Today I preached at Becontree Avenue Baptist Church in Dagenham (http://www.becavebaptistchurch.org.uk/)
Ezekiel 37: 1 –14
1 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. 2 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. 3 He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” I said, “O Sovereign LORD, you alone know.” 4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! 5 This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. 6 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.’ ” 7 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. 8 I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them. 9 Then he 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.’ ” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet–a vast army. 11 Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: O my people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the LORD have spoken, and I have done it, declares the LORD.’ “
Today we are going to talk about life and death. Not just our physical experiences but also our spiritual life, that which continues after our physical bodies have returned to the dust from which we have come!
As you may know I conduct many funerals services and often I read these wonderful promises of Jesus:
John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
John 11:25 & 26 “ Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”
I wonder if any of you know the Natural History Museum in South Kensington?
Last time we went there, a few years ago, there was a major exhibit of dinosaurs.
Very carefully all these dead dry bones had been put together to hopefully give the outline of the skeleton of these ancient animals. You can get an idea of the sheer size and power of these creatures and realise perhaps how frightening it must have been to be hunted down by Tyrannosaurus Rex.
However despite the over powering size they are just a pile of dead bones. Apart from if they fall on you, they have no power to hurt you.
In some of the exhibits, the museum has done its best to reconstruct the dinosaur and put it into a diorama to show what its surrounding may have looked like. Yet here again it is still either dead bones covered in some material or it is just a model.
Some of the more modern exhibits ie creatures that still exist today are actually preserved specimens. But despite the taxidermist’s skill they are still dead even if they have skin, fur, skeleton etc.
Without that vital spark of life they are dead no matter how well preserved they are. Even the amazing models used in the BBC TV series “Walking with Dinosaurs” were just that – models, despite the appearance of life.
Several years ago during our summer holiday we visited Pendennis castle in Cornwall and one of the exhibits was a reconstruction of one of the gun rooms in the main turret as it would have been in King Henry VIII’s time. The cannon was attended by life size model gunners. There were recorded commands to the gun team, loud explosions to simulate the cannon firing and smoke emitted by a smoke generator. Yet it was all a fake, it was dead. The smoke was chemical smoke – it didn’t smell of burning gunpowder. The figures weren’t alive despite how realistically they had been made and posed.
So we come to our Bible passage where Ezekiel is presented with a vast pile of dry dead bones it seems that they have fallen in battle and have not been buried. Very obviously completely dead. No flesh left, just bones and hence beyond any hope of coming to life. For a priest like Ezekiel it must have been a terrifying sight as priests were not to touch dead bodies or go near them, hence the reaction of the priest in the parable of the Good Samaritan.
Even the thousands of helpless muslim men and boys murdered by the Serbs in Bosnia in the 1990’s were buried and not left to rot and be picked clean by scavengers!
In the Old Testament there were several examples of the dead being brought back to life soon after death ie the son of the widow of Zarapheth in 1 Kings 17 vv 17 – 24, and the son of the Shunammite woman in 2 Kings 4 vv 18 – 37. But no record of bodies so obviously long dead being brought back to life.
What does God say to Ezekiel?
Ezekiel 37 v3 He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” I said, “O Sovereign LORD, you alone know.” Then he said to me, “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. 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.’ “
At this point, can I ask you; What would you do if you were Ezekiel? If God told you to step out in faith like this? Do you know God well enough to trust his faithfulness? Or would you say that this in not for me. This isn’t what being a believer is all about.
Fortunately we are told that Ezekiel got on with the job.
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. I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them. Then he 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.
There are several stages involved in the bringing to life of these bones.
- Ezekiel listened to God
- Ezekiel was obedient and did as God commanded. But that wasn’t enough, so
- Ezekiel asked the Holy Spirit to come and complete the miracle by bringing life.
We need both the Word of God and the power of the Holy Spirit to bring things to life. Without the power of the Holy Spirit breathing life into these bodies they are still dead. They might now have flesh and skin on them and all the bones are joined together but they are still dead.
What application does the story of a pile of old bones have for us in 2011?
I think that this can apply to individuals and to churches. We can be at any of the three stages:
- Are we a pile of dead dry bones?
- Or a lifeless body?
- Or are we filled with the Spirit and alive?
The church like a pile of dry bones has no real life in it, neither really has the church which is like the lifeless body.
The later is a bit like a working museum. Perhaps you’ve visited one of these places on holiday where quaintly dressed people re-enact either industrial processes of the Victorian age or pretend they are the servants in a great country house.
Going back to Pendennis castle, when it was in action in World War 2 defending Falmouth harbour against German e-boat raids, it had modern weapons to deal with a modern enemy. It didn’t rely on traditional but outmoded cannon.
Some times we can get so caught up on tradition; how we have always done things that it can actually choke the life out of us.
You may have heard this before but:
How many church members does it take to change a light bulb?
None. It’s impossible for church members to ever change a light bulb. There is always a member of the Church who will say “My mother donated that bulb, and you touch it over my dead body.”
Some churches can so major on tradition at the expense of everything else and have a beautifully preserved building which takes up most of the finances and most of the time of the church members, but have nothing to attract people to Jesus.
Or they can have amazing programmes and be so busy being busy that they neglect to have Jesus at the centre and have no real spiritual life.
Remember that nowadays that whilst most people claim to believe in God they do not know him or Jesus, and many have never been to church. Quite often when I conduct funeral services I am the only one who knows the Lord’s Prayer. To be blunt many see Christians as belonging to a holy club and regard the church as quaint and mainly irrelevant.
Many people are spiritually hungry. Where are they going to find the only person who will satisfy that hunger? The only person who can make them spiritually alive.
But to the unchurched some churches can be unwelcoming places, where they fail to find Jesus.
Sadly some churches still think they are alive when in reality the Lord may being saying what he said to the church in Sardis (Revelation 3 v1) . I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up!
I was brought up in a “traditional anglo catholic” church and we had more ritual and traditions than you could shake a stick at. But I didn’t knowingly encounter Jesus there through out the 20 plus years I attended. It might be comfortable and you may like the style of worship but if you personally are not growing spiritually then something has to change. I am very thankful that Gaynor and I were by God’s grace brought to a church that was alive and where we could meet with Jesus.
I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the Acts of the Apostles? But you can read about a style of church which should be our model in Acts 2. What was it that changed an apparently lifeless bunch of apostles into a living dynamic growing church? The coming of the Holy Spirit. Without the Holy Spirit breathing life into the believers the church just wouldn’t have happened. When at the end of Peter’s sermon that first Whitsun the crowd asked what they must do to be saved. What did Peter reply?
Acts 2 v38 “Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” To many it sounds far too easy, no rules and regulations to follow and for those immersed in the Jewish tradition it would mean eventually turning their back on the system of sacrifices in the temple as you can read in the Letter to the Hebrews.
Being filled with the Holy Spirit and listening to God can be uncomfortable. As well as bringing spiritual life, the Spirit brings action to our lives. Look at Acts 8. Phillip had gone to Samaria and preached the Word and established a growing church there. He was doing good work there and yet God told him to leave it all behind and go into the desert. He went – we don’t know if he was happy about it, but he went. His meeting with the Ethiopian official lead to the gospel being spread to Ethiopia and the church is still there to this day.
Just think about this. What would have happened if Abraham had decided he was so comfortable in Ur that he wouldn’t listen to God and go off to find the land of Canaan?
We ourselves don’t know what we are missing out on if we refuse to move when God says “Move”. We do not know who God wants us to met or who may come to faith through us.
If we are alive through the power of the Holy Spirit then we have to move when our Lord says “follow me” even if we don’t like where we are being sent or indeed if we like Lot are taken out of our familiar surroundings. We have to be so careful not to be like Lot’s wife looking back on the past that we get turned to stone, effectively frozen in time and hence left behind.
A church is an organism not an organisation, and as such it should be alive, active and growing.
I assume that all of us want to be in a church that is a living body, moving, growing and active. That being so we should ensure that not only do we know the Word of God and obey but we are also full of the Holy Spirit to bring that Word to life in our hearts. As without both the Word and the Spirit a church will be like a museum and just as irrelevant to the people outside who need to find Jesus.
On a personal level, unless people have come to faith in Jesus Christ and have been born again through the Holy Spirit, they are just “dead men walking”. They might be “the salt of the earth”, give generously to those in need, never have a cross word for anyone, love animals etc etc. But none of this means a thing on the Day of Judgement. Jesus made it perfectly clear in John 3:5 when he said “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.”
So have you come to faith in Jesus Christ? Have you been born again? Do you like the Jews in our reading need to be brought out of your spiritual graves and given new life?
And what about our loved ones, our friends, neighbours work mates? Are they spiritually alive or just “dead men walking”?
I am sure that we all know someone who needs to come to faith in Jesus. We need to pray for them that the Holy Spirit will break down the walls so that they may hear the word of the Lord and live.
Let us pray:
Heavenly Father we pray that you would send your Holy Spirit on your people gathered here today and so help us to hear and obey your Word. Lord may we be willing for your sake to move from our comfort zones so that we can bring others into your kingdom. We also pray for our family, friends neighbours and workmates who don’t know you. Lord may they hear your Word, your spirit’s prompting and accept new life through faith in Jesus. We ask this in Jesus name. Amen.