Sunday Night Worship – 3/22/09 – at Fluvanna Prison

God Wants the Bones Back
Ezekiel 37: 1-14

Tonight I want to talk to you about vision and how our vision and God’s vision aren’t always the same. I want to talk to you about how God touches us and makes dry bones live. And I want to tell you about one of the most magnificent things I’ve ever seen.

If you’ve seen the movie Saving Private Ryan then you may know the place I’m talking about. It’s in Normandy, France, and it’s the American Cemetery on the cliffs overlooking the beaches. This is what it looks like: Thousands of whitewash-white crosses (and an occasional Star of David), perfectly aligned and planted in the greenest, immaculately groomed grass. It seemed like they went on forever and in every direction – right up to the edges of the bluffs. How could there be so many? So many dead? So many markers? I was dumbstruck. The loss that all these super-white markers signaled was overwhelming. But perhaps the strangest thing about it was the peacefulness of the place. I was humbled by the numbers, the vastness. But it also seemed somehow too white, too perfect, too green… too much. It felt peaceful, but uneasily so; beautiful, but almost fake. Should a place commemorating such destruction be so serene? So pretty?

Well, Ezekiel didn’t have to worry about whether or not what he saw was too pretty. When I read this scripture I see a particularly bleak scene. Brown hills and a baked, cracked, brown valley floor covered with bleached-white bones, stretching as far as the valley itself. Completely lifeless, completely desolate, and eery. I mean, Ezekiel describes these bones as “very dry.” How old and dead must the bones have been – we’re talking about bones – for them to be described as very dry?

And he doesn’t just catch a quick glimpse and then go home to write down the vision. No, God sets him down in the valley and leads him through the bones. I imagine God taking Ezekiel by the arm and leading him around as if to say, “take a good look.” Imagine Ezekiel gingerly trying to make his way through all those bones, tiptoeing so he wouldn’t step on them. Maybe he was thinking, I could see there were a lot of bones from up on the ridge. Why’d I have to come down here to walk around in them? Maybe he was a little creeped out, traipsing through what appeared to be an above-ground graveyard. But it’s evident that God wants Ezekiel to really see this valley.

I found out something interesting about vision once when I was having my annual eye exam. If you’ve ever had your eyes examined you’ll remember the goggle-like thing you look through where they keep changing out the prescription strength until the chart on the wall looks clear in both eyes at the same time. (Better 1? Or 2? Better 3? Or 4?) Well, apparently near-sighted folks like me are able to do what they call “compensate” in the controlled doctor’s office environment so that we pick prescriptions that end up being off once we’re back out in the real world. When we get pretty close to a good prescription strength for our eyes, we basically decide that that’s good enough and teach ourselves to see it that way too. The only thing I can do without my glasses is read a book (up pretty close) but somehow even my poor eyes can adjust themselves so that the eye chart looks like I think it should rather than how it actually does. That’s how we compensate.

Unfortunately, when it comes to allowing ourselves to see the way God sees, I think we’re all near-sighted people. We like to decide how something will look before we’ve seen it and if, when we actually encounter it, the vision doesn’t match our pre-vision, we compensate so that we see what we thought we would all along.

God makes sure this can’t happen to Ezekiel. The way Ezekiel tells it, the Spirit of God swept him out to this dead valley with no forewarning, no preparation, no explanation. The next thing he knows, Ezekiel is walking around in a pile of bones beyond which he can’t see. And which he has no choice but to see.

And after Ezekiel has wandered among the bones, what does God say? Can these bones live? After prophesying as God tells him to – to the bones – Ezekiel sees something he could never have imagined when he first walked around in the bones. With a loud rattling the bones start to move around, matching themselves up to other bones in the right order, forming bodies. When it’s all over there is a multitude of people standing in the valley, full of life and with no bones in sight. One minute the valley is still and full of death, the next it’s noisy and windy and full of living people.

Ezekiel is writing to an exiled Israel, a people who are far from home and don’t know when or if they’ll ever get back there. These are people who go around saying, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely” (v. 11). God’s all too aware of our near-sighted nature and wants to make sure Ezekiel can’t write off the vision. I think this is why Ezekiel gets the up close and personal tour of the valley – the “before” picture, you might say. It would be easy to stand on the ridge and catch a quick glimpse of the bones without really seeing them and then focus only on the living multitude.

But God doesn’t allow Ezekiel to see the “after” picture without the “before.” Why is that? And what is the “after” picture all about anyway?

Simply put, God wants the bones back. How crazy is this story? After taking the “bone tour” poor Ezekiel then has to prophesy to the bones. To the bones. But here’s the thing: Ezekiel sees a valley full of bones; God sees a valley full of people. God’s people. And God wants the bones back. It’s not too late, too creepy, too hopeless. The bones aren’t too dry, too old, too dead. And how crazy is this? God does this kind of thing all the time! Sarah’s not too old to have a baby, Lazarus isn’t too dead to be revived, the cross isn’t too much for God.

So why do we have to keep being told? Why don’t we see and believe that God wants to bring back to life the dry bones of our lives? Why don’t we trust – even when we feel like lifeless bodies without spirit – that God can heal us and bring us back to our home in the land of the living? Maybe we can’t. Holocaust survivor Elie Weisel claims there is no historical date assigned to this vision of Ezekiel’s because every generation needs to hear in its own time that these bones can live again.

Even when we’re like bones without bodies or bodies without breath, even when we lack the spirit to see or believe it, God can bring our bewildered, hopeless, hurt, angry selves – and world – back to life. God wants the bones back. Nothing can separate us from the saving love of God – not even death. Not the death of people we love, not the death of our spirits. God comes looking for these bones – for us – wherever we are, in places that look like death, even in death itself.

Ezekiel’s story is not just a visionary dream for the exiled Jewish people of over 2000 years ago. It is our story, a vision offered to us so that we can give up on our second-best compensating sight and learn to see with and trust the transforming vision of God. Like every generation since this story was written, we need to hear it in our own time so that these bones can live again. This is what we long to see. These are words we long to hear God speaking to us. And God is speaking to us right now, showing us a sight we can’t come up with on our own. Do you see it?

Thanks be to God!

© 2009 Deborah E. Lewis
22 March 2009
Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women