This is one of the few passages from Ezekiel that most of us have ever heard. It’s the story of the prophet being taken in a vision to a valley filled with dry, long-dead bones. It’s a story of God’s promised hope of resurrection, of Israel being restored, and the inspiration for the hit classic “Dem Bones.” But like any time we hear only one part of a book as big as Ezekiel, it’s always helpful to know what’s going on around it.
Ezekiel got this vision after a huge disaster—actually the biggest disaster imaginable—had happened in Judah. Jerusalem had fallen to the Babylonians, the Temple was burned to the ground, and the whole population was deported to Babylon, where Ezekiel was living. Four hundred fifty years of the Davidic monarchy came crashing to an end. The people’s whole world had been turned upside down. The way they were used to living was upended, undone, caput in an instant. Suddenly they had to adapt to a completely new way of living in a completely unfamiliar place.
They were swirling in a haze of anxiety, suddenly having to learn what life was supposed to look like. They didn’t have the option of carrying on as usual, since “normal” was now a smoldering ruin back in Judah. In a very big way, it felt like their whole future was permanently blown off course. Exiled, far from home, the Israelites had to figure out how to hope, and they turned to their prophetic leaders for something to hold onto.
Which all feels very familiar, somehow. Two weeks ago we were all pretty blissfully unaware of the huge change that was about to happen to our lives. Now, state after state is declaring a safer-at-home policy, closing nonessential businesses and encouraging people to work from home. We might not be cast off into exile, but maybe when you have to suddenly homeschool your kids, or figure out how to have a Zoom meeting, or budget when your job gets declared nonessential, it can certainly feel like exile. And what we want more than anything is for the world to go back to the way it was, back to before all this change happened, back to normal.
It’s not hard to imagine the Israelites feeling the same way. But Ezekiel’s vision gives us something else to think about. Yes, God could restore Israel to what it was before, returning them from exile to go back to what they were before. And Ezekiel’s vision sees that, when the dry bones of the valley suddenly began to rattle, linking up together, growing sinews and flesh and then being covered in skin. The body of what they were—their king, their priests, their Temple; the way they were divided into ruler and ruled, rich and poor, essential and unessential—could be restored. The valley, filled with bodies, was technically restored to what it was before—the multitude had their bodies restored.
But that’s not the restoration God has in mind.
Instead, God commands Ezekiel to prophesy to the breath! Speak truth to the Spirit, God says, and a rushing wind fills the valley. Rather than settling for going back to what was, rather than settling for bones restored to bodies, God intended to fill the Israelites with a new spirit, God’s own Spirit, that would reorder their whole way of being. God would not take them back to what they were before.
And I think God will not take us back to where we were before either. After we’ve spent weeks in quarantine, realizing the way the world works, what is truly important, what it means to be “essential” or not—God won’t let us go back to what was. Instead, like the bodies filled with the Spirit of God in the valley, God will make something new of us on the other side of this exile. God won’t just restore society; God will remake society.
I see the seeds of that remaking in the outpouring of gratitude and hope and solidarity I’ve seen. People across the country have rallied together in thanks for all that our teachers have done for us. Fast food places and convenience stores have made it a practice to go out of their way to show our gratitude to truckers keeping the nation fed and supplied every day. Care packages, mask and glove donations, prayers, and solidarity are all expressing to nurses, doctors, and other healthcare workers how deeply and fully we need them. As we all recognize the need to deeply clean and sanitize places to fight this virus, the nation has been awakened to a new appreciation of janitors and custodial staff. Neighbors have banded together to make meals for people living alone, people have begun to long for a conversation from six feet away with their neighbor down the street, and residents have started putting teddy bears in their windows to delight children they’ll never meet.
I don’t believe we will come out the other side of this forgetting that. I don’t believe we will be allowed to forget how, in this time when we needed each other most, each of us stepped up to do our part, shared the burden, and made sacrifices for the good of all. This may be an exile, and it is heavy in so many ways, but God is at work in it, reworking and remaking us as a people to more closely resemble the kingdom of God.
So this might feel like a valley of the dry bones as you sit at home rather than in a church to worship, and it may feel like a bleached ossuary in a few weeks when the walls start getting closer and we begin to wonder how long we must endure this exile, but God is at work. God is sending the Spirit to remake us into a new people, leading us to more than mere restoration, so that when Jesus calls our name and we leave our homes like Lazarus from the tomb, it will be as changed people into a changed world. May we take this time to let God work that change in us so when we get the “all clear,” we can burst out of our homes ready to love and serve our neighbor, show our gratitude to the forgotten ones, and make God’s kingdom known where we are.
Thanks be to God. Amen.