Our text comes from the Book of Ezekiel, chapter 2, verses 4b-8
In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed.
We continue with chapter 37, verses 1-14.
The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all round them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’ I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.’ Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.’
So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.’ I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
Then he said to me, ‘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.” Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 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 spoken and will act, says the Lord.’
Gibes & Gambols
In 597 BCE Babylonian troops, under the leadership of mighty Nebacanezzer, laid siege to Judah and Jerusalem. They left in the holy city the poor and peasants, the fortresses and the Temple, but carried to Babylon just about anyone worth their salt: government officials, scribes, landowners, and a horde of priests. Among them a young man, 27 at most, married and relatively well off: Ezekiel.
Five years after he was carried away, by now comfortably settled in exile, Ezekiel starred to feel a madness come upon him. 3,000 Jews had been taken to those strange Babylonian rivers. The exile was understood to be the Lord’s punishment for their idolatry, their turning toward other gods. It was, they believed, the ultimate, and only, punishment. But God told Ezekiel that there was more to come. And so the prophet started his spitting and spinning and eating scrolls and having visions. In them the young priest saw the Holy City, Jerusalem, the seat of the former Empire and the present House of God, utterly destroyed. And for five years he carried on with his pronouncement: the Temple, the one manifestation of God’s faithfulness to the Jews in exile, would be destroyed.
Unsurprisingly, word traveled quickly about the strange priest. Rumors of madness spread. It was an odd time.
But first, a digression: Many of my summers as a child (and then a certainly delightful teenager), were spent traveling from one major-spot-in-American-history to another-major-spot-in- American-history. My father could name just about every skirmish in our young nation’s story, from the cannons at Fort Sumter to fights in Tammany Hall and every destiny that was manifest in between. We’d park in front of one of those ubiquitous brown signs announcing the site of a battlefield and, as a teacher is trained to do, my father would begin the quiz.
“Leigh, briefly, what happened here?” A protracted silence followed. “Hint: Little Bighorn. The Sioux and the Cheyenne. A major American figure died. The 7th Cavalry.” It is difficult to imagine reading as an act of rebellion, but, sitting alone in the back seat of a rental car, it was all I had. I gazed down in defiance. More. Silence. It was during that particular trip to Little Bighorn that I developed the ability to read a book in just about any type of chaos, a skill for which I am immensely grateful. But I can tell you that it is one my father did not much appreciate. To break the tension, my mother, herself a long-suffering social studies teacher, would whisper hints over her shoulder. “Come on. You know this. We talked about it yesterday, for goodness sake. His name sounds like a dessert.”
There is a particular infinity that can only exist when family members find themselves in a stand off in the middle of Montana in a rented Isuzu Rodeo. Finally, and sarcastically, I answered: “Custard. Custard’s Last Stand.” And from the front seat an exasperated “close enough.” We got out of the car and walked the perimeter of the battlefield. As he went along my father would describe in vivid detail the scene: the various advances and retreats, the players and participants, the camps and consequences. It was as if the battle played out before him. I offered acquiescing grunts, having long-before developed the ability read while walking
But before we get too far from Babylon…the rumors were true. Something incredible was happening to Ezekiel, but he wasn’t mad, he had a message from God. Where my father saw the past, Ezekiel saw and felt and smelled the inevitable future. And, not unlike my father, when Ezekiel walked the shores of Babylon making his pronouncements he was met with utter disinterest, as if to teenager in a summer standoff in the middle of Montana.
Ezekiel must have been utterly exhausted, having taken God’s word so fully into himself yet everywhere surrounded by ambivalence. For years he had prophesied the destruction of the Temple. The Jews in Babylon shut off their ears to his madness because such a thing seemed utterly impossible. It was as if Dabo were taken from Death Valley, planted in Williams-Brice, and given a word that Howard’s Rock and all the surrounded it would be destroyed. Indeed, the end of the Temple would mean the End of the Faith. There could be no Jewish people without the Temple because the Temple was the house of God.
Ten years after part of the population was carried away, five years after the word came to Ezekiel, 37 chapters into the book that carries his name, Ezekiel’s prophecy came true. The Babylonians laid waist to Jerusalem. The house of God, and almost all who had been left in Jerusalem, was destroyed. And in Babylon the 3,000 found nothing but despair. Once ambivalent, the exiles now found themselves in the midst of an unprecedented crisis of faith. God had surely abandoned them. Tiger-town was rubble. The end was nigh.
And just then, when all of Ezekiel’s prophecies were manifest and therefore confirmed, the young priest was given a new word (albeit a strange one). Not destruction, restoration.
So it was that young Zeek found himself surrounded by bones. Dry bones, long ago having lost their identities, their flesh, their breath, their scent. Long ago left to history. He walked the perimeter. Bones as far as the eye can see. A multitude, soldiers cut down in battle, left to time’s ravages. No life. No breath. Only death.
And then, from the one who had brought him to the valley, a question: “Mortal,” (God addresses Ezekiel as if to remind him of his ultimate fate), “Can these bones live?”
Anyway, we carried on with our summer vacations. Rohld Dahl became Jane Austen and then Leo Tolstoy. And then, only a few summers ago, I found myself back in South Carolina from Princeton. We drove up to Gaffney on a whim. Deep in Saluda Forrest my father took me to an old family cemetery. There buried was one Major McJunkin, my great-great-great grandfather. He’d seen battle at Camden and Kings Mountain, Cowpens, and Ninety-Six. And here he was, alongside his wife and children, laid to rest beneath my feet. The graves were long forgotten, never mind the people who inhabited them. We lingered a moment, paid our respects and set off to Cowpens. The sun was setting over the battlefield, amber-and-pink and blood-red at the horizon. And, as he had a million times before, my father began to call forward the ghosts. To orchestrate their advances and retreats, name their generals and majors, build their meager camps and count the unimaginable consequences And for the first time I saw it.
I stood among the thousand dead. I could see them, see their lives drift away, see the ground beneath my feet change from clay to the color of blood. I could see their tents and fires, their comrades and nurses, their bullets and bayonets. And I understood that these ghosts, these bones, had once truly lived. Where they formerly existed only as figures and fictions, not possessing of lives as rich, as varied, as complex as my own, I now saw their families, their homes, their people, their places. I saw them.
If you remember anything from freshman English it is probably Young Prince Hamlet in a graveyard. The caretaker has set aside the contents of a grave to make room for another funeral procession. Hamlet, seeing the skeleton, is struck by the brittle bones that surround him. He begins to imagine what…who it might have once been:
Jokingly: “Why may not that be the skull of a lawyer?”
On hearing that it was his old friend, the court jester Yorick, Hamlet takes hold of the skull, examines it, feels its contours and, finally, understands how temporary, how fragile life is:
“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him […]: a fellow
of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath
borne me on his back a thousand times […] Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft.
Where be your gibes now? your gambols? your
songs? your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar? …
That skull had a tongue in it and could sing once. This might be the pate of a politician
Or of a courtier; which could say ‘Good morrow sweet lord! How does thou, good lord?’”
Poor Yorick and all the others. All of the saints, the faithful. Hamlet saw them as well as my father can, as well as I did that moment on the battlefield. They once had sinews and bones and flesh and life. God’s questions bellows. Can they now live? Or is the content of our faith, the central fact, nothing but wishful thinking?
Ezekiel answers the only way a faithful man can. Doubtful, these are dry bones…yet: this is the one who created us from dust drier than even this valley. Ezekiel speaks: Lord, you know.
And from the dust of creation the Lord issues a command: “Prophesy to these bones”. Zeek does as he’s told. There’s a rattling, at first far off, but then surrounding him. Bone on bone. Flesh and sinew, form and shape.
But still the question rings: can these bones live? Well…perhaps. Sinews, flesh, and skin do indeed encase the dry bones. The bodies are given texture and complexity, they are constituted. But they do not yet live. For they are body as yet without Spirit. “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.”
For a second time, faithful Zeek does as he is commanded. From far off a vast exhale. The wait is over: the lungs of the multitude fill with air, and there is life.
From here on out God does the preacher’s job. In the middle of the vision Yahweh starts teaching. “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.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 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 spoken and will act, says the Lord.”
In captivity Israel was without Spirit, therefore they were without hope. Yet from the dust of death God spoke, for God is not and was not held by human tombs or even human hope, and neither, anymore, by human Temples. God is utterly free. And where God could leave Death its reign, God freely chooses restoration and life. God rolls the stone of the tomb away and breathes into hopeless Israel’s lungs. And that is only prelude.
Blink and you’ll miss it—there at the very end of the passage, the future tense!: “I, the Lord, have spoken and will act”. Bringing up the body is prelude to true living. There is the body, yes. And breath. But the denouement, the climax, is God’s revelation of God’s self, a revelation, a knowledge that is for us the only true living.
The question at the heart of all our toil and trouble, our sleepless nights, our quantum mechanics, and our great philosophies is simple: can these bones live?
Well not on their own they can’t. Whether by sword or sleep, whether in flesh or, perhaps more familiar to many of us here today, lost in hopelessness, anxiety, and fear: we will taste the dust from whence we came. But God remains. And by God’s gentle breath, death, the place of loss, becomes the place of life, of resurrection.
That day at Cowpens I found myself identifying with those dry bones—with a fear of unfulfilled futures, of hopelessness. And I realized that the question “can these bones live?” belongs not only to Ezekiel or Hamlet or Yorick or Major McJunkin. It belongs to me. And to you.
Do your bones live? Has God revived your Spirit, given you breath? Do you believe that God has spoken, that God will act? Not only in some far off valley but here and now. We have bone and sinew and flesh and and marrow, but do we have life? Do we have the knowledge of the God who has already done all of this for us? Who speaks into our hopelessness and gives resurrection to our dry bones.
It is an impossibility as profound as the dry bones given life. It is the most important question. And the only answer is an empty tomb, the stone rolled away. And that, this Lenten season, is the best of news.