(A Lection Reflection on Ezekiel 37: 1-14)
This week’s Old Testament lection is one of my favorites. The symbolism is powerful, the message of resurrection even more so. But, in the midst of the word of hope, there is also a warning — a warning that can apply to individuals and to churches. Let’s take a look.
We know the basics of the story: Ezekiel is led by God to a valley filled with bones, and told to prophesy over the bones. Ezekiel does so, the bones come together to form bodies, and the bodies stand, “a mighty army.” And we all sing “Dem Bones” and go home.
That’s the first point I want to make: the song is wrong. Why? It leaves out the intermediate step, which is actually the most important one. After Ezekiel prophesies, the bones come together and form bodies with sinew and skin — but there is no life in them. They look like living people, albeit lying down, but they aren’t. Only after Ezekiel prophesies a second time, summoning the wind/breath/spirit, does the wind/breath/spirit enter the bodies, causing them then to stand. The first proclamation gets them from scattered bones to human forms; the second gets them from human forms to living humans.
If you’ve ever worked with addicts, there’s a term you know: “dry drunk.” It refers to someone who has stopped consuming their drug of choice, but has not done the rest of the work of recovery. They have not dealt with the causes of their addiction, nor have they developed new ways of thinking, acting, and managing their behavior. They look recovered on the outside, but they are not changed on the inside.
Some addicts can stay in the dry drunk stage for a long time. Many, though, find that they cannot keep up the outward sobriety while still dealing with the pain and death on the inside, and they relapse. Others make a different choice — they face the internal pain, and begin the work of building a healthy internal life.
Take it a step further: there are dry-drunk Christians, and there are dry-drunk churches. They have put on various outward behaviors to show they have changed — and they have changed, in that they don’t act as they once did. If you compare them to other Christians or churches, they look like them on the outside. But internally, in their inner life, in their souls, they are still life-less. For whatever reason, they have not moved from appearance of life to actual living. They have not been filled with the wind/breath/spirit of God.
Here, then, is the warning I mentioned earlier. It is possible, and sometimes easy, to try to change our lives, and our churches, from the outside-in. We clean up, put on some different clothes, go to church, hang out with different people. Or, we remodel the building, put on a different worship style, and try to attract a different “target audience.”
And it works. Perhaps it works really well, and everyone is fooled. It looks like change has happened … it looks like God is doing something … it looks like life. But in reality, all we’ve done is put the bones back together and covered them with muscles and skin and nice clothes and better hair. Inside, we know that we’re still lying on the floor of the valley.
So now we come to the last word in the title: hope. The Ezekiel passage begins, not just with death, but with utter destruction. Note that the bones are from persons who were slain, probably killed in battle. The flesh is gone, eaten by animals, and the bones are scattered everywhere — a devastating picture of death, final and complete.
And yet, through the power of the Word, the scattered bones become bodies, and through the power of the Word and the Spirit, the bodies become living people.
Pentecost is a clarion call of life and hope — Jesus died to free us from death, but the Spirit comes to bring us life. If you are a dry-drunk Christian, let the Spirit take you from outward appearances to inner peace. If you are a dry-drunk church, find new life by focusing on the fruit of the Spirit and not on looking like the church down the street.
And if you are surrounded by death and destruction, even then, there is hope. God is not done, and God’s Spirit can still cause life to spring from death. Resurrection still happens, even in valleys of dry bones.