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A Trip to the Valley

When Ezekiel saw the dry bones come to life through God's Word and breath, it was a picture of what God could do for all of Israel—and for us.

In the literature of my forebears is a delightful spiritual called, "Them Bones, Them Bones, Them Dry Bones"—the ankle bone connected to the foot bone, and that whole thing. Some of you know that song but have never seen the story in Ezekiel 37.

This story is a wonderfully figurative way of looking at Israel's dilemma. The details of the story interest me for the context of the vision, and for what they say to us who live out our faith in the 1990s.

This passage begins with a delightful phrase: "The hand of the Lord was upon me." When was the last time you walked with God in such a way that you could say his hand was on you? It has happened too seldom in my own life.

I have discovered that I'm a very tactile person. I like to touch. I'm a person. When I'm with people, I like to touch them. I have to remember where I am and with whom. Sometimes touching is not appropriate, but by nature I'm a person.

My grandmother will be 91 in a couple of weeks, and she doesn't see very well, so we touch each other a lot. I put her hands on my face, and she knows it's me. I've always thought she had such a beautiful face, and I like to touch her face too.

When was the last time God ran his fingers over your face and you sensed that you were being touched by God? Could you write in your journal, "The hand of the Lord was on me"? I must confess it's not nearly often enough for me. In my journal, I'm writing theological truths or reflecting on the devotional passage I read in my quiet time or I'm looking at the Greek and Hebrew words that have to do with the problems in the Corinthian church. When was the last time you just wrote, "What a great day! The hand of the Lord was on me all day"?

God's hand was upon Ezekiel—probably known as Zeke to his friends.

God takes Ezekiel to a valley of dry bones, and asks, "Can these bones live?"

He is transported in his walk with God to a valley. As I read the passage, I wondered, Why not a mountaintop? Why not some place where he could get a panoramic view of what God wanted him to see? No. God picks him up, as it were, in this vision, and sets him down in a valley and takes him on a grisly tour of bones: bleached, dry, bones.

Until I read this passage in preparation for this sermon, I had not really seen this phrase. I just tried to imagine walking with Zeke in the valley. He leads me back and forth among the bones, a great many bones. Can you just picture this?

We walk back and forth, back and forth, and what do we see? Bones. Zeke doesn't just see them one time. God led him back and forth among the bones. "You got it, Ezekiel? Well, let me show it to you again." They walk back and forth. God wants Ezekiel to get it.

Then God asks him a question. "Tell me, Zeke, can these bones live?" Now, sometimes God asks trick questions when you're reading the Scriptures. When God asks us a question it is as much an opportunity to make a statement of faith as it is to commit an absolute blunder and say something stupid. Can you think of some of the answers Ezekiel could have given?

There's a similar kind of experience in John's Gospel. In John 6:97, a crowd of people were gathered. The Bible says there were 5000 men. If there were 5000 males, the total crowd may have many more than that.

As he looks at the crowd, Jesus turns to Phillip and says, "Where are we going to get enough to feed these people that each one may have a little?"

Bright Phillip says, "Lord, even 200 denari worth of bread would not be enough to feed all these. Eight months wages would not be enough to feed all these people." Then Jesus feeds them. Not because of Phillip's answer but in spite of it.

Zeke is in the valley. Can these bones live? The right answer is the one Ezekiel gave. "Lord, you know." The wrong answer is, "There's a possibility they will be able to generate some kind of life here. I think we'd have to do some connecting. Perhaps if we had a steel plate, we could begin to put some of these joints together, and then perhaps maybe make a synthetic flesh and some sinews, and then we could—yeah, I believe these bones could live. We'd have to do a little something, but I would imagine, given enough time, we could invent some reasonable semblance of life here, God. Yes, I believe that would be possible.'

Ezekiel already sees his own people in this picture. The question running around Israel was, "Will we ever be again what we were? We, the dead people of God in need of national revival—will we ever be where we once were?"

The answer is, "O Lord, you know." If there is to be revival at all the answer really does not lie in us. There is no health in us. The answer lies in our sovereign Lord, who has never known a power failure. Lord, you know. If at all there's hope for Israel, you know, you have the answer in your hand. Good answer, Ezekiel, good answer.

God tells Ezekiel to preach to the bones, for they need God's word.

The tour continues as God shows him the bones. God has a solution for the dilemma—this pictorial representation of Israel's problem. Can these bones live? The answer: yes. Then God gives Ezekiel a task: preach to the bones.

I'm a preacher who loves to preach. I've been preaching for twenty years. I eat, sleep, walk, and talk preaching. You could wake me up at three in the morning, saying, "Preach!" and I'd preach. I'll preach prepared or unprepared. I always have a sermon in my back pocket. I would die if I didn't get a chance to preach. I would probably spiral into some deep, dark depression if I didn't get a chance to preach.

I love to open up the Word of God. But I don't know that I would enjoy preaching to a collection of fossils in a valley. I've come close in some of the churches where I've preached. But I don't know if I could really get whooped up about preaching to a collection of bones.

I'd want to take God on. "God, wouldn't you rather I sing to the bones? Music has a way of stirring even the dead. Why don't I sing to the bones?"

"No, Ezekiel, prophesy to these bones."

"How about if we form a bone reassembly committee?"

"No, no, preach to the bones."

"How about if I study the bones a little while?"

"No, prophesy to the bones."

"Could I write and present a paper on paleontology?"

"No, preach to the bones," God says to Ezekiel. "What they really need is a word."

This word prophesy does not refer to foretelling but rather . Proclaim to them the Word of God. Speak to them. The command is clear and specific. Preach to the bones.

What our churches need most today is not fancy buildings, great music programs, orchestras, and 300 choirs. What we need is the primacy of preaching. 1 Corinthians 1 says that God looked at the alleged wisdom of the world and chose through the foolishness of preaching to save those who believe. What the bones need is preaching.

It always disturbs me that we can pack out a church for a concert. But I've never seen a church packed out for a prayer meeting or for a preaching series, unless it's some very entertaining preacher. We essentially don't want to hear the prophesy. We want to sing to the bones. We watch the bones in our churches just rattle together trying to stir up some action: "Let's have a church growth program, and let's try to come up with something slick and clever. We've got to bring them in."

I heard about a church that would give a free goldfish to anyone who brought a friend. I want to tell you something: what we need is to hear the Word of the Lord. Bones don't live again because we sing to them. And bones don't live again because we deliver academic papers on whether or not God exists. Bones come to life because they've heard the Word of the Lord.

So Ezekiel preached.

God says to Ezekiel, "I don't even trust you to come up with your own message, so I'm going to tell you what to preach." He gives him not only the task but the content. "This is what I want you to tell them. Say to them, 'Prophesy to these bones and tell them to hear the Word of the Lord.' "

God wants Ezekiel to tell them three things:

I'll change your status.

I'll put breath in you.

You'll go from being skeletons to beings and will know that I am the Lord.

That's really what Israel needs to hear. That God will put breath in them. That he will change their status, and that they will henceforth know that he is the Lord.

Ezekiel, having heard this assignment, prophesies. I read with interest verse 7 as I connected it with the previous verses. It reads so unlike some of our lives. Look at verse 4: "Then he said to me, 'Prophesy to these bones.' " Then in verse 7: "So I prophesied as I was commanded."

Don't think it always works like that. In fact, let me read you just a couple of verses from the first chapter of Jonah: "The Word of the Lord came to Jonah, son of Amittai: 'Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it because its wickedness has come up before me.' But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish."

Obedience is a necessary element in the scheme of national revival. You wonder why we aren't more alive. Is it because the text of our life reads, "God said, 'Walk in the Spirit, and we decided to walk in the flesh. God said, 'Become a functioning part of my body' and we decided to do our own thing. God said, 'Love your enemies,' and we decided that they get what they've got coming to them. God said 'Go to Nineveh,' and we went to Tarshish."

God said to Ezekiel, "Prophesy! So he did as he was commanded. No struggle is indicated in the text—this man in a valley, perhaps where he does not want to be, doing maybe what he does not want to do, simply because God said so. Not enough reason for most of us, it seems. We want more reasons.

"Why should I do that?"

"Because God said so."

"I know, but I mean—"

"Because God said so."

That was the only reason your mother and father gave you when they told you to do something. I obeyed, but I always wanted a better answer. Then my mother said, "Because I said so." Good enough for me, thank you.

"Prophesy, Ezekiel."

"Why should I have to do that, God? I don't understand a thing about these bones anyway. Come on, get clear." He prophesied; he obeyed.

I told you, on one other occasion about a little song that has actually become a bumper sticker. It says, "God said it, I believe it, that settles it." God is not waiting to hope you believe it first—"Boy, I hope they buy this thing."

No, God said it, and his obedient people have it settled in their own minds. Out of obedience, Ezekiel doesn't argue with God. When we find ourselves in the valley of dry bones, stop pushing, stop struggling, stop resisting him. Just do it. It's the Nike theology. Just do it, because God said so.

A friend said to me, "If it wasn't for this premarital sex thing, I'd be a saint." Now you can either ask God, "Why did you give such a command?" Or you can just obey him. Obedience is difficult but called for.

After Ezekiel obediently preached, amazing things happened in the valley.

I want to wrap this up by celebrating with you what happened after Ezekiel preached. Flesh started forming on these bones. There was a rattling sound, and they came together. They stood there; they had flesh; they were looking good.

Verse 8 ends with a sense of sadness. There was no breath in them. Now, the Hebrew word here is variously translated "wind," "breath," or "spirit," that which inspires. The breath of God is the animating, energizing principle in the life of the saints. Nothing happens until God breathes in us.

I want to caution you that you can have the skeletal frame of the body of Christ and look very much like the energized people of God. But it is sometimes written across all we do and say, "There is no breath in them." Great looking bones. Great looking skeletons. The problem is there's no breath in them.

Sometimes as I travel around the country, I get a chance to do some comparisons. Some churches have every I dotted and every T crossed. They've got this thing down. Their only problem is no spirit, no breath, just a skeleton.

I want to tell you something: I've seen people who don't know what else to do stand over caskets and say, "Oh, doesn't he look like he's sleeping." No, he looks dead. No, you don't look alive when you're dead. You look dead when you're dead. Sometimes we try to dress up our skeletons to make them look alive. Bones are bones. There is no breath in them.

God says, "Ezekiel, prophesy again. This time I want you to prophesy to the wind. Bring the wind in from the four corners, and let the wind go into the skeletons." The wind goes into the skeletons, and they become a vast army.

I want to tell you, nothing happens in the church until the wind blows. Nothing happens until the Holy Spirit of God blows across the face of the church, enlivening and energizing his people. Nothing happens until the Wind of God comes into our lives enabling us to do in our ministries what we could not do without his breath.

Breathe on me, breath of God. Let the wind of the Holy Spirit be present in our churches and in our lives and in our ministries.

What might we learn from this trip to the valley?

First, God is still concerned about dry, disjointed people. He's still concerned with the arid people of God. He's concerned about the bones. He wants them to live.

Second, we can't do anything without the breath of God. By whose power are you doing your ministry? Your own? Does it have a mechanical ring to it? God help us to move with the breath of God.

Finally, it is God's desire that people know that he is God. Over and over again you read in the book of Ezekiel, "They will know that I am the Lord. I will do this, and they will know that I am the Lord. And I will do that and they will know that I am the Lord."

"Ezekiel, I want you to walk away with this: I am the Lord." I hear Psalm 100 ringing out. "Know that the Lord is God. It is he who made us, and we are his." What comes to us out of this trip to the valley is that we come away knowing the Lord is God. The Lord, he is God."

On the mountain, Elijah has his contest with the followers of Baal and proves that his God is the Lord. The people start clamoring, crying out, almost in unison. When you read that passage in 1 Kings, they cry out, "The Lord, he is God. The Lord, he is God." God does his work again and again, not so we can pat ourselves on the back but that we might come away saying, "Yes, the Lord is God. Yes, I learned that in the valley. The Lord is God. The Lord Is God.

I invite you to go to the valley again. Maybe in our valley we don't have to see bones, all we need is a good mirror. Maybe we will see ourselves as if for the first time—dusty, barren, parched. Hear the good news of the gospel: the bones can live again. God gives life to Israel. He brings them up out of the grave of their captivity and sets them in their own land again. He will do the same for us, who live in sin's captivity. He will bring us out and reestablish us and put us back where we need to be.

So may there be a rattling among us. May there be the fresh wind of the Spirit among us. And may we stand as a vast army, declaring the Lord is God.

© Robert Farmer

Preaching Today Tape #114


A resource of Christianity Today International

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Sermon Outline:


I. God takes Ezekiel to the valley of dry bones, and asks, "Can these bones live?"

II. God tells Ezekiel to preach to the bones, for they need God's word

III. After Ezekiel obediently preached, amazing things happened in the valley