Dec 6: My Spirit Gives Life…Ezekiel 37:1-14; Luke 4:14-20
The Valley of the Dry Bones is not only a famous story, but the basis of an old spiritual hymn. The Spirit working through the Word of God united the nation in exile who longed to return home and rebuild their city. In exile they were represented as dry, dead, decayed, and in need of help. Yet the prophet Ezekiel, who lived among the captives, preached that God’s Spirit would give life to the dead community.
Can These Bones Live?
The story has a powerful set of images that indicate God’s involvement among the captives of Judah. The people of the southern kingdom were taken captive to Babylon and left to resettle the city as captives, immigrants, and outsiders. The story began in Ezekiel 1:1 suggesting that the vision of Yahweh to Ezekiel happened around 593 BCE, written as the 13th year (possibly that year of their exile). Ezekiel was the son of a priest indicating that his family’s livelihood came from service to the temple, a structure that was demolished by the people of Babylon. Like Daniel (Daniel 8) he received a vision from Yahweh near a river or canal.
God has an interesting relationship with Ezekiel. Ezekiel, like many of the prophets, not only faces criticism for the message of God, but he was burdened with knowing the secret hidden events going on in his community and among the people back in Jerusalem. God’s hand, or Spirit is upon Ezekiel in 2:2; 3:12, 14, 24; 8:3; 11:1, 5, 24. He was directly sent by Yahweh and shown the hidden sins of his people. In the end, he was to carry this burden and inform his elders, friends, and community why God was punishing Israel. He had access to special knowledge, unlike the other prophets, and had the burden of warning and challenging people.
However, in Ezekiel 37 he had the opportunity, led by the Spirit, to prophesy hope and healing to the nation. Ezekiel left the city and spoke to the shepherds and sheep (representing Judah and its leadership), the small isolated city of Edom, the mountains, and the mighty gathering of Gog in the wilderness. In this middle of these “out in the wilderness prophecies” he encountered a valley with dead, dried, bones. These bones would have rotted in the sun and been picked clean by animals, squatters, and the elements. One would have understood them to represent the fallen people in Jerusalem (an abandoned city), or those who died on the trip to Babylon. They were beyond repair, beyond saving, and ready to become fossils. There was nothing left on the bones—they were done!
However, the vision offered hope. First, Ezekiel was told to preach/prophesy/encourage the bones. Ezekiel’s message was God’s message. Yahweh was going to put the Spirit/breath/wind on the bones. These words go throughout the story as Spirit, breath, and wind to give life to the bones. There is no point in trying to determine which word the Hebrew word refers to in the story. Ruach, the Hebrew word for all three, was active in giving life to the bones. God’s reason for doing this? So that they might know Yahweh is God.
Ezekiel prophesied to the bones and offered a message. Obviously they would not have believed him since dead, dry bones, can’t believe. However they began to come together by rattling and shaking. Somehow, the message of hope stirred even the bones that were beyond healing. He then prophesied to the wind/Spirit and called it to enter the bones that were shaking and ready for hope. As the Spirit entered them they became human and stood—now a mighty army. The people of Judah who were aliens and victims were now a fierce army.
What I find interesting is that Yahweh not only repeats the term Spirit, but the phrase that they will know their God. Three times it is stated that this happens so that they might know their God. The prophet also quotes Yahweh as telling the people that they are to settle and God will live with them. The testimony of Yahweh is that the Spirit is sent to give people life, freedom, and a relationship with their God. Even though the nation was separated from their Lord, the Spirit offered reconciliation and a new covenant. The Spirit operated in a time when a nation felt isolated, distanced, and cut off. They were beyond hope, yet God’s Spirit offered them life.
Even more than this, the Spirit through the Word of God gave life. It is the preaching and teaching of God’s word that can inspire hope, love, and courage. The Spirit of God seeks Yahweh’s message of hope and offers life to those who hear it. The question is, do we preach a word of hope and message of God.
Can These Bones Listen?
In occupied Palestine, Jesus (God in the flesh), came to live among the people and help them to know God. Palestine was controlled by Rome and lived under the Emperor’s thumb. The Christmas story was not just a lesson about a child being born in a feed trough, but God’s settling among the people in suffering. They, like the dry bones, felt isolated, controlled, and cut off. While Rome offered peace, the people received slavery. Even the Jewish leaders had struggled to lead the people closer to a God (who was over all) and still submit to Caesar (who believed he was all in all). Yet it was this same Spirit of Yahweh that offered peace, hope, healing, and reconciliation.
In Luke 4:14 Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of this Spirit. While at the synagogue in his home town of Nazareth, a small construction town, he took his turn reading in the synagogue. Notice that Luke indicated that he went to the synagogue “as was his custom…” Jesus was in the habit of attending worship weekly. Here, he found an opportunity to read and teach from the Biblical text.
Luke indicated that he unrolled the scroll and found where the following text was written. It seems that either Jesus’ intentionally chose this text, or that this happened to be the reading for the day. More than likely it was his choice. Next, he changed the text. The Isaiah text (Is 61:1-2) is slightly different, meaning that Jesus changed the text as it would be important to his message. Instead of the Isaiah texts “binding the broken hearted” and “freeing prisoners from darkness” he added (changed) “sight to the blind and releasing the oppressed…” While the meanings are similar, Jesus’ intentional naming of the oppressed and blind would have been in reference to his healings. In addition to this it caused people to watch him. He was preparing to do “Midrash” or commentary on the text. For Jesus, and Luke, the text was being applied to those on the margins of society.
What is interesting is it is this translation that caused people to become angry with him. Jesus came, by the Spirit, into a society that marginalized people, that labeled them, and that kept them from the message of God. They, like the old bones strewn in the valley, were told that they had no hope of salvation or relationship with God. This is evident in Luke 5. Luke indicated that Jesus was eating with “tax collectors and others…” (Luke 5:29). Yet in the next verse the Pharisees called them “tax collectors and sinners…” It was the Pharisees who labeled people and told them they had no hope. Yet it was Jesus, through the Spirit, who tried to bring them closer to God.
Jesus’ ministry was based on the power of the Spirit. Luke often indicated that he was led or under the influence of the Holy Spirit. This was the driving force in a message that promised life to those feeling marginalized and in captivity. The plea to Come All Ye Faithful/Faithless is a plea to experience the Spirit and power of God. Faithful as well as Faithless.
A Society of Bones in the Valley Today
Today, we live in a similar climate. Just recently the news of a presidential candidate who knowingly imitated a reporter with a disability, and lied about it. As with any other candidate the media points their finger and reminds them that what is hidden cannot be hidden. What saddens me even more is that there are many Americans who intend to vote for this political candidate. We, like ancient Palestine, live in a culture that is downright mean. As the religious leaders labeled “others” as “sinners” so we have many Christians who laugh at the disabled, along with this candidate. I continue to hear stories from children with disabilities, those from painful homes, and others with illness share that they are bullied and teased at school. Not only are they bullied, but few rise up to protect them. They protect them because they claim that no one “really understands them,” or that they are being “misrepresented.” This continues while bullying grows and becomes a threat to our country, homes, and families. I many times think, “This is the 21st Century—I thought we were past this behavior.” Yet I am wrong, we are doing what was done centuries before.
Jesus came to a society that isolated people, labeled them as “done,” and listed them as “sinners” rather than others. Today, we live in a country that is proving we are mean spirited, unwilling to follow God, and preoccupied with our own possessions. The Christmas season was a time when God’s prophets rose up and proclaimed hope, healing, and forgiveness. Repentance was also a major component and people were eager to do that.
Today, during this holiday season, can we remember what the Spirit wanted to do—and still wants to do? Can we rise up and do something with our family and friends that will make a mark on Christian history? Is it possible that Advent Conspiracy will be a chance to help those on the margins of life, rather than withdraw from them? Can this be a time when we too stand with the Spirit and call for life, healing, mercy in our country?