Dem Bones Still Speak

Post Author: Rebecca Lindsay

Dem Bones Still Speak: A Sermon On Approaching Pentecost is based on the texts from Ezekiel 37:1-14 and John 15: 26-27.  It was preached in April 2013.


(Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones. I hear the word of the Lord)

Look! Imagine!

We find ourselves in the strange vision world of a 6th century BCE prophet.  A priestly prophet, concerned for God’s holiness and name; a man who seems to have spent time in exile in Babylon, among people who had been taken from their homes, away from Jerusalem and God’s presence, away from land that had sustained them. The book that bears Ezekiel’s name is full of vivid and difficult imagery. There is much not to like.

But the dry bones. Ah. The dry bones are perhaps a different story

We are not people in exile, we ought not minimize that experience but this passage seems to come alive, take on sinews and flesh, when read against the backdrop of our newspaper headlines and seeming perpetual societal pessimism:

The news reporting begins with the sorry state of our politics: Abbot and Gillard racing to see who can create the least humane conditions for refugees who arrive in Australian waters. It moves to Cyprus and the Eurozone debt crisis, through Syria, to working conditions in the Bangladeshi factories where our clothes were made. And we are aware of so much untold– Iraq, the East African food crisis, Kiribati and Tuvalu still faced with rising seas in the midst of a climate crisis.

Does Ezekiel mean something in the face of a cycle of stories that leaves us cold?

Last Sunday’s church morning tea conversations were all about people in pain – the quiet woman with breast cancer who has questions about whether who she is is enough for God; the gentle woman who is caring for elderly parents and a husband with depression wondering if this would burn her out too; one here despairing for the church’s future; one here desperately lonely.

Is Ezekiel not speaking to them, too, to their very real fears, to the pain of their burdens and their need for community?

Seminarians perhaps still feeling the wrench of moving out of sending communities, the ambiguity of being pulled in between multiple communities in this liminal space. Students feeling the dread swamp of the end of semester and the uncertainty of whether this essay is good enough or that presentation was even intelligible. And we certainly hear often enough that the church we love and belong to isn’t exactly faring well.

Could we not claim Ezekiel here too?

Again, I do not for a moment want to pretend that I, and perhaps others sitting in this room, face the same as the situation of exilic Jewish communities in Babylon. I don’t want to minimize the trauma of displaced peoples searching for meaning. But there is something in this passage that will not let us go, for there is a kind of meaninglessness and fear around us, one that Douglas John Hall, picking up from Tillich suggests is the great question for our time and context: the anxiety of meaninglessness and emptiness, the purposelessness, the superfluity, the boredom, the escapism. (Just think about the power of Facebook!) In a context like this, good news is a God who can meet us with a word of hope, who will remold our purpose, who will breathe life into the emptiness, and not just for our sake, but for the sake of others.

Yahweh transports Ezekiel into a valley, a valley filled with horror- bones, dry, desiccated, plentiful, dead bones. In what seems almost cruel, Yahweh commands Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones, to charge them with reanimation. The ruach, the wind, breath, the Spirit of God, is not far off, but full of creativity and life. Reminiscent of the second creation story, God breathes breath and spirit into what had no life or hope, promising restoration to the land, and a future that for the exiles would have been unimaginable.

Hope here is not a happy, shiny smile that ignores the world around with an infuriating optimism. Hope is being faced with the valley of dry bones, questioning God, but still looking for the Spirit’s work, even in completely unexpected ways, even for a seemingly impossible future. Reflecting on this passage, Walter Wink writes, “It is the prophetic task, in a time of unravelling hopes, to declare the unimaginable, to assert the rationality of the unthinkable, to call the people to new hope, grounded not on the past but on sheer faith that God is about to do the impossible.” 

Our journey through Easter has shown us that the God of the dry bones continues to do new things that break open the pattern of our expectations. Jesus words to his disciples from John tell us to expect that the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth, will keep breaking in, for there is more to learn, for the future is open.

And isn’t that what Pentecost is, really?

A story to remember that God keeps on disrupting what is possible, that the Spirit is kind of elusive, but definitely present, a story that says that the Spirit Jesus sends is the Spirit of hope.

I wonder how the disciples felt hearing Jesus tell them he was going away and then when he left them. I wonder if they wished he would have just stayed, if they feared what would happen to them, their grief at this second loss. I wonder if they gave any thought to dry, dead bones in a valley and the breath that would enliven them, if they made connections between a God who could bring hope into such a painful time of their people’s story and the hope that had begun in the new event of Christ’s resurrection. I wonder if as they experienced the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth, the Comforter, the Helper, if they realized just how open the future could be.

How will we look for transformation this Pentecost, as we hear words on Sunday of the Spirit falling like tongues of flame?

How will we claim the presence of the advocate, the comforter, the helper?

How will we too intercede for others, bringing words of truth, of life, of hope?

How will we prophesy to desiccated bones even against the backdrop of the daily news: of Syria, the Sudan, the Northern Territory intervention, climate change?

How will we be a people who have seen the bones knit together, sinews and flesh?

How will we believe that the ruach-wind-breath-spirit will continue to rush into desolate places with great gusts of life?

In a conversation last Wednesday afternoon, sharing a coffee in the sun, sharing conversations about call, messy ambiguity, conflicting communities which demand our time and energy, even being sucked into a place here where at times perhaps we lose sight of the world outside, a dear friend said that even when she is feeling deconstructed and doesn’t quite know what it is she believes in anymore, there is one thing which she holds on to, which she trusts: hope in God.

Let us be people who never lose sight of God’s future.

Let us ask that we would know the Spirit, resting upon us, among us, within us, reanimating our community: breath of life, winds of courage, that we would be people who hope.

Rebecca Lindsay is a (very) recently ordained Minister of the Word in the Uniting Church in Australia. She is working as the Congregation Development minister at the newly formed Hope Uniting Church in South Eastern Sydney. She is also continuing her studies in Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, believing these stories continue to be life-giving for the contemporary church.

Image by: Jeffery
Used with permission
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