“In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the exiles by the Chebar, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God” (Ezekiel 1.1). So begins the Book of Ezekiel. Ezekiel was part of the brain drain King Nebuchadnezzar used to subdue Judah. If that feels like a far-off place from a time long ago, it is. King Nebuchadnezzar exiled Ezekiel to Babylon, along with many of the other bright people of Judah.
When Ezekiel started prophesying, he criticized some of the theology of his day. The Israelites felt entitled to God’s blessings because of the covenant. They thought there was an absolute commitment to them (the Davidic dynasty) and no chance God would ever let Jerusalem ever fall. However, God wants a relationship with humanity, not a static, one-dimensional encounter. Ezekiel pointed out this distinction between a deterministic way of seeing God and a dynamic encounter. He commented on the current events in his world.
In the first 24 chapters, he condemns Israel’s past and present. In chapters 25-32, he tells of God’s judgment on other nations. In the final section, chapters 33-48, Ezekiel looks at a future restoration. That’s where we are. In days like these, we can ask: How can God overcome impossible odds? That’s the question for those who suffer. From the perspective of the people who are actually living it, being restored would seem impossible. Living in exile would have created a sense of despondency. That lament and mournful rhyming in Hebrew reflected the way they felt.
Today, it might reflect the way you feel. Everything has changed. Everything is different. In just a few weeks, the world feels like it has shifted on its axis. No one can avoid encountering COVID-19 or news about it. Like the rain, it is indiscriminate—rich and poor, women and men, young and old, people from almost every country. How can we have hope in a time like this?
When we encounter something difficult, we use human wisdom to address the problem. With COVID-19, we talk about social distancing, washing our hands, and supporting work on vaccines. These are all good steps, and we should keep taking them. These also reflect the way we often look at the world. We look at situations and try to figure out a solution.
Ezekiel 37 shows a different kind of thinking. It’s not either/or. It’s not an alternative to hand washing and social distancing. Keep avoiding contact with other people.
Ezekiel 37 and the valley of dry bones adds to how we can look at the future. It shows God-powered thinking. If we saw a valley of dry bones, we’d see “game over.” But that’s not how God sees it. We might see the upward arc of new coronavirus cases as an inevitable trend. But that is not how God sees it. The absurdity of the allusion to a valley of bones coming back to life demonstrates God’s power.
We lack the ability to describe God’s possibilities. When we try to put it into words, we always fall short. We use metaphors, analogies, and stories. We revert to a testimony after the fact; e.g. I didn’t realize it, but God was there with me, working all the time. For the exiles, things seemed as bad as they can be. So, Ezekiel painted a picture of something beyond imagination happening. If God can restore flesh and blood to dried bones, can’t God restore the people? For those who felt entitled to stay in Jerusalem, Ezekiel says, Don’t rest on your laurels! Don’t assume that God will keep things the way you want them. They wanted to stay in Jerusalem. It was their capital, and they were God’s chosen people. So, how could God let the Babylonians capture them?
What about us? Just a month ago, many of us couldn’t have imagined COVID-19 spreading around the world. We want to be in control, and many of us felt like we were in control. We could plan. We could go to the grocery store. We could buy ramen noodles. For crying out loud, who bought all the ramen noodles? Now, items as mundane as ramen noodles are completely missing from the stores.
More importantly, essential, life-giving hospital equipment and personal-protective-equipment are in a precariously short supply. For some people, sitting in their houses, it’s like we see the valley of dry bones before God breathed life into them. We are accustomed to basing our decisions and ideas for the future on the present reality. We can’t imagine what God can do. Neither could Ezekiel. That’s what the whole valley-of-dry-bones-turning-into-living-people story is about. God is capable. God is powerful. And, God can do anything, including bringing life to a valley of dry bones, and including seeing us through this pandemic.
Ezekiel 37 is a vision. Ezekiel did not go to a field and see an army that would return to fight actual battles. He saw what God is capable of doing. After this vision, Ezekiel experienced God giving what is called a modified disputation speech. In other words, God hears the exiles and responds to them. God doesn’t deny their experience of despair, but does challenge how they perceive their circumstances.
For us, it isn’t over. God’s not done. Like every other pandemic in world history, humanity will get to the other side of this one.
God hears our cries, fears, isolation, and loneliness.
When we read this story in Ezekiel, it reminds us of new possibilities. It reminds us of God doing more than we could ever imagine. We can open ourselves to hear that word of hope, and then we can receive the breath of life from the Holy Spirit. We are a book, with blank pages, waiting for God lead us to write our next chapter. What, in your socially-distanced space, are you going to do? What’s next? Can we see the blessings that continue in this time? Can we see the opportunities God has placed in front of us? The possibilities are amazing!
What we do with these possibilities is up to us. We can respond. We can look for God’s presence in all of this. We can look for God to breath new life into the dry bones of our lives. Or, we can say, that’s nice, and just try to survive the pandemic and leave God out of it. Ezekiel’s words are not a eulogy. They are a command to come back to life. God is not calling the prophet to proclaim the end to our lives. God says, “Mortal, prophesy to these bones…you shall live.”
What are we doing to come back to life? What are we doing to seize the day? God wants people to live and flourish. We can do that, even in a pandemic. Today, don’t sit in your valley of dry bones and assume, that’s the end. God’s not finished.