We talked last week about attending boot camp in order to redefine some aspect of your physique or, even, your life. But what happens when you just hit a wall and building up or redefining doesn’t seem possible? I mean, there comes a point in every true test or trial when it seems difficult to go on, as if death is imminent. To someone lying face down near the end of a muddy obstacle course or crying out in emotional agony, there seems to be no hope of relief or revival. “Just leave me here. You go on without me.”
Human beings have come over time to understand death and what happens to bodies after death in great detail. In various ways our ancestors have artfully or brutally found places to put the bodies and sometimes actively engaged the decomposing body to facilitate a complete end. Whether in caves, in holes, in fires, or on towers, the body decayed and people understood well how it happened. Death was a one-way street.
Today’s Bible stories challenge everything we know about where hope ends; about life and death, literally and metaphorically. In our readings there is no healing or feeding, no sustaining water from a rock. No. Every possibility for living has ended. Life is over; only the stench and decay remain. There is no reason to be emotionally invested or newly concerned. Wondering what might have been or dwelling on what had been promised would be like being mired in the long-ago past. Hope is dead, appropriately, and into this valley of death God drags the prophet Ezekiel, and Jesus drags His disciples. The prophet and the family and friends of Lazarus know that life is no more. Before their eyes, however, that reality is defied. Life returns to the lifeless.
Every one of us has had moments when we felt all hope was lost. We’ve had a bad day or week or month or year, and we’ve been ready to give up, to throw in the towel, to just not try anymore. And yet, God says, “It’s not over until I say it’s over.” As I look at the passages from Ezekiel and John, some principles jumped out at me. The first is,
Don’t limit what God can do (v. 3). So often we feel boxed in by our circumstances, and we see no way out. Because of that, though we may not say it aloud, we think God is limited the way we are limited. In verse 3, God asks Ezekiel, “Son of man, can these bones live?” Now, I might have responded, “Uh, no! These bones have been dead for many, many years. They are very dry! There is no way they will ever live again!” Yet, Ezekiel is much wiser. He simply says, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.” His title for God says it all. “Sovereign” means in control of all things. God is the one in charge, and that means it is not business as usual. The reality of a miracle is that it breaks the rules of nature.
When Jesus seemingly took His sweet time and finally arrived at the home of Mary and Martha, it had been four days since Lazarus died. The four-day period was important. In Jewish thinking, the spirit might hover around the body for up to three days, with resuscitation possible. Yet, on the fourth day, all hope is gone. Death is final; a one-way street. So, just a week before His own death and resurrection, Jesus said, “Death is not final. Let me give you an illustration.”
Friends, don’t put limits on what God can do! Henry Blackaby illustrates this point in his excellent Bible study book, Experiencing God. He talks about the time when the disciples were out on a boat on the Sea of Galilee and a big storm came up. Jesus was asleep in the back of the boat. The disciples all thought they were going to die. Now, when a fisherman believes he’s going to die, you know it’s a bad storm! So, they brought their impossible circumstances to Jesus, who is the way, the TRUTH, and the life. Blackaby quips that you don’t really know the truth of your circumstances until you bring those circumstances to TRUTH Himself. The disciples thought the truth was they were going to die. Yet, when they brought that “truth” to TRUTH Himself, Jesus woke up, said, “Ye of little faith,” and immediately calmed the storm (Matthew 8:23-26, Mark 4:37-39). “No hope” was replaced with “hope.” Don’t ever limit what God can do.
Secondly, Speak life into the lives of others (v. 4). After Ezekiel correctly surmises that God alone knows the answer whether these bones can come back to life, God gets Ezekiel involved personally in the miracle. In verse 4, God says to Ezekiel, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord!” As one commentary put it, this could be “the most unpromising congregation that any preacher ever addressed!” Yet, as Ezekiel begins to prophesy, life starts to return.
I wonder if God wants us – like Ezekiel – to speak life to dry bones. Prior to this time of physical isolation, we would regularly come across people with little to no hope; this situation won’t last and you will pass them again. What if God is whispering to our soul, “Prophesy to them. Tell them all hope is NOT lost. I am NOT done with their situation. As long as they come to me, they will have hope!” What if God chose to draw us – like Ezekiel – into the miracle?
Don’t underestimate the power of the tongue led by God. He can use your words to speak hope, to speak love, to speak life into the lives of others.
Third, Allow God’s Spirit to fill you (v. 9). The dry bones in Ezekiel’s vision became fully functioning human bodies, with muscles, tendons, and tissue connecting the bones. Yet, it wasn’t enough. They still needed God’s spirit within them. This cannot help but remind us of when God fashioned the first human out of the dust of the earth; then he breathed into Adam the breath of life (Genesis 2:7). God says, in verse 9, “Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.” As God’s breath comes into them, they fully live.
The Hebrew word for “breath” is “ruah.” And many of you know in Hebrew it can also mean “wind” or “spirit.” It is the same exact word in verse 9 for breath that it is in verse 14 when God says, “I will put my SPIRIT in you and you will live.” Ezekiel uses a play on words, as he describes this wind that comes in, symbolic of God’s breath, what we would call the Holy Spirit.
Friends, we are nothing without the Holy Spirit. We are like a body that is not really alive. Only when God’s Spirit comes into us do we become fully alive, fully what we were always intended to be. God wants to fill you with his presence. His Spirit will give you hope. His Spirit will give you life. His Spirit will give you purpose. How do you get it? You get it by submitting to God’s will. Like the third verse of this morning’s hymn says, “Breathe on me, Breath of God, till I am wholly thine, until this earthly part of me glows with thy fire divine.” Allow God’s Spirit to make you completely His.
And lastly, Give God the glory. (v. 14). God tells the people that He will take them home. Then He says, in verse 14, “Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.” When God moves into our circumstances and replaces hopelessness with hopefulness, we need to give God the glory. Because we know He did it. We need to let people around us know that. Don’t be bashful in bragging on God. He gets the glory and we keep from getting a big head. Because God is our hope. Remember that verse out of Jeremiah – 29:11: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” When we remember this verse, we can truthfully say with Charles Stanley, “Disappointments are inevitable; discouragement is a choice.”
Today we stand in the stench, sorrow, and maybe even blame of death – literally and figuratively, and God acts to revive us again. We have a foreshadowing of what is to come next week, a little encouragement as we prepare for the hardest week of the Christian year. We also have a reminder that our brutal, death-filled world can be flooded in the reality-shattering light of God again.
We will soon see that death is not the end. There is no ultimate separation from the love of God. The breath of the prophet enlivens the bones that have given up all flesh. It this is so, then what power can death have over us? What limit is there to God’s love for this creation? Let us pray:
To the one who raised Jesus from the dead, we acknowledge that You can bring hope even out of death itself. Help us in our lowest moments of hopelessness to turn to You, to know that Your ways are higher than our ways, Your thoughts higher than our thoughts. Help us to hold onto You in life’s uncertainties, and to praise Your name as You bring us through that valley of the shadow of death. We pray in the name of our living Savior, Jesus Christ, Amen.