God's Signature Move (Lent 5A)
The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “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: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on 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.”
So I prophesied as I had been commanded; 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. Then he said to me, “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.
Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord.
Have you ever heard a new song on the radio, and even though you’ve never heard it before, you can tell after a minute or so who the artist is? Sometimes it’s just recognizing a voice, but for me there’s also a certain style and rhythm and personality that each musician brings to their work. And after you’ve gotten familiar enough with that artist, you just know when you’re hearing them again.
For example, I recently listened to a playlist of songs nominated for 2017 Grammys. I didn’t know every song before I started, but there are some that I can pick out of the crowd. If I’ve been listening to a musicians for long enough, I get to know them well. So I can go look at the song information for each one, but I don’t need that description to know after about 30 seconds that this song is by Rihanna and not Lady Gaga. The same can even be said for movies with directors and lead actors. Is that the plot? That sounds I would cast Denzel Washington, and not Will Smith for the role. We understand these differences intuitively because artists and workers bring unique gifts and talents to the table. Everyone leaves a signature on their work.
According to Ezekiel 37, God also leaves a signature on God’s work. Resurrection and Restoration. ““I will lay sinews on 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.,” and again, “And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people” (Ezekiel 37:6, 13).
In this passage, God shows Ezekiel a horrific vision of a valley filled with his fallen countrymen. The power of the LORD came over him and brought him by the Holy Spirit to this place. Ezekiel walks around and sees a multitude of bones, a sea of arms, legs, ribs, spines, and skulls. The bones are dry and old, as if they have been sitting there for a very long time, long enough for scavengers to eat away at the corpses and for the rest of the flesh to completely decompose. This would be a disturbing scene for anyone.
Then the Lord asks a peculiar question: “Can these bones live?” (Ezekiel 37:3). The obvious answer is no. This had never been done before. Other Hebrew prophets like Elijah and Elisha had raised people back from the dead, but that was more like resuscitation or like CPR, bringing someone back right away. But like we said, these people have clearly been dead for a very long time. There is no precedent for this type of miracle anywhere else in Ezekiel’s history… but he believes that God can do anything. “O Lord GOD, you know.”
So the LORD tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones. To tell them that he will bring them back to life. The bones begin to rattle and move. The LORD causes the bones to come together with sinews, or tendons, then he causes flesh to come over them, and skin to cover the flesh, but then it stops.
The bodies are recreated but they have no breath. They have no spirit. They have no life. A really key thing to understand in this passage is the heavy Hebrew wordplay going on. The word RUAH in Hebrew can mean breath, wind, a generic spirit, or the Spirit with a capital “S” (as in the Holy Spirit). It’s used in all of these ways in the ten times it appears in this short passage.
So after the resurrection process comes to a halt, the LORD calls on the prophet to speak to the four winds (ruah/ruhot). The LORD says to come and fill these cadavers and bring them back to life. It’s easy to see how the meaning of ruah is slipping back and forth between a physical understanding of wind and breath and a deeper supernatural understanding—the Spirit of God that does the resurrecting work in the vision.
So the Spirit comes and a whole host of people rises up in their new God-given life. Then in verse 11 it seems the vision ends and the scene shifts back to Ezekiel’s time and place. Ezekiel lived during the time of the Babylonian exile. Verses 11-14 indicate to us that Ezekiel probably saw this vision soon after the kingdom of Judah had completely collapsed (Walter Eichrodt, Ezekiel). The people are crying out with dry bones and lost hopes, feeling totally cut off from their God.
But the turning point happens when the LORD points to the bones and says that the resurrection vision is about the house of Israel. God has heard their painful cries. Ezekiel isn’t called to prophesy to bones or wind anymore. Now he can turn to his brothers and sisters in exile and deliver the word of YHWH to them again: “I will raise you from the grave, my people, and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you will know that I am the LORD, when I open up your graves and raise you from the graves” (Ezekiel 37:12b-13).
I am going to put my Spirit, my breath, my ruah into you so that you live and are restored to your land. In fact, the Hebrew word used for “raise up” from the graves is a word that is used over forty times in the book of Exodus, when God promises to “bring them up” out of the land of Egypt (Daniel I. Block, The Book of Ezekiel: Chapters 25-48). Ezekiel is pointing to a second Exodus in which God pulls the people out of Babylon back to their land to re-establish the covenant.
Who is the new Moses who leads God’s people into the New Exodus? Who establishes the new Covenant? Who continues to reveal God’s signature resurrection power on earth as it is in heaven? JESUS!
Jesus reveals himself to be the true Messiah, the true Son of God, through demonstrating God’s mighty resurrection. He is the exact imprint of the Father, sharing the LORD God’s signature move. So when he encounters Martha and Mary as they mourn for their brother Lazarus, he knows what he is called to do.
Jesus said to [Martha], “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world” (John 11:23-27).
Faithful Martha already believes that the God of Israel is a God of Resurrection and New Life. She already knows that to believe in Jesus as Messiah is to believe in this Resurrecting God. She knows that we will all share in this general resurrection from the dead on the last day.
But she and Mary are also concerned about the now. And out of his great love for Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, Jesus gives them a foretaste of the New Life to come. He calls Lazarus out of the grave, after he has been dead for four days. Jesus raises up those dead, dry bones, and effectively says, “then you will know that I am the LORD.”
The resurrection of Lazarus is a confirmation for us that Jesus didn’t come just for himself. He is not only going to resurrect himself on Easter Day. But he also comes to resurrect and give new life to the whole world. “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.” Neither Lazarus nor Jesus escaped death. They faced it just like all of us will. But they passed through it, and by the resurrecting power of God, they overcame death. The Holy Spirit filled them will life once again and they will not taste eternal death.
This is our promise too. We may not be living in the resurrection times quite yet. There may still be the suffering and pain of death. We may still be in Lent, journeying toward the Cross. But the Holy Spirit dwells with us. The God of Resurrection is “the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). Easter is coming. And God is already slowly but surely breathing new life into us. We are the LORD’s people. And we can trust and believe that this God has the same signature move with us that God had with Moses, Ezekiel, Lazarus, and Jesus Christ our Lord: Resurrection. Amen.
Allen, Leslie C. Ezekiel 20-48. Vol. 29 in Word Bible Commentary. Dallas, Texas: Word Books, Publisher, 1990.
Bleckinsopp, Joseph. Ezekiel. Interpretation. Louisville, Kentucky: John Knox Press, 1990.
Block, Daniel I. The Book of Ezekiel Chapters 25-48. New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998.
Davis, D. Mark. “Jesus Enters the Danger Zone.” Left Behind and Loving It blog. Published 27 March 2017. Accessed 29 March 2017. http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2017/03/jesus-enters-danger-zone.html.
Eichrodt, Walter. Ezekiel. Translated by Cosslett Quin. The Old Testament Library. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1970.
Lind, Millard C. Ezekiel. Believers Church Bible Commentary. Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1996.
Stevenson, Kenneth, and Michael Glerup, eds. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Ezekiel, Daniel. Old Testament Vol. 13. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2008.
Vawter, Bruce, and Leslie J. Hoppe. A New Heart: A Commentary on the Book of Ezekiel. International Theological Commentary. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991.
Image Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/loswl/4830572938