March 26, 2023, Sanctuary Worship, Sermon, "Dry Bones"
Mar 26th | The Reverend Anna von Winckler | Romans 8:6-11
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What comes to mind when you hear the reading from Ezekiel about the Valley of Dry Bones? Being that this is such a musical congregation, it wouldn’t surprise me if many of you immediately began thinking of the song, Dem Bones, based on this scripture. And if you aren’t familiar with the song, I’d sing a few lines for you, but I love you too much and want you to continue to love me, that I won’t put you through that. But for those unfamiliar with the song, it is a spiritual that has a jaunty tune that belies the depth of despair that the people of Israel were going through. Once again the Israelites were living in exile, this time under the Babylonians. For 70 years the people of Israel had been living in exile. They were a people that were displaced and felt despairing and defeated. The bones of relatives and loved ones who had died in exile were buried in foreign soil. And they, the living, felt as if they were dead. That they were every bit dead bones as were any of their relatives or loved ones who had actually died. For gone was any hope.
Gone were the glory days of Moses liberating them from Egypt. Gone were the victory days when Joshua had brought military conquest to the people. Gone was the glorious time under King David. Gone are the prosperous years under Solomon. Gone were the days of glory. Now, all that was left of the great nation of Israel were dry bones. A people breathing, walking through life, but as if dead. Dry bones.
They were no longer the great nation they once were. Gone was the country that once stood for righteousness, that stood for peace, for justice, for love or mercy; who no longer walked humbly with their God. The only thing remaining was a valley strewn with bones.
The people were alive, physically, but they were spiritually dead. They were homeless and helpless and God saw their despair. And so God spoke to the people through the prophet Ezekiel, but first God spoke to Ezekiel, asking him, “Son of Man, can these bones live?” Ezekiel’s response is simply, “O, Lord God, you know.”
Has this country, our country, become like Israel in captivity? Are we a country of dry bones, living in hopelessness, despair, defeat? In my readings this past week, one writer talked about our country being in societal despair; more than societal anxiety, but despair, a crippling fear of the future as this country spirals downward into increasing hate and violence. Spiraling downward as our politicians care more about power and gain than they do for the average person in this country, as they care more about themselves than the future of this planet. No longer is there any give or take between the two parties. Now it is just to keep the other side from achieving a victory. Gone are the days of political integrity. And it isn’t just in our country, as we see leaders around the world turn more authoritarian. And with it has gone any sense of spiritual vitality.
I was told recently that I emphasize the Holy Spirit in my sermons. I do so because I believe it is only through the conscious embracing of the Holy Spirit in our lives that we have any hope of making a difference in this world.
The Romans passage has Paul explaining to the people that there are two diametrically opposing forces at work. One is that of the flesh and the other is the Spirit. They bring us to different ends, the flesh brings us to death and the spirit leads us to life and peace. As we know, the flesh is hostile toward God, because the flesh is only concerned about the me and not about the us. It is a struggle that we have about how we spend our money, our time, how we list our priorities. But greater still we see the flesh taking dominance in our politicians as hate and oppression become the norm in more and more states and as more people give into the flesh and turn to outward spewing of hate toward others. We see less compassion, less empathy. And what we ultimately see is a country turning into dry bones.
But that’s where the Holy Spirit comes in. We tend to think of the Holy Spirit coming upon the scene at Pentecost, but in this passage from Ezekiel we hear that God calls the four winds and breathes life back into those old dry bones. Verse fourteen says, “I will put my Spirit in you and you will live.” The Spirit of God within us is what empowers and enlivens us, it is what enables us to find hope in the midst of tragedy, confusion, and chaos. Do you believe that? Do you believe that even when you are taken to the depths of despair, loneliness, grief?
Corrie ten Boom who, along with her sister and father, helped save Jews during the Holocaust, was imprisoned in a concentration camp. She held her sister as she died in that camp; but despite the horrors that she witnessed AND experienced, she kept the faith, while many did not. This is not to be critical of those who lost faith, for who am I to judge, especially as I have no idea how I would hold up under those inhumane conditions, but I think the reason that people like Corrie were able to survive in faith was because they were able to embrace the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is there for us in equal measure, but it is our embrace of the Spirit that makes the difference. To allow the indwelling of the Holy Spirit to work its gifts of empowerment and hope is what is essential. Paul refers to this as the “Resurrection Life.” For the Spirit who dwells in us is the carrier of God’s resurrection power. The Spirit is so closely related to resurrection power that they are interchangeable.
And that is the mindset that we need to have; that we dwell in the Spirit, and that is to be the domain of our existence. But the Spirit also dwells in us as the concrete form in which God’s presence exists within our broken world. We know from the words in Galatians that the true mark of a Christian is whether the Spirit is exhibited - and not in great deeds like the saints, but within the ordinary forms of life and service. And you know what the fruits are: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Nine visible virtues that should be evidenced in people walking with Jesus. And that is the key here.
We may not ever be prophets like Ezekiel, but we can be givers of hope in this country of dry bones. If every Christian allowed the fruits of the Spirit to be made manifest in abundance, then people would know we are Christians by our love, as the song goes. And if we are able to let the light of the Spirit shine through, then eventually the country and the world will begin to see Christianity for what it is and not as how it is presented by those who preach Christ in sheep’s clothing.
We exist in our mortal bodies, which are “dead because of sin”. They reflect the old order that is on its way out. Can these bones live? The question concerns itself with revival and restoration. Israel’s decay, like ours, had become so complex and the problems grew and became interrelated, so when God asked Ezekiel, “Can these bones live?” he could only respond with “Lord, only you know.”
Ezekiel understood that Israel’s problems were greater than human wisdom could resolve or human resources combat. We worry over the next election, over whether the bad actors in political life will or can be stopped as oppression is increased and rights are decreased. But as we see with the Israelites in Ezekiel’s time, there is nothing that can be done until the breath of God is made manifest.
The spirit within, our inner self, has already begun to feel the impact of acquired righteousness; something that will be made complete in our final resurrection.
Professor Paul Craddox says that the texts for today, with a strong emphasis on the Spirit, “ take us ahead to Pentecost. It certainly points us to Easter as we think of Christ’s resurrection and our own. Yet within the context of Lent, it speaks a direct message urging us to clearly see the contours of two fundamentally opposed ways of living that continue to pose options for us. The moral tension rings true. This is what Lent forces us to confront before we celebrate Easter.”
Let us confront the choice between the flesh and the spirit and then, Individually and collectively, let us fully embrace the Holy Spirit that God is breathing into us even now. Embrace the Spirit so that hope can thrive, so that empowerment can spring forth, so that we can be enlivened to offer the fruits of the Spirit to a hungry and desperate country. Continue to reflect on these things as we continue on our Lenten journey. And remember, the dry bones will rise up. Easter is almost upon us. Amen.
© 2023 Anna von Winckler
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