This is the last day of our mountain trip. Over the last five days that we were in the mountains on our backpacking trip together, we’ve had the chance to explore what it means that the Breath of God lives in each of us. Each day on the trail we set apart a time to reflect on Scripture and reflect on life as we looked out over God’s creation. Each of us were invited to begin each of these times spending about five minutes just breathing. With each breath, we were invited to picture God’s Spirit filling us deeply. After a time of becoming aware fo the Spirit’s presence within us, we were invited to read a Scripture that points to how God’s Spirit works within us. So, this is the final reflection. Let’s begin by becoming aware of our breathing. With each breath, picture God’s Spirit filling you with His restoration. Breathe deeply. See if throughout this entire sermon, you can keep up this practice of breathing deeply, reminding yourself of the way God’s breath fills you completely.
To begin, we need to first understand the historical context of this vision that Ezekiel received from God. He was born in 622 BC, and in his late 20s he saw the Babylonian army march into Jerusalem and destroy this city and the temple. He and his wife survived this invasion and began living in Tel Abib on the River Chebar. Ezekiel had lived through the greatest tragedy of his life, the total devastation of his nation. When the Spirit of God brought Ezekiel to a valley full of very old, very dry bones, I don’t think it took very long for Ezekiel to figure out what the bones represented. The bones represented his family, his neighbours, the people he worked with, the people he had passed on the street as a young man. The bones represented his nation, and the utter devastation that had come upon it. God was about to assure Ezekiel that he would restore the nation of Israel to life.
Now let’s explore the imagery of the dry bones, and explore their implications for our life in the Spirit. And I’m going to be intentional about letting our experience in the mountains put some flesh on the imagery of Ezekiel’s vision.
On our third day in the mountains we hike up onto a ridge which had a spectacular view of Mount Serb and the glacier below it. We wanted to descend down the ridge into the glacier valley, so that we could explore the glacier. The glacier had retreated significantly. What was left was a grey, lifeless valley. The valley was stunning in its austerity. Crumbled up rocks were all that remained. I imagined that valley as the one that the Spirit brought Ezekiel to. I pictured the glacier as the as the Babylon Army that marched over Jerusalem, leaving just total destruction in its wake. Our group was trying to climb down into this valley, to get a closer view of the desolation. As we clambered down the shale rocks we got to a point where it looked like all paths into the valley were blocked by a steep, gravelly cliff. Alfred left the group to scout a way, but he came back and said there was simply no way into that lifeless valley. Our group had no choice but to turn around. Privately I asked Alfred if he would have gone into the valley by himself, He said, “No, there would be no way to get out. You’d just keep running up the sides of the valley and sliding back down.”
That’s the sort of valley I imagine the Spirit set Ezekiel in. Ezekiel and his nation had been utterly stuck in this valley of bones for many decades. They were unable to climb out. Everywhere they looked, there was no life. The bones represented his family, his friends, his neighbours. The bones represented what they had been reduced to. The beginning of Ezekiel’s vision must have been horrific. I don’t know how long let Ezekiel wonder among the bones, but he had been living in that ghastly reality for decades. Its at that moment that the Spirit asks, “Son of man, can these bones live?” This question is doing two things. First, the Spirit is inviting Ezekiel to recognize the painfully obvious reality: these bones are very old, and very dry. There is no life here. Naming a reality for what it is is an important step in the process of restoration. Naming the reality confirms that we know how bad the situation is. Naming the reality confirms that we know that there is no possibility of life in the valley we’re in. Forty percent of Psalms in the Bible are classified as lament Psalms. Lament Psalms are written as a way of naming the reality that the song writer was currently in. Lament Psalms are a model of prayer, where we can find strength to name our reality when we find ourselves in a valley of bones. But there is a second piece to God inviting us to name the reality. When God invites us to name the reality that we are in a valley full of very old, very dry bones, he is also extending an invitation to place our total trust in Him. In 99 percent of the Lament Psalms, they name the reality of dry bones, but they end with a statement like this: “I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, for he has been good to me.” The lament Psalms invite us to not only recognize how he has been with us in the valley of dry bones, but also to trust in his unfailing love. Lament Psalms invite us to trust that God alone is the one who can bring restoration. The Spirit invites us to name the reality, so that on the day God does bring restoration, we shall know that it is him alone who brought us out of the valley of dry bones. Certainly, this is what the Spirit is helping Ezekiel to realize when He asks, “Can these bones live?’ And Ezekiel responds with a glimmer of faith, “O Sovereign Lord, you alone know.” While fully looking at the utter hopelessness of the valley of bones, Ezekiel recognizes that God alone knows if He shall bring life.
So Ezekiel is instructed to prophesy to the bones. To say, “Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord say to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.” So Ezekiel begins to prophesy and bones come together, bone to bone. Tendons cover the bones. Muscle appears. Skin covers everything. Notice, the order. God doesn’t start with the skin. When the Spirit begins with restoration, he doesn’t begin with what will most quickly return a person to looking normal. Healing isn’t skin deep. In this picture, when the Spirit begins His work of restoration, He begins far below the surface, with the bones, the tendons, the muscles. Spirit works His way out. That’s not to say that’s always where the Spirit begin restoration, but often the Spirit starts working bone deep. The Lord heals our skeletal fractures. The places we might not be aware of, and works his way out. Perhaps when we pray, or prophesy, we are not going deep enough.
So Ezekiel finishes prophesying, and he looks around to see an army of lifeless family, neighbours and friends. There was no breath in them. Let’s remember that throughout this passage, the word for Spirit, breath and wind are the same word: Ruah. There is no Ruah in this army of bodies lying before Ezekiel. So the Sovereign Lord says, “Prophesy to the breath; 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.” The the Ruah comes, the wind, Spirit-breath of God comes into these bodies and they stand up. One their feet—a vast army.
Let’s pause for a moment and consider the nature of wind. This last week enlarged my perspective on wind. When returning from the glacier valley we had to climb up the ridge and down the other side to our tent. As we got closer and closer, we noticed our camp looked pretty unusual. Up on the ridge, the wind was whipping us around, knocking some of us off balance. Meanwhile, back at the camp, the wind had lifted our tents out of the stones they were tied to, and blew them into the nearby stream. We spent the next hour hauling up small boulders reinforce our anchors. The wind kept blowing, and we carried on with our evening. A number of us were sitting around our makeshift kitchen, talking, when a massive gust of wind tore through our camp. It ripped the ropes from the tent, and the tent raced across the heather. All of us leapt to our feet, and Olivia took the lead. She trailed close behind the tent, leaping over the stream as the wind carried the tent back and forth. Finally, in one heroic leap she grabbed for the tent. She stood up triumphantly with the tent in hand, but at that moment an terrific gale of wind grabbed hold of the tent and Olivia literally flew back across the stream before landing on the other side. At that point, two of us caught up and tackled the tent.
As I slept in that night in that bent and torn tent, all I could hear was the wind shaking hard the of the fabric that was supposed to protect us from the elements. That night, I became awake to the fact that the image of wind is not that fo a gentle force. Perhaps the Ruah of God is not all that gentle either. What if the parts of life that bend us, run us, drag us through the water are the very moments that God uses to restore us, put flesh on our bleached bones. Perhaps its the moments that throw us to the mat that God uses to restore us to life. Jacob wrestled with God through the night. Perhaps a gale force wind howled around him as he said through fiercely clenched teeth, “I won’t let go until you bless me.” He walked away with a limp which he had for the rest of his life, but he also walked away with a new name: Israel. A name which means: he struggles with God, and may God prevail. Its the Ruah of God, the wind ripping through the chaos that creates wind new life in the beginning of creation. And the wind continues today. The wind rips through our flimsy structures, designed to protect and distract us from the restorative power of God. The wind knocks us to our knees and God begins to do his work.
We can stay in our tent. We can make our tents as comfortable as possible. We can reinforce the tent so that we imagine it as impregnable. We can fill our tent with all sort of luxury, all sorts of distractions, all sorts of securities. In our age of luxury, distractions, and securities we can grow to never have need to step out of the tent. We can arrive at a place where we are content to never feel the faintest breeze of the Spirit, the mighty breath of God.
Or we can take a risk. We can step out of the our tent. We can step out and wait. We can do this by engaging in spiritual practices. Let’s learn to pray, let’s learn to fast, let’s learn to meditate on God’s word, let’s learn to take leaps of faith, let’s learn how to celebrate and lament in the Spirit. Let’s learn the art of practicing godliness. When we first take these steps of stepping outside, the air might feel like a dead calm. We might wonder what on earth we are dong. In fact, the distracting thoughts of the evil one might descend upon us in that calm. Sort of like us sitting in camp being engulfed in a swarm of mosquitos. But we wait for the Breath of God to blow them away. As we sit in the calm, there will be every urge to return inside our tent of luxury, distraction, and security. But what if we continue to risk waiting for the Ruah of God. What if we risk stepping onto the Giant’s Playground and wait for God’s Spirit to rip through us. The result may not be pleasant, easy or secure, but the result will be that we are forever changed. We shall find a new name. We shall find a way to walk in the Winds of God. He shall move us. Would that God would breathe in us.
Its interesting that when you look at the history of Israel there are steps towards the bones being restored. They returned to their land. The Temple was rebuilt. They even had a period of self governance. But all of these were imperfect. A body without skin. A body without breath. Acts 2 begins like this: When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. May the Ruah of God rip through us.