Can These Bones Live?
Today we celebrate Pentecost, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit by the ascended Jesus. Historically, this was a major Church holy day ranking right up there with Easter. Even as late as the 1940's, Lutherans had divine services not just on Pentecost Sunday but on Pentecost Monday and Tuesday too. But not anymore. We've lost touch with this holy day. It just doesn't mean that much to us. But it should. It should because it answers the question that has always burned in the hearts of God's people. Can these bones live?
Abraham stands looking at Sarah. He is 100; she is 90, and he thinks, "Can these bones live?" God had tied all of His promises to Sarah and him having a son. Years and years have passed, but no son. Romans says Abraham knew both that his own body was as good as dead and that Sarah's womb was dead. "Can these dead bodies produce a son?" No wonder Sarah had a great big belly laugh when she overheard the Lord telling Abraham that they would.
Can these bones live? That's what the people of God asked themselves as they stood before the burnt, strewn remains of Jerusalem. 70 years had passed since God sent hundreds of thousands of them into captivity in Babylon to discipline them for their idolatry. Now 50,000 of them have been returned by God's grace to Jerusalem. But it's nothing but a deserted heap of blackened, dusty stones. Can this city live?
Skip ahead 400 years in the history of God's people. All of God's promises are tied to the House of David bringing forth a king. But the House of David on the eve of the New Testament is hardly a place one would expect a king from. The House of David is the whipping boy of Rome. The House of David is reduced to the likes of a poor carpenter from Nazareth named Joseph and an even poorer virgin named Mary. You know how Isaiah described the House of David now? As a stump in a forest that has been burned. No signs of life; no signs of hope. Can this stump live?
Let's make this personal. We're the people of God too, and don't we find this question on our lips as well? Think of our loved ones in Christ in the ground. Their bones are every bit as dry as those seen by Ezekiel; can such bones live? Look in the mirror. Regardless of your age you are growing older each day. No matter what you do, what you take, how you exercise, you are relentlessly slipping into the grave. What signs of continued life can you see in your body? Can your bones live?
And don't think you young people escape just because your bodies haven't yet started preaching to you of your sinful, fallen condition. Just because your bodies have not yet begun to show signs of decay doesn't mean your souls do not show it already. Your souls are without true fear, love or trust in God. The good you want to do, you don't, and the evil you don't want to think, do or say, you do. Like St. Paul you too must cry out, "O wretched person that I am who will deliver me from this body of death." Paul's expression probably comes from the Roman practice of tying a criminal to a corpse face to face. As the dead body decayed, the criminal went insane. We who are face to face with our decaying soul or body must too cry out, "Can I live?"
What about our Church? The people of God called Trinity Lutheran Church? Our walls are not broken down and burnt as Jerusalem's were, but is there really any hope for life in us? Can this Church live with twice as many people in their 80's and 90's as in their teens? Can this Church live after decades of decline? Are we anything but a valley of very dry bones? Is there anymore life in us then there was in Abraham's body or Sarah's womb? Are we not a cut-off, burned out stump of a Church? Can this Church live?
The only answer is, "Absolutely not!" How will decades of dying be reversed by us? There is nothing for us to do, but board up the windows, bolt the doors and erect the sign saying, "Here stood Trinity Lutheran Church from 1938-2000." Dry bones, very dry bones do not live. There is no power on earth, in science, or with men that can make dry bones live or dead churches rise.
Don't look so shocked. Isn't that exactly what Abraham had to conclude when looking at Sarah's and his bodies? Was there any reproductive life there? Do 100 year old men father children? Maybe one in a 1,000 do, but do 90 year old women bear children? Never. What about Jerusalem? Could she live? She was surrounded by enemies who still hated her after 70 years. The only people to work on her were timid people afraid of their own shadows, people who had brought back their sins with them from captivity. What hope did they have of making Jerusalem live? None. What about the House of David? Could any kingdom rise from the body of a poor virgin from Galilee? Not a chance.
We must confess the same about what confronts us. There is no power on earth, in science, in magic, in medicine, that can make the bones of our loved ones rise. They aren't as good as dead; they are dead. And what does your own aging body tell you about your chances? Eat all the garlic you want; do all the exercises you can; get all the tests medicine calls for. But still your body preaches to you, "You're dying and there's nothing you can do to make these bones live." Your conscience can only say the same thing about your soul. It is lost, lifeless, and helpless. Follow all the self-help programs you wish, devote yourself to all 12 steps of any program you chose, be determined once and for all to break with your pet sins, and still all you will be able to find in your soul is sin, death and hopelessness.
To the question, "Can these bones live?" all we can answer on our own is, "No." But there is another answer. When that question is put to Ezekiel, he doesn't look to himself nor at the valley of dry bones. He looks to the Lord almighty and says, "O sovereign Lord, You alone know." God knows something we don't know. God knows something we can't know. God knows the awesome power of His Spirit.
You see we do exactly what one of our hymns tells us not to do. We judge the Lord by feeble sense, and we come up hopeless. We have a scientific understanding of things which colors our hope a dark, lifeless grey. We can only picture things getting better according to our understanding of medicine or science. We can only understand buildings being erected by the principles of engineering. Bodies being born according to the principles of reproduction. Bodies being healed by the principles of biology. Sins being broken by the principles of psychology. However, when Zechariah stood before the broken down, hopelessly destroyed temple and all he had were the timid, sinful, weak people of God, God tells Him, "Do not think according to the principles of power and might, but think in terms of My Spirit."
Yes, lifeless Abraham and Sarah were given life in their bodies by the Spirit of God who doesn't pay attention to medical textbooks on reproduction. The Virgin Mary knew of no way of bearing a child apart from a relationship with a man. She didn't know about the power of the Lord overshadowing her and the Spirit of God laying the Son of God in her womb. Thankfully the Holy Spirit had not read the scientific principle that virgins can't conceive, nor the theological principle that all of God can't fit inside the womb of a woman.
Likewise, when confronted by dry bones, whether those in the valley that Ezekiel saw, those of our dead in Christ, or those in the mirror we are looking in, the Spirit does not throw His hands up in the air saying, "Science, medicine, and reason say dry bones can't live. What can I do about it?" When confronted by our sinfulness, the Holy Spirit doesn't look at what statistics, psychology, or even common sense says. He doesn't conclude that children of alcoholics are doomed, those from unhappy homes will never grow out of it, or that sins are sicknesses that can't be forgiven and so overcame.
And what do you think the Spirit concludes when He looks at our Church? I don't think He concludes any differently than He did on the first Pentecost. All He had then were 12 weak, sinful, scared, pastors and maybe a congregation of 120, about the size of ours. They were no richer, no smarter, no more faithful than we are. This congregation too had dwindled over the last years. Now, thankfully the Spirit did not consult the principles of Church Growth which teach that churches on the decline don't turn around, and if they do, it is only because they offer people what people feel they need. The Spirit didn't look at numbers or probability. He just poured Himself out on that Jerusalem Church and the rest is history.
Do note that the Spirit does not just act in the spiritual realm forgiving sins, giving faith, hope, joy and peace. He acts in the physical realm too. In our text, He grew tendons and flesh, joined bones to bones, and covered them with skin. Then He granted them His Spirit to live. Abraham and Sarah didn't need a spiritual child; they needed one of flesh and blood. God's people needed a physical house of worship. And God needed to come in flesh and blood to redeem flesh and blood sinners. The Spirit provided both spiritual and physical gifts for His people. He does so for us too.
The Spirit, in fact, does the impossible. When you are in the realm of the Spirit you are not in the realm of the possible and probable but the impossible and improbable. The realm of the Spirit is not one of reason and science but one of miracles and wonders. And the Spirit does the impossible with what appears to be foolish, weak things. He uses the physical to work the spiritual and in turn blesses the physical.
How did the Spirit work on that valley of dry bones? By preaching, by a no doubt boring sermon preached by Ezekiel. Dry bones live by the power of the Spirit received from the Word preached to them. Our loved ones in Christ go to the grave with forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the dead, and the life everlasting preached into their ears. Their bones will live by that same Word. Likewise, our dying bodies and our sinful souls live by the Spirit forgiving our sins, sending them away from us by the preached Word. We do not look to our bodies or souls for hope for the future; we look to the Spirit working miracles through the Word being preached to us.
Ah but sometimes it's hard to listen to the preaching of the Word. Our own hearing seems to frustrate the working of the Spirit. That's why the Spirit is also given to us at Baptism. Early on we are placed into the realm of the Spirit by Baptism. Our lives are not limited by what our spirits and bodies can do. No, our lives are only limited by what the Spirit can do in our spirits and bodies, and what can't He do? Is any sin, any habit, any sickness, any death, any doubt a match for the Spirit who is a water of life, healing and hope in us through Baptism?
But the deadness of our own bones is so pronounced, isn't it? I see it daily; I feel it hourly. Can these bones live? Not on their own. Not based on the principles of medicine and science. But by the Spirit they can. The Spirit uses what the ancients called the Medicine of Immortality, the Holy Communion. Here Christ gives us His Body and Blood which the Spirit uses to preserve us for life everlasting. Think about it. Men through mummification and embalming are able to preserve a body for centuries with chemicals. What on earth, what in heaven can the Spirit NOT do using the Body and Blood of Christ? Can these bones live? Of course they can by the power of the Spirit. Not only can they live by the Spirit but they can prosper far beyond what any of us dares to believe. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Pentecost (6-11-00) Ezekiel 37: 1-10