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 to and fro 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."
Do you ever watch Time Team? Whenever they find anything exciting - anything at all - Baldric dashes over and has to have a look. And they pick out some grotty bit of twisted metal, or a chunk of pottery, or sometimes a bit of bone, and he says "What have you got here?" And the person who found it will say something like "This is really interesting, because it isn't what we expected. We were looking for iron age remains and this is definitely late Roman." And Baldric will say "But what is it?" And some expert will chip in and say "Well this is a piece of Phoenician pottery, probably from a large cooking pot, and what's interesting about it is..." And while this expert is spouting on, there'll be a picture of the thing they've found on the screen, and they'll superimpose a picture of what it was before it was broken and buried in some field for hundreds of years. And I'll be thinking "How did they know that was Phoenician pottery and not an old flowerpot? Looks like a chunk off an old flowerpot to me."
Or when it's bones, they're always very careful with bones. I remember one when they found bones very late in the day, just as they were due to pack up and go home really, but the bones person was going to keep working until they'd fully excavated these bones. Because they recognised that this was different to old pots, this had been a person once. But they still do that amazing thing, where they take a few old bones, and they can say whether it was a man or a woman, just from a few bits of bone, not even the whole body. And from a skull they can reconstruct what that face would have looked like, and those computer whiz kids give it hair and clothes, and it's not so different to you and me. (I'm talking late Romano-British bones now, not the Stone Age, you understand.)
And I'll be thinking "How did they know when they were scrabbling around that these were fragments of skull? They look like bits of chalk or old pot to me!" You see, I've not got a very good eye for that kind of thing. I find it hard to see things that aren't there. I suppose this is better than my sons, who can't see things which are there, but some of you, I know, see things differently to me.
And I know God sees things differently to me, which is just as well. He sees not just how things are, but how they could be. He sees not just how we are, but how we could be. He sees through the superficial to what's at the heart of things. But he doesn't then strike with a thunderbolt and say "Hey, look at what I've done, aren't I great?" Which he would be entitled to do. No, he asks us questions. "Can these bones live?"
Now I think Ezekiel's response here is a pretty good one. "O Sovereign Lord, you alone know." What he's actually thinking may be more along the lines of "Oh no, not bones, please don't ask me to touch the bones, not the bones." You didn't touch bones or dead bodies if you were a good Jew. And Ezekiel was not only a good Jew, he came from a priestly family. And if he'd got to touch those bones he was going to be unclean, unable to function as a priest for a period while he went through various cleansing rituals. Even if this was just a vision, just a dream, Ezekiel didn't want to touch the bones!
You might think, why would God tell him to do something which would make him unclean? And yet God has told him to do some pretty drastic things, and they weren't in visions, as this is, to get his message across to the people. God has had Ezekiel draw a picture of Jerusalem on a clay tablet, and set up mini earthworks, and then lie on his left side for 390 days, and then on his right side for 40 days. No escape, no wriggling even! And in that time he's eaten siege rations, weighing the grains he uses to make bread, and measuring his water. He's shaved his head with a sword and scattered some of the hair around, and burnt some, to show what's going to happen to God's people. He's packed his bags, and carried them around the city, and in the evening he's dug a hole in the city wall and climbed out as if he's escaping and going into exile. One extra thing: God told him to cover his face once he was through the wall, so he couldn't see the land as he went. And he's seen his wife die, and - under God's instructions - carried on with his daily routine, not outwardly mourning her.
All of these odd things which Ezekiel has done have had a purpose. They have made the people around him think. People have said to him "Why are you doing this?" As God knew they would, so God has given Ezekiel an answer for them each time. God asks questions, he expects questions, he welcomes questions.
And he welcomes honest answers. "Can these bones live?" If you're not sure about something, then an honest "O Sovereign Lord, you alone know" is better than "No way!"
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.
"So I prophesied..." It's not a hard thing to do, is it? Speaking out what God tells you to say. Actually, it is quite hard, when you're starting with something as unpromising as a heap of bones. And for us, we sometimes doubt whether we've heard from God. "No, it can't be me you want to speak through, I'm not good enough. You'd use Fred, or Doris, sooner than me. They're holy people, they're better than me." Are they? Do you see into their heart? Do you know their sins and struggles? "Ah, but I know God can't speak through me. I rowed with my husband this morning / kicked the cat / swore at the driver who cut me up." I'm using examples I hope you can all laugh at, even if they're true, but it may be something more major you're using as an excuse: a battle against addiction, against anger, against lust, against immorality. Whatever you feel is a barrier to God using you, the answer to all sin, anything we do wrong, is to repent, to get right with God, not to use it as an excuse to disobey God.
"So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying..." Ezekiel did what God told him to do. Nothing happened before he prophesied. Nothing happened while he was thinking about it, wondering what kind of fool he would look if nothing happened. All that time, nothing happened. But he was commanded, so he prophesied. You'd have to admit it wasn't a complete success. Instead of piles of bones, there were piles of dead bodies. I'm not sure what's worse - bones or bodies! And there are no clues to whether Ezekiel was surprised, or disappointed, or resigned at this. But he knew it wasn't enough, because God had said the bones would come to life, and they hadn't.
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.
"So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them." Again, nothing more happened until he prophesied again, spoke out what God was saying to him, which was different this time. I don't know why it didn't happen in full the first time. I don't know why healing doesn't always come completely, at once. I don't know why it takes some people one hearing of the Good News about Jesus to put their faith in him, while others hear again and again and again - sometimes from gifted evangelists - before it sinks in. But I do know that we must be faithful, obedient. What is God saying? What does he want us to do? When we respond to that, when we act in obedience, we become that 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.'"
It is clear from what the Bible says that all this has been a vision, not an actual event. But it is a vision within a historical context, and Ezekiel needed to have that vision before he could hear God's message for his people. Ezekiel is in Babylon, with the Jews who have been exiled when the Babylonians took over. To begin with, the Jews left behind could console themselves: "Yes, OK, most of the people have been deported, but we're still OK, and Jerusalem is still here, so God is still with us, because this is his city." Almost "I'm alright, Jack, blow you." Those Jews left behind had even thought that they were rather special, slightly superior to the exiles. And the exiles could think "Yes, this is dreadful, but at least Jerusalem is still there, God is still there, because that's his city, so he hasn't completely abandoned us."
But throughout the book of Ezekiel there are references to dates, and years, so we know that what's happened not long before this vision and this prophecy, is that the exiles have heard that Jerusalem has been destroyed, and the rest of the Jews - at least those who survived - sent into exile. In fact, it's all happened just as Ezekiel prophesied in chapter 12: the wall's been broken down, they've escaped at night with just what they could carry, but the Babylonians have captured Zedekiah the King, and blinded him before sending him into exile, so he doesn't see the land of Judah as he leaves it (2 Kings 25:1-7). And somewhere, following that mass escape and final exile, there were heaps of slain, soon turned to piles of bones. So even though this was a vision for Ezekiel, there would be people hearing his message who would say "Yes, I know, I've seen that pile of bones, I know that valley."
It all looks hopeless to the Jews. "Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone: we are cut off." God has abandoned them: there is no hope of rescue, no future, no home. And in human terms, that's so. Jerusalem is destroyed, the temple, the walls, the palace, all gone. The people are scattered or dead, families split up, bereaved, homeless. Ezekiel knows what the people are talking about. But Ezekiel has seen God raise a vast army from a heap of bones, and Ezekiel has heard God speak. As we watch the news, in today's Israel, in Efurt in Germany, in Afghanistan, in Pakistan after a mosque has been bombed, in France after Le Pen's election result, in Peckham as people still wonder what happened to Damilola Taylor, how we need people to speak God's word into those situations!
"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." It's unbelievable. Yet it did happen! The land of Israel may be far from what God intended, but God did bring his people back. So even if you're a heap of dry bones, dead and useless, God can give life, give back what you've lost. And even if there are people around us who are heaps of dry bones, dead and useless, God can give them life, and give back what they've lost: if not in physical terms, then in terms of joy, hope, peace.
"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."
Is that Good News? Is that something people should know about? If God speaks, should we remain silent? Let's spell out what this Good News is that we have to share by looking at Ephesians 2:4-10.
4 Because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions - it is by grace you have been saved. 6 And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7 in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. 8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - 9 not by works, so that no-one can boast. 10 For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Are you 'good enough' to be a Christian? I'm not. I wasn't 'good enough' when I first became a Christian: I was dead, like a heap of bones. I'm not 'good enough' now: I'm dead, like a heap of bones. I never will be 'good enough': I'll always be that heap of bones, without God. But God says "Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord." Have you heard? Have you responded? Are you alive? If you've said "No" to any of those questions but you want to make it "Yes!", then don't leave this building without talking to someone about how to turn that into "Yes!". And if you've responded in the past, but you still feel like a heap of bones, share that with someone, and we'll pray for you to know that life again.
So that's the Good News. None of us are good enough, but God is. How do we share this, here in Sea Mills? What is it God wants us to hear and to say? First, that we have good news. Life is not hopeless. God is at work, and he cares for everyone he has created. It's good that we have people from this church sharing that good news all over the world, including some very turbulent places, where people know all too well the reality of death from violence or famine. It's good that we have volunteers working in the city centre, offering practical support and the good news to street people and prostitutes.
But it is also vital that we have people working effectively outside what we recognise as Christian 'ministry': you know that's just a posh word for 'work'. Let's recognise and support this: if you work in what I'll call 'the real world' don't feel that this is a 'second best' for those who got side-tracked off God's chosen path! You don't receive any extra blessing or need extra grace for working or volunteering within a Christian organisation: the problems you face are different, that's all.
So I ask again, what about here in Sea Mills? Do the people around us want to hear the Good News about Jesus? Not all of them do, but let's tell them anyway. Shall we wait until they come to church one Sunday? Could be a long wait. So what shall we do? I've got some ideas here:
But is there more that God wants? Shall we just wring our hands at what the local lads get up to? Shall we weep and despair at how young some of the kids out on the street late at night are? Shall we shake our heads at the fractured families, at the shunting around of children from father to mother and back again as new relationships start and fail? Shall we just keep on sharing - or trying to share - the Good News with our friends, the people like us, the people we like, the people who like us, while the people not like us, the people we don't much like, the people who don't like us, go to hell? God knows, I have to plead guilty.
So what else could we Christians do, that might not have a 'church' label attached to it? Again, I've got some ideas here:
(A list of things we are doing, and things that still need to be done.)
These are questions to which I don't have answers. But I know God wants us to ask the questions, so let's do that, and listen to his answers while we share in communion.