Beckett: Sermon – Valley of Dry Bones

Proroctwo Ezechiela (Ezekiel’s Prophecy) by Jacek Malczewski (1854-1929). Wikimedia Commons.

Date: March 26, 2023
Festival: 5th Sunday in Lent
Text: Ezekiel 37:1-14
Preaching Occasion: Zion Lutheran Church, Mt. Pleasant, MI, and CTKLC
Appointed Scriptures: Ezekiel 37:1-14; Romans 8:1-11; John 11:17-27, 38-53
Sermon Hymn: LSB #741 Jesus Christ, My Sure Defense

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, the Pharisees express their concern over their nation, Israel. They’re quite patriotic about it. As such, they are afraid that the miracles of Jesus will cause the Romans to “take away” their position and their nation. We express the same fears as well. Many, if not all of us, are patriotic about our own nation, and we are outraged over the loss of Christianity’s position in the culture. So, I often get the question, “Why is America going downhill?” Well, I don’t know that it is, at least economically. The question behind the question is why our nation’s morality is becoming more and more depraved, and the question mourns the loss of Christianity’s cultural dominance. Well, America has always followed after other gods, so why are we so surprised? By His mercy, God allows wicked nations to persist for a while, but like Israel and Judah, eventually His justice comes to those who deny Him. But even should our nation collapse, we have the certainty of knowing we are eternal citizens of God’s kingdom, which is not of this world, so there’s nothing to be afraid of.

If history teaches us anything, it’s that kingdoms rise and fall, but Christ’s Church continues to persevere. Christ is the cornerstone; He cannot be moved. After 2,000 years of the Roman Empire’s reign, it collapsed, yet the Church prevailed. Before this, all of Israel and Judah were led into exile, yet God’s people prevailed. And their perseverance was not their own doing; it was God’s doing. So, the Pharisees perhaps remembered their nation’s history and feared collapse and exile once again, but their eyes were fixed on their position in culture and their status as a nation rather than on God’s Word of promise. In their fear, they repeat the sins of their ancestors, and we mimic their idolatry.

In Ezekiel’s vision that we read today, the entire country of Judah had been taken into captivity in Babylon and Jerusalem had just been sacked and its temple destroyed. The Lord took Ezekiel out in the Spirit and had him view the destruction of Judah and its capital to see it for what it is: a valley of dry bones, of death—the remnants of war and disaster. Why? Why would God let this happen? Because Judah had abandoned Yahweh. The greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind. Instead, Judah, like their northern neighbour Israel, loved other gods. Time after time after time, God delivered His people from their enemies that He may be their God and they may be His people, but they chose to fear, love, and trust in other gods.

Before entering the Promised Land, God gave them His Commandments with the choice of life or death; in other words, choose God and keep His Commandments and live, or choose other gods and die [Deut. 30:15-20]. And as the time of Judges show us, up to the time of the kings and the Prophets, Israel—a divided nation—only has the propensity to choose other gods and, therefore, death until all that is left of them is a valley of dry bones.

This shows the propensity of us all, really. It’s easy to look back at Israel’s history and think, “How could they be so foolish as to reject God time and time again after all God has done for them?” But isn’t that exactly what we do? Don’t we fear, love, and trust in other gods too? Like the Pharisees, we show who our true god is when we fear our nation’s collapse more than we fear God and love and trust our cultural dominance more than we love Jesus. Remember what it means to have a god. Luther writes in the Large Catechism, “A god means that from which we are to expect all good and in which we are to take refuge in all distress. So, to have a God is nothing other than trusting and believing Him with the heart” [LC I, 2]. Who or what do you expect all good, and who or what is your refuge in all distress? Who or what do you trust and believe with all your heart? For the Israelites, it was Baal—the supreme god of the Canaanites, the storm god, god of fertility, and lord of the earth. It was Astarte, goddess of war and sex. It was Moloch, a fertility god who demanded child sacrifice. And many other false gods.

But false gods, or idols, are not merely what we take hold of with our hands, but what we take hold of with our heart—whatever our hearts fear, love, and trust most. John Calvin had the right of it when he said our hearts are idol producing factories. We would prefer to worship anything to our heart’s desires that is not Jesus. Luther wrote that Mammon, or money and possessions, is the most common idol on earth. Neither rich nor poor are safe from this idol worship. As he writes in the Large Catechism, “Many a person thinks that he has God and everything in abundance when he has money and possessions. He trusts in them and boasts about them with such firmness and assurance as to care for no one.” In other words, the temptation for the rich is, “I have money to give me what I need; I can purchase my own security. What do I need God for?” “On the other hand,” Luther continues, “he who has no money doubts and is despondent, as though he knew of no God” [LC I, 5-9]. In other words, the temptation for the poor is, “I need money and position to be truly happy and secure.” Both forget that all they have comes from the Lord, not from themselves.

We boast in our riches, and we also boast in our own skill and power. When success happens, we would sooner praise ourselves than God. When something bad happens, we assume God is at fault. Or we boast in our pride—we believe that what we think is more right than God’s Word. His Commandments tell us what sin is—indeed, our sin—and yet we have the arrogance to think, “God is wrong. The Bible is old and outdated. How can it be a sin when I love it so much?” Israel and Judah thought the same things, and look what happened to them: death and destruction. They got what they deserved… but God was not content to leave them that way.

Judah did not remain a graveyard. The valley of their dry bones did not remain a monument to their sins. For the Lord said, “I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O My people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel” [Ezek. 37:12]. And that is just what happened. Judah was exiled to Babylon in 605 B.C., Jerusalem was sacked and the temple destroyed in 587 B.C., and in 538 B.C., Cyrus, the king of Persia, decrees that the Israelites return to Israel. They begin farming the land again, they rebuild the temple, their cultural customs and festivals return, they restore their liturgical worship, and they can keep the Sabbath again. That is what Ezekiel was seeing in his vision.

But that’s not all he saw. Figuratively, he saw Israel becoming a living people again—a people who were dead in exile becoming alive in their homeland. But he also saw the literal resurrection on the last day, which is what Jesus promises to His people who are dead in sin. This is what Martha confesses when Jesus says her brother will rise again. She says, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day” [John 11:24]. Although what she confesses is true, Jesus was not talking about that last day, per se; He was talking about Himself. “I AM the resurrection and the life,” Jesus says. “Whoever believes in Me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?” [vv. 25-26].

And she does. She believes He is “the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world” [v. 27]. She again confesses that last day when Jesus the Christ will come into the world to raise the dead. And He gives Martha, and us, a picture of that day—another perspective of Ezekiels’ vision. He commands Lazarus, “Come out!” and he obeys. He is no longer covered in the stink of decomposition. His flesh and sinews have returned to him; his organs function normally again.

But that’s not all either. Jesus displays His power over death, and then we are told of His coming death. The false gods of the chief priests and Pharisees are revealed; they are worried about losing their position and their nation. And the high priest Caiaphas ignorantly prophesies, “It is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish” [v. 50]. This is just like Joseph’s story in Genesis. His brothers sold him into slavery, yet what they meant for evil, God meant for good, for He used Joseph to save them from famine—from certain death. What the Pharisees meant for evil, God meant for good, for He used the death of His only-begotten Son to save you from eternal death.

Many question what God is doing about suffering and evil in the world. They assume He’s doing nothing. Ezekiel’s vision shows us what the reality would be if God truly were sitting back and doing nothing. All of earth would become a valley of dry bones and remain a mass grave. If God were doing nothing about evil, humanity would not survive for a single hour. Instead of allowing this to happen, God allowed the death of His Son to be the substitute for the death you and I deserve. Good Friday was Judgement Day. Yet instead of Earth becoming a valley of dry bones, the bones, flesh, and sinews of Jesus were laid in the grave. Instead of you and I receiving the judgement we deserve on that black Friday, Jesus received that judgement. He bore your griefs, your sorrows, was esteemed stricken and smitten by God and afflicted instead of you like Judah underwent, and He was pierced for your transgressions, crushed for your iniquities [Is. 53:4-5].

But death has no hold on Him. For remember, He had already displayed His power over death when He commanded Lazarus to come out of the grave. Therefore, Jesus came out from His grave! Yet He did this not for Himself; He did this for you. When Ezekiel saw the flesh and sinews return to the bones of the dead, they still needed the breath of God to live. And he saw God breathe into them, he saw Him put His Spirit within them, and they lived. This is what Paul calls “the law of the Spirit of life,” which “has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death” [Rom. 8:2]. Each of us chooses sin, and so we choose death. Yet in Christ, God chose life for you, whose Spirit—the Lord and Giver of life—has set you free from death. Each of us will die, to be sure, “for the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” [6:23]. Or as Paul also says, “If the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you” [8:11].

The Spirit of Christ raised Him from the dead, and He has given this same Spirit to you in your Baptism. Since the Spirit of Christ raised Jesus from the dead, just what do you think this means for you? It means your mortal bodies will also be risen from the dead. Unless the Lord returns while we are alive, each of our bodies will lie 6 feet under. But your bodies will not remain in the graveyard forever. For Christ is the resurrection and the life; because you believe in Him, you will never die.

Imagine if we took all the cemeteries in the world and placed them side by side. It would be a vast valley of dry bones. But when Jesus returns, at the command of your name and His Word like Lazarus, your bones will rise, your flesh and sinews will return, and He will breathe His Holy Spirit into you, and you will live forever, and you will know that He is the Lord.

To Christ belongs all the glory, forever and ever. Amen.

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