This week’s passage – Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones vision – isn’t a traditional Lent reading, but you could say it is a vision of wilderness conditions. And so I use this week to explore how God brings hope and life in the midst of crisis and death.
The concept of the wilderness is used in more than one way in the Bible. Sometimes it’s literal, sometimes it’s an image. Sometimes it’s negative, sometimes positive. Sometimes it’s about sin, sometimes it’s about drawing near to God with no distractions.
Perhaps in a temperate climate like the one we’re used to in Britain, it’s natural to gravitate to the negative connotations of the wilderness. And that’s what Ezekiel 37 gives us in this vision of a valley filled with dry bones. It’s a place of death – although it’s also a place which God visits with hope.
The kind of death it symbolises is set out for us in verse 11:
11 Then he said to me: ‘Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, “Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.”
It’s the death of hope. Israel is in exile in Babylon, far from her homeland. Back in Jerusalem, the city has been sacked and the Temple, their most cherished sign of God’s presence with them, has been destroyed.
Our hope is gone; we are cut off.
I am beginning to sense that the longer the COVID-19 pandemic continues, the more there are Christians and churches feeling something similar to this. The continuing financial losses are heightening the crisis some churches face. The Canadian pastor Carey Nieuwhof, whom I often quote, has said, ‘Crisis is an accelerator,’ and the crisis of coronavirus has certainly accelerated critical questions about some of our churches. Issues we might have expected to face in ten years’ time we are suddenly facing today.
That’s why it doesn’t surprise me if some Christians today say similar words to those of Israel in Ezekiel 37:11: our hope is gone; we are cut off.
So in what ways does God bring hope to this wilderness valley of death? And how do we respond if we are to receive his life?
I thought I was going to share two things with you, but it’s turned into three:
Firstly, notice how Ezekiel addresses God:
‘Sovereign Lord, you alone know.’ (verse 3b)
This is the first thing to remember: that God is sovereign. It may feel like social forces are sweeping away things that we cherish and that everything is out of control, but for all this, Ezekiel still addresses God as ‘Sovereign Lord’.
What does it mean, though? The popular Christian cliché is to say, ‘God is in control,’ but I wouldn’t put it like that. It implies God as a micro-manager who direct every minute action. It may be that that is somewhat along the lines of what some of my Calvinist Christian friends believe, but I don’t believe that is true to the Scriptures or true to life.
No: we have to account for a God who is sovereign and for certain exercise of free will by human beings, subject to our limits. It would be fair to say that God has more free will than us, but we still need an understanding of God’s sovereignty that does not obliterate free will and human responsibility, a conception of divine sovereignty that allows both for the sense of purpose and the sense of randomness in the universe.
I think we are moving in the right direction when, rather than saying ‘God is in control,’ we say, ‘God is in charge.’ In the United Kingdom, the Queen is in charge, but not everybody obeys the laws passed by her Government. Nevertheless, she is still sovereign over this kingdom. You could make similar appropriate analogies for different forms of government in other countries.
What Ezekiel is confessing is that God is still in charge, even though Israel is sinful and Babylon is cruel. He can and will exercise more free will than the apparently powerful Babylonians, and that is grounds for hope. In the long term, that will lead to Israel being set free and returning to her land.
Similarly for us, we recognise that God is still in charge, even though COVID-19 has caused carnage and churches and other institutions are in crisis. Yes, some churches will close. Perhaps we see them as casualties of war in the conflict between good and evil. But Jesus promised that he would build his church, and the gates of Hades would not prevail against it[i]. That may constitute our long term hope.
Secondly, notice the emphasis on the word of God. Three times, Ezekiel is told to prophesy (verse 4, 9, 12). On the first and third occasions the call is to bring God’s word to his desolate people. When they hear from God, hope begins to take shape. The bones start to come together (verse 7) and they hear the promise of new life with a return to their homeland (verses 12-14).
The word of God brings hope. It is not simply a message that disappears into thin air. Instead, it has an effect on the hearers. It leads to hope and life.
This is what we need, too: a word from God that stirs hope and new life in us. The very worst thing is when we do not hear God and when God is not speaking to us, as the prophet Amos said:
‘The days are coming,’ declares the Sovereign Lord,
‘when I will send a famine through the land –
not a famine of food or a thirst for water,
but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord.[ii]
But that is rare. If we are to discover hope in our crisis then we need to hear God for ourselves. How might we do so?
The most important way in which we get used to what the voice of God sounds like is to soak ourselves in the Scriptures. A daily, disciplined engagement with the Bible where we both read the words and listen for God speaking to us through them. There is no more a substitute for this in the Christian life than there is for eating regular meals in ordinary, physical life.
When we get a good sense for what God’s message is like, we can then listen for and test today’s claims to prophecy. Where are the people in the Christian community who manifestly live closely to God, and who when have an atmosphere of heaven around them when they speak? Who are the people who bring a fresh word, full of energy, that is consistent with and grows out of what we know about God’s voice from the Bible?
Of course, their words must be tested. Uncritical acceptance is not on the agenda.
But we need to tune in to God if we are to hear his word of hope and life. I have a particular favourite radio station I like to listen to in the car. However, it’s very easy round here to drive in and out of its signal range. If I want to hear it well, I may need to drive closer to the transmitter.
It’s just as easy to drive away from the presence and the voice of God. Each one of us needs to take those steps to tune into the sound of God’s voice in the Scriptures and draw close to him. Then we may hear the message of hope and life he has for us in our day.
Some are suggesting that what God is saying is that the pandemic is like a Great Pause in the world, and that it is like a racing car’s pit-stop where the tyres are changed so that it can accelerate out of the pit lane back into the race. And therefore we are being called to use this time of pause to get right with God, draw near to him, and be prepared not for a ‘return to normal’ but to an acceleration of God’s purposes.[iii]
Does that chime with you as you soak yourself in the word of God? Is that a word of hope and life? Test it and see.
Thirdly and finally, look at all the stress on the breath of God. The bones come together, but there is no life. They need breath.
9 Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, “This is what the Sovereign Lord says: come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.”’ 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet – a vast army.
Breath – also wind, or spirit. In New Testament terms, this is a prophecy that calls on the Holy Spirit to come and fill the people of God.
Ultimately, to have hope we need the very life of God in us. Just as God breathed life into human beings in the creation story of Genesis 1, so also for the people of God to come alive and be filled with hope we need God to breathe his Holy Spirit into us.
And so Ezekiel prophesies for the breath of God to come from the four winds, just as the ancient prayer commonly used at ordination services says, ‘Veni Sancte Spiritus’ – ‘Come, Holy Spirit’.
Some don’t like that language, because they believe the Spirit of God is everywhere, and there is some truth in that. But at the same time what brings death to us is our living without the Spirit, and we remember how there are biblical stories about the glory of the Lord moving on from the disobedient. So there is justification for us to pray, ‘Come, Holy Spirit.’
Hope comes from the life and presence of God. Lasting, eternal hope is not something human beings can engineer. That’s why we need to pray with fervour, ‘Come, Holy Spirit.’
Everything I’m saying today is about being God-centred. Our hope rests on his sovereignty, his word, and his Spirit. If we want to come out of the dry, hot death of the wilderness into fresh new life and hope then the only way to do is by actively depending on our God in these ways.
[i] Matthew 16:18
[ii] Amos 8:11
[iii] Jarrod Cooper, The Divine Reset. See also this video interview: https://premierchristianmedia.co.uk/16DQ-79OQD-68XW34-4DUIQ7-1/c.aspx