The Valley of Dry Bones & the Holy Breath of Yahweh

For far too long the people of Israel has placed their hope in their nation-state with all its power dressed in the clothes of military strength and wealth. For too long the people of Israel has trusted in their ability to be a great nation. They no longer needed Yahweh as their allegiance has shifted from his kingship to their nation-state. This idolatry has become their downfall.

A civil war has taken place. Their once unified kingdom is now two, with Judah in the south and Israel in the north. Their willful disobedience and misplaced trust has left them without hope. They have lived as though they didn’t need Yahweh as time and again they stubbornly refused his prophets. So Yahweh sent them into exile around the latter part of the eighth century (well over a century before Ezekiel prophesied) at the hands of the Assyrian empire.

Now King Neuchadnezzer of the Babylonian empire has succeeded in his second invasion of Judah around 597 BC. Yahweh’s people are without a home. They are socially and culturally displaced as their entire way of being and doing has been shattered. All the things that gave their lives meaning as a people, as a nation, was utterly torn apart.

Among the Jews taken into captivity was a man named Ezekiel. A priest turned prophet, he  began experiencing astonishing visions from Yahweh at the age of 30 and was filled with strange sign-acts, dramatic embodiments of his prophetic message (see 4:4-89-155:1-412:1-724:15-27).

In chapter 37 Yahweh gives him a vision of a valley. This was a dark and dry place, a graveyard filled with very dry bones. I invite you to read Ezekiel 37:1-14 once again. Slowly tend to every detail of the vision. See how Yahweh placed Ezekiel down into the valley and left him there a while to see the very dry bones. Hear them rattle and crack below his feet with each step he takes. See how Yahweh puts them back together bone to bone, tendon to tendon, flesh to flesh. Listen as Yahweh invites Ezekiel to join him in his act of recreating as Ezekiel obeys and prophesies to the bones and to the breath as Yahweh’s holy breath (his Holy Spirit) gives life, echoing back to the creation narrative of Genesis.

Yahweh’s people are full of hopelessness and dead on the inside and need new life–they need resurrection. The valley of dry bones is a vision about a God powerful enough to give his people what they need; it is about a God who is holy and requires that His people see the desperation and death sin and disobedience ushers in. This is a story that speaks of Yahweh’s holy and faithful love and his stubborn refusal to abandon his people. Time and again he invites us all to see our hopelessness without him so that we will trust him to turn valleys of death into valleys of life.

In light of the word offered to us this past Sunday I want to offer one from Dietrich Bonhoeffer of the “Confessing Church” of Germany during Hitler’s Third Reich. If you do not know who he is please go here. Otherwise, know that he  tirelessly gave his life to the Church in the hope she would remember her first and only allegiance to Jesus’ Lordship during this time of tremendous socio-political and religious upheaval. He was sort of like Germany’s Ezekiel, a priestly prophet desperately longing for God’s people to find life in him.

Just for a moment, imagine how risky remaining faithful to the Jewish Messiah during this place in history. Hitler’s German Christianity hijacked the christian faith for his own political agenda, dividing the church. Bonhoeffer and others resisted this brand of “christianity” in order to recapture God’s politic (his way of governance among his people, i.e. the ethics and way of life summoned by the Lordship of Jesus and the in-breaking kingdom of God ). Bonhoeffer was eventually imprisoned by the Gestapo and executed by hanging.

During the Advent Season of 1932 Bonhoeffer offered these words to a Berlin congregation, words I believe to be prophetically relevant to us today:

“We [the Church] shall confess—he [Christ] shall build. We shall preach—he shall build. We shall pray to him—he shall build. We do not know his plan. We do not see whether he builds or tears down. It may be that the times, which by human standards are times of collapse, are for him the times of great building. It may be that the times, which by human standards are times of great success, are for him times to tear down. It is a great comfort that Christ gives to his church: confess, preach and bear witness to me. I alone will build as it pleases me. Don’t give me orders. Do your job—then you have done enough. You are all right. Don’t seek out reasons or opinions. Don’t keep judging. Don’t keep checking again and again to see if you are secure. Church, remain a church! You have only one Lord—Christ alone. By his grace alone you live. Christ builds.

And the power of hell shall not overcome you. Death is the legacy of all who live. Here it finds its end. On the hard foundations of the valley of death, the church is built, the church which confesses Christ as its life. It has eternal life precisely where death grasps at it. And it grasps at it because it has eternal life. The confessing church is the everlasting church, because Christ protects it. Its eternal nature is not visible in this world. The waves go high over it and sometimes it appears to sink and be lost. But the victory lies with the church, because Christ the Lord is with it and he has conquered death. ‘Do not ask if the victory is yours, but believe in the victory and it is already yours.”¹

God’s people are always in need of the Holy Breath that gives new life. For far too long we have been swept away by the political rhetoric that plays upon our fears and anxieties. We have subtly forgotten that our hope is not found on Capitol Hill, but on Calvary’s hill. It is there we remember that the One who died wouldn’t stay dead. The risen Jesus is the reigning Lord. Only he has the power to recreate, to take what is barren and turn it into beauty, what is wrecked and give it renewal, what is parched and give it plenty, and what is dead and give it life.

May our confession that Jesus is Lord become our life. May we boldly and humbly preach that God’s kingdom is available to all who will repent and believe. And during this season of socio-political upheaval and uncertainty, may our lives bear witness to the reign of Christ among us as we live as the people of Pentecost filled with the Holy Breath of God.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christmas Sermons, “The Search for the Church of Peter” p. 80

The Reign of Sin & Death, The Reign of Grace, Part 2

When thinking about truth-telling and considering other people’s sin, failings and misgivings, I am still reminded of Paul’s words:

“Therefore, any one of you who judges is without excuse. For when you judge another, you condemn yourself, since you, the judge, do the same things. We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is based on the truth. Do you really think—anyone of you who judges those who do such things yet do the same—that you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you despise the riches of His kindness, restraint, and patience, not recognizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?” (Romans 2:1-4)

The kindness, restraint and patience of God is what leads us to repentance…his kindness not his condemnation…his restraint not his readiness to condemn…his patience not his punitive posture…his kindness…his kindness.

His love draws us into him, not an unhealthy fear of him. We tremble at his feet in gratefulness bound up in humility, not because we are smitten by his wrathful vengeance that longs to cast us into the pit of hell, but because he loves us so much he would rather die for us than destroy us.

Why do I believe this to be true? Because it’s what happened when God put on flesh and made his dwelling among us. Jesus didn’t run off sinners. They drew near to him (Luke 15:1-2; Matthew 11:19). The only folks he ran off were the religious or those who eventually couldn’t get on board with the teachings (see John 6). Sinners seemed to be drawn to Jesus because he offered a different brand of hospitality and holiness. Jesus’ love was so holy, so “set-apart” that it stood in contrast as an alternative form of piety far different from the so-called holiness and piety of the religious leaders. Jesus loved with a “holy love,” one capable of offering compassion to the condemned by extending the welcome of God, a welcome so drenched in love and grace that it turned sinners into saints.

It is the kind of love I finally awakened to after years of drunken and drug-filled nights and failed relationships laced with outbursts of verbal abuse, manic depression and a whole host of other sins too long to keep anyone’s interest. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’m still a raging machine of a mess, but Jesus hasn’t run me off. He still welcomes me and because of his holy love, I am changed day-by-day by his Spirit. Or so I hope.

So when considering another person’s lifestyle or values system or behavior that runs contrary to my own, or strays from what I believe is God’s best, I am reminded that in light of my own sin and the welcome I’ve received by King Jesus, my job is simple: to live my life in such a way that Jesus gets a fair shot with every one else.

One thing I’ve come to learn from many years of missing the point is that when I do the opposite and fall into the trap of believing I am called to be some sort of defender of holiness rather than a witness of holy love, I hurt others; I look less like Jesus and more like the Pharisee. But if by some small measure of grace I listen to God’s presence within, I remember that I am merely an unworthy recipient of his holy love, and with the same grace that is saving me I am free to be gracious and welcome others as Christ continues to welcome me.

Romans 2:4
Or do you despise the riches of His kindness, restraint, and patience, not recognizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?

Romans 15:7
Therefore welcome one another, just as the Messiah also welcomed you, to the glory of God.