By Kimberly Constant —
Ezekiel stood, looking out across a valley filled with bones that stretched as far as he could see. Bones that were brittle. Bleached by the relentless sun and worn down by the ravages of time. Bones which represented the once proud nation of Israel, now seemingly without hope. Devastating reminders of what had been a community of God’s own formation, tasked to make his glory known. Now bearing silent witness to the devastating reality of the downfall of God’s covenant people because of their sin. As Ezekiel surveyed the wreckage, with God at his side, God posed a weighty question, “Son of man, can these bones live?”
Can these bones live? Perhaps it’s a question that we find ourselves pondering. As a new year dawns, it is natural for many of us to think about fresh starts. New beginnings. To look with expectant hope to a future in which we long to find better days. But sometimes, we face more of the same seemingly endless challenges of the past. Illness, debt, broken relationships, dwindling faith, all of which have us staring into our own valley of bones. Perhaps, mourning the loss of what once was, we look into a new year filled with terrifying unknowns and wonder if there are some situations which might be beyond hope. Maybe in this season of fresh starts and new beginnings some of us wonder if revival is possible. Can God really breathe new life into something that seems as far beyond the point of resuscitation as a valley filled with bones?
In reading Ezekiel’s vision, recounted to us in chapter 37 of the biblical book that bears his name, we might ask why Ezekiel himself didn’t pose this question to God, instead of the other way around. Didn’t Ezekiel wonder? Surely, as one of God’s prophets he knew the words of those who preceded him, which spoke to the promise of rebirth. That the exile of God’s people, both a physical separation from the land of promise and a spiritual separation from the God of promises, would not last forever. At least for a remnant. Could it be that the thought did not enter his mind? Maybe as Ezekiel looked out across that valley of death, what lay before him seemed like a heartbreaking indication that indeed all hope was lost for the majority of Israel. That if a remnant would arise, certainly it would not be from this pile of death.
So, in the silence of the moment, as God and Ezekiel took in the sorrow and despair of that valley of bones, God asked the question that Ezekiel either couldn’t or wouldn’t ask. A question for which only God could supply the answer. Ezekiel said as much, “My Lord God, you know.” Some translations insert a word of emphasis, “My Lord God, you alone know.” Can these bones live? You tell me, God. For any answer in the affirmative would require a miracle that only you can provide.
But the truth is that God had been asking and answering that question since the formation of our world. Marshalling out of nothing a universe of such brilliance and complexity that scientists and poets through the ages have found no shortage of material for exploration and invocation. Forming and fashioning that universe through the power of his voice; his words constructing light and space and time. Creatures and environments and the pinnacle of it all, us.
God had asked and answered this question over and over again. In his provision of coverings for the shame and sin of Adam and Eve in the garden. In the olive branch delivered by the dove to Noah as he waited for the waters to recede. In the words of Joseph to his brothers upon their discovery that he had not just survived their cruel actions but had become their means of salvation from a vicious famine, “What you meant for evil, God meant for good.” God asked and answered this question when he brought the people out from slavery in Egypt. When he assembled them at the foot of Mt. Sinai and formed them into a nation bound to him by a covenant of holiness. And later when they complained. When they worshipped the golden calf. When they bought into the fear in the eyes of ten of the spies returning from their scouting mission in Canaan. God asked and answered this question when he brought down the walls of Jericho yet brought out from the destruction the Canaanite prostitute Rahab and her family as a reward for her courageous faith.
God asked and answered this question for Ruth and Naomi when they had lost everything. For David in the wilderness as he fled from Saul. For Elijah as he prayed for death to relieve his loneliness and pain. For Mordecai and Esther as they faced the eradication of their people. God asked and answered this question for the nation of Israel each time it assembled itself to renew the covenant, repentant for the sin of the past and expectant for a future of obedient faithfulness. God asked and answered this question through the promises of his prophets. That indeed restoration would follow judgement. Indeed, hope need not die even in the face of terrible suffering. For not only would a remnant return to rebuild a devastated Jerusalem, but God would also send a righteous ruler. A king, a prophet, a priest to usher in a new beginning. To restore what had been lost. Not just for Israel. But for all. And although Ezekiel could not see nor understand the implications of some of these prophecies, we know that God asked and answered this question once and for all from a cross and an empty tomb and a throne seated at his right hand.
Can these bones live? The answer is always yes for those who cry out to God. God’s grace and mercy remain an ever-present gift for us, ready to be received at any moment, not just at the turn of a new year. Ours for the taking if we will repent. If we will turn from pursuing our own will and desires and turn towards the path of God. God asked Ezekiel the question not because God needed him to supply the answer. God wanted Ezekiel to be part of the solution. To serve as God’s mouthpiece once more and to prophesy to those dead people. Ezekiel had a part to play in reviving what seemed forever lost.
So, God said, “Prophesy. Tell these bones to hear my word. They will live. And they will know that I am the Lord.” Ezekiel, to his credit, didn’t run away in terror or laugh in utter incredulity. He didn’t question his abilities or ask God to send someone else. Ezekiel spoke to that pile of death and God breathed life into the broken remnants of his people. What arose was something truly magnificent, an exceedingly great army. Warriors strengthened and brought to life by God. The hope of Israel renewed and restored from the grave of its demise.
Many of us might feel as if we, too, are staring into an abyss of bones. The remnants of our own hopes and dreams. The remains of marriages, friendships, jobs, even of our churches, many of which have experienced something akin to divorce in this last year. Many of us might feel as if we’ve lost our moorings. As the secular world increasingly dismantles any notion of fundamental morality, we might feel as if our way of life is becoming more and more of a fringe movement. Perhaps we’ve endured scorn and ridicule, even cancellation, for the beliefs that define us as Christians. As the people of God perhaps we wonder where do we go now? Can God still breathe new life when and where it seems impossible?
God stands beside us and poses the very same question he asked of Ezekiel, “People of God, can these bones live?” Even as we ask ourselves, can we find our way forward through a world filled with so much anger and pain? Can we find our way forward through the disdain of society that wants nothing to do with God, let alone an understanding of moral and ethical absolutes? Can we find our way forward in new or changing denominations? Can we as God’s people find our way forward through the valley of bones that lay before us?
To that God says, prophesy. Speak to the bones. Prophesy to the breath. Proclaim the truth. The hope and the life available through Jesus Christ. The peace and comfort to be found in the Gospel. Speak of the love of God so great that there is nothing that can separate us from that love. Not even death. And then, and then my friends, we will live.
The story of the Bible is a story book-ended by beginnings. From the beginning of our universe and our creation as human beings, born from the dust of the earth, imprinted with the image of God, and imbued with his life-giving and sustaining breath. To the beginning of a new creation, at the end of days, when we will live in the very presence of God in resurrection bodies that testify to God’s ability to revive and restore. In fact, the story of the Bible is one of continual beginnings arising from what looked like endings. It’s a story of hundreds of fresh starts. Made possible because we are loved by a God whose power is limitless.
But it is a story that needs telling. God calls each of us to play a part in spreading the hope of new beginnings. We as God’s people must be willing to speak God’s word into the darkest corners of the world. Into places where it looks as if there is no one to hear; no one who cares. Even if they laugh. Even if they scream. Even if they threaten. Even if they do their worst. Prophesy. Speak to the breath of the one who can do the impossible. For from the disasters of the present, God can and will call forth his people into a time of greater unity, a time of resolute purpose. Not just a people, but an army of spiritual warriors. Where we might see nothing but old bones, a hopeless wasteland, painful endings, God envisions a fresh explosion of life.
As we march into 2023 let us remember that sometimes what comes from brokenness is even more beautiful than that which came before. From Jesus’s birth came his ministry, from his ministry came the cross, from the cross came the empty tomb, from the empty tomb a throne. Indeed, because of Jesus’ victory, we can endure. Indeed, we will live.
Kimberly Constant is a Bible teacher, author, and ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. You can find out more about Rev. Constant at kimberlyconstantministries.com.
Art: Francisco Collantes (1599-1656). Vision of Ezekiel. Public domain.