Sermon preached at St. John’s on the Day of Pentecost, May 27, 2012.
There are over 200 bones in the human body. It’s amazing when you think about it. Over 200 bones that are interconnected to each other. God has put us together with all these bones with their own purpose and function. As we grow, our bones grow. Some of them fuse together as we grow up, some of them bend and shift with the weight of our bodies. All of them work together to make us who we are physically.
But as amazing as they are, as important as they are to our life and movement every second of the day — we don’t associate bones with life. If you see the over 200 bones of the human body in a skeleton, your first thought isn’t how full of life those bones are. No, a skeleton reminds us of death. A pile of bones might make us think of something that used to be alive, of something that reminds us of life — but that just serves to highlight all the more that they’re not. Bones remind us of death.
Our lives are filled with times that remind us that we are just a bag of bones. Despite how amazing our human bodies are, we’re more likely to realize how much pain our bodies are capable of. We ache. Our bones break. Even a strong bone won’t protect us from disease. We hurt. And then we remember that we’re just a bag of bones.
At other times, the mental stress and anguish and troubles in our lives will remind us of the same thing. When the alarm goes off and you think, “How am I going to get through today?” The times you’re tempted to just give it up, to throw in the towel, when you’ll look to any kind of entertainment or distraction to take your mind off the troubles in your heart. Then you remember: we’re just a bag of bones.
Pentecost is a neat day. It’s a day where we get to think of something that, by its very definition, has no bones, something that does not die: the spirit! In particular, the Holy Spirit, God himself, not with bones and a body, but a Spirit that gives us life.
And there’s an amazing connection between that ever-living, no-bones Holy Spirit and the always-dying, bag-of-bones people that we are. Those two things, almost opposites — the Holy Spirit and us — get brought together by one thing: God’s Word. In the Bible, in the message of Jesus Christ who died and rose for us, the Holy Spirit comes to us and gives us life! He doesn’t give strong bones or cure the common cold. He gives and strengthens faith, and cures our sins by our connection to Christ.
So this Pentecost, we get to celebrate that connection we have with God, with his Holy Spirit. And we get to rejoice in the Word that brings him to us. Take that to heart. Hear the Word of the Lord! Without it, we’re nothing but bones. With it, the Spirit gives us life.
Our text takes us to one of those stories that most of us have heard of, and many of us might have even sung about at one time in our lives. (I’ll spare you my rendition.) There’s a reason this is such a memorable story: it’s a beautiful picture of God’s gift to us in his Holy Spirit.
The Old Testament prophet Ezekiel recorded a lot of striking things in his book. This is one of the most amazing. He wrote, The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. (Ezek. 37:1) Sometimes when God wanted one of his prophets to understand something, he just shows it to them. That’s what he did to Ezekiel.
Our text doesn’t call it a vision that Ezekiel saw, but it doesn’t tell us where this valley really was. We only know what’s really important: Ezekiel now stood before a huge pile of bones. God was leading him through them. Ezekiel said, He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. (Ezek. 37:2)
If every human being has over 200 bones in their body, and later in our text we hear that there was a “vast army”’s worth of people’s bones here, that means that there were thousands, maybe even millions of dry bones. That means this valley was a place of death. The dryness just shows how far away from living these bones were.
This makes God’s question to Ezekiel that much more surprising. God asked, Son of man, can these bones live? The answer should have been pretty obvious. No, of course this pile of bones can’t live! Of course they’re dead! But Ezekiel had a pretty good answer. He said, O Sovereign Lord, you alone know. (Ezek. 37:3) Lord, if you want to make a big heap of dead bones come alive, well then I guess they can live!
Then God gave Ezekiel a command: Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life.’ (Ezek. 37:4-5) God wanted Ezekiel to speak God’s Word to this massive pile of bones and make them all come alive.
Is that bizarre, or what? I mean, it really is kind of strange. It makes you wonder what the point of God telling Ezekiel to do this could possibly be. And, what could it all possibly have to do with us?
We get a clue later on in our text. God told Ezekiel, These bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ (Ezek. 37:11) Israel was going through some hard times in Ezekiel’s day. Because of the sins of the people, most had been exiled to Babylon. Jerusalem had been destroyed. They felt defeated. They felt the weight of their sins. They felt death all around them. They felt like a bag of bones.
We can feel the same way. We might not be living in exile, but there can be real trouble right in our homes. Fights, words that can’t be taken back, slamming doors. Whether it’s parents and children or husbands and wives or even brothers and sisters, sometimes home just might feel like exile.
The other relationships in our life, whether at work or school, can also fill our hearts with pain. Or maybe we’ve come to a point in our lives where we don’t know what’s next, a point where we’re not sure where we can possibly go from here. Maybe it’s some kind of turning point in a relationship. Maybe it’s the loss of a job or the start of a new one. Maybe it’s sickness or even death of someone we love.
Or maybe our sin has something to do with it. Maybe we recognize our faults, know that we’re not living how God wants, but we don’t know what to do about it. It seems too hard to change, and we don’t think God can love us as things are now.
Whatever it might be, we can feel stuck. We can feel like dry bones, like our hope is gone, like we are cut off from all of God’s blessings. And I’ve got news for you: on our own, that’s exactly what we are! On our own, our problems really are too much for us. The pain in our hearts can only get worse. There will be sickness and death around us and within us. The worst part of it all is that we deserve it because of our sins.
And sometimes, the idea of God being able to fix things seems laughable. “Oh sure, my life is hard, I have all sorts of troubles, but a few Bible passages, that will really help!” Sometimes people will even say, “God won’t help me. In fact, he’s the one who got me into this situation, but he doesn’t seem to care enough to get me out!”
We feel lost, our hope is gone, we are cut off. So what is a bag of bones like you and me to do? On our own, we can’t do anything. But then we hear our God, and we hear Ezekiel tell us: hear the Word of the Lord! Hear God’s Word! Without is, we’re nothing but bones. But with it, the Spirit gives us life!
That’s exactly what happened in our text. Ezekiel spoke the Word of the Lord to those bones. And something happened! Ezekiel said, So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. (Ezek. 37:7) Can you imagine that noise, the rattling sound? Thousands, maybe even millions of bones were coming together, more than 200 hundred a person!
I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them. (Ezek. 37:8) It was no longer just bones; it was bodies. But they were just bodies, not alive. It was an army of cadavers, but not for long!
[God] said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet — a vast army. (Ezek. 37:9-10)
It’s probably worth noting that in the original language here the word “breath” and the word “spirit” are the exact same word. This was a big pile of bones, then a bunch of dead bodies, but when God sent the breath, they came to life. You see what he’s doing, right? When God sends his Spirit, his Holy Spirit, he gives us new life!
As God said to Ezekiel and to Israel, and to us, O my people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them…Then you…will know that I am the Lord. (Ezek. 37:12-13) God gives life where there was only death. That’s what he does. His Holy Spirit gives spiritual and eternal life where there was only the death of sin.
Do you understand that he’s already done this to you? He has! Maybe it wasn’t as dramatic as Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones. But it was every bit as powerful.
God sends his Holy Spirit into our hearts, not with Ezekiel, but with his Word. There’s a couple of passages that you might have learned when you were young that bring this point home. Faith comes from hearing the message and the message is heard through the Word of Christ. (Rom. 10:17) There our faith in Christ is connected with the Word. It’s also connected with the Holy Spirit. No one can say, “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit. (1 Cor. 12:3)
The Holy Spirit breathed God’s life into us when we heard the Word, when we were washed with water and the Word in our baptism. He continues to come to us. We celebrate Pentecost — the coming of the Holy Spirit — today, but every time we hear God’s Word, it’s a little Pentecost. The Holy Spirit still works in us and gives us life. He connects us right to Jesus himself.
The Holy Spirit gives life by giving and strengthening our faith in the Savior. Our faith doesn’t look to ourselves for salvation, but it looks to Jesus alone. It looks to Jesus dying on the cross to pay for our sins. It looks to Jesus whose perfect life counts for ours by faith. By Word and sacrament, the Holy Spirit gives us life. And he himself lives in us by faith.
And the other problems in our lives, the things that make us feel empty and cut off and like dry bones? God’s Word doesn’t make those things disappear from our lives now. But it helps us see them differently. God’s Word reminds us that He has the final victory, no matter what happens to us now. God’s Word reminds us that a powerful God is hearing and acting on our prayers. God’s Word reminds us that we have a Savior who will never leave our side. God’s Word reminds us that our sins have been removed from us as far as the east is from the west. So in your troubles, in your pain, hear the Word of the Lord!
And when you hear that Word, it will be Pentecost. It doesn’t have to be Pentecost on the calendar to be Pentecost in your heart. Hear the Word of the Lord! The Holy Spirit gives life through it! He reminds you of God’s love, of Christ’s forgiveness, and of your life.
Yes, your life is real because of Pentecost. Because of Pentecost and the Holy Spirit’s work, you will live. You won’t just be a bag of bones, you will live forever! Your body and soul will be together with your Savior forever! You have the Spirit’s power now and always. So continue in it! Hear the Word of the Lord!