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Hope is Now: ‘Dem Bones

Reflections from Our Pastors

On the wall of probably the oldest synagogue ever excavated, and in a building that also served as a small Christian church (!) is a wall painting of Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones coming together and back to life. His astonishing prophecy dreams of God’s hope for individuals but also for the whole community, for the nation, and even the world. Do you know the old spiritual song, “Dem Bones”?

Read the text in Ezekiel 37! In some sort of prophetic trance, Ezekiel is shown a valley of dead bones – a dreadful sight, the sort of thing best approximated by those old Civil War photos of Antietam or Gettysburg after thousands had been slaughtered. God asks Ezekiel if he sees any hope. The human answer? No way. But Ezekiel turns it back to God saying “You alone know, O Lord.” I love that. No cocky faith, but humble turning to the only one who could bring hope where there is none at all.

Then, a breeze stirs, then a stronger wind, the bones roll, then clatter, coming together, flesh miraculously clustering around the bones. Remember that, in the Bible, “wind” and “breath” are translations of the same Hebrew word, ruach. God blew into Adam the breath of life. You’re breathing as you read this: it’s God’s ruach, God’s wind, God’s breath, making you live. It’s involuntary, isn’t it? All gift, not something you do by strenuous effort.

Same for this astonishing revival of Israel as a devastated nation. Jerusalem reduced in rubble, and the people (including Ezekiel) forced into a death march to live hundreds of miles away in Babylon (which Robert Jenson called “the headquarters of idolatry”). Their leaders were executed, famine riddled the continent. There was no hope. None.

But You alone know, O Lord. I wrote an Adult Sunday School lesson for our denomination on this when I was 25 years old! In it, I suggested that Ezekiel 37 teaches us, today, that Revival happens only when we realize how hopeless we are; if we fantasize we can figure it all out, God’s revival doesn’t happen – yet. Someone has to notice, and believe in the miraculous revival to come. Revival takes some time, and revival produces visible, tangible results. And then ours is simply to give thanks, and to glorify God – and we even begin the thanks and glorifying before the renewal actually happens!

My weekly online video Bible conversations have recently been covering various prophets. I can’t think of any Bible stuff more timely and applicable than those men (yes, all were guys…) God raised up to speak God’s word of diagnosis – What’s wrong down here? – and God’s pledge of certain hope. Yesterday’s edition featured a chat I had with Luke Powery, who’s the Dean of Duke Chapel – and he zoomed in on Ezekiel 37, this vision of ‘dem bones, as so crucial and life-giving for us. Tune in to him with me – and the earlier sessions we’ve had on other prophets doing similar things.

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