Do you ever feel as though you're preaching to the dead? Do you need to have your heart rekindled with hope in what God's preached Word can accomplish? Then this stirring message by Dr. Gardner Taylor (slightly condensed from the original recording) delivered at the E.K. Bailey conference on expository preaching in Dallas, Texas is just what you need. Dr. Gardner Taylor, regarded as one of America's premier preachers, served as the senior pastor of Concord Baptist Church in Brooklyn, New York.
Let me read here from the thirty-seventh chapter of the book of Ezekiel.
The hand of the Lord was upon me, and carried me out in the Spirit of the Lord and sent me down in the midst of the valley, which was full of bones. And caused me to pass by them round about: and, behold, there were very many in the open valley; and, lo, they were very dry. And he said unto me, "Son of man, can these bones live?" And I answered, "O Lord God, thou knowest." And again he said unto me, "Prophesy onto these bones, and say unto them, 'O ye dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.'"
What a scene. Here was a valley where this man was first carried out. And, preachers, if you have been carried out you can never get back in where you were. Never. The Spirit will haunt you and taunt you. You may seek to squirm and to wrestle your way free, but you will never escape. You may do whatever you can to nullify your calling, but if he has carried you out you'll never get back in.
Can these bones live again? Can that first fresh resolve of enthusiasm [for preaching] come again to you? Can that first fresh morning enthusiasm be yours again?
Here was a valley of dry bones. This had once been a proud army with the regimental banners fluttering in the air. The polished chariots catching the reflection of the sun. The rhythmic thunder of marching feet. It had once been a mighty army—proud, self-assured—marching through a valley. But now all of that is gone. The once shining lances are rusting. The regimental banners are in tatters. The chariots are wheel-less and themselves rusting. And this man looks around. Is that what the preacher is called to do—to look around to see what havoc has been wrought in this valley, which we call life?
Those of you who preach in America ought to read again the Declaration of Independence. It's enough to make your heart skip a beat: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, among them Life and Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." What a grand enterprise in history! Providential, I'm sure. Of God, I'm certain. And what we have done with it? We have allowed this nation to become plagued by drugs. And the church of Jesus Christ has done very little.
Do you remember that day or that night when you knelt and stood trembling from kneeling when they laid their hands upon your head and dedicated you to the ministry of Jesus Christ? What high hopes you had. How those hopes have been blasted sometimes by opposition, sometimes by our own greed and our own fallacies. I put to you the question: Can these bones live again? Can that first fresh resolve of enthusiasm come again to you? Can that first fresh morning enthusiasm be yours again? Can you get again the glory and promise of the morning bruised now and scarred by the years, wounded by opposition, hurt by our own shortcomings? Can we come again to that bright morning of promise and hope, which we knew on that day when we knelt and were set apart to the ministry of Jesus Christ?
Son of man, can these bones live again? How does one answer that kind of question? My old uncle used to say that this man was not going to be pinned along the ropes like a boxer. Ezekiel realized he was being worked into a corner. For that voice came haunting and searching and probing. Can these bones live again? Have you ever heard that voice searching you, searing you, probing, uncovering all that you have covered up, leaving you naked and bare before the Eternal gaze?
Son of man, can these bones live? How does one answer that? To say, yes, too glibly is to realize that one has told half a lie, because something in us doubts that the morning can come again when evening has come. Something in us questions whether springtime can come again when winter has laid its chill over our lives. Can these bones live?
I once sat with a man whose wife had died. He was passing through great sorrow. I have known great sorrow. I did not know then what he was passing through, but I know now. A young preacher came in with a lot of glib comments. True, but too glibly spoken. He was palming off this man's great sorrow with nice little sayings: "She's not dead. She's just away. Let's not worry." I was insulted. It was too glib. It was true, but it was spoken too easily. There was no pain in it.
And so a man questioned by the Eternal, "Can these bones live?" dare not say too quickly, "Yes, Lord." For the man knows that the Lord knows that there are grave doubts and deep uncertainties about the capacity of these bones to live. How can life come out of death? But if one says no, one impeaches the authority of God. And who dares to stand in the presence of the Eternal and cast a pall of doubt over what he can do? So here's a man caught in a vortex of impossibility. If he says yes he lies about something in himself. If he says no he impeaches the authority of God. What does one say under such circumstance?
Like my old uncle said, like a boxer along the ropes, the prophet Ezekiel was trying to get out from that punishment. He said, "Lord, Thou knowest." And God does know. We act in faith, but God alone knows. Can these bones live again? Then there comes the liberating word "Speak." You know words are awfully weak but awfully strong. With words Winston Churchill stopped the disaster at Dunkirk and turned Britain back into a marching army. With words men and women have stirred the insides of the human race and made us leap forward beyond our own capacities. "Speak." Not any wisdom born of your own calculations. "Speak." Not any Ben Franklin nice sayings of wisdom or prudential judgment. "Speak." Not something that you read in a book somewhere, some musty encyclopedia. "Speak." Not something fancy, spouted by dying men, but "Speak." "Speak unto these bones," unto this drying desert. "Speak." "Say unto these dry bones …" Hear, not my wisdom. Hear, not words of some commentator. But "Speak." Not some earthly wisdom dredged up out of the resources of our own imagination. "Speak unto these bones." What shall I speak? "Speak unto them." "Say unto these dry bones, 'Hear ye the word.'" Not of earthly wisdom. Not hear ye the world of human contrivers. Not hear ye the word of our own skill or rhetoric.
"Hear ye the word of the Lord." That word which one day faced chaos until chaos gave way to order. Speak unto these dry bones, and say unto them, "Hear ye the word of the Lord." That word, which one day bade darkness to flee and light came forth. Speak unto these dry bones that word which once summoned life and a thousand stars marched out to stand sentinel in the evening sky. Speak unto these dry bones. Speak unto them the word of the Lord. That word, which once challenged the barrenness of the earth until carpets of grass sprang up to give growth to the whole landscape. Speak ye the word of the Lord. Speak that word, which can give life out of death. Speak that word, which can bring health out of sickness. Speak that word, which can bring hope out of despair. Speak that word that can bring life out of death. Speak that word … that word … that word, which one day stood in a Bethany cemetery and spoke, "Lazarus." If he had not called his name, the dead from Adam would have got up and marched out from their graves. He spoke and said, "Lazarus, come forth."
So, preacher, speak ye the word of the Lord. Say, "O ye dry bones, hear ye, hear ye."
Gardner C. Taylor pastored Concord Baptist Church of Christ in Brooklyn, New York, for 42 years, helped found the Progressive National Baptist Convention with Martin Luther King Jr., and is co-author of Perfecting the Pastor's Art (Judson Press).