St Georges URC, Hartlepool
Reading: Ezekiel 37:1-14
Revd. Phil Nevard
Six hundred years before Jesus was born, 597BC, King Jehoiachin surrendered Jerusalem to Babylon. He and 10,000 of the nation's finest were taken off into exile. Zedekiah, Babylon's puppet-king was enthroned in Jerusalem. Among the captives in exile was a young trainee-priest called Ezekiel, in his early twenties. His training is dramatically cut short, and the place for which he was being trained - the Temple - is plundered and lies far away.
He has a glorious vision of God's chariot throne with winged beasts and wheels within wheels, and feels called by God to speak to his exiled people. And for 10 years God makes him preach words of judgement, fire and brimstone; a stern message to a people who had abandonned their God time and time again; a wake-up call to a people who had forsaken all of their promises; a tongue-lashing for a people who had repeatedly broken their side of the covenant.
Then one day it all changes. The final judgement arrives - 587BC. Zedekiah the puppet King has rebelled against Babylon, egged on by the Egyptians, and Jerusalem has been besieged, captured and sacked. the Temple is destroyed - completely laid waste. It is almost as if for ten years a boil has been growing on the people of Israel, getting tighter and tighter, more and more painful. Now it has burst, it has been lanced, and the healing process can begin.
God gives Ezekiel new words to preach - words of restoration. He gives Ezekiel some of the most beautiful words in the Old testament:
I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries, and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I shall cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh your heart of stone, and give you a heart of flesh.
God promises, through Ezekiel, that their land will no longer be laid waste but that they will inhabit it and it will be abundantly fruitful. The new heart and Spirit which they have will lead them always to walk in God's ways and turn away from evil. They will grow in number, once again childbirth will be a joy, for the children born will have a future filled with hope.
A new heart within them. Maybe some of you have seen it. There is a famous photograph of a South African man called Philip Blaeburg in Great Shuur hospital. In the picture he is looking at a jar of fluid inside which is his own heart. In an operation, which at the time was exceptional, his diseased heart had been replaced by the healthy heart of a young donor. By an act of medical grace, he was alive!
The heart transplant that Ezekiel is speaking of is more than that. It is more than physical. In Jewish thought, the heart stood for the whole personality, the very essence of what it is to be human - made in the image of God.
It is then an extraordinary message. At the time that the exiles receive the worst news to date - that the Temple has been destroyed and Jerusalem has fallen, Ezekiel, who until now has been a prophet of doom, becomes a messenger of hope!
"You are crazy!" they say, "you've been preaching doom and gloom at us for ten years. How come the future is suddenly so rosy? Didn't you hear what the messenger said? He only narrowly escaped death himself. Jerusalem is no more, our Temple is laid waste, the rest of our brothers and sisters who are not to old or too frail are in chains and on their way to join us in this foreign land as we speak. Don't make it worse for us with your false visions of hope."
But God had warned Ezekiel about the stubbornness and the scepticism of his people, God had had plenty of experience of that over the years. God had told Ezekiel, "I'm sending you to speak to your own people, the people of Israel. I'm not sending you to a foreign people with a strange language, but believe me, you would have found a more attentive audience in a foreign country from people who could not understand a word you were saying. Believe me, the people of Israel won't listen to you, for they are not willing to listen to me. They have foreheads of flint and hearts of stone. But fear not, for I have made your forehead like granite - harder than flint! You will stand against them."
So Ezekiel perseveres, and God gives to him one of the most famous biblical visions - the vision of the valley of dry bones.
It is almost too good a vision. It is so easy to get caught up in the vivid imagery of it that we can miss the point entirely. It is not about the resurrection of corpses, it is about the restoration of a nation.
The picture that Ezekiel sees is a fair reflection of the despondency with which he was faced. The bones represent the people in exile. They have been there for ten years now, and what glimmerings of hope they had when they first arrived have now been altogether extinguished. Their hope was lost: as bones, they were very very dry.
This is a vision about Israel coming alive again. It happens in two stages. First, Ezekiel is told to prophesy to the bones and to command them to hear the word of the Lord. This results in only a partial restoration: scattered skeletons are transformed into individual corpses, but they are still just as dead. Second, Ezekiel has to prophesy to the wind or the or Spirit, and ask it to come and breathe upon them that they might live. This time the corpses come alive and stand on their feet, and the miracle is complete. What is the significance of the two stages? part of it must be this, that the two stages mirror the act of creating humankind in the first place - first the body made of clay, then the breathing of life or spirit into it to make it live. The point is that this is all God's doing, and nothing to do with Ezekiel or the merit of the people of Israel.
But there is more. Ezekiel is first told to prophesy to the bones, telling them to listen. This must have seemed very much like his everyday occupation as a prophet or a preacher - exhorting lifeless people to listen to God's word. The effect was limited!
But then he is told to speak to the spirit, invoking her inspiration. This is none other than prayer, beseeching the spirit of God to effect the miracle of recreation, to breathe into these lifeless people the breath of life. This time the effect was devastating. What preaching by itself failed to acheive, prayer made a reality.
It is a vision of a people coming alive through prayer and by listening to the word of God.
When Pepsi Cola was launched in China, its marketing managers wondered why the famous slogan "Come alive with pepsi!" was not acheiving the impact that it had elsewhere in the world. It was discovered that the translator had rendered it, "Pepsi Cola brings your relatives back from the dead!"
God might have wondered why his message had not acheived the desired impact with the people of Israel. It wasn't down to mistranslation, it was down to the fact that they just would not listen, and they just would not pray. They became like lifeless dry bones, without hope or vision for the future. With the destruction of the temple, they hit the bottom of the depths of despair. Yet it is precisely then that they begin to hear the message of hope.
Maybe it is only when we really hit the bottom that we have to abandon our stubborn human arrogance and admit to God that we need him. Perhaps it is only when we admit that we need God that we can really pray to God. And surely it is only when we really pray to God that new life can come.
Compared with the vibrant, active, growing, alive churches of Africa or Korea, many people view the churches of Britain as rather like a valley of dry bones. Ezekiel could be talking not now to the people of Israel, but to you and me.