"Prophesy to these bones"-Sermon for All Hallow's Eve, Ezekiel 37:1-14
So, of course, you know that today is Halloween. And, perhaps, you know further that our cultural celebration of Halloween finds its roots in a lesser known feast day on our Church’s calendar called All Hallows’ Eve, which technically is celebrated by the Church each year after sunset on October 31st…so not till this evening. Like Christmas Eve is really our first service of Christmas Day…All Hallows’ Eve is really the first service of All Saints’ Day, which is tomorrow…always November 1st. So, All Hallows’ Eve is then the beginning of our celebration of the hallowed one’s…the holy ones…the revered ones…that is all the saints of God.
So, though I am a fan of Halloween as a night for good natured tricks and treats…for celebrating neighborliness and the playfulness and imagination of children, I think as good Christian folk…it is also important to remember that this holiday is actually a Holy Day that is not really about ghosts and ghouls…but about giving thanks to God for the lives of the saints who have already passed into the nearer presence of our Lord…who have already passed through death, which is more gate than grave, and into the everlasting arms of love. And when I say saints, I speak of both those people with an St. before their names, like St. Julian, those who we remember for the ways they lived their Christ like life in heroic and memorable ways and are, thus, an inspiration and example of how to live into our own faith. And…and, all Baptized Christians, the living and the dead, who together make up the countless number of folk we call the Communion of Saints…those we remember and those we don’t…from every age and generation…including our own personal saints…the good Christian folk who have touched and blessed our own lives…friends, family, and mentors who have demonstrated to us what faith looks like as a lived experience…those through whom God’s love has shined brightly into our own lives…making us more and more the unique, capable and breathtakingly beautiful Christ like saints…that God has created each of us to be.
And to this end, I personally like to use All Hallows’ Eve and All Saints’ Day that follows to intentionally remember and give thanks to God for those saints that God has, again, placed into my life. And, one of the people, just one…for there are many…but one person I remember on All Hallows’ Eve each year is my grandmother, Carrie Lou, who passed away about 13 years ago at the ripe old age of 94. Carrie Lou’s life as a whole, which spanned almost a century, was fruitful and blessed by God in untold ways. Having said this, it was not without difficulty either. Like most of us over a lifetime, she went to the mountaintop and she also walked through the valley of the shadow of death. Which is all to say that Carrie Lou experienced a profoundly human life—one full of sorrow and great joy…and now, on this side of eternity, it has come to its end.
I will never forget one visit, in particular, to her nursing home in Dallas during the very last weeks of her life. While there, she said to me something like, “Miles, I feel like there is little left of me. I’m tired and sometimes it’s hard to think. Physically, I feel like I’m withering away, like I’m drying out and the wind could just blow me away. All that’s left of me is skin and bones.” And, on that day, she was right. As the sun was setting on her life on this side of glory, Carrie Lou entered, once again, the valley of the shadow of death.
Similarly, in our Old Testament lesson assigned for All Hallows’ Eve, the prophet Ezekiel is taken by God to the valley of the shadow of death…or as this passage is often referred to…the valley of dry bones. I don’t think Ezekiel’s most frightening imaginings could have prepared him emotionally for what lay before him. Perhaps the aftermath of war is the best description of what he saw. A picture that I am afraid to say we are all too familiar with…make shift morgues set up in parking lots to receive the bodies of those succumbing to COVID, two decades of war in the Middle East, scenes of mass gun-violence, and of course I could go on. These images of human death in mass fill us with great sadness, and, although, they are not exactly what Ezekiel saw, the impact of seeing a vast valley entirely covered in unburied human bones must have been equally disturbing. Ezekiel was brought by God to stand before death…in all its brutal finality.
Now, let me provide some historical context for Ezekiel’s vision. Ezekiel is a prophet living among many tens of thousands of Israelites in exile during the Babylonian captivity. Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians in 587 BC. Though some people were left behind, the vast majority of Israelites that survived the violence were taken back to Babylon as captives of war. Many families were torn apart during Jerusalem’s destruction and the following captivity and exile. Israel as a nation was utterly destroyed. Therefore, the Israelites living in exile feel like they are as good as dead. Their hope has perished, and without hope, they might as well be, in fact, dead. Moreover, Ezekiel himself has suggested that the suffering of the people of Israel is the just punishment for a history of ongoing rebellion and sin against God. In light of Israel’s destruction and Ezekiel’s assertion that the exiles are being rightly judged, any sort of hope would be almost, if not totally impossible, to hear or see. Thus, it is in the midst of Israel’s historical reality of death, destruction, and exile that Ezekiel is given by God a vision of a broad valley full of countless desecrated and dismembered human bones.
And, while standing before this almost unimaginable sight, God asks Ezekiel the most curious of questions, “Mortal, can these bones live?” How should Ezekiel respond? By faith, Ezekiel knows that nothing is impossible for God. But dry bones, long dead coming back to life…this was more than could be imagined…much less believed. So, Ezekiel, thinking quickly, directs the question back to God, “O Lord God, you know.” And, God responds, “Prophesy to these bones [Ezekiel], and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord…I, [God], shall cause breath to enter you and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and 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, Ezekiel, likely hesitantly but also courageously, speaks to the bones…he speaks to the bones…now…that takes faith. Bones, I think we all can agree, can’t hear. Nonetheless, Ezekiel speaks God’s words to the bones…and the unexpected and unimaginably wonderful happens. The bones begin rattling, coming together to form skeletons, which are then clothed with sinew, flesh and skin, and they are filled with the Spirit of God and they stand on their feet. The dead are raised to new life. As the bones are restored to life, we glimpse, in the very same moment, the miracle of creation and the promise of resurrection. Can these bones live? Can mine, my grandmothers, yours, those slain by petulance and violence? What about all those long dead and those who will surely die in the future? Can all of these bones live?
The challenge this passage poses us is to get beyond our own limited vision and see the world through God’s eyes…a God who only knows potential and possibility for the world God created and the people he loves. Can these bones live? From a human perspective, of course not. But look at the bones through God’s eyes. Watch the bones coming together. Bones bound together into countless bodies. Watch muscle and skin blanket them. Watch as God’s Spirit, which heals hopelessness; fill them with new life, so that they can rise up in victory over death. Can bodies be raised from their graves? From a human perspective, that may seem irrational. But from God’s perspective, we can watch them be raised from the dead, be filled with God’s Spirit, and live again…and do so forever. No matter what trials or tribulations you are facing in this present darkness, including even death itself, God’s vision of our future lives, if we can just begin to vision it, will give us divinely inspired hope, even in those Good Friday-like moments when we are shrouded in darkness…and the promise of a verdant valley overflowing with life feels so very distant.
You see, Ezekiel’s vision points us to a particular person and a future moment roughly five hundred years later. A person, who like the people whose remains were lying in the valley of dry bones, would also die and then live again. For, Ezekiel’s vision is fulfilled in Jesus Christ whose death and resurrection has restored all of creation, including every single person living and dead, to new life. Jesus’ victory over death has destroyed death once and for all time. Thus, when the sun begins to set on our own lives…and those we love…our ending becomes the dawning of a new day…the first day of forever.
My Grandmother had more to say to me that day when I visited her in her final weeks in her nursing home. After she said to me, “Miles, I feel like there is little left of me. I’m tired and sometimes it’s hard to think. Physically, I feel like I’m withering away, like I’m drying out and the wind could just blow me away. All that’s left of me is skin and bones.” She then paused for a moment to collect her thoughts. She sort of looked up, as if she was making a gesture toward heaven. She then continued to speak slowly, thoughtfully. She said, “But it’s okay. I’m ready. Lord I’m ready to come home. I’m ready for a new day. I’m ready to live life again.” And, indeed, through Jesus’ glorious resurrection she has.
Jesus was the first born from the dead…not the last. Through Christ’s faithfulness in giving himself over to the cross and empty tomb…life and love have won for all of creation…for all the saints…even you…even me. Thus, hope remains undiminished. And, now we are the ones called to prophesy…to prophesy over all the bones left behind by all the darkness and desperation in this death-dealing world. We tell them…we shout at them: Through Jesus Christ our Lord, you have no power over us. The universe remains and shall always remain in the everlasting arms of love alone…and love alone shall be this world’s and our end. Amen.