Sermon: Dry Bones


Image result for images valley of bones

So, this morning we’ve heard the reading from Ezekiel: the Valley of Bones, and we’ve also heard the story of the raising of Lazarus.  Given that they were long readings, my sermon this morning is going to be adequately short, because I know we don’t want a repeat of last week’s service where we kept you here for an extra half hour!

I am going to have a quick look at the Valley of Bones, which we are presented with in Ezekiel.  Now, when you read Ezekiel, you don’t so much read it, as you do see it, it’s filled with imagery, like the song: “Ezekiel saw the wheel, way up in the middle of the air”?  You know – that’s where the UFO people get their Biblical foundation for UFO’: the wheel in Ezekiel is said to be a UFO.

That aside, God was always telling Ezekiel to do really bizarre things, and the valley of the bones is one of those cases.

So, many sermons have been written the Valley of the Bones, using it to talk about Church revival, vision, purpose and passion ; and many more sermons regarding broken dreams, promises, relationships and reviving those broken parts of our lives!  But this morning, I don’t want to illustrate or tell you which one to apply it to.  I only want to give you some very basic lessons in how to apply it:

  • First and foremost:  It all starts with God, not us.

The hand of the Lord was upon me, and He brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord, and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones.”

While I realise that the analogy is often made about our lives or our Church being a valley full of dry bones, there are special moments when God takes us to have a look at this and wants us to see if as such.  And there’s a moment for God to act upon it, and if we try to do this in our own time and by our own strength, it’s very unlikely to work.

There’s an importance to listening and being open to the timing and vision that God has, not our own desperation of wanting to make things change. Are you open to God’s time and being where God wants you to be?

  • Secondly: God gives Ezekiel a promise to believe in:

Prophesy to these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.

Have you had a promise from God in your life that you haven’t seen happen yet?  Has God given you a vision of what God plans to do, that you’ve been waiting to see come into fruition and maybe you are tired of waiting?  This is not a culture and a world where we understand “wait” very well. We want it, and we want it now, no matter what piece of our life it is. For us to be able to hang onto a promise of God in the tough times takes trust, or faith if you prefer. There are many promises and declarations throughout the Bible that we don’t even have to wait for new ones.

  • Thirdly, there’s opening our mouths and declaring what we’ve been promised – the same way there is obedience in doing:

So I prophesied as I had been commanded…”

It’s no good to just keep silent: how many of you have seen the studies with water or plants and the experiments with the power of words? What are you saying in your life?

  • Then, we start to see results, but sometimes it’s not a full result, and there’s still more to be done – we can’t stop half way through.

“… and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them, but there was no breath in them.”

So, I had this promise from God, and I started declaring it as I believed I was supposed to, and God raised an army from a valley of dried bones, but there’s no life in it… Maybe the jobs not done yet!

  • So, Ezekiel looks back to God, and God gives him new instructions:

Then He said to me, “Prophesy…”

Do it again, but differently this time!

We live in a society where we are used to quick results, where satisfaction is immediate – where the internet should be at least 6 GB otherwise we have to wait more than 1 second for the browser to open and that’s just too long!  But many times, in life, finding your passion or your vision – re-finding your passion when you’ve lost your way, when you’re burnt out and lackluster, takes much longer than just a moment!  Often, there are many steps in the process.

  • And remember to breathe!

“Prophesy to the breath. Prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as He commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.”

Most of you know, that the Hebrew word “rauch” refers to the “breath”, but also refers to “wind” and is another word for “spirit”.  This one word has all these beautiful meanings that are all one and the same:  It was the ruach of God that hovered over the waters at creation. It was the ruach of God that came into Adam and gave that clay life. It was the ruachof God that blew like a mighty wind at Pentecost. And it’s the ruach of God that Ezekiel asks to come and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.

When you breathe, remember you are breathing in the breath of God, his life-giving breath.  The breeze that comes through these church windows: that’s the Spirit of God reaching out to touch you. That as you take a breath and you see wind, or you sense the Spirit within you, it’s all the same thing. How different our lives might be if we were conscious of breathing God in and out when we were outside.

For existence to become life, we need the breath of life – the Spirit to fill us.  It’s not enough for us to have bones, or to build a skeleton from those bones.  It’s not enough to cover those bones with sinew and muscles and skin!  We need the breath of God that animates us, that causes us to truly live, and not just to be connected bones.

If we are not a Spirit-filled church, it’s not enough to have a clear vision, purpose and passion.  We can have a structured leadership and a great organization, we can have ministries and teams that are all pulling together and working perfectly – but without the breath of God, we still won’t be able to get anything done.




I want to leave you with this final thought regarding the breath of life (it’s from a sermon by Barbara Brown Taylor):

If you have studied earth science, then you know that our gorgeous blue-green planet is wrapped in a protective veil that we call the atmosphere, which separates the air we breathe from the cold vacuum of outer space. Beneath this veil is all the air that ever was. No cosmic planet-cleaning company comes along every hundred years or so to suck out all the old air and pump in some new. The same ancient air just keeps recirculating. Which means that every time any of us breathes, we breathe stardust left over from the creation of the earth. We breathe brontosaurus breath and pterodactyl breath. We breathe air that has circulated through the rain forests of Kenya, and air that has turned yellow with sulphur over Mexico City. We breathe the same air that Plato breathed, and Mozart and Michelangelo, not to mention Hitler [or Stalin or Mao]. Every time we breathe, we take in what was once some baby’s first breath, or some dying person’s last. We take it in, we use it to live, and when we breathe out it carries some of us with it into the next person or tree or blue-tailed skink who uses it to live.”

My ego – the root of my own downfall

The ego – the root of all evil

Lectionary Readings:

  1. James 1:17-27
  2. Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23

How do you react when you hear the word “Pharisee”?  What type of emotional reaction do you feel rising within you?

What if I told you that in the years of Christ, the Pharisees were the heroes, not the villains?  That to be a Pharisee was to ascribe to a holy life?  Of course, after 2,000 years of Church history, we have a negative picture in our minds when we hear the word “Pharisee”, because we know how they responded to Jesus.  But there’s always more to the story than the part that we’ve heard.

The Pharisees were all lay people, not priests.  Many were scribes or had a level of education which allowed them to study the scriptures and the written traditions.  They were a reform movement; it was their passion that the ordinary people of Israel learn to live out their devotion to God, in a practice, hands on sense.  They believed that every detail of the scriptures could be applied to everyday life, living out holiness in a practical way.

Their virtue was that they believed that everyone could and should strive for the same level of godliness and holiness that God required of the priests who lived in the temple.  An effective “priesthood of the saints”.  They believed that if Israel was to be the nation of priests that the prophets had claimed, then all people should live by the same standards that were required of the priests.

The Pharisees only error was expecting a higher level of obedience and commitment among the people than what the scriptures actually required of the people.  This reform movement was an attempt to call the people of Israel to a life of godliness.

Admittedly, the Pharisees put their traditions on an equal footing with the laws of God given in the Old Testament.  They claimed that God had given 2 laws:

  • the ones written down and
  • the traditions given to the elders.

And so they took it upon themselves to write down these traditions in the Talmud and the Mishnah – because while the Bible tells us what God wants us to do, it doesn’t always tell us HOW to do it.  So, we’re going to help you and tell you HOW God wants you to do it.

For many of us, it’s quite hard to understand the controversy found in Mark.  We automatically think of the hygienic aspect of “washing your hands” before you handle food. Images may come to mind of the SARS virus outbreak or the bird-flu or the influenza H1N1 virus.  But these rituals were about purity and holiness.

In ancient Israel, you had to be in a state of ritual purity in order to worship God.  If you were ritually impure, you needed to go through a purification ritual to become clean again.

The most well-known part of these ritual purity rules are the Old Testament dietary laws:  the clean and unclean. Or the kosher or not-kosher.  The obedience of these rules were the boundary markers between the Jewish people – maintaining their uniqueness as a people and culture.  To obey was to say you were Jewish; to disobey was to abandon your heritage.

The hand-washing law went something like this:

Before you eat, you must pour one and a half (1 ½) eggshells of water over your hands, in a specifically prescribed manner:  hold your hand with the finger-tips upwards and pour the water over them until it ran down to your wrists; and then cleanse the palm of each hand with the fist of the other; and then hold your hands with the finger-tips pointing downwards and pour water on them from the wrists downwards so that it runs off the finger-tips.

The question wasn’t whether or not your hands were dirty and needed washing or whether your hands were spotless: if you failed to wash your hands in this manner was to fail to please God – it was a sin.

But there was, as there usually is, a problem with focusing on the physical world and a list of “dos” and “do nots”.  We often try to solve our problems of the heart by focusing on the surface issues.  Jesus saw that the law was being used to turn people away from God, rather than to bring people to God to see and experience His love and mercy.

Our attempts to apply the Bible to everyday life can become the same kind of legalistic nit-picking Jesus found with the Pharisees.  We don’t have to go too far to find it:

  • Fundamentalist rules that say: no playing cards; no dancing; no movies
  • Baptism by immersion or baptism by sprinkling
  • If you don’t speak in tongues, you haven’t been filled with the Holy Spirit
  • Which translation of the Bible do YOU use?
  • If you don’t tithe 10% of your GROSS income (not net, after taxes or take home pay), you’re not a true Christian
  • If you don’t end your prayers with “in Jesus’ name”, then God can’t answer them

Now that I’ve said them out loud, they sound silly, right?   But they easily fool us into thinking that we can EARN points with God,  rather than to look deep into ourselves and let God fill us with His love.  It’s so much easier to focus on the practices than it is to go to the heart of the matter – as both Jesus (in Mark) and James challenge us to do.  Our worship of God easily becomes lip service: we may go through the motions by have no real inner devotion.

Jesus declared that these rules were no longer binding on us – not that they were wrong, but rather that these rules were obsolete.  It’s not the kind of food that you eat that matters, it what kind of person are you really?  Forget about the cover of the book – what’s the story on the inside?  Forget about the outside forces of nature versus nurture, the environment, the culture you were raised in or the education you had:  How’s your heart?

Many of us fall into the trap of focussing on the surface issues – the symptoms rather than the cause.

I have read (Timothy Peck):

  • If our greatest need had been for information, God would have sent us a teacher;
  • If our greatest need had been for technology, God would have sent us a scientist;
  • If our greatest need had been for money, God would have sent us a economist;
  • If our greatest need had been for pleasure, God would have sent us a entertainer;

But since our greatest need was freedom from the darkness inside ourselves, God sent us what we needed the most:  a Saviour to show us that the change comes from God and a Holy Spirit to be our teacher and comforter.

At the end of the day, Jesus summed up all of the law in just 2 Commandments:

  1. Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul & might; and
  2. Love your neighbour as yourself.

Jesus doesn’t specify the details of HOW you are supposed to do that: He leaves the details up to us.  God has created each of us differently / uniquely.  We each have different talents, abilities and upbringings.  And we have the freedom to express our uniqueness as we live our Christian life.  But the principle stands very firmly: Love God with your whole being, and love your neighbour.  There is no freedom NOT to follow or live by these commands.  These commands transcend all of life: we don’t switch them on and off – today I will because I have some free time, but tomorrow I’ve got other plans.

The difficulty, of course, with such simple laws, is that we have to take full responsibility for ALL of our actions.  We stand alone before God – with all of our internal / HEART baggage – the way we were brought up, our cultural issues, any abuse or mistreatment that we may have received – and we can’t blame anyone or anything for our failure to fulfil these 2 laws.

Because suddenly there’s no small print!  There’s no black and white – you HAVE to do it this way.  The rule is that – whoever you are, wherever you are, whatever YOUR situation – YOU have to Love the Lord your God with all of YOUR heart (the one that YOU have, the way it is), and love your neighbour as yourself.  No excuses.  That one commandment: “Love one another” is enough to keep us busy for the rest of our lives.  Of course, we squabble and fight with each other over the smallest distinctions of practice – clearly violating Jesus’ commands.

It’s like the law of gravity:

In the on-going battle between objects made of aluminium going hundreds of miles per hour and the ground (which I believe is moving at zero miles per hour), the ground has yet to lose the competition.  The ground ALWAYS wins.

We, on the other hand, prefer rules, that we can manipulate and change.  We tend to interpret God’s commandments in a way that suits ourselves.  A little like the No-Calorie Diet.  You know the one.  It’s the one that says:

  • If you eat something, when no one’s watching, it has no calories.
  • If you drink a diet soda, while eating a candy bar or French fries, the calories of the candy bar or French fries are cancelled by the diet soda.
  • When you go out and eat with someone else, your calories don’t count, as long as you ate LESS than the person you’re with.

And the list goes on… these rules that we make to bypass our character (or lack thereof).  We make the rules, and then introduce all the exceptions to them.

God has promised that He has put into each one of us a new heart and a new spirit – His Spirit!  And like a patient that has had a heart transplant, He’s given us an instruction booklet to follow.  A recommended diet:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.[1]

So, how are you doing with your recovery?  Are you sticking to your spiritual diet? Sneaking in too much junk food, when no one is watching?  Are you getting your spiritual exercise? How about the stress? Do you remember that God has promised that He will take care of ALL your needs?

We ALL have our moments of being a Pharisee.  What we really are, is what we are on the inside, not what we appear to be on the outside.  What we are determines our attitudes and our thoughts. It IS our character.

We make up our own rules about what is right or what is wrong.  We try to make others follow these rules.  We pretend that we know better than God; or we don’t want to follow God’s rules and so make up our own.  But God’s laws are meant to show us where we have fallen short in our relationship with God or our relationships with others.  They tell us where we have hurt our relationships or ourselves and how to heal the broken pieces.

Being holy is made far too complicated by religiosity.  We have to remember that holiness is a state of being, not a state of doing.  To be holy means to be set apart for a task and to be apt for that task.  And our tasks are, as we have already seen, very simple:

  1. Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul & might; and
  2. Love your neighbour as yourself.

Yes, most of the Old Testament was written about being Holy.  But we have to stop focussing on cleanliness. Physical cleanliness does NOT equal Godliness.  Following a specific set of rules will not make us holy.

There is a Japanese fable about a man who went to heaven and to his surprise he saw a shelf covered with human tongues. The heavenly guide told him, “These are the tongues of people who spoke sweet words of virtues, who said what was right, but never did anything to follow their words. So their tongues have come to rest in heaven and the rest of them are somewhere else.”

We should all be radical followers of Jesus and take seriously what He really said.  Follow that man that showed compassion to sinners: to the tax collectors, the woman caught in adultery, the lepers and unclean.  He ate with them and hung out with them.  He said to those who would judge:

Whoever is without sin, throw the first stone.

Leave the judging to God.  Let God sort it out.  Don’t focus on the speck in someone else’s eye, when there might be a telephone pole in your own.

Be slow to speak – especially when it comes to talking with God.  If you’re speaking, you may not hear God talking.  Don’t ask God for direction or enlightenment and then carry on talking – you might miss the answer.

Be slow to anger – understanding that our anger is more likely to fuel the flames of controversy, dividing people and doing incalculable injury to yourself and others around you.

James warns that a true church is not one where the members are angry with each other because anger demonstrates that faith has not yet been implanted and is not yet growing in our hearts. Anger in the church indicates that God’s love is far from us. Anger demonstrates that the word of God has gone in one ear and out the other with no saving effect.

  • But a true church is one that cares for the widows and the orphans and poor and the needy.
  • A true church hears the word of God and keeps in their hearts.
  • A true church is transformed by the word of God into a loving church

I want to end this sermon with a lesson from Zen:

There was a great teacher in Japan: Nan-in.  An educated man, a professor, came to inquire about Zen teachings.  Nan-in served tea.  He poured the cup full, and then kept on pouring.  The man watched the cup overflowing, until he could no longer hold himself back: “Stop. It’s overflowing – no more can fit in!”  and Nan-in replied:  You are like this cup.  Full of your own opinions and speculations.  How can I teach you and show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?

If we are to receive God’s message and be filled with God’s love, we first need to empty our hearts of ourselves, our egos, our pasts, our future, our rules and regulations that we so religiously hold on to.  Let God fill us with His love and His Spirit, so that we can easily keep His two commandments, Loving God and loving our neighbour.

[1] Philippians 4:8