Bringing hope to dry bones

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.” —Ezekiel 37:1-14 (NRSV)

I have come that all may have life in abundance. —John 10:10

As a human family we were just opening our collective eyes to world-shaking crises and unparalleled threats to the life and future of the planet. We were just on the edge of naming the ravages of empire being revealed in a system of global apartheid that pits the interests of 1% of the world’s people against the other 99% and even then leaves the last 50% without hope for life and livelihood. We were just grasping the extent of the massive woundedness of living a world fallen among thieves.

And then came COVID-19. The novel coronavirus pandemic unmercifully exposed our undeniable interconnectedness—all of creation, all of humanity.

The extent of the deaths and the impact on human and ecological wellbeing is yet to be seen. The efforts to slow the spread of the disease and save lives is the first priority. It is clear that with most of the world either shutdown or emerging from being shut down, that the next step for governments and people’s movements lies in discerning where hope lies as we stand in the ruins wrought not only by the virus but by a global economic and political system that had left most societies faced with massive poverty, inequality, dismantled health care systems, underfunded schools, unprecedented numbers of people forced to migrate—in fact, a world exploited and ravished by the excesses and overreach of neoliberal capitalism and authoritarian governments, an unjust world for people and the suffering creation.

And so, as we take stock of the disaster brought by the pandemic, we see that getting back to normal cannot be our goal. God is surely not calling us to return to the status quo antes. God is surely calling us into a future that is marked by peace, justice, reconciliation and healing.

As we journey through Lent and approach Easter in the time of coronavirus, our faith calls us to accompany Ezekiel to the hardest place: the valley of the dry bones. It is important to know that Ezekiel’s vision was rooted in a real historical fact, the military and political defeat of Israel and the captivity of its leadership. Real death, real disaster. In the first steps on the journey of hope, God leads Ezekiel to honestly confront and assess the extent and truth of the disaster, to fully grasp the extent of woundedness, the truth that the bones were dry, disconnected, scattered, lifeless and many, many.

From there comes the next confusing twist in the path of hope: Ezekiel is asked the question that he had hoped would be answered for him. “Can these bones live?” He rightly turns to God. God knows. God, rather than supplying a promise or words of hope, assigns a task. “Prophesy to these bones… O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.” Turning to God for hope Ezekiel learns that God’s word will heal, reconcile and restore through God’s people. Ezekiel learns that he will not be a bystander to hope but must be hope’s steward following God’s call. Aspiring to be hope’s beneficiary, Ezekiel is called to be hope’s servant.

The next sign of hope is not simply the restoration of life but the rearticulating of the fragmented, the repairing of the breach and not just to all of humanity but to those most afflicted and destroyed. The historical community that was destroyed by empire is restored to make a difference. To be a light to the world. Interestingly, John Calvin in his sermons on this text always insisted that this text was not about the final resurrection but about the restoration of Israel after the exile and therefore applied to the restoration of the church in the service of God’s word of hope.

Hope emerging from the valleys of the dry bones. We can see ourselves as a global koinonia—the World Communion of Reformed Churches in its complexity and diversity but one family standing with Ezekiel. Hope lies for us in seeing the truth of the destruction wrought by empire and also in embracing the task the God of Life gives us in the re-articulation of the earth community to serve life.

Augustine’s famous quote rings loudly in this time of pandemic, in the bleak shadow of the ravages of neo-liberal capitalism, in the grip of a murderous system of global apartheid: “Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.”

There are many calls from all over the world for not simply stimulating the economy under the current capitalist model but seizing this opportunity to implement just taxation, guaranteed income, living wages and a wealth tax—to not return to the previous levels of ecological destruction and use of fossil fuel. Don’t try to save air travel companies as they are, for example, insist that they change and become sustainable.

For the WCRC, hope and the responsibility of the Accra Confession calls us to seek a New International Financial Architecture, to join the struggle for justice as integral to our faith in the God of Life. There is a path of hope opening wide for us as the world emerges from this unprecedented disaster. As we mourn our loses, as we strive to return to daily life, let’s remain unsettled, striving to not return to normal but to a world transformed through God’s grace and our stewardship of hope.

We give thanks to God that God’s Spirit is moving powerfully in our history and in these times. We give thanks that God’s Spirit moves us like Ezekiel on the unexpectedly twisted path of hope that lead us to understand our role in being—with God’s help—hope’s servant. Rejecting the status quo and re-connecting with the broken and wounded of the world to create—with God—a new normal of peace, justice, reconciliation and healing.

We need to share and hear God’s word calling us as a global family to unity and justice. The power of the Resurrection is to be the Jesus movement with all the dispossessed to ensure that we emerge from the valley of the dry bones so that all plans and promises to move on after the pandemic bring hope for the whole creation and do not return to the valley of the dry bones.

—Chris Ferguson
General Secretary

Image: Collantes, Francisco, 1599-1656. Vision of Ezekiel, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

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