It’s interesting sometimes how the church calendar and the secular calendar lineup sometimes. Like this well known passage from Ezekiel about dry bones falling on Memorial Day: A day of memories and cemeteries. And this definitely had to be a day where Ezekiel’s memories were being stirred up by God. He had been a young priest in Jerusalem when the Babylonians came, torturing the inhabitants of that holy city with siege warfare. The two year siege led disease and despair. They took the city, razed the temple to the ground, killed many who lived there, and forced the brightest and best into exile in Babylon, including Ezekiel.
Now Ezekiel, either by vision or physically being taken up and brought back to his homeland, was being led by the Lord around this wasteland of dry bones. These are not just any dry bones–they are his people. Ezekiel remembers their names, their faces. They were once a dynamic, loving people, the friends and family that he had grown up with. Even the bones of his young wife lay somewhere among the bone heaps. He had to have been in despair and probably even angry at God for feeling abandoned or betrayed and forced to face this scene. His heart was broken. This was not the kind of homecoming he had in mind. Why had God left them and allowed this to happen? The memories of his life, his people, and his temple were brought before him as he is being led through not only his past, but the glorious past of his nation reduced to weathered bones.
You might say that this past week the Holy Spirit led American Christendom through a valley of dry bones as the Pew Research Center released their survey results about faith in America. Their report was not what most would call good news, but it is a scene we must face. What they reported is that there are now less people affiliated with the Christian Church than ever before as a percentage of the population. The biggest increase was in the “nones, ”and that doesn’t mean Catholic women joining the cloistered life, it means people with no affiliation to a religious group. And people who said they were affiliated with one of the mainline churches, like the Presbyterian Church, saw some of the biggest declines.
These statistics on paper just solidify what churches have been seeing in reality and feeling in their hearts. Previously full and dynamic churches now sit mostly empty. Churches have been responding in anxiety and fear over the loss of membership, the loss of influence in society, a loss of any guiding mission or purpose beyond survival, and a sense that God may have given up on them. The glory days are long gone. How is the church to respond in an environment that sees the church as irrelevant and God unnecessary? Denial, fear, anxiety?
All three of these reactions would be normal. Looking out over all the bones of loved ones and knowing the history of what created this valley of bleached bones, Ezekiel answered God the only way he could when he was asked, “Mortal, can these bones live?” Ezekiel knew only bones that only weather and dry out more as time goes by, so he gives God’s question back to God: “Oh, Lord God, you know.” And resurrection happens.
One of the most powerful words in all of scripture shows up 10 times in 14 verses. The Hebrew word ‘ruach’ can be translated breath, but it also means Spirit or wind. The same word is used at creation when the ruach blew over the formless void and the ruach filled the lifeless lumps of clay that became living humanity. Ruach happened to these dry bones, breath and Spirit were given, life was given. Where there was death, now there is life. Where there was anger, now there is joy. Where there despair, now there is hope.
And that is what we celebrate this Pentecost: hope. Ezekiel’s home coming was not about ending back in the land he was from, but the promise of coming home to God. The Babylonians may have destroyed Jerusalem, the temple, and the land; but they couldn’t destroy God or God’s love of his people. God wasn’t tied to Jerusalem or the temple, and what Ezekiel learned is that God met up with the people in Babylon. God was in exile with the Hebrew people in a foreign, strange land. Things had changed, but what hadn’t changed was God’s love, God’s faithfulness, and God’s power. God still had plans for his people to experience him and the life giving Holy Spirit in ways they could never dream or understand.
Friends, God is in exile with us, speaking a promise of new life to us. Things aren’t they same as they were 50, 25, or even 10 years ago. And that is okay, in fact it may be a good thing. What may look like destruction and the loss of power and prestige is also an awesome opportunity for God to do something new. Our hope lies not in ourselves, or in our churches, or our structures, but in the God who can put flesh on dry bones, who can stir imaginations that have forgotten the possibility of new life, who can give us the gift of waiting when we are restless and apathetic, who can, yes, set us free from thinking that we are the only ones responsible for the solutions to our problems. We want to fix things, but when faced with dry bones, there is nothing that we can fix. Ezekiel, when faced with a much more hopeless situation than the church faces today, put his hope of restoration and resurrection in the only one who could do it, God’s power in the Holy Spirit. And only the Spirit of creation has the power to resurrect.
Friends, the promise God gave to Ezekiel is the promise he gives to us, too. “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.” God has promised to bring us home, and in that promise, God’s call on our lives as individuals and as a church is to be faithful, not successful. And that takes discernment and prayer, waiting for God to give a word of guidance and sometimes a word of prophecy. It means stepping out in faith to see where the Holy Spirit is moving. It means offering up the dry bones to God for the breath of restoration and resurrection. God hasn’t abandoned his church, but is still as faithful and active and loving as he ever has been. This assurance can underlie all of our living, even when we are in exile. God can and will find us even in exile, and bring us home to him. Amen.