The Breath of Life - Ezekiel 37:1-14
I really couldn’t figure out what was going on. Was it lingering anesthesia? I keep being reminded that it can stay in your system for six months and mess with your mind and body that whole time. Was it the pain meds I was on? They had had to give me some pretty potent meds to deal with pain due to my high tolerance. I just didn’t know what the cause was. Every time I would get up and start my physical therapy after my shoulder surgery, I kept feeling lightheaded, like I was going to pass out, about halfway through the exercises. I talked to my physical therapist about it, and he had no idea. It was not until about two weeks of near collapse mid-exercise that I realized what was going on.
I don’t know how many of you remember when Veronica led the aerobics class here years ago. We would be in the midst of all of those exercises and she would keep telling us, “don’t forget to breathe.” I thought that was silly. Who is going to forget to breathe while they are exercising? We don’t have to remember to breathe, it is something that we simply do naturally, automatically.
Anybody have a guess as to why I was about to pass out doing my physical therapy at home? Yeah, that’s right. I forgot to breathe. I was holding my breath as a means of dealing with the pain. The result, with a cut off of the oxygen to my brain, the world began spinning and going dark.
Breath is important. It is essential to life. We can go back to the creation story in Genesis and we read that God took a handful of dirt and clay and shaped it into a man. However, it was not until God took that soil sculpted creature and breathed his breath into it that it came to life, “…then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.”[i]
The Psalmist knew the truth of this as well, “When you take away their breath, they die and turn again to dust. When you give them your breath, life is created, and you renew the face of the earth.”[ii] Breath is the key to life. Nowhere is that more clear than in this familiar scene with God and Ezekiel.
Israel had been exile under the rule of Babylon for years. Many had been taken into exile from their homeland to the land of the Babylonians (in the land we now refer to as Iraq). They had witness the slaughter of the sons of King Zedekiah at the hands of the Babylonian invaders, as well as the blinding and leading of their king into exile himself. Many of their family members and friends had been killed as well, others taken into exile, and still others were nowhere to be found as they hid themselves away in the hillside.
You can imagine their mindset. They were supposed to be God’s chosen people, but it appeared that God had abandoned them (not realizing that God had never left them, they had simply walked away from God). The people of God had shriveled to nothing and found themselves in the spread out across the Middle East, dying…maybe even feeling dead already. The reality of it is that they had stopped breathing in the breath of God, and without His breath filling them, they were without life.
There are times where we, as the church, can identify with the hopelessness that they must have felt. We have driven by church buildings that have been sold or abandoned. We have been in sanctuaries that were once packed, maybe standing room only, and now are more often not even half-filled. We have watched as our sons and daughters, grandchildren and others have been taken captive, and occasionally put to death, by drug-abuse and promiscuous sex. We have seen our neighbors led from the worship of God, and forced into the worship of wealth and power to meet the lifestyles they have chosen. We have watched friends, filled with fear, hide their beliefs in the hillside, denying or downplaying their faith out of a fear of rejection or punishment. We look at God’s church, not in the Middle East, but in the middle of free nations, and we wonder if, maybe even think it definitely is, dying.
In the midst of this death-like exile, God comes upon the prophet and priest, Ezekiel, picks him up, and places him in the middle of a valley of dry bones. Can you imagine the horror? Many of us have watched those television shows or movies where the characters come face to face with a skeletal corpse or a cave full of bones. Here Ezekiel is placed by God in a valley that is full of bones, and not just left their looking at them, but walked by God through the valley, amongst the bones…subjecting Ezekiel to the fullness of being surrounded by death. (Keep in mind, that, according to Hebrew Law, contact with the dead rendered a person unclean.)
God asks Ezekiel, “Mortal, can these bones live?”
Ezekiel responds, “God, only you know.”
God instructs Ezekiel to prophesy to the valley of bones that he will bring them together, bind them together, cover them with flesh and skin, and breathe life into them again.
Ezekiel begins to prophesy to the bones, and as he began to speak, noise began to pick up around him. Picture the power of this story, the bones lifting in the air, swirling about Ezekiel, rattling together until they found the bone they were to be joined to, and settling into place…and as the bones fit, one to another, muscle and sinew appeared, attaching themselves to the bones and binding the bones to one another. Flesh and skin covered the muscle.
However, just like the man-shaped pile of dirt in the Garden of Eden, these reassembled corpses just lay there in the valley.
God reminded Ezekiel, “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 those slain, that they may live.”
Ezekiel prophesied and watched as the breath came into the bodies, the bodies came to life, and began to stand.
God says, “Israel says our bones are dried up and we have no hope, we are cut off from God completely. I want you to tell Israel that I will do with Israel what I have done with this valley. I will raise them up and give life to them again…I will fill them with my Spirit and they will have life.”
God gave life to His Church on that day of Pentecost…pouring our His Spirit and filling the followers of Christ with His Breath. However, in many ways, in the pain of a post-Christian world, we have been holding our breath, and in doing so, have not being breathing in the Spirit of God…and that’s why it feels like we’re dying or dead.
My brothers and sisters, the Word that God spoke to Ezekiel is the same Word that he gives to us today. He says, look around…it looks like a place of death…but do not give up hope. Speak the Word of God and watch, I will give life to You, to my Church, to my People.
The important thing to note, though, is that God is going to act in conjunction with us responding to His sending. God did not say to Ezekiel, I see y’all’s desperation, I hear y’all’s moaning and groaning, you just sit there and watch me work. God gives Ezekiel an active role.
1) Ezekiel is placed in and walked through a place of death…a dark place, a dangerous place, an unclean place. As God uses us to give life to His Church, there are going to be times where God sends us into places of death, dangerous places, unclean places. We are going to have to visit those places where hope doesn’t seem to exist. We cannot simply sit here and say, “God, your Church is dying, our children have been taken captive, aren’t you going to do anything about it.” God expects us to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you….”[iii] It is not about staying in place, it is not about going just in the places we are comfortable in, it is about going into ALL the world, including the valleys full of dry bones—whether those places are malls or motels, bars or brothels, drug dens or dirty homes. God tells us to go into the places of death.
2) In those places of death, we are called to speak words of life. We are to prophesy to the bones…we are not to condemn the bones for being dead, but speak words of life that bring the bones together and convey the mending power of God to heal and restore. All too often we look at those who are lost and imprisoned by the world and speak words of condemnation and death, but the command of God is to speak hope and life.
3) We are to give witness to the Spirit. We are to reflect to the world that God’s people are alive. That God has filled us with His breath and we are not dead. We are not to hide in the shadows or play dead…but live, fully live, in the world…giving witness to others who need to experience the hope that lies in those who live filled with the life-giving breath of God.
My brothers and sisters, don’t forget to breathe, and let the breath of God, the breath of Life, fill you completely…that we may fully live as the people of God…
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.