Ezekiel 37:1-6 (NRSV)

Let me tell you about the prophet Ezekiel. Among the major prophets of the Old Testament, Ezekiel is, without a doubt, the most colorful. Read through his book sometime, right off the bat you’re going to be confronted with some of the most fantastic images in the whole Bible. He begins with a description of a fiery chariot in the heavens, with wings and wheels and human faces on animal bodies, descending upon the earth and ascending into heaven. “Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord,” he says. “When I saw it, I fell on my face.” Who could blame him? It’s a very vivid image.

But the fact is, he lived in vivid times. During his lifetime, the nation of Israel was utterly destroyed. The great army of Babylon swept down from the North, overran the chosen people and took their capital city of Jerusalem apart, brick by brick. Ezekiel, got to watch it all happen, and then, along with a good many other prominent leaders of Israel, he was taken captive and hauled off into exile far from home. To all appearances, Israel, both as a nation and as a people, had ceased to exist. But right in the middle of all this chaos, God came to Ezekiel in this powerful vision and charged him with a ministry. His job was to help the exiles make sense of it all, and to keep their faith alive.

Knowing some of this background makes it a bit easier to understand Ezekiel’s most famous vision: the valley of dry bones. The prophet is set down by the hand of God in the middle of a valley filled with thousands of dismembered skeletons. God wants him to call the bones back to life; to make them reassemble themselves and take on flesh. Frederick Buechner, in his book Peculiar Treasures, describes the scene this way:

The first thing that happened was a sound of rattling and clicking like the tide going out over a million pebble beaches as the bones started snapping back together again. The next thing that happened was a million reassembled skeletons pulling on bodies like long winter underwear. The last thing that happened was the color coming back to a million pairs of cheeks and the spark to a million pairs of eyes and the breath of life to a million pairs of lungs.

Clearly, Ezekiel was given to very vivid imagery. Of course, as any good advertiser knows, the more vivid the image, the more likely people are to remember it. And vivid is exactly what Israel needed. “Oh Mortal,” God says to the prophet, “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.’ But I will put my Spirit within them, and they shall live again.” That’s exactly the message that Israel needed. And, eventually, that’s exactly what happened. Israel rose up out of the ashes of exile to become, once more, a great nation.

Now, most of you probably know that Ezekiel’s vision was set to music in a song that used to be pretty popular.

Dem bones, dem bones, de gunna walk around.
Dem bones, dem bones, de gunna walk around.
Dem bones, dem bones, de gunna walk around.
Now hear the Word of the Lord.

I came across a sermon online once by a minister who was preaching about Ezekiel’s vision. He shared a story from his own life about growing up in Jackson, Minnesota and going to Bible Camp at a place called Lake Shetek. He said he loved “swimming in the lake, boating, canoeing, playing softball, chasing girls, and harassing the camp counselors.” But most especially, he loved singing songs around the campfire, and Dem Bones was one of his favorites. “We knew that song so well,” he said. “We sang it backward and forwards.”

De toe bone connected to the foot bone.
De foot bone connected to the ankle bone.
… the shin bone.
… the knee bone.
… the thigh bone.
… the hip bone.
De neck bone connected to the head bone.
Now hear de Word of de Lord.

They all got up and danced around the campfire whenever they sang that song. “That’s the way it was done in those days,” he said, “with the body twiggling, jiggling and wiggling like we imagined a skeleton would do.” And he added, “That is about as wild as it got more than fifty years ago at a Bible Camp near Jackson, Minnesota.”

If you’ve never heard the song or seen it performed, these days, through the magic of YouTube, you can watch several different versions. One is a classic old video clip of the Lemmon Sisters. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s also very dated. It represents a different time; a time in which there was a different spirit in the world.

Today, it’s hard to imagine anyone singing that song anymore. I’m not sure why, exactly, except that the world has changed a lot since the days when it was popular. We don’t seem to be quite so inclined to be silly and playful like we once were. We also have a hard time taking a story like the one it came from very seriously. The idea that a whole valley of bones could ever spontaneously rattle themselves back together and come alive again is the stuff of horror movies, not science.

But still, Ezekiel’s vision can have a lot to say to us. For one thing, the valley of dry bones is actually one of the first expressions in the whole Bible of the notion of bodily resurrection. Some theologians think it’s where the idea actually came from in the first place. In Ezekiel’s day, the dominant idea of what happened to people after they die is that they simply went to a sort of grey, non-descript place they called Sheol. It wasn’t heaven. It seems more like cold storage to me. But Ezekiel’s vision suggested that the power of God was able to reach beyond the grave. It could reanimate our lives even beyond the dismembering of our bones. And that message, that image, caught on with people. It was a message of hope, that became a belief, that came to life in Jesus. Ezekiel’s vision of resurrection became more than just a vision on Easter morning, when Jesus rose from the tomb.

Resurrection is right at the heart of our faith. The idea that there is life beyond the grave, that there is more to our lives than simply playing out our time here on earth, is essential to Christianity. To be a person of faith is not just a matter of trying to be good; trying to live an upright and moral life. It is about affirming that in the wrestling match between life and death, life always has the last word. The resurrection we celebrate every year on Easter morning is not just about Jesus. It is the affirmation that because he lives, we too shall live.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy to believe. Holding on to a living faith is always a challenge. That was true long before Covid-19 appeared on the scene. The image of Ezekiel’s valley of dried up old bones isn’t all that far from how many of us often feel, especially lately. But while the prophet’s vision begins with dry bones, we need to be very clear that that’s not where it ends. Ezekiel’s message is the restoration of God’s people. It is being brought back to life; bone on bone, flesh on flesh, breath on breath. And that is the same message brought to us on Easter morning by Jesus. We might well have woken up with the disciples wondering, “Can these dried up old bones live?” But God’s reply to us is the same as it was to the prophet all those long years ago. “I will put my Spirit within them, and they shall live again.”

Amen.

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