These bones shall live – Living by the Word – Ezekiel 37:1-14; Acts 2:1-21 – Column

Walter Wink

IN MY 58 years I have never known the gospel to be more relevant, exciting and urgently needed. And I have never known the churches and their clergy to have lower morale. Declining numbers, financial shortfalls, sexual abuse by clergy, the closing of churches, a growing sense of captivity to the regnant culture–Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of the dry bones could be describing us, not Israel in Babylonian captivity.

This is, so far as I can tell, the first instance of the metaphor of resurrection in history. Ezekiel uses it not to depict an afterlife or a general resurrection of the dead, but as a metaphor for the renewal of the people Israel. Captivity had sapped their hope. They regarded their political and military defeat as an irrevocable historical judgment. Nothing would dislodge the Babylonian colossus from its hegemony over their world. Yahweh had been proven impotent. Marduk had prevailed. Why not assimilate? The ancient faith had proved inadequate; it was nothing but the tribal faith of a tiny population on the fringe of a great empire. Now the exiles were bereft of their land, their temple, their sacrifices–everything that made them a people with a unique identity and vocation. They were removed to the heart of empire. Here were gods of real power, gods of universal sovereignty, gods of irresistible might.

There was no end in sight for the empire, no conceivable vindication of Yahweh, no grounds for hope. The people lament, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” When Yahweh addresses the prophet, “Mortal, can these bones live?,” Ezekiel can scarcely answer yes. The only reasonable response is no. In a case like this his evasion is an act of superhuman optimism: “O Lord God, you know.”

Yet Yahweh orders Ezekiel to prophesy to these dry bones–spiritually desiccated Israel–and to call them back to life. And though this miracle is one that only Yahweh can perform, it is the prophet who must, at each step of the way, speak to the dry bones. It is the prophetic task, in a time of unraveling hopes, to declare the unimaginable, to assert the rationality of the unthinkable, to call the people to new hope, grounded not on the past but on sheer faith that God is about to do the impossible.

It literally was impossible. No people could be expected to survive the Babylonian experience without assimilation. Yet God did literally resurrect this people and bring them back into their land. And God did it through nothing but vision. God promises, “I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel…. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.”

Nor does the prophet’s task end there. Many of the exiles had been born in Babylon. They had never seen the Holy Land or the temple. In order to give concreteness to the vision of the return, Ezekiel is given the dimensions of the future temple. Chapters 40 through 48 constitute a veritable blueprint for the temple’s rebuilding.

With this prophecy a wonderful thing happened. People began debating the details. Some even disagreed with Ezekiel, suggesting alternatives. So involved was everyone in the specifications that they failed to notice the critical thing: they had all accepted as an established fact that it was going to happen. Vision had become expectation. Hope had become anticipation. The unimaginable had been imagined, and by that sovereign creative act it had entered into the course of history.

That is how history is made: by envisioning of new alternative possibilities and acting on them as if they were inevitable. That is how despair is overcome: by the declaration of unlikelihoods welling up from the center of reality, by prophesying a course of action God is conspiring to bring to pass.

Israel did go home. The temple was rebuilt. Babylon, that eternal empire, fell within 50 years. And more: God’s promise to put divine spirit in them, though not immediately fulfilled, was reiterated by Joel in an even more unbelievable vision: “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.”

This unprecedented egalitarian dream was to wait 400 years before it received its first installment of fulfillment at Pentecost. Again, a group of people who had lost their moorings, who were uncertain of the way forward, lacking in all models and patterns and sure of only one thing: the resurrection that was mere metaphor in Ezekiel–a metaphor powerful enough to reconstitute a nation–had happened in their midst. Once again God was doing the impossible. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit was power and promise for their journey into the unknown.

God is at work in our malaise today. It may be that the parish-based church will continue to wither away even as people experience unprecedented levels of spiritual hunger and restlessness. It may be that the denominational way of doing things will continue to decline and will bring about a diminution of the fragmentation of Christianity. It may be that the new forms of the church’s faithfulness are already present among us, unrecognized. It may be that they are still waiting to be birthed. This will be one of the most turbulent and innovative periods in the church’s entire history. The very depression that wracks so many may be the pry bar that will separate them from dying forms. In any case, God is already bringing these dry bones to life.

COPYRIGHT 1994 The Christian Century Foundation

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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