Can These Dry Bones Live?

Sermon by David Strain on Nov 25, 2018

Ezekiel 37

Well, I trust you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving. Isn't it remarkable how quickly the year passes? Next Sunday is the beginning of Advent already. Christmas is just about upon us. That does mean that next week we'll be turning our attention to the Christmas story which leaves this Sunday as a sort of stand alone. We've had a season where we've focused on stewardship and then it was Thanksgiving; next week we'll begin Advent. And so this Sunday, rather than return to our studies in the letter of Paul to the Colossians and then break off again, I thought we'd leave that to the new year and we'll come back to it then, God willing. Instead, I want to take the opportunity this morning and again tonight to look at two places in the Scriptures that deal with what I believe to be the great need of the hour. There's no question in my mind that we need - and by "we" I don't just mean First Presbyterian Church but the Church of Jesus Christ in our country, our city, our nation, around the world - we need revival. We need a spiritual awakening.

Now just to be clear, I’m not talking about the planned and programmed series of special meetings, you know, often held under canvas that we sometimes call a revival. I’m not despising those things, they’re just not a revival. I’m not talking about something we can hold or schedule. I have something else in mind. I mean by revival a sovereign work of God in which He is pleased to pour out the Holy Spirit in fresh power and fullness upon His moribund church breathing vigor and life into His people again, steering us to seek Him, awakening us to the depth of our continued need for Him, and deploying us with new zeal in His service. I think that is our great need. Tonight we’re going to think a little bit more about that in some detail.

But for now, I want us to focus on one place in the prophecy of Ezekiel, Ezekiel 37, where we learn about revival. I’m sure as you look back over the year almost concluded now here at First Presbyterian Church you see lots of reasons for encouragement. I certainly do. The Lord has been at work among us. Hasn’t He? There’s a new dynamism in our Wednesday evening ministries, to our men’s ministry, and small group ministry, amongst our young adults and in the youth house, amongst women’s and children’s ministry. In my judgment, we’re more engaged in mission locally and nationally and around the world than we’ve been in more than a generation. And we could go on listing ministries large and small, organized and individual, formal and informal, that are doing remarkable things in Jesus’ name in our city and in our church. And there’s been a sense of excitement as we see what God is doing. And we need to celebrate that and rejoice in that and be grateful for that.

However, none of those ministries can bring spiritual life. None of them can simply by wise planning and efficient programming produce spiritual health or generate Gospel zeal in my heart or in yours. Programs do not kill sin or produce the fruit of the Holy Spirit in our lives. I want us to remember that unless the Lord builds the house, they that build it labor in vain. I don’t want us to stop working or serving or praying or planning or giving or going. Let’s do more. We can do more, can’t we? God uses means. He works by means and we need to use every means at our disposal in His service to promote the cause of Jesus Christ. But I do want us to bathe all that we are doing, all the means we are using in an atmosphere of dependence and expectation and longing for the wind of the Spirit to begin to blow, to fill our sails, to give life and power and momentum to Christ’s cause at First Presbyterian Church. I want to awaken in us a fresh hunger, an appetite, a longing, an ache for true Holy Spirit-wrought revival. And so as I say, this morning and again tonight we’re going to look at two Old Testament texts that speak to the subject.

The first of them is Ezekiel chapter 37. If you’ll take a Bible in hand and turn there with me, Ezekiel 37, page 724, we’re going to be thinking about the first fourteen verses of Ezekiel 37. You may know that Ezekiel 37 is written to the people of God in exile in Babylon. They’ve been in exile at least around twelve years or so and they are incredibly discouraged. Indeed, they feel hopeless. Everything seems to be lost; cut off is the expression used in our passage. And God, through the prophet in our text, is sending a word of hope and a promise of revival and renewal to the people of God. So we’re going to turn our attention there in just a moment. First, before we read God’s Word, let’s pause and pray and cry out to the Lord that He would do the very thing that we read about in the Scriptures before us. Let’s pray.

“The hour is coming and is now here when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of Man and live.” Our Father, we pray that these words of our Savior the Lord Jesus might be fulfilled for the church and through the church for our city and around the world. We pray that You would pour out the Holy Spirit to take of what is Christ’s and make it known to us. Illuminate our understanding. Incline our wills. Enflame our affections. Awaken an appetite for Christ, for His glory, for likeness to Him. And do it now among us as this portion of Your Holy Word is read and proclaimed. For Jesus’ sake, amen.

Ezekiel chapter 37 at verse 1. This is God’s Word:

"The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. And he led me around among them, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold, they were very dry. And he said to me, ‘Son of man, can these bones live?' And I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.' Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy over these bones and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord.'  So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I prophesied, there was a sound, and behold, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. And I looked, and behold, there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them. But there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.' So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army.  Then he said to me, ‘Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.' Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the Lord.'"

Amen, and we praise God for His holy Word.

Now if you know anything about the book of Ezekiel it’s likely you know Ezekiel 37. That may be the only thing people know about the prophecy of Ezekiel. There’s the valley, dry bones; it’s like a horror movie. You know they all come back together and skin covers them and they walk on the earth again. Because it’s a famous passage perhaps, in a less well-known book, it’s also among the more misunderstood texts in Scripture. This is not a passage about the physical resurrection of the body at the last day at the end of history, although it uses the image of resurrection to communicate its great message. Neither is this a chapter, some people suggest, about the end times destiny of political Israel, although the prophecy was first addressed to Jewish people living in exile. No, Ezekiel 37 is really best read as the companion, of course, to the chapter immediately preceding it, Ezekiel 36, which is the great promise of the new covenant in which God would take away the hearts of stone of His people and give them hearts of flesh and give His Spirit to them and put His Spirit within them. And that means that the prophecy of chapters 36 and 37 are fulfilled primarily on the Day of Pentecost in Acts chapter 2 when the risen Christ poured out the Holy Spirit upon the church enabling the believers, empowering them for service, equipping them for ministry.

But if you read through the rest of the book of Acts and as the subsequent history of the church abundantly demonstrates, God does still from time to time pour out the Holy Spirit in fresh ways upon the church in seasons of particular declension or in special need, awakening her from a sleepy, moribund condition, restoring her to vigor and dynamism, empowering the church for service. And so we’re right to come to Ezekiel 37 looking for help from the Lord on the vital questions, “What is a revival?” and “How does it come?” Being the preacher cliche that I am, we’re going to consider the passage under three headings, all of them beginning with the letter “P.” I can’t help it! It’s a terrible affliction, but there we are! First, the problem that God addresses. Ezekiel is confronted with the problem in very stark terms - the valley of bones. Can these bones live? The problem. Then the promise God makes. He’s going to give His Spirit and these bones will live. And then the paradigm that God uses. When God pours out the Spirit, how does it come? How does revival come? So the problem, the promise, and the paradigm.

The Problem

First of all, the problem. Look at verses 1 through 3 with me. The hand of the Lord, we are told, is upon Ezekiel. Verse 1, he is taken by the Spirit of God and set down in the midst of a valley full of bones. It’s a grizzly sight. In verse 2, the Hebrew word translated here “behold” is repeated twice over. It’s repeated several times actually throughout the passage because there’s a sense of astonishment, shock that we ought to feel as we see this grizzly scene. Behold, there were very many of these bones on the surface of the valley. Behold, they were very dry. This is an awful panorama. The whole valley is littered with bleached, skeletal remains. So these are the bones of a defeated army. Just about the worst insult you could do to your enemy after having defeated his army is to leave the bodies of the enemy army unburied. So this isn’t simply a picture of defeat; it’s a picture of contempt, of shame being poured upon these slain soldiers. There’s a shock factor we’re meant to feel.

It's made even worse for poor Ezekiel of course because Ezekiel was a priest and was forbidden by the law of Moses to touch a dead body. And yet here he is now being led to and fro among them, tip-toeing between rib cages, trying hard not to touch them, recoiling in horror, and yet despite his best efforts every mincing foot fall kicks up a femur or a tibia or a clavicle. It's a very distressing situation. And to make things worse, a large part of the horror of the scene is profoundly theological in character. As verse 11 will explain, these dry bones are symbolic of the whole house of Israel. So the dreadful sight that is confronting Ezekiel is actually the execution not just of the cruel violence of a conquering army, but the judgment of the divine rebuke. In Deuteronomy 28 beginning at the twenty-fifth verse, God tells His people if they break His covenant He will discipline them. "The Lord will cause you to be defeated before your enemies. You shall go out one way against them and flee seven ways before them, and you shall be a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth and your dead body shall be food for all the birds of the air and all the beasts of the earth and there shall be no one to frighten them away." That's the scene that Ezekiel is confronted with. These bodies have been picked clean now, desiccated and parched and bleached in the sun, in the valley.

The Interpretation

And if you’ll look again at verse 11 you’ll see the interpretation of this vision. The bones, as we’ve seen, are the whole house of Israel. And listen to what they say. They’re in exile, you see, and they say, “Our bones are dried up. Our hope is lost. We are indeed cut off.” So the people of God are in exile in Babylon under the covenant rebuke of God and to then it’s a kind of death. They have no hope; cut off. That’s how it feels. Cut off from the land, cut off from the people, cut off from blessing. Now it’s not that there are no believers among them. Corey read to us from Psalm 44 which is the song of the faithful in exile, longing to be restored. So it’s not that there are no believers left in exile, but it is that God has severely disciplined His people for their backsliding and their disobedience and now they’ve hit rock bottom here in Ezekiel 37. They’re broken and hopeless.

Now as I said a moment ago, we've seen some real encouragements here over the last year at First Presbyterian Church. Praise God for them. But the truth is, our culture is still a terribly dark place, isn't it? And let's be honest, the Church of Jesus Christ is not faring well in its midst. Its message has been compromised, its reputation sullied, its leadership rocked by public scandal after public scandal and its membership is too often indistinguishable in values and behavior from the values and behavior of an unbelieving society. This is not a season of growth and power. All is not well with the Church of Jesus Christ in our land. And it's vital, I think, that we do not kid ourselves about that. There is a great temptation to content ourselves with busyness and to say, "Come on, preacher. Things are not so bad as all that. No dry bones here. I mean, after all, look at what we've accomplished. Look at what our creativity and cleverness have produced. You see, there's life in the old dog yet." Well, there may be life in the old dog yet but there won't be for long if we kid ourselves where real, spiritual vitality comes from. "It is not by might, not by power, but by my Spirit," says the Lord.

Dependence on God

Do notice, would you, in verse 3 the stunning question that God asks the prophet - "Son of man, can these dry bones live?" I wonder how you would respond were you in Ezekiel's place. From horizon to horizon all you see is bleached skeletons, broken bones, empty skull sockets staring at you. How would you respond? Can these bones live? Unlikely. Improbable. Of course, Ezekiel would have remembered 1 Kings 17 and the story of the dead child of the widow of Zarephath who had been raised to life. So if the question had been, "Is God able to bring the dead to life?" Ezekiel would have answered immediately, "Well of course He is." But that's not really the question. No, the question is, "Can these bones live? Can this Israel under the judgment of God, is there hope yet for the people of God? Can these bones live?" And the prophet's answer, I think, is profoundly wise. Look at how he answers. This isn't unbelief. This isn't even doubt. It's simply an acknowledgment that while God can make these bones live the issue of whether He will or not lies with Him alone. "O Lord God, you know. You know. This is a question for You to answer. The great issue of life and death, of kingdom advance, lies entirely in Your hands, O Lord God."

And actually, that is the only fitting posture for all of us when we take in the scale of the spiritual weakness of the church or the hostility of the world. Here's the attitude we need to recover and renew. It's not self-confidence on the one hand, neither is it despair on the other. It is instead a new dependence on the sovereign power of God, on the will of God and the decree of God in whose hands the issue of life and death, of Gospel advance, remains. Revival is not the product of our wisdom. It's not the fruit of the correct application of technique. It is the work of the Lord God and the question of whether the dry bones can live lies with Him. If we look to ministers or methods, to people or programs to reverse the fortunes of the church, we may see numerical increase but we will not see spiritual life. Instead, we need Ezekiel's stance looking to God alone for the answer, "O Lord God, you know." So there's the problem. It throws us, the scale of it throws us back again on the sovereign God who alone is able to make the dead live.

The Promise

Then would you look at the other end of the passage in verses 11 through 14. Here in the second place is the promise; the promise that God makes. Verse 11, "Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the Lord." The promise has three parts; it's not difficult to see them. Do you see them in the text? Verses 11 to 14, first, He's going to restore them to the land, second, He will reverse their spiritual death with resurrection life, and thirdly, He will put the Holy Spirit Himself within them. It is a comprehensive reversal of their circumstances. It's a comprehensive reversal. He is able to make everything sad come untrue. Right? And at the heart of it all is the divine agency, is the truth that salvation belongs to the Lord. He will do the miraculous work and make dead men live.

Our Confidence

And that is where our confidence must lie for ourselves, our neighbors, our family, our city. That’s where our hope lies when we look around and all we see are dry bones in the God of sovereign Gospel mercy who declares in verse 14 a marvelous promise. This is where my hope is anchored; what a great anchor for faith in dark days. Verse 14, “‘I have spoken and I will do it,’ declares the Lord.” Success in Gospel work, progress in the great mission entrusted to us is not the result of strength of numbers or skillful strategy. It is the work of God who says, “I have spoken and I will do it.”

Now one of the questions I plan to ask the apostle Paul when I see him in glory will be, “When you wrote Ephesians chapter 2, did you have Ezekiel 37 in mind?” You remember Ephesians chapter 2. “We were dead in trespasses and sins, but God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even while we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ. By grace you have been saved.” It is an echo of the themes of our passage, isn’t it? And I bring that up because I sometimes need encouragement as I seek to believe that God could pour out His Spirit and bring revival in our generation. But Ephesians chapter 2 simply reminds me God has already done a mighty work of giving life where there was only death - in my own heart; in your heart. He who raised you from death to life, can’t He do the same for His church? Can’t He breathe life and power into the means of grace? Can’t He cause all the dry bones around us in our community to live at the sound of the Gospel? He did it in you. He can do it again by His grace and for His glory. He saved us “not because of righteous things we’ve done, but because of His own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit,” Titus 3 and verse 5, He has done, He will do; may He do it again.

The Paradigm

The problem. The promise. Then finally the paradigm that God uses. Were God to come in renewal and revival power and pour out His Spirit upon the church, how will it come? How will this awakening come? Look at verses 4 through 10 with me. Now can you imagine anything more futile, more ineffectual in reanimating skeletal remains than this? Verse 4, “Prophesy over these bones and say to them, ‘O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.’” That’s the plan. “Go stand in the middle of the valley of dry bones, Ezekiel, and preach your best sermon!” It’s ridiculous! “Now it’s a well-attested, anatomical fact,” one scholar writes, commenting on these verses, “it is a well-attested, anatomical fact that although ears have many bones, bones do not have ears.” Go preach to the molding old bones. What are you doing, Ezekiel?

Speaking

I wonder if he felt more than a little foolish as he tries not to kick up more remains from the dust and find a place in the middle of the valley to begin to preach. Did he do it perhaps without any of his usual passion and urgency, “What is this about? What a futile exercise?” He does as he is commanded. He speaks the Word of God, prophecies, and look what happens. Verses 7 through 8, “So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I prophesied, there was a sound, and behold, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. And I looked, and behold, there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin covered them.” It is like a scene from a horror movie, isn’t it? These scattered bones begin to snake toward one another, rattling and cracking and then sinews and then flesh and then skin, simply at the Word of the Lord. He speaks and this is what happens. He merely speaks and this is what happens.

But look again at verse 8. “There was no breath in them.” So they’re still not alive yet. They have been reformed but not revived. Let me just leave that phrase with you to make of it what you will - reformed but not yet revived. That’s worth reflecting on, I think. So the Lord tells Ezekiel to prophesy again, this time to the breath, or the wind to come from the four corners of the world. “Breathe on the slain that they may live.” You probably know the word for “wind” or “breath” is the same for the word translated in verse 1, “Spirit.” The Spirit of God. It’s an echo of Genesis 2 where God forms our first father, Adam, from the dust of the ground and then He breathes into him and he becomes a living being. Ezekiel speaks a word to the bones and then he calls on the Spirit of God to attend and give life as the word goes forth.

Preaching

So what’s the paradigm according to which God acts to perform this mighty miracle of revival and awakening and renewal and giving life back to a moribund church? It’s not a marketing strategy, is it? It’s not an advertising campaign. It’s not musical style or pulpit personality. You should praise God that it’s not that last one - pulpit personality. That’s not where to look for revival, renewal, spiritual health. Where are we to look? It is in the preaching of the Word and in the prayers of the saints crying out to God for the ministry of the Spirit. We are to do what Ezekiel here is commanded to do. You see in verse 10 once the Spirit of God breathes life into them “they lived and stood on their feet an exceeding great army,” poised for action, to be deployed in the service of God. To do in turn what Ezekiel does for them - to stand in the valley of dry bones all around us and to preach in a graveyard, to preach to the spiritually dead who cannot hear, “Live!” And our only hope, our only hope for success is that God would rend the heavens and come down, that He would attend the proclamation of His Word, that He would follow your lisping, stammering tongue as you open your mouth to speak to your neighbors and friends and family members in Jesus’ name and pour out His Spirit upon it and make it powerful and mighty. When He does, the dry bones can live, they can live.

In this, Christ is our great Captain. You remember, He Himself has died and has descended into the valley Himself and He has already risen and now He reigns and He gives the Holy Spirit to us. He sends to us another Comforter from the Father. All we need do is ask. The Father gives the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him, Jesus says. We are to go and stand in the graveyard of the world, preach Christ to the dry bones, pray down the breath of life, plead for the outpouring of the Spirit, and listen out for the sound of rattling and the blowing of the breath of life sweeping through us, reviving the church with life and power. Can these dry bones live? O Lord God, You know, but O Lord God, send us Your Spirit, the Spirit of Your Son, that our weak efforts - they’re like the five loaves and the two fishes - our best efforts in Christ’s service are inadequate for the task. There’s five thousand to feet. We’ve got five loaves and two fishes! But in the hands of our Savior, if He will give the Holy Spirit to us anew, there is an abundance and more than enough. That’s God’s paradigm. That’s His revival strategy. No frills, no tricks, no gimmicks, no spin. Go into all the world, preach Christ, preach new life for dead sinners in Jesus, depending on the Holy Spirit. And listen out for the sound of rattling and the blowing of the wind of life. “I have spoken,” God says, “and I will do it.”

Let’s pray.

O Lord God, please have mercy on us for our self-confidence, our dependence on our own efforts and our best judgments, our own intellect and understanding. Help us to see again that Your arm is not shortened that it cannot save. Bear Your mighty arm and Your right hand. Come amongst Your people anew and awaken us to our need, convict us of our sin. Show us the bankruptcy of our best efforts that are not done depending on You. Then show us the power of Your Spirit that can attend the proclamation of the Gospel to take desiccated, dead, old bones and make them live. Make of Your church again a mighty army and deploy us in Your service as You sent Ezekiel to preach in the graveyard of the world, to cry for the wind of life, the breath of life to come sweeping through us. Do it for Your glory and Your name's sake. Amen.

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