Can these bones live?
It was ‘only’ a vision, but still Ezekiel felt uncomfortable. He was standing in a valley of dry old bones. And God was asking him a very silly question.
Mortal, can these bones live?
What to say? Standing in a pile of bones bleached white by the sun was not inspiring Ezekiel’s confidence. If he said No they’re dead and dusted, he could be accused of doubting God’s power. But if he said Yes Lord of course, he might have to say how on earth that could possibly happen.
So he takes the cautious path:
O Lord God, you know.
Ezekiel tosses the ball right back into God’s court. But God has been around the block a few times more than Ezekiel and the ball is tossed right back at him:
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.
Ezekiel prophesies, and the bones become a mighty people. No one is more surprised than Ezekiel.
Have you ever been in a situation you thought was just hopeless? In Ezekiel’s days, God’s people were in an absolutely wretched position.
The armies of Babylon had overtaken the land of Judah, the brightest and best citizens had been exiled to Babylon, and God’s temple was ransacked and wrecked.
The way people thought back then, Babylon’s gods were stronger than the God of Israel; he was defeated, never to rise again. Israel was in a hopeless position.
So Ezekiel finds himself in the middle of a very real-feeling vision—standing alone among the dry bones of Israel’s hopes and dreams, and in the dust of its trust in God.
Ezekiel’s vision has inspired people to hope in change for their own situation. You may recall the old spiritual based on this vision:
Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones,
Now hear de word of the Lord!
We often hear this as a ‘fun’ song, a children’s song. But it was sung by African slaves toiling in American plantations. So why did this song touch the hearts of people pulled from their homes for ever, across vast distances into a ‘life’ of hopeless drudgery?
They hadn’t lost sight of what the song was about. It’s about hope for hopeless people. It’s about the power of God to bring something new to life where to our eyes there is only death. It’s saying that with God there is hope.
Many of the slaves who sang Dem Bones as they picked cotton died in chains. But their spirits were lifted up by the songs they sang. They knew a better world was coming, not just in heaven but here on earth. They lived hoping in God.
They may not have seen that hope come to pass. But they hoped. The Apostle Paul says,
For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Hope is not optimism. Hope is living with the Spirit and looking for the new day to come. Hope is saying Yes! and Yes again to life, to love, to grace, to peace.
This isn’t something airy-fairy or impractical. We are all witnesses of hope coming to be in our lifetimes. We love stories about when a hopeless situation turns around. For example: in October 2012 in Chile, 33 mine workers were rescued from deep in the earth. The world held its breath while they all came to the surface.
And who hoped that the Berlin Wall would come down, Communism collapse and Apartheid end? Yet we have seen these things. We still need hope—injustice and inequality still exist in South Africa and Eastern Europe—but Christian hope is grounded in the promises of God.
Let’s turn to Acts 2 for just a minute. This is the passage we always hear at Pentecost. The story tells us that people heard the disciples proclaiming the good news in their own languages. If you’re in a foreign country, not knowing the language is a problem.
I read of a Vietnamese woman who was waiting her turn to be examined in a crowded hospital emergency area. She gradually became aware of a conversation being attempted a few seats down. A nurse was becoming increasingly frustrated was asking a new patient some questions about his illness. The patient spoke Spanish. The nurse did not. It seemed hopeless.
But it wasn’t hopeless at all. The Spirit-wind was blowing, and the fire of the Spirit stirred a Vietnamese woman who overheard the ‘conversation’. She realised something that stunned her. She couldn’t speak Spanish, but she could understand the broken-English phrases the Spanish speaker gave as answers. Because of her own experience of learning to communicate in ‘broken English’, the Vietnamese woman could get the gist of what the man was trying to say. She offered to ‘translate’ the broken English of the Spanish speaker into something the nurse could understand. She was so successful that she was employed by the hospital as a kind of generic translator. Brokenness was the common language spoken by all hospital patients.
Isn’t that just how the Holy Spirit works? The Spirit speaks through broken people to a broken world, using language every broken heart can hear and understand. The Spirit comes into ‘hopeless’ situations and breathes new life.
Dry bones, high walls, prejudice, exiled people, fear… The Spirit can sweep all these away. Our part is to open our hearts to the world’s brokenness; to bring our prayers to God; to live in hope; and then to act.