It is within the desert of life that Ezekiel speaks. God’s spirit leads Ezekiel into a valley full of bones. This image has a dream-like quality, but it is very real. The prophet Ezekiel is speaking to a people in exile, unwanted refugees. Hard times have fallen on the people Israel. They have been uprooted and forced to relocate. Traveling was not easy in those days. Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones was a reality for many of those families, some of whom didn’t make it through the desert.
In the midst of this relocation, of the pain and despair of a people facing death, God tells Ezekiel to proclaim new life. “You see those dry bones,” asks God, “Flesh will form on those dry bones. Muscles will connect the flesh. Skin will cover and protect from disease. Where there was no breath, only dry bones, there is now breath. New life.
God’s spirit breathes new life in us.
God’s spirit is here closely connected to the breath which brings new life and the wind that blows energy into those dry bones. In the Hebrew language, the word, “ru’ah” may be translated either as spirit, wind, or breath. This tells us something about God’s spirit. The Spirit is as basic to our lives as the breath that we breathe. The Spirit is also as unpredictable as the wind, which blows where it will blow.
It is this aspect of the Spirit I often find most troubling. I have no trouble believing that God’s Spirit is a basic part of our lives, but still I’d like to think I could drum up the Spirit, or contain the Spirit at least enough so that the world might make sense. It would be nice if God’s Spirit would always work with us that our dreams and goals might be realized. But the Spirit blows where it will blow. God’s Spirit is not contained even by our best laid plans. The new life that Ezekiel sees is not simply at our fingertips. The Spirit blows where it will.
How can we respond not knowing which way God’s Spirit will blow? Philippians provides us with some direction. In chapter 3, verse 14. “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of god in Christ Jesus.” Set your sights on Christ and strive to do what Christ would have you do, regardless of what has gone on in the past, or what lies ahead in the future. “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead.” Not allowing the past to govern your action as you prepare for the future and anticipate the coming of Christ.
Ezekiel’s image of bones that are given new life is a fitting one as we see countless people, including many Christians, uprooted from their homelands and forced into exile where they are deemed “illegal.” It is a hopeful image of the resurrection we know to be possible through Christ Jesus, the one God raised from the dead. We set our sights on this hope, pressing forward confident that our dry bones will be given new life.
There are a lot of dry bones in our world. You can look around and see people hurting, people hungry, people lonely. It’s easy to despair and give up hope. Imagine what the people in the desert must have said when Ezekiel shared his image. They were tired, worn out, facing the hard times without much chance of survival. What real hope is there in this crazy image?
The image of dry bones that lay strewn along the ground brings to my mind newsreel of the footage taken when the Allied forces liberated those locked away in German concentration camps in WWW II. Gruesome images of contorted bodies stacked in mass graves. Nightmarish scenes.
A while back I heard a news report that a group of Jewish cantors had returned to the concentration camps and on the same sight that their ancestors were killed. They sang the Psalms, praise and thanksgiving to God for deliverance. They gave witness that love is stronger than hate, life more powerful than death.
What real hope is there in this crazy image? There is hope, a hope that teaches us to look for signs of new life in the midst of the desert. A hope which won’t let us settle down to the fact that life is only miserable, but pushes us to see that God is active in the world, that we are to join God at work in the world as he breathes life into dry bones.