Down in the Valley
‘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.’Ezekiel 37:7
The verse above is from the Vision of the Valley of Dry Bones as recorded by Ezekiel the Old Testament prophet. The prophet’s account of his vision is also the Lesson for the Fifth Sunday in Lent (Year A): Ezekiel 37:1-14. As he opens his account of the vision, the prophet records in verse 1 ‘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.’ The Lord asks Ezekiel, ‘Mortal, can these dry bones live?’ (verse 3). Ezekiel, probably bewildered that God would ask him whether something could happen (I mean, God is God, so God should know!) replies in the same verse, ‘O Lord God, you know.’
Ezekiel was right: God did know. God asked the question, not to confirm whether it could happen, rather, God asked the question to confirm Ezekiel’s faith, Ezekiel’s confidence, Ezekiel’s trust in God’s power. God was submitting the prophet to a test of faith. As God approached him, Ezekiel didn’t realise that he was about to be told of the repatriation of the Judeans who had been sent into exile at the hands of the Babylonians. What a delight for him it must have been when, at the end of the vision, Ezekiel, himself in exile, was told, ‘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’ (verse 14).
Ezekiel, now engaged by the opening question, ‘Mortal can these bones live?’ obeys the commands given him by God: to prophesy to the bones, and then to the breath. Sure enough, as Ezekiel obeys and prophesies, things start to happen. There is a moving, a shifting, a noise that signals the revival of the dry bones. Before you know it, the bones come together, flesh forms on them, breath enters the lungs that had now formed again, and the bones-turned-bodies stand on their feet.
The Height of Faith in the Depth of the Valley
Can you imagine the scene? How do you think you might survive if you witness such a demonstration of God’s miraculous works? Would you want to be the one chosen to tell of such a situation? Would you want to risk the ridicule and public derision? Would you want to risk the questioning of your sanity? Would you take the chance with your reputation? Gives us something to ponder, wouldn’t you say? The thing is, this is what the journey of purpose beckons us towards…towards faith: hope for the impossible; trust in the unsalvageable; assurance of things hoped for, and conviction of things not seen. Friends, purpose requires self-redefining faith. And faith often lands us on the doorstep of public ridicule (think here of Noah who began, in obedience to God, to build an ark because he was expecting a flood. His neighbours must have teased him: ‘So, Noah, you’re expecting a flood right? So, when will it start to rain because I need to start building an ark too!’ Can you imagine his wife defending him to their neighbours?). Friends, this is what faith requires.
Let me now draw a reference from pop culture: who remembers what Captain Kirk would say at the beginning of the Star Trek Series, ‘Space: the final frontier […] to boldly go where no man has gone before’? Friends, it is easy to replace the word ‘space’ with the word ‘faith’. Faith is very much like this journey to the ‘final frontier’. Captain Kirk described the mission of the star ship Enterprise as seeking out new life.Faith is very much a journey to new life and, in that new life lies our purpose.
Returning to the ‘dry bones’ that we see along our journey towards purpose – fulfilling God’s mission for us – the question is how do we maintain faith when all we see are dry bones? How do we believe that what is now dead will yet live? How do we hold on when all seems lost? Mortal, I tell you, these dry bones shall live!
Obedience: The Path that leads us Out of the Valley
Three and a half years ago, I decided to leave my job for no other reason than having been told by God that it was time. After sharing my decision with my boss, the hymn by Civilla Durfee Martin ‘God will take care of you’ came to mind. May I remind you of the opening verse of that hymn?
‘Be not dismayed whatever betide: God will take care of you. Beneath His wings of love abide: God will take care of you'
Friends, in this 20-line hymn, stanzas and chorus included, the assurance ‘God [He] will take care of you’ appears 11 times! Can you believe that! Like Psalm 136, a psalm of 26 verses, the assurance ‘his steadfast love endures forever’ appears as many times as there are verses. Purpose, that can be fulfilled only where faith abounds, requires us, innumerable times to remind ourselves that, no matter how grim, how dismal, how inaccessible, how unlikely, how improbable and even how impossible the situation appears, there is hope yet, because God is taking care of us and while God is taking care of us, hope shall not disappoint us as Paul encourages the Romans in chapter 5 of his epistle to them.
The Holy Spirit: Power for the Journey Out of the Valley
But how do we continue to hope? How do we continue to utter those words? Let’s return again to Romans 5, specifically, verse 5: We continue to hope because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. Lest we forget the power of the Holy Spirit, let us turn our attention now to this week’s Epistle, Romans 8:6-11. In verse 11, Paul writes, ‘If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you’. Friends, do you understand now how the dead bones can yet live? Through the power of the Holy Spirit, there is much that can be restored, renewed, reset, re-energised, reinvigorated, rejuvenated, replenished, reborn and retooled for the work that lies ahead.
Friends, the work that awaits you will be accomplished only by the power of the Holy Spirit. You cannot do it on your own. For this reason, we need to get to our individual valley of dry bones. We need to be reduced, stripped. We need to return to simplicity and paucity. We need that, for it is there that we are humbled and, in our humbling, we lift our eyes up to the hills which is the only place from which our help comes. And when that help comes, for God always hears and answers prayers, and we witness the restoration of that which we thought had died, then we see the power of God’s Spirit to renew us and lift us higher than we had ever been lifted before.Need I remind you of the conclusion of Job’s story: God restored Job’s fortunes when he prayed for his friends and gave him twice as much as he had before, blessing his latter days more than his beginning.
Mortal, these Dry Bones Shall Live
Let me ask you, then, what might you be hoping for that seems out of your reach? What are you hoping for that seems hardly likely to materialise? What are you hoping for, but you’ve told yourself the ship has already sailed? What is the dream that has self-aborted as far as you’re concerned? Today, I want to encourage you for it is when our circumstances seem beyond help that we are squarely in the realm of God. It is when the world is screaming at you, ‘It’ll never happen’ that God challenges you, ‘Is the Lord’s power limited?’ It is when the goal, the dream is out of reach that God will show you that God’s arm is not too short and that God’s word for you will come true, for as the Son himself told us, what is impossible for man is possible for God and that unless we become like children, we will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
May I ask you, have you ever seen the faith of the child making what seems to be an impossible request of a parent? That child believes that it can be done and the parent, not wanting to disappoint the child, ensures that it is done. So, if we, who are evil know how to give good gifts to our children, how much more will our Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him! I’m sure you recognise these words, for they are from the Son, who knows the Father better than we do, and as recorded in Matthew 7.
My dear ones, Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, therefore, these dry bones that you see around you shall live! Your financial situation, your career, that relationship, your health, your studies, maybe even your zeal and passion for the things of God…the dry bones of your circumstances will live! But you must obey and prophesy, for that is what Ezekiel did – he did as commanded by the Lord.
In today’s Gospel, John 11:1-45, the story of the resurrection of Lazarus, Jesus reassures: ‘[Lazarus’] illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it’ (John 11:4). Let me assure you, there are times when God will not respond to our prayers right away (just as Jesus delayed in returning to Bethany in Judea when he heard the news of Lazarus’ illness) so that God may be glorified at the wondrous work that will be performed. There are times when God seems to delay so that, as Jesus said to the disciples, we may believe. My dear ones, there are times when, notwithstanding the words we mouth, that we believe, we are indeed challenged to believe. Therefore, God must allow seeming death to occur so that, when our circumstances are resurrected, we will believe that nothing is greater than our God.
Prophesy: These Dry Bones shall Live!
Again, I ask, what are you hoping for? What are you challenged to believe? What has everyone dismissed as your foolish faith? What have your friends and family abused you for because you have continued to have faith that God’s word does not return to God empty? I assure you, now, those dry bones shall live!
Our Christian faith is summarised in the Creeds – the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed (the last of which is hardly used, but rich in detail). As Christians, how can we profess this faith, that I believe when we limit the action of God whom we describe as omnipotent, all-powerful, and almighty? How can we say that we believe that Jesus Christ rose on the third day when we will not allow God to resurrect circumstances in our own lives, in our church, in our communities? How can we claim that we believe that Jesus Christ was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, yet we deny the power of that same Spirit to work wonders in our lives? Beloveds, let us not be found to be of little faith for the fulfilment of our God-given purpose rests on that faith.
As I close, I ask you: Mortal, can these dry bones live? If you believe that they can, then I say to you, prophesy to these bones, let them hear the word of the Lord. Prophesy to the breath, and say to the breath as in Ezekiel 37:9: ‘Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.’ Like Ezekiel, I hope you will prophesy as the Lord commands so that you too will declare, ‘These dry bones shall live!’ and, when you do, you will be convinced of the love of the Father, the peace of the Son, and the joy of the Spirit.
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