Imagine the sound of thunder. First, in silence, a light so bright you can see it even through closed eyelids in a shuttered room. Then, the space of a heartbeat, two, three . . . and suddenly a crash that sounds as if it is mere feet away from you. It is the crack of a whip 20 blocks long that rolls and thunders on, roaring in a deafening cadence; rattling the windows long after it has passed. And then, the sound of torrential rain pouring down, pounding at the windowpanes, drumming the pavement, whipping the trees back and forth – until finally calming to a gentle patter before the next strike of thunder.
Thunder, lightening and heavy rain are elements we are very familiar with here. Hearing that description probably brought specific images or memories to your mind. At times I have seen the lightning through my closed eyes, and even though I know the sound is coming, I still jump when it first hits. Theses are shared, visceral experiences for those of us living in the Midwest. So it may seem just a little less strange or a little less foreign to hear the descriptions of Ezekiel’s vision, or the experience of the apostles.
How do you capture an experience of God? How can you possibly communicate such an experience to someone else in a way that will resonate for them? There are many images that come to mind as I think about Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones. The twin towers, smoking and in ruins is one of them. How many of us experienced that event? Whether you were in NYC, knew someone who was, or was simply one of the thousands of people who watched it on television, stunned, I would guess, we would each have a different way of expressing our experience of it.
Ezekiel is a prophet. It is his job to interpret God to his people. It is his job to interpret the communities’ behavior to itself. He is writing from exile. As one theologian describes it,
Their temple has been destroyed, their holy city plundered, their leaders maimed and put in chains, their soldiers put to the sword, their young men and women either killed or dragged off into a foreign land. Ezekiel witnesses the soul of his people gradually wither and die, becoming lifeless as a valley of dry bones.
This is his context, and what his people have been living through. And then they look to Ezekiel for a word—of explanation, of comfort, even of condemnation—something to help them make sense of the incomprehensible. How can he even get his own thoughts in order, when everything he has known is gone. What happens if God resides in the temple, and then it is destroyed and even if it hadn’t been, we are taken miles and leagues away from it, from God? Is God still with us? Has God forsaken us? Has God really let her holy city and holy temple be destroyed? Is our God not as strong as the gods of these Babylonians? What will happen to us?
How should Ezekiel answer? He gives a description: The hand of the Lord came upon me, and God brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. God led me around them; there were hundreds upon thousands littering the valley, desiccated and disarticulated (Ez 37:1-2). And I think to myself, how else could he possibly have described what those people experienced – their homes destroyed, their lives uncertain, dragged to a foreign land? What word could be spoken to such a heartbroken and hope-lost people? “God came to me in a vision, a valley of dry bones, and asked me: Mortal, can these bones live?” What must Ezekiel have thought, being transported to this valley? I imagine his reaction as something akin to Scrooge, transported to a lonely, cold, damp graveyard – incomprehension, until in horror he sees his own tombstone; his own grave.
The translation of the Bible we often use in worship is the New Revised Standard Version. When it says “God led me all around them,” meaning all around the bones, there is a sense of round and round over and over again Ezekiel is led amongst this field of human bones. And then the bone chilling question, can these bones live again, these bones that are the whole house of Israel?
Dare he hope for such impossibility? Dare he hope for dead bones to somehow miraculously be brought back to life? Dare he hope that his people might also be resuscitated and breathed back into life, made whole and returned to their own lands? His response is: only you can know, Lord.
And he is instructed to prophesy to these dead bones and tell them to hear the words of God. “God will re-form you, lay sinew upon you, cause flesh to come upon you and breathe into you life, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am God” (Ez 37: 4-6). And like a scene out of some high budget science fiction movie, the bones start to rattle and move. Before Ezekiel’s eyes, they start to reattach themselves, each finding its mates. Like a film running in reverse, he witnesses muscle and tendon reattached, organs grow, skin and hair and eyes cover, until they gasp in the breath of God and rise up.
How do we witness to a people in despair, the truth of God’s love and faithfulness? How do we exhort one another to faithful response in the face of overwhelming odds? It may seem as though this is a distant story, far removed from our cell phone tethered lives. But it is worth considering, what are our dry bones? What are those places of despair, or lost hope, or exhaustion? Surely, we have those places as individuals. But we also have them as communities.
As we move closer to November, with several weighty measures to vote on, might some of our dry bones be in these struggles? In the struggle for everyone to simply be able to openly love the person they love? Not just to be able to marry, but to be understood as whole human beings who wish to celebrate and mourn and live and commit themselves like any one else. The struggle for all of us to be recognized as having an essential voice in our democracy, and not be disproportionately disenfranchised by an amendment requiring ID with a current address, in order to exercise one of the most basic rights held up in our constitution. For many of us, scripture can feel distant from our everyday lives, but if we can listen to those ancient stories in a prophetic way, it just might have a word for us, here and now, as the particularity of our lives.
The community of apostles, sitting, praying in an upper room are in a similar state of uncertainty. Jesus, their Messiah, has been killed in the most painful and humiliating way possible, among criminals. He was their leader, their teacher, their friend – and in the aftermath of his crucifixion, their next steps were unclear. Their first response, after filling the hole left by Judas, is to gather together and pray. Trusting God to lead them. And the Holy Spirit comes upon them, each of them, and they begin to speak in other languages. They are all Galilean, but they are speaking in the tongues of every imaginable nation. The apostles are filled with the Holy Spirit, and are able to communicate with people from everywhere, to proclaim the gospel and the good news for all people. And no matter where they were from, the crowd that gathers is able to hear that message in their native language. This is an inaugural event, when the Christian church begins to take shape. With a sound like a rushing wind, the Spirit comes upon each of them.
The Hebrew word ruach used to describe the Holy Spirit literally means breath. It is an image that is repeated over and over throughout both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. God breathes over the deep at the creation of the world; God breathes life into dust, creating the first humans; God breathes into dry bones endowing them with life. Here, though, the emphasis is on direct connection with the Spirit, who is filling the world in a new way. Again, how would you possibly describe the experience of being filled with the Holy Spirit of God? And, lest we feel embarrassed by a skeptical response, the crowd who witnessed it thought they were crazy too. They said, they must be drunk! Thankfully, Peter is there to interpret the event for them, making the rather obvious point that they probably aren’t drunk given that it’s nine o’clock in the morning!
Now this is where we, as a modern audience, should be listening closely. Peter goes on to quote the prophet Joel, and insists that the Spirit has come in radical social equality to and for all people.
17‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. 18Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy’ (Acts 2:17-18).
What would that look like for us today? Upon your pre-els, college students and your elders; upon queer and straight; homeless, wealthy and in forclosure; Upon women, men and gender-queer; black and white and everything in between – I will pour out my Spirit, and they will have a voice to witness. Peter is interpreting the prophet in talking about the kin-dom of God – that which is here and not yet here.
As theologian Jurgen Moltmann expresses it, “In the kingdom of the Spirit, everyone will experience his and her own endowment and all will experience the new fellowship together.” Donald McKim goes on to say, “The church is the place where this new fellowship begins to take shape as it recognizes the gifts of the Spirit in and for all people. To realize that “all flesh,” all people, receive the Spirit, enables us to watch and participate in God’s work in this world with a wide-open vision.”
In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he writes, “For we know that the whole of Creation is groaning together in the pains of childbirth until this hour,” (until the reign of God is fulfilled). And we live in the midst of it as we struggle to see the Spirit’s gifts in one another other, in those who are unfamiliar or have express different views. But we have the gift of a prophetic approach to our scriptures to help us discover patterns of divine action in the past that help us discern where and how God is still active today—in, as one theologian puts it, “the renewal of creation, in liberation from oppression, in the beneficial ordering of our life together, and in the creative endurance of conflict.”
As we try to live into God’s vision of radical social equality, trying to understand what that looks like in the specificity of our lives and neighborhoods, and even as we struggle to find our own unique voices and the courage to use them authentically – we stand, not only with the Spirit filling us, poured out “upon all flesh,” but with the breath of God breathing new life into our dry bones; bringing hope from desperation, comfort in the midst of despair, and the assurance that God’s kin-dom is for all people and we exist to proclaim it. Amen.