When Hope Is Hard To See

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : Ezekiel 37:1-14

As you look around you, does it seem impossible to hope for a new life, a new beginning? There is good news for you today from an unlikely place.

The hand of the Lord was upon me, [writes the prophet] 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. 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. 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.’”

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.

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.’ 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. Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 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.’” (Ezekiel 37:1-14, niv)

Ezekiel is one of those books that was included in the Bible to keep us humble, I think. Ezekiel the prophet lived among the Jewish exiles in Babylon, and his messages were accompanied by visions, signs, and acted out parables, some of which are strange to the point of being bizarre. You may have tried reading this cryptic book and concluded there is little of value to be found in it.

WHAT EZEKIEL SAW

Just when you are thinking that, you come to something like the 37th chapter and its vision of the valley of dry bones, one of the most powerful, compelling and beautiful illustrations of the power of God in all of scripture. “The hand of the Lord was upon me,” Ezekiel said, “and he brought me out by the Spirit” (v. 1). The sight that presented itself before the prophet was a valley, the scene of some ancient battle or calamity that had filled it with corpses. These had long since decayed, however, leaving only a vast multitude of bones in the sun (v. 2) bleached dry, dry as dust. There was absolutely no life anywhere in that whole scene. It was a vision of death and decay, a vision of hopelessness.

Then Ezekiel was asked an odd question by God: “Son of man,” God said, “can these bones live?” (v. 3). He didn’t ask him where they came from. He didn’t ask Ezekiel to guess what might have happened to them. He asked, “Can these bones live again? Do you see any future here, Ezekiel?” Now Ezekiel answered very wisely. He could see that humanly speaking there was no hope – his sight kept him from saying yes – but his faith kept him from saying no. He balanced the human impossibility of that scene over against the reality of the power of God, and so he replied, “Lord, you know” (v. 3). This is faith speaking, faith that refuses to say anything is impossible and which instead waits upon the Lord. “If it is your will, God, you can do it, I believe you can. Show me what you want.”

God said to him, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, `O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord’” (v. 4). And when he did, when that word sounded forth, something incredible happened: the bones came together. They were clothed again with flesh. Then God spoke once more: “Speak,” he said to his prophet, “call for the breath, the wind of the Spirit, to come and fill them,” and they came to life again and stood once more, a living, breathing multitude. Because even death is not stronger than God, no situation is ever hopeless for those who trust in him. God speaks to the dry bones and the very dust is collected together again and comes to life. That is the vision which Ezekiel saw.

WHAT IT MEANT

Next, God adds an interpretation to the vision to explain its meaning. “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel” (v. 11). In its original context and setting this story was a word spoken to the people of Israel in exile in Babylon. What had happened to them was a calamity out of all proportion with anything they had ever experienced before, a tragedy of unparalleled dimensions. Their nation had been destroyed, their people carried off into a far country, and for Israel this threatened not only political but spiritual destruction. The people of Israel believed that Jerusalem was the city of God, and when Jerusalem was laid waste and the temple destroyed, then as far as they could see, God had been destroyed. All of their history, from the time of the patriarchs through the Exodus and the building of the temple, was meaningless. All their beliefs, drawn from God’s revelation through the Law and the prophets, were false. In that hopeless setting they said, “Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost. We are clean cut off” (v. 11).

If Israel’s history had ended in Babylon, they would have been right. The God of Israel would be just another ancient tribal deity whose tribe had been extinguished. The only people interested in him today would be the archaeologists. But God was not dead, nor was he finished with his people. At the moment when everything looked hopeless, God said, “I will open your graves, and raise you from them, O my people; and I will bring you home” (v. 12). “Yes, it’s true your national life is finished. Your city is gone, your temple is a heap of rubble, but that doesn’t mean I have been defeated. I am going to restore your life to you. I am going to give you hope once more. I’m going to bring you back home.” This was the Lord’s promise to his captive people, and it was all symbolized in those dry bones that came to life by the power of God’s Word.

WHAT IT MEANS

But does this mean anything to us? Is it just an interesting story, a fascinating glimpse into the history of an ancient people? No, this is God’s promise to people today as well! Ezekiel’s vision means that we can have hope where, humanly speaking, there is only defeat and death. It means that the dry bones in our lives can live again, because God is a God with power to restore them.

It means, for example, that there is hope for our countries and our churches. Everyone can see – those of us, anyway, who live in the west – that society is under assault from a dozen different sources, any one of which could prove fatal. It looks as if all around us things are falling to pieces, that our nations, our societies, our cultures are in collapse. There is secularism, urban decay, sexual promiscuity and all its attendant ills; drugs, social violence, economic collapse; ethnic strife, moral anarchy – and all the meantime, most people amuse themselves to death in front of the television set. It’s difficult to see how society can survive all of these ills.

Worse yet, the church, the one institution meant to preserve society, looks equally hopeless. The church is intended to be salt – preserving culture from corrupting influences and light – showing the way to truth and health. But in many places people within the church no longer believe in the Bible or live Christian lives.

Believing Christians, it seems like, are such a small minority it’s hard to see how they can matter at all. And even where our numbers are still significant, as in some places in America, we seem to be making little real difference in the world. Is it any wonder that we look and ask, Can these bones live again?

Are we a sort of anachronism, still going through the motions, but completely irrelevant as far as our culture is concerned? Not while God rules the world! Even when things appear to be lost, the sovereign Lord can speak his Word, send forth his Spirit and bring new life! So there is hope, hope for our churches, no matter how dead they seem to be; hope for our nations, no matter how far gone we think they are.

This vision also tells us that there is hope for our families. Many of the same forces that are assaulting society in general are also undermining families, with truly dreadful results. Values have changed, ways of thinking have changed, behavior has changed. As a result, the family has been so weakened that there is serious question whether it will survive.

Today, for example, in my country, the United States, half of all marriages end in divorce, over a third of all births are to unmarried mothers, and almost one quarter of all the children in America today live in a household without a father. And at the same time, people who believe there is such a thing as biblical norms for sexuality or for family life are thought to be misguided or even sick. So all around us we see the evidence of the destruction of families. And the reason for it isn’t far to seek. It lies in the abandonment of the beliefs and values that most once agreed upon.

Maybe you’re looking at conflict or breakdown within your own family. “Is there any hope?” you wonder. Humanly speaking, perhaps not. But with God there always is hope, because he’s a God who can make even dry bones live again.

Finally, I want to tell you today that there is hope for you personally. There are so many casualties from the battles of everyday life. People have been scarred, people have been hurt. Maybe you’re one of them. Maybe you’re one of those who ask themselves after a divorce, “Do I have any future?” Maybe you’re someone who has lost a spouse or a child and you’re wondering, “Can I ever function again?”

The answer is: there is hope, hope for you too, because God raises the dead – including those who have died on the inside. When the poet Robert Frost was asked what he had learned in his eighty-some years of life he replied, “Life goes on.” Well, sometimes it doesn’t, and sometimes even when it does, it doesn’t seem to be worth it. Is this all there is for us to live by, just “Life goes on”? Is that the best we can come up with, just grit your teeth, hang on, try to endure it, live until you die? And what about that? What is there to say when the time comes to face death itself?

It is coming, you know, inexorably, inevitably. You and I both know we cannot stop it, we cannot escape it. What will happen to you when you’ve spent your life’s last day? Is it just the endless night of nothingness? Friend, not if you know God. These bones, though turned to dust, will live again! God will say, “Behold, I will raise you out of your graves, O my people, and I will bring you home.”

Hear that word of the Lord. Listen to his promise; it is true. Believe it and have hope!

Prayer: Lord, today we pray for all those who are discouraged, all who feel as if they have no hope, all whose hearts have been wounded, who are feeling low. We ask, Lord, that you would speak your word of life and renewal in their lives. O God, may they look to you. May the ends of the earth look to you and be saved. Help us to put our faith and trust in you, for you alone are the hope of the world. Through Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.