What enlivens the community of faith? After a difficult struggle that has resulted in defeat, how does a group of people pick itself up, dust itself off and go on? What gives us the energy to continue when the wind has been knocked out of our sails?
This is the question underneath Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones. What enlivens the community of faith after difficult struggle and bitter defeat?
At first, one might think that Ezekiel 37 is about resurrection of the dead. That is a good possible interpretation of the story used by many in the Christian tradition. As we are approaching Easter, the festival of the resurrection; Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones is paired with the resurrection of Lazarus by his friend Jesus in the book of John. And the second lesson today, which continues our series of readings from Romans, speaks to the resurrection of the spirit through Jesus Christ.
But I am not sure that Ezekiel originally had in mind the resurrection of dead individuals through their faith in Jesus when he wrote this poetic material. Ezekiel is facing the defeat and destruction of his nation. I don’t think he is saying that things will be all right because we all go to heaven when we die. I think he is saying that God, or better the spirit of God, will revive us, renew us, and enliven us, when we are defeated and discouraged.
Soon enough we will get to the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting. Easter is just two weeks away. But to press Ezekiel into the service of that theme may be to miss what the prophet is saying to the community of faith in this life.
These are his words of renewal to a defeated nation. The enlivening in Ezekiel speaks to the nation’s resurgence. Renewal is about the community and the gathering, not the individual in Ezekiel. In this passage an army is raised up: a great host.
How does the renewal of the community of faith begin? The prophet calls the people to listen no longer to the despair in their hearts delivered in the cynical sound bites of social commentators, but to the word of the Lord. The prophet begins by calling the people to renewal in the word of God.
This is a change in the operating principle of the community passing from discouragement into possibility. We shift from our script of cynical woe and defeat to the word of hope. God does this through poets like Ezekiel. Poet leaders accomplish their work by grounding the community on its foundation: the word and spirit of God.
Then in verses seven through ten, the process by which a group is enlivened and moves beyond defeat and failure is described in three simple steps.
First, there is a rattling and gathering of the bones. As individuals and groups come together, there is a rattling. Sometimes the noise is very great. But this is the first step for renewal and enlivening: coming together. Rattling and gathering is the first step in a group moving from despair to hope. God gives leaders to guide us through this rattling and gathering.
Then in verse eight there is enfleshment. Flesh grows on the bones. Ideas, thoughts, resources, opinion and energy converge. Things are not only outlined but fleshed out, as the gathered people of God converge and incarnate or enflesh the renewal. You can see this in congregations as discouraging issues are addressed and solutions emerge when people gather and bring resources and insight to bear on the difficulties at hand. God does this through leaders as they bring resources to bear on the matters at hand.
The third step in the enlivening is an enthusing, a breathing of the spirit into the body of work, a sense of God’s spirit and presence that lifts us up as we enflesh things together. We sense God’s presence as God’s spirit blows in our sails, moving us, sustaining us in the recovery. Leaders don’t do this. Enthusing is the hand of God giving spirit to the group.
The gathering and rattling, the enfleshing, and the infusion of the spirit are the steps by which God enlivens the community of faith in the valley of dry bones wherever those valleys exist.
In Ezekiel this morning, the prophet is talking about the resuscitation of a people, the people of God, a nation, our community and society. God moves people through defeat into new life together.
Until, as Ezekiel says, this movement opens the graves of the dead. For, as you know, Easter is only two weeks away.