that our sins are forgiven, they are truly forgiven – even before our Father in heaven. I’m not saying these things to magnify ministers or place them on a pedestal. Rather, we exalt the One who continues to send and work through them.

Sometimes, we do feel cut off or without hope. But we are not. We can say this, because Christ continues to work among us and all the world. He continues to send pastors, and by them He speaks to us His Word of promise. Through them Jesus gives us His body and blood and forgives our sins. Through their mouths, Jesus assures us that we are not without hope, and that our sins are truly forgiven. Not only does Christ work through His ministers, but He also works through us – His body. Through the Church, as a whole, and in our daily lives, the same Christ who forgives our sins and gives us His Word, speaks His Word of promise and hope to those in need.

III.

We would be remiss if we didn’t talk today about the hope we have in one particular promise of the Lord – the Resurrection of the Dead. The resurrection that Ezekiel saw was a vision, but it foreshadows and reminds us of the true resurrection to come. St. Paul said that, “if we have been united with [Christ] in a death like His, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His.”[4] In Baptism, we were united with Christ in His death. We were buried with Him so that, just as He was raised from the dead – we will be, too. This will happen on the Last Day. Christ will come on the clouds and He will raise our bodies. Then we who, by His grace, have believed in Him, will enter in both body and soul into the new creation. Death did not hold Him, and it cannot hold us, either.

The prophet Ezekiel was sent by the Lord to proclaim to a people in exile that they were not without hope. Though they felt cut off and dried up, the Lord was with them and would return them to their own land. Sometimes we feel that way; but we, as well, are not cut off. The Lord continues to send His preachers to speak His Word, administer His Sacraments, and proclaim His forgiveness. By these things, He continues to be and work among us, giving us hope of the life to come. Particularly in this Easter season, we are reminded of this hope – that though we die, yet in this flesh we shall see God with our own eyes. Alleluia, Christ is risen.


 

[1] Ezekiel 37:11, English Standard Version.

[2] Ezek. 37:12, 14.

[3] Jn. 20:22-23.

[4] Rom. 6:5.

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