I am a bit of a history buff. I believe that people and places are unmistakably shaped by what has defined their pasts. Early on in my time as pastor here I begin to try to but my hands around Oklahoma history. Billy Fogarty was kind enough to provide me a state history book. I was fascinated to read the stories of the settlement of the state. Possibly because of my exposure to Steinbeck in high school, I was equally interested in learning more about the Dust Bowl era. As I thought about this week’s message, I was called back to those stories and then on to internet to look for photos from the period. The pictures that emerged from my quick research are striking. There is one that made me stop and pause. It is of a small boy standing in the midst of what appears to be a domestic desert. Once lush farm land turned into land so dry, so drought ridden, that they were no longer tenable. Some of you in this room carry childhood memories of that era. The green plain gave way to the brown and grey of sand and silt.
The bones are rattling, the skeletons shaking. It is time to come out of the valley. God is work. The Spirit is moving. New life awaits us. How will we respond?
The first half of Ezekiel 37 witnesses a vision of God sweeping the prophet Ezekiel to a desperate desert valley, the scene of a once great battle. While the passage does not say specifically, Ezekiel would have probably understood it as the site where the Israelite army had been overwhelmed and obliterated by the vast Babylonian armies. Earlier in our service we listened as Brad Moore read the first six verses and took us into the valley with Ezekiel. All Ezekiel could see as he gazed across the valley was a wasteland of bones that were lifeless, dried out, and useless. Just beneath the sand and dust were a seemingly endless collection of the bones of the fallen. I imagine that the prophet had to wonder what God could and would say from this vantage point. Just like the pictures from Oklahoma Panhandle from the 1930s told the story of desperation and despair, this vision of valley of dry bones had its own story to tell.
With the desperate scene before him, Ezekiel hears God ask, “Son of man, can these bones live?” In an instant, the prophet gets it. There is no life apart from God. He knows that there is nothing he can do with the bones, but there are no bounds to what God could do. He answers the only way he can, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”
Then God tells him to preach to the bones. Can you imagine be given this task? But, the prophet was going to do whatever God asked of him. God instructed him preach a fresh word of hope and life to the bones. I have to wonder what Ezekiel was thinking. Why would you preach to the dead? But the prophet did as he was instructed and the results were incredible. Ezekiel reports, ”as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them.”
This scene was the inspiration for the old Spiritual, “Dem Bones” where we hear that “The toe bone connected to the heel bone, The heel bone connected to the foot bone, The foot bone connected to the leg bone, The leg bone connected to the knee bone….” Well you get the point. But despite the fact that everything was now connected and covered, they were lifeless. Ezekiel reports, “but there was no breath in them.” The word used here is that same word from the creation story – there was no breath, no wind, no Spirit, no life within them. God was not through. God told Ezekiel to keep preaching, ”‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army. Then it happened. The Spirit of God stirred; the wind of life now blew; the life giving breath of God now defined the day. In a picture of recreation, that which was dried out and lifeless now lives; that what was useless was now standing ready for the task.
Now the moment came – that moment that was the heart of the vision. Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’” This vision was not about a valley of dry bones, it was ultimately about the people of God who had lost hope and found themselves so spiritually dry that they seemed to have no signs of life left in them. They were strangers in a strange land longing for home and to be at home with God. Some of you understand what the Israelites were feeling. There have been times in your life – maybe even now – when you feel or felt dried up, hopeless and cut off. This well worn passage on the Valley of Dry Bones calls to us in the times in our life when we find ourselves spiritually dry, feeling like our spiritual “bones” lie sitting in the valley of little use us or to God. We feel like we can be swept away with the harsh winds of life and pain. We can feel a long way from home and a long way from God.
Still others can relate to this vision because when you see the army covered by without breath you relate. You are struggling to get by, to simply survive day by day. You exist but you do not feel spiritually or emotionally alive. You long for a fresh wind from God. You long for life giving breath. Still others are fine with your spiritual journey, but deep inside you know you were meant for more. There is within you a quiet stirring – an unspoken spiritual dissatisfaction. You are ready for God to do something new – something more - in your life.
Into this moment God speaks and God acts. In verse 14 we hear; “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 spoke and will act, says the Lord.” God’s word to Ezekiel; God’s word to the Israelites God’s word for us is that God will can and will put his spirit within us and provide future for us. This is a promise of life-giving renewal. God's promise of life in and with Him is for all of us.
I grew a deeper appreciation vision of the Valley of Dry Bones and God’s great promise over the course of my sabbatical. As I left I felt like everything was spiritually on track; that I was experiencing depth of a faith walk that was right and healthy. My time alone with God allowed me to discover that there were new riches and a renewed sense of life that God had for me. I want this for you. If you are spiritually dry, I want you to experience the nourishing waters that flow from God. For those who long for more or are ready for God to do something fresh and new in your life, I want for you to experience the joy of God’s promised renewal. A life-giving, life-sustaining relationship with God is not supposed to be the exception among us. It is the kind of relationship with God for which we were created.
So how do we realize this promise of renewal and a life-giving walk with God? It is one thing to hear the promise from God and another thing to experience it. I believe that the vision of the Valley of the Dry Bones also gives us direction on how to make this promise real in our lives.
First, find life at the feet of God. It is so easy to think that we can make it on our own. Our culture even encourages that mindset. It is hard to make ourselves venerable, even to God. But, we hear in the Valley that apart from God’s Spirit we are spiritually dead; broken and shattered; hopeless and cut off. God tells us, “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live. Job 33:5 echoes; The Spirit of God has made me; the breath of the Almighty gives me life. God not only gives us life at the moment of creation, but also gives His spirit that we might really live. There is no life apart from God. If you want to experience the renewing power of God then understand that you are called to a life of absolute dependence of God. God intends for us to experience a life-giving faith walk with Him. We must come to him open armed and ready for God to be at work in our lives. Take in the breath of God. Live in the Spirit of God. Find life at the feet of God.
Next, be nourished by God’s Word. I recognize that this is not implicit in the Scripture but it is consistent with my experience with God and with the picture this wasteland provides. The desperate desert reminds us that without God’s nourishment we are just lifeless dry bones. Jesus tells us;“Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” (John 7:37b-38) When we find ourselves spiritually dry and struggling to make it, when we long for renewal and God to move fresh in our lives, we must find the way to the living water. In God’s word God can and will speak into our lives and be like rain in our spiritual desert. In God’s word we will find the nourishment we need to thrive in our walk with God. If you find yourselves spiritually dry and a long way from God, make your way from the depths of the Valley to the living water in God’s word.
Finally, trust in God’s Direction. In the same breath God promises His Spirit, he also promises that “I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoke and will act, says the Lord.” The exiles understood that he was promising them a way back home. For those of us who find ourselves in the Valley of the Dry bones feeling like spiritual exiles, God too promises us the way home. Trust in God’s direction. His path will lead you out of the Valley of death and despair to where you need to be. His path will carry you home.