Preached 9 March 2008 at Bolton St James, Bradford.
It’s 585 BC. We’re in Babylon … about 60 miles south of Baghdad in present-day Iraq. And there is Ezekiel, sitting on the bank of the Euphrates where he has been watching the waters go by. But a letter has just been delivered to him and what he reads in the letter now makes him shake and cry out in horror and despair.
Ten years earlier, he had been exiled to this place when Nebuchadnezzar had captured Jerusalem and brought its 18-year old king, Jehoiachin, and the leading men of the land to Babylon, leaving Jehoiachin’s uncle, Zedekiah, to rule as a puppet king over what was left of Israel. But now, Ezekiel discovers that, in an act of supreme folly, Zedekiah has tried to rebel against Nebuchadnezzar and that Babylon’s response has been predictably swift and brutal. Zedekiah has had to watch his children slaughtered in front of him before having his eyes gouged out. And Jerusalem – beloved Jerusalem, Zion, the very City of God himself – has been put to the torch and levelled, and is now just a smoking ruin inhabited by jackals and crows.
The destruction of nation and land is total and complete. Nothing now remains of Israel but this pathetic demoralised bunch of exiles of which Ezekiel himself is one, sitting by the rivers of Babylon, weeping, as they remember Zion. But that night, Ezekiel has a dream or a vision. He is lifted by the hand of God and set down in a valley – a valley of dry bones. Now bear in mind that Ezekiel is a priest. He has to keep himself ritually pure at all times, and there is nothing much higher on his list of possible pollutants than dry bones … un-buried human remains. So this is not a good place for Ezekiel to be. He would rather be back in bed. But God causes him to move around among the bones and then asks him the question: “Can these bones live?”
I imagine Ezekiel wants to answer: “No, of course they can’t live,” but instead he diplomatically replies: “O Sovereign Lord, only you can answer that one.” Upon which, God tells him: “Prophesy to these bones.”
To prophesy is to speak out God’s word; and God’s word is always a thing of mighty power. “By the word of the LORD were the heavens made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth.”
So, says God, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the LORD.’”
So Ezekiel prophesies to the bones and there is a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones come together, bone to bone. And tendons and flesh appear on them and skin covers them, but they are still lying on the ground, unmoving and not yet alive. So God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the Breath to come and breathe into these lifeless bodies, and he does so, and breath does enter them; and they come to life and stand up on their feet – a vast army. And then God tells Ezekiel who they are. Perhaps he already knew – given the news he had received earlier in the day. But now God spells it out. “These bones are the whole house of Israel … and what you need to know Ezekiel is that I am a God who can make dry bones live. I am a resurrection God.
Fast forward now just over 600 years. The dry bones of exiled Israel have indeed come back to life and Jerusalem has been rebuilt and is now a large and prosperous city with a temple that is a wonder of the world. But we are just outside the city in the village of Bethany on the side of the Mount of Olives. Two sisters are in mourning for their dead brother, Lazarus, who had been a friend of Jesus, as are they. Often Jesus has stayed in their home, eaten at their table, accepted their hospitality … but, inexplicably, when the sisters sent for him just under a week ago because Lazarus had fallen seriously ill, Jesus failed to respond.
He could have been there in a day. He could have reached out his hand in healing as they had seen him heal others on many occasions … and then Lazarus would have been with them now. But no – he didn’t turn up until today … and now it’s too late. Can these bones live?
No, of course they can’t. That’s the gist of what Martha says when Jesus asks someone to move away the stone from Lazarus’s tomb. “Master, by this time there’ll be a terrible stench. He’s been dead four days.” But Martha is forgetting what Jesus had said to her, not half an hour ago, just after his arrival. “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” Martha had said she believed him, but did she really? Wasn’t she, like Ezekiel, just being polite? “Can these bones live?” “Only you know the answer to that one, Lord.”
But now the God who commanded Ezekiel to prophecy to the dry bones … the God who has taken on human flesh and stands outside the tomb of Lazarus … that very same God speaks his very own word of power: “Lazarus. Come out!” And out comes Lazarus, alive once more.
Fast forward once again, but only by a couple of months this time. It is late on a Friday afternoon and two men stoop over a dead and broken body that lies on the earth below a Roman cross. They are Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea – secret followers of Jesus and powerful important men, both of them. They have brought a winding cloth and spices to dress the body of Jesus for burial in Joseph’s garden tomb. “Can these bones live?”
No, is the short answer. Despite all Jesus’ talk of resurrection, Nicodemus and Joseph show not the slightest hope of any such thing. Jesus is dead and will stay dead. Every turn of the winding cloth around his body, every packing of the folds with myrrh and aloes, says so. And so it is with all Jesus’ followers. The dream is over. The beautiful life of the most beautiful man who ever walked the earth has been snuffed out. And that is that.
Until, early on the Sunday morning, on the third day, in the dim light of the breaking dawn, the dead body of Jesus is transformed into the living immortal resurrection body of Jesus … the prototype of the resurrection body that will one day clothe all who belong to him in the age to come when heaven and earth become one. No ghost, this! “Look at my hands and my feet,” he tells his frightened disciples when he appears among them. “It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”
“Can these bones live?” Yes, indeed, for they are the bones of one who is himself the Resurrection and the Life. So fast forward again now for one last time. Fast forward almost 2000 years to … well, today. And let us ask ourselves where are the dry bones, here and now, over which we are in despair and for which we have no hope?
Well, there’s the church for a start. If it’s not quite dead yet, many see it as being in a state of terminal decline from which it cannot possibly recover. Can these bones live?
From many quarters, the answer is a resounding no. According to the report Religion in the United Kingdom: Diversity, Trends and Decline, published last year: “between 1979 and 2005, half of all Christians stopped going to church on a Sunday. Religion in Britain has suffered an immense decline since the 1950s, and all indicators show a continued secularisation of British society in line with other European countries such as France.”
Statistics aside, we are seen from outside as spineless, ineffective, irrelevant, bigoted, homophobic and completely out of touch with reality, clinging to outdated ideas of morality and truth and understanding which have no place in the modern world. Can these bones live? The world says No.
But we have a resurrection God. We have a Lord Jesus Christ who is the Resurrection and the Life, and the church is his church. Whatever happens to its formal structures, its denominations, its buildings, its members, in this day and age, the truth is that, at the end of this day and age, the church will (and I’m quoting from the Book of Revelation) “come down out of heaven from God, the new Jerusalem, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband” This is the bride of Christ, shining with the glory of God. And it will be seen to be “a great multitude that no-one can number, from every nation, and tribe, and people and language” … the glorious company of all who have died in Christ and all who belong to Christ and are still alive at his second coming.
Can these bones live? Indeed they can. Indeed they will.
And what about the earth itself? This dying planet? Its ozone layer torn apart; its atmosphere and seas and land masses poisoned and polluted by chemicals, nuclear waste, carbon emissions. Can these bones live?
Again, many would say no. They would say that we have damaged the earth beyond repair; that climate change or a natural disaster such as a major meteor strike or man-made nuclear or chemical or biological disasters will soon finish off all life on earth; and that, in any case, in the fullness of time, depending on how much dark matter there is in the universe, the entire universe will either keep expanding until it ends in a Big Emptiness or it will eventually stop expanding and start to shrink back down to a point no bigger than a full stop, when there will be a Big Crunch to match the Big Bang with which it all began. And that will be that. No future for the cosmos and certainly no future for our little old world, however much we love it. Can these bones live? No, they cannot.
But again, we have a resurrection God, a Lord Jesus Christ who is the Resurrection and the Life. And he is the one in whom the entire universe holds together. And his word tells us that, far from there being no future for this world and the entire universe, there is a glorious future awaiting it. The whole of creation, says Paul, is on tiptoe, waiting in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed … for that day when the church comes down from heaven as the bride of Christ. Because on that day the promise is that creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. This heaven and earth, this cosmos, will be transformed, redeemed, re-formed into a new cosmos, a resurrected heaven and earth that will no longer be separate but will be one, for then the dwelling of God will be with men and he will live with them.
Can the bones of this dying universe live? Indeed they can. Indeed they will.
And, finally, what about me? What about you? Can these bones live? We can ask that question on two levels: the level of the spirit and the level of the flesh.
God’s word tells us that, as fallen human beings, we are all “dead in trespasses and sins.” We are by nature alienated from God and shut off from the Tree of Life. We are dry bones. But to the question “Can these bones live?” the answer of God’s word is a resounding yes. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” These bones can live on a spiritual level, now, today, as I put my trust in Jesus and take him as my Saviour and Lord.
But it is true too on a physical level … and this is something that the early church believed in passionately but that the church from the Age of the Enlightenment onward has tended to shy away from. Can these bones live? Will I one day live on a re-created earth in a resurrected body?
Absolutely yes! A physical resurrection of the dead is at the very heart of the Christian faith. In the Creed as it used to be we declared our belief every Sunday in “the resurrection of the body” – now it’s “the resurrection of the dead” – but whichever we say, in our heads and hearts we translate “resurrection” into some sort of spiritual disembodied eternal existence in some far-away heaven. Well, let me tell you that that is no part of authentic Christian belief. That is in fact a kind of Platonism. And the truth is very different. Paul tells the Christians at Philippi: “We eagerly await a Saviour from heaven, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.”
Do you see how all this hangs together? We are heading for a resurrected universe as the dead bones of this present universe have new life breathed into them. In that resurrected universe, a resurrected church will be united with its resurrected Saviour, Jesus. And that resurrected church is comprised of resurrected Christians, people like you and me, whose dry bones have become, through resurrection, glorious bodies that resemble the risen body of Christ. We are talking physical here … or something even more physical than physical. Often, when someone has been ill, we say, “Poor old Bill – he’s only a shadow of his former self.” But what is true of all of us who belong to Christ is that, as Tom Wright puts it, we are all now only shadows of our future selves.
Let’s be clear about this. There was not just nobody in the tomb. There was no body in the tomb. Jesus physically rose from the dead … the first of the countless number of us who will one day do the same.
Can these bones live? Yes! Whatever bones they are that you are looking at; yes, they can. Because Jesus, crucified, risen and ascended is and always has been, the Resurrection and the Life. Amen.