A Sermon preached at St. John’s Anglican Church, Port Elgin, ON.
RCL Texts: Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 6:8-11; John 11:1-45
“O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord…Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live” (Ek. 37.4b, 5b)
According to my count, passages from the book of Ezekiel are read only four times in the three-year cycle of the Revised Common Lectionary. This is doubtlessly because some of the passages in Ezekiel are rather explicit; the imagery is rather lurid and unsettling. Nevertheless, today’s rather graphic passage from Ezekiel is included in the lectionary. It is a scene that could come straight out of a horror movie: a valley full of bones suddenly comes to life as tendons and muscles, blood and guts, and finally skin cover the skeletal remains. The children’s Bible from which Natalie and I read to our children depicts this story in vivid illustrations of humans in various states of what I guess you could call ‘recomposition’. As a witness to this visceral scene, Ezekiel must have had a strong stomach.
Indeed, the Bible as a whole, if you will pardon the pun, makes no bones about physical reality. The Bible is unabashedly materialist. However, the Bible is also unabashedly spiritual, which is to say, infused with the Holy Spirit. To be clear, I do not mean that the Bible simply talks about the Holy Spirit, but more importantly, that the Holy Spirit speaks to us through the Bible. This is precisely why the Bible is referred to by some theologians as the viva vox Dei – the living voice of God. This is the same word of God that created everything that is out of nothing simply by speaking. This is the same word of God who took on human flesh and dwelt among us. This is the same word of God who died on the cross and rose again from the dead. It is this word which speaks to His people.
Therefore, this visceral scene of bones being brought back to life is not meant simply to grab our attention to make a point; it is God speaking to his people, both then and now, calling them to resurrected life.
But why are there bones to begin with? How did God’s people end up dead? Did God neglect His people, forgetting His promises and turn a deaf ear to their cries? (cf. Ps. 130) No. The valley of dry bones represents God’s “wholesale judgment on the people for their apostasy and faithlessness”. We know from the narrative of Scripture that time and again, God’s people turn away from God, refusing to live according to His ways and breaking covenant. These bones are “not just dead, they are dead in sin” (603). However, God does not leave His people dead in their sin. God’s people are, as Shakespeare once put it, “condemned into redemption” (602). God takes judgment and redemption with equal seriousness. Indeed, redemption is impossible without judgment, otherwise from what are we being redeemed and liberated?
Nevertheless, our culture tells us that we should be uncomfortable with the language of judgment and Sin. After all, these concepts are relics from a bygone era rooted in religious superstition. We are more evolved now; we’ve realized that ‘tolerance’, ‘inclusion’, and being ‘non-judgmental’ are better concepts than archaic theological language. Plus, didn’t Jesus embody these very things? However, in the end, this is nothing but pious-sounding sentimental hogwash that attempts to baptise Jesus into the image of our contemporary jargon and pet-causes. Don’t get me wrong, words like ‘tolerance’ and ‘inclusion’ certainly sound nice and non-judgmental, but they are empty words that can be filled with whatever meaning suits our ends. The reality is that regardless of what our culture tells us to the contrary, we are dry bones. We need only look at the current state of the Church in Western culture to see evidence of this; the Church’s attempts to remain in lock-step with the dictates of culture will not bring about revival or resurrection.
Despite our best efforts at self-justification, our attempts to explain away the reasons for the wrong that we do, our acquiescence in buying the lie of our culture that morality is relative – a matter of personal opinion – the reality is that we are all ensnared in the web of Sin. However, we are not only victims of Sin, powerless to resist; we are also agents who possess a staggering and “chronic inclination toward sin”. So, we turn to ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’ to assuage our guilt and to convince ourselves that we really are nice people with good intentions. However, the stark truth is “we can no more improve our spiritual lives than we can raise ourselves from the dead”. We are dry bones; like Lazarus, we are dead, rotting in a tomb. Death is not an event to occur; death is our current condition.
Now some of you are probably at the point where you are saying to yourself: wait a minute – this is all a bit much, Father! Could you try to be more upbeat, more positive! Let me be clear, I am not trying to be a downer; it is Lent, after all, a time when we focus on Sin and repentance. I am trying to be faithful to God’s Word given to God’s people. It is only in hearing God’s word of judgment that we can hear God’s word of grace and mercy. The gospel of Jesus Christ is good news because it is both judgment and mercy. George MacDonald aptly describes the nature of God’s judgment and mercy: “If a man will not come out from his sin, he must suffer the vengeance of a love that would not be love if it left him there” dead in his Sin.
The miracle of the dry bones is good news because in this story we see the Word of God and the Spirit of God give new life to His lifeless people. Those who were once dead to Sin are now alive. The valley of the dry bones harkens back to the story of creation itself, where after fashioning man out of dirt – physical material – God then breathes life into the creature created in His own image. This story also echoes Pentecost, where the wind of the Holy Spirit gives birth to the Church. In Ezekiel, God re-creates by bringing life out of death. In chapter 36, we hear God say “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances…You shall be my people, and I will be your God” (Ek. 36.26-28).
This is not God simply letting bygones be bygones. Rather, God is taking direct action. God rectifies “his people’s wholesale violation of his commandments by breaking the bond of Sin”; God obliterates “not only the consequences of Sin but also the memory of it”, erasing Sin and all its power and reducing it to non-existence (603). God accomplishes this through the crucifixion and resurrection of the Word of God, Jesus Christ. On the cross of Christ, we see God’s judgment, God’s justice, and God’s mercy revealed in graphic and gory detail.
Indeed, the passion of Jesus is the key to reading the entirety of Scripture, including the story of the dry bones. “Before the incarnation and self-abasement of Christ [on the cross], the whole world was in a state of ruin and decay [due to the power of Sin]”; however, “when he humbled himself, he lifted the world up. He annulled the curse, put an end to death, opened paradise, destroyed sin, flung wide the gates of heaven”. God’s people are condemned into redemption. Not only does Christ’s death and resurrection destroy the power of death in its physical manifestation, so too does Christ’s death and resurrection destroy the power of death in its spiritual manifestation. Through Christ, those who were “in the flesh”, that is to say, those who were dead to Sin, are now resurrected to new life in the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8.8).
This new life begins with the impassioned cry: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner”. This simple prayer rejects all attempts at self-justification and lays the facts bare: we are dry bones whose only hope is in the resurrecting Word of God. This prayer of repentance is not about beating ourselves up or being too focused on the negative; rather, this prayer is submitting to the work of the Holy Spirit who dwells in us (cf. Rom. 8.9), brings us to new life, forming us into the image of Christ, the Word of God. God’s Word alone can speak life out of nothing. God’s Word alone can bring both physical and spiritual life. God’s Word alone can speak the dead back to life.
So, where does this leave us: those who were once dead in Sin to whom the Word of God spoke: “Come out” (Jn. 11.33b)?
Simply put: as people resurrected by God’s Word, we are called to be witnesses to this resurrecting Word. The mission of the Church is to live in the Spirit of Christ, to be a people who live not by bread alone, but by every Word that comes from the mouth of God. This begins by attending to the Word of God as it comes to us in Scripture and Sacrament, nourishing our spirits and equipping us for mission. The mission of the Church is rooted in communal worship, where we gather as God’s people to receive God’s Word.
Having receiving this Word, we are sent into the world to proclaim this same Word. We do this by doing what the Church has always done: telling others about Jesus, teaching the faith as received from the apostles, tending the needy and vulnerable, transforming our culture, and treasuring the good gifts we’ve receiving from God. In so doing, the Holy Spirit opens our eyes to see where God is bringing resurrected life: in the profession of faith of the newly baptised, in the reconciliation of estranged family members, or in the prayers of a repentant sinner.
Therefore, let us daily attend to Holy Scripture, harkening to the living voice of God speaking to us in words that are simultaneously ancient and new.
Let us hear ever anew the living Word of God as it speaks to us and calls us to resurrected life and reconciled fellowship with God.
Let us proclaim with tenacious courage and exuberant joy the good news that Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Lord, is calling dead and dry bones to new life in Him.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion, 603. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from this book and noted by page number parenthetically.
 Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option, 31.
 John Webster, The Grace of Truth, 149.
 St. John Chrysostom, as quoted https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2017/04/01/he-annuled-the-curse-put-an-end-to-death-opened-paradise-destroyed-sin-flung-wide-the-gates-of-heaven/