God with Us Will; We with God Can

A sermon based on Ezekiel 37:1-14
March 29, 2020 at Mount Vernon, Ohio
by Rev. Scott Elliott

We just heard Ezekiel’s very strange vision of a valley full of bones in the Hebrew Scriptures Lectionary reading for today. I selected the text months ago thinking I’d use to it complete my Lenten sermon series on big picture Bible narratives. Even as I started getting ready to put this sermon together I still thought it’d be a big picture sermon about Ezekiel or maybe the prophets in general. But as I worked and prayed about the sermon, the Exilic context and bone yard metaphor kept pretty much shouting at me. The shout was to abandon the big picture Bible narrative idea and apply the theological message to the very big picture looming over our own context today, that context being the corona virus pandemic and the world wide disruption which all of humanity is enduring right now. Every human is affected.
I need to set out some of Ezekiel’s context to help us understand why the lesson (Laura just read so well) . . . shouted out to me in our context. Ezekiel was a priest and a prophet in the mid 6th century BCE. At that time and place Jerusalem had been conquered by the Babylonian army – and many of its inhabitants were force marched out of Jerusalem and into exile in Babylon. Ezekiel is among those in exile and he writes from that context. In other words, he prophesied at a time HIS world and that of his fellow exiles was topsy turvy. For those in exile it was just the bare bones of the world they once knew in Zion, and the skeletons of what was. The time seemed dark and foreboding and hopeless. So the people in exile also felt like mere skeletons of what they were.
Of course, the corona virus has not just affected the world we know as a select set of people, but has set all the world in askew. While we certainly have not been conquered by Babylon and forced marched into exile in a foreign land, we do find ourselves in a global exile and to a great extent local exile, as well. Here in America, in Ohio, in Knox County, our lives and our culture can fairly be said to seem pretty bare bones in many respects. AND many of us are feeling our lives are skeletal as a result. One example, for religious people is many of us are mourning the loss of gathering in person for worship. While it makes many of us sad, the loss of face-to-face connections in worship spaces is obviously just fraction of life being interrupted.
And actually, of much more concern, is people getting the virus and if they do: getting the care they need to survive, as well as limiting and slowing down the spread of this disease. The greatest tragedy is that people are dying. We are worried for them and their families and our hearts and prayers go out to them. We worry too about ourselves and our families and friends. We are also worried about medical care providers and supplies they need to help the sick and help the rest of us not get sick. Medical folks and many hardworking and dedicated leaders are thankfully working on this.
We also all have concerns about access to necessities as businesses are skeletal, grocery stores and truckers are working to give us that access, as are many others in essential businesses. We also have great concerns about folks without income in jobs and businesses that have had to shutdown, and the tragic and drastic effect on the economy. How we are going to eat, get by and survive is TODAY is critical but we fret about the future too. Many local, state and national
leaders and essential workers are hard at work on this as well. As all this great work is going on, most of us are pretty much confined to home, in an exile that is having an overwhelming affect on our lives. Our community –virtually every community – is not up and running as it usually does. Just a skeleton of our lives in many respects is all that seems left.
And the virus has not just made a skeleton of our lives, it has, as I noted, made a large number of people very ill and many have died despite the best efforts of so many. So while this pandemic is not as cruel as Babylon may have been to individuals in exile in some respects, it is though more widespread than one set of people in one place, and worse in some ways too. The point is that the world is under a presently constant threat of a somewhat unpredictable virus and the illness and deaths are all too real as we live on in this bare bones skeletal manner.
In Ezekiel time and place his people were of course also in a skeletal mode. In captivity the outlook and hope felt like Israel was lost forever and that God had abandoned them. The scattered skeleton bones of the people of Zion in a foreign land were all that seemed to remain. It was in this hopelessness that God showed Ezekiel a valley filled with the symbolic bones of the exiled and God asked “Mortal can these bones live? Ezekiel responded “O Lord God, you know.” To which God provided what seems like an impossible answer. God stated in essence that “Yes, the bones can live” God promised their spirit would be reanimated – that they would live– through God’s actions reversing the ordinary order of natural decay for a body. God was to rebuild the body causing sinews, flesh, and breath to animate the skeletons, into a full-bodied life again.
Like the creation story, the Word of God, the breath of God, is essential to animate human life in this Bible story. But in this story the Word of God, the breath of God, is experienced through the acts of a human, Ezekiel. We can hear in this, hope. Hope in that humanity has the God-given power to initiate the reanimation of even those with nothing left but bare bones of life. 2 Amazingly it is through a human that God works this miracle! And we actually see this going on locally and elsewhere in this pandemic. Humans are being the hands and voice of God.
Many of us are hunkered down and doing what is needed to help everyone get through this as best we can. That’s God working in all of us. We care and desire the well being of not just self but others. That is literally the definition of love.
Besides those of us doing social distancing, there are all those essential workers providing necessities at places like stores, power plants, law enforcement agencies, fire stations, ambulances, medical and dental offices and hospitals … and on the road in delivery vehicles as well as thankfully in much of our government leadership. People of so many stripes are working for all of our well being, it is quite astonishing and such a blessing.
I talked about this in a vlog last week and called it a “counter pandemic of love.” Which I think is right. And how God works . . . and is working. To add some Lenten language to it, out of the ash heap of the pandemic a phoenix of love has been rising. In Bible stories we hear over and over how God revives, resurrects us. From dry bones, from heaps of ashes, from anything, even from a torturous death on a cross, God can transform the negative into the positive. This done through God’s incarnation in humanity.
Ezekiel is an example in the Exile. His incarnational act is to prophesy to the bones, the people in distress teaching them to “hear the word of the Lord.” The Word of the Lord is the breath that begins creation and life in Genesis. It is also the law of Moses. And it is the teaching of Jesus that we love, that we care and desire for the well being of others. That Word – the Word of God– builds the body back up bit by bit in the breath of God taken in and the breath of God given out.
God in humans can and does transforms desperate situations into situations of promised new life and Love. It is a very hopeful truth. And it is not just a truth from history in Ezekiel’s time. It is a truth for the present. The pandemic has many of us feeling like we have been force marched pretty quickly from our comfortable way of being – to this foreign place we are at now.
The good news of this story – of the whole Bible, in fact– is that God can re-animate our lives from the tough valleys we find ourselves in, even from the valley of skeletal existence . . . even from THE. VALLEY. OF. THE. SHADOW. OF. DEATH.
The Lectionary reading today ends with these words: “O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act . . .” This is a promise to all whose life feels bare boned, whose hope is lost, who feel cut off. God’s promise is to raise us up, to put God’s own Spirit in us, to restore us, to give us a resurrection so that like a phoenix we arise out of whatever ash heap of life we feel burnt up by. All we need do is hear, really hear, the word of the Lord, and to know that God is Lord AND TO ACT ON IT! What is really quite amazing is we already see people doing this far and wide. You can feel Love in these actions. It is God enfleshed in humans that is enfleshing bare bones, building us back up. We need to keep up that God work and cheer it on and get hope from it. Because, see, as St Augustine said: “God without us will not as we without God cannot.” That’s powerful stuff, and it is good news since we can sense both that God-with-us-will. And we-with-God . . . can.


1. Texts For Preaching (Westminster John Knox, (2007)) p. 219 of CD ROM
2. Ibid.