Life-Giving Breath of God - A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost Sunday (Ezekiel 37)
Ezekiel 37:1-14 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
37 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. 2 He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3 He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” 4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5 Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6 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.”
7 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. 8 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. 9 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.” 10 I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
11 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.’ 12 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. 13 And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14 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.”
When it comes to the church, the future can look bleak. At least in Europe and North America the church is retreating in the face of an ever more secular world. Christendom appears to be dead. While Christianity retains vestiges of the old ways, it has lost much of its cultural/social influence. There are those who cling to the stories of past glory and try to worm their way into positions of influence. It happens on the right and on the left. Where once the church was the religious face of empire, it has been replaced by other figures. Therefore, a more appropriate image for the church’s place in society might be exile. Thus, the words of prophets like Ezekiel can resonate, speaking words of hope to us in these challenging times.
The prophet Ezekiel is known for his imagery, and none of his images are as eye-catching as the valley dry bones. This image is an animator’s dream fulfillment. But what message does it convey? What did Ezekiel’s original audience take from it, and what does it offer to us as we gather on Pentecost Sunday? What word does it deliver concerning the life-giving presence of God, which blows into the community on Pentecost Sunday bringing life where once death seems to reign?
Pentecost Sunday is understood by many in the church to be the birthday celebration of the church. We wear red and perhaps make worship a little livelier. There’s no place on this day for sad faces. It’s a day to party, because the Spirit descends upon us, empowering our witness to the risen Christ, who now sits at the right hand of the Father. Life is restored, where death had reigned.
The story of Pentecost appears in the second chapter of the Book of Acts. It is a well-worn text that offers insight and encouragement. But what does Ezekiel offer us? What word does it speak to us? Perhaps the word it speaks is that there is life in the midst of exile. The word from Ezekiel challenges triumphalist visions, while providing us with a foundation to hear the promise of the life-giving Spirit that moves through the community empowering our witness.
The Pentecost story begins some ten days after the ascension of Jesus. The disciples (150 of them) are gathered in what we know as the “the upper room.” They appear to be praying, as they had been instructed by Jesus (Acts 1). Jesus had promised to send the Spirit, all they had to do was wait. When the Spirit came upon them, they would experience renewal and new life, and would be empowered to preach the good news to the world, moving from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. All they had to do was wait. Finally, on the Day of Pentecost (a major Jewish festival), the Spirit fell upon the disciples. They began to preach. Revival broke out. People responded and were baptized (some 3000 according to Acts). Thus, the church is born, and their mission begins, one that extends to us (Acts 2).
The first reading for Pentecost Sunday comes from Ezekiel 37 (unless you choose to read Acts 2 in this spot), which speaks to a people living in exile. They are discouraged, wondering if they will ever return home. In other words, they have experienced death. God gives to Ezekiel a word to share with the people of Judah in the form of a vision. He is taken in the Spirit to a valley filled with dry bones. This is Israel. It is a nation of dead, bleached bones. Would the nation be restored? Or would they live out their lives in exile, a people without a country. God says to Ezekiel—prophesy to these bones. Tell them to let God’s breathe enter them so that they might be restored to life. So, Ezekiel did as he was told. He called for the four winds to come and breathe life into the bones. The winds came, and the breath of the Spirit filled the bones. They began to come together. Life returned to the bones. To those who doubt that life can be restored to Israel, Ezekiel is directed to say to the 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.”
What word do we hear from Ezekiel on this Day of Pentecost? Is there a word of hope here for the church that is, it would seem, experiencing exile? Christendom has died, at least in Europe and North America. Churches are experiencing difficult times, with aging congregations, declining attendance, and financial challenges. There is a sense of hopelessness creeping through the church. We see it expressed in a variety of ways, including grabs for power or sense of resignation. So, what work of the Spirit should we expect in our age? Are we that valley of dry bones? Is there a wind of the Spirit present that will fill us with the breath of God?
The church may never again reach the levels of power it once wielded, but that does not mean that there is no hope. The days when the church defined the public square is over, but God has not been banished. We still have voices to proclaim the glory of God. We can call upon the four winds, inviting them to fill the valley of dry bones, bringing to life communities that can embody and declare the glory of God before the world. As John McClure puts it: “The story of dry bones takes place at the intersection of human weakness and divine power. It reminds us that God’s power is made great in our weakness, and that the power of the church wields is not the power of the sword, but the power of God’s Spirit working through the Word proclaimed” [Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, Year B, p. 255].
The church is called to proclaim and embody the Gospel. We do this in a variety of ways, but ultimately this is about the Spirit, who empowers and guides us in this work of God. We are participants in the proclamation of the Gospel in word and deed, but ultimately this isn’t about us. It’s about the Spirit. Yes, Ezekiel played a role. He spoke the words. He called for the winds. But it was the Spirit and not Ezekiel that gave life to the bones. It is the Spirit who gave life to the church on Pentecost and on every day of every year. With that we go forth with hope.
Elkan, Benno, 1877-1960. Ezekiel in the Valley of the Dry Bones, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55841 [retrieved May 14, 2018]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Collantes,_Francisco_-_The_Vision_of_Ezekiel_-_1630.jpg.