Sermon: Ezekiel 37:1-14
Pentecost - May 20, 2018 - Rev. Steven J. Radunzel
If you listened to any news this past week you would know that the United States officially moved its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. There was a rather elaborate ceremony marking this momentous occasion, and it was well covered by the news media.
Ordinarily the moving of a nation’s embassy to a different city or into a new building or location is not going to be noticed by too many people or even reported in the media. But the moving of the American embassy to Jerusalem became the source of a lot of controversy around the world. Palestinians in Gaza made their disapproval quite clear in some rather violent demonstrations.
The history of Israel in our lifetimes is one that has always been marred by controversy. Some of you will remember the establishment, really the reestablishment, of the state of Israel by the United Nations in 1948. It was by no means a unanimous vote. A war broke out almost immediately between the newly established nation and the Palestinians. I was a freshman in high school in 1967 when the nations surrounding Israel launched a united attack. The Israelis defeated them in six days and recaptured the old city of Jerusalem as well as other territories. These same nations attacked Israel once again in 1973 on Yom Kippur during Israel’s holy days. Israel quickly defeated them again. Since then Israel has endured regular terrorist attacks. But their nation endures.
Israel hasn’t always endured. The people of Israel went from the glory days of King David in 1000 B.C. to complete devastation and the destruction of the capital Jerusalem in 586 B.C. by the Babylonians. The prophet Ezekiel lived during this time, and the LORD called him to preach to the Jews who had been taken captive to Babylon. The LORD’s message to the disheartened people was
I WILL BRING YOU BACK TO THE LAND OF ISRAEL
Israel fell because it didn’t listen to God’s warnings. After those glory days of King David and King Solomon Israel deteriorated. Infighting led to a nation divided into two kingdoms, the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah. The Assyrians completely destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel.
The Southern Kingdom of Judah with its capital Jerusalem and the temple was able to hold on for a while. But the people descended into idolatry and the worship of different false gods. The LORD God of Israel sent the prophet Jeremiah to warn them to repent and turn back to the LORD. They didn’t, and the Babylonians came as Jeremiah warned and defeated Judah and destroyed Jerusalem and the temple. The great nation of Israel disappeared. Except for a few thousand Jewish captives led away to Babylon the nation of Israel was gone.
I’m amazed how people don’t listen to God. Adam and Eve were clearly told, “Don’t eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil or you will die.” They ate however and died and brought death and the threat of eternal death to all of us. The people of Noah’s day didn’t believe a flood was coming. The people of Israel failed to listen to God for the 40 years of their history in the wilderness before they entered the Promised Land, and then when they did enter the Promised Land their faithfulness didn’t improve.
Do people today listen any better to God? Do you listen to God? John the Baptist warned, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” Jesus began his preaching exactly where John the Baptist left off. But his warnings were even clearer and more pointed. His parables frequently warned to be prepared for his return. His warning signs of the end included wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes, and famines, and other signs in our world. The wars haven’t stopped. The earthquakes still shake the land. A volcano in Hawaii these last couple of weeks spews hot, molten lava from the cracks in the earth. All of these physical signs cry out to us and the whole world, “This is a temporary world. Repent of your sins. Be ready for Jesus’ return.”
Yet our world is no more ready today to receive Jesus as the returning Lord and Savior and King than the people of Noah’s day, or Jeremiah’s day, or Jesus’ day. Don’t be complacent and careless like the world. Don’t ignore the signs and the warnings. Repent of your sins regularly like Jeremiah warned Judah. Turn to God for his mercy and forgiveness now and always. Be ready for the judgment and Jesus’ return.
And we have every reason to be ready, to listen and believe. This promise in Ezekiel “I will bring you back to the land of Israel” is really a promise of life and salvation for you and me today.
There were three deportations of Jews to Babylon. Ezekiel was included in the second deportation in 597 B.C. The LORD had good reason for Ezekiel to be deported. He would serve as a prophet to the people of Judah in captivity in Babylon. His job was to tell the people that their nation was defeated because of their sin and unfaithfulness. They were to settle down in Babylon because they would not return to their homeland any time soon.
But still the people didn’t completely listen to the LORD’s prophet. They held out hope that they were going to go home. Israel would rise again, so they thought.
About eleven years past, and one day a man who had escaped from Jerusalem came to Babylon and reported the horrible news that the Babylonians had completely leveled the city of Jerusalem and even destroyed the temple. Israel was gone.
Can you imagine how horrible and hopeless these captives in Babylon must have felt? They were living in a foreign land. They had no homeland to return to. Where were they supposed to go? What were they supposed to do? What purpose did their lives have? What hope did they have? They felt they had no hope. “Our hope is gone; we are cut off,” they said.”
Have you ever felt hopeless? There are lots of circumstances in life that can lead to despair, depression, pointlessness, and hopelessness. Maybe we’ve all had those times. Maybe you’re having those times right now. This strange account of Ezekiel and the valley of dry bones told the people of Judah, and it tells us, that God graciously gives hope where there is no hope. He gives life where there is no life. He says to us all, “I will bring you back to the land of Israel.”
The LORD brought the prophet Ezekiel by the Spirit into the middle of a valley. Ezekiel was really there in the middle of a valley, but it was also something like having a vision. The valley was full of dry, dead bones. These bones were as dry and dead as bones could ever be.
The LORD asked Ezekiel if these bones could live. The obvious and logical answer was, “Of course not.” But Ezekiel was wise enough to answer, “O Sovereign LORD, you alone know.” And God did know. He knew that they could live again because of his divine life-giving power.
The LORD commanded Ezekiel to preach to the bones that God would make breath enter them again. Ezekiel preached to the bones and they rose up with tendons, flesh, and skin covering them. And the LORD commanded Ezekiel to preach and prophecy again, this time to the breath and the wind to enter these bodies and give them life. And Ezekiel did, and the bones became a living and breathing army of men.
If you had been Ezekiel how would you have felt by now? What did all this mean? What was God’s message and meaning? God made his meaning very clear. He said to Ezekiel, “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.’” In other words the LORD was saying, “I know how hopeless you are. And you are in a hopeless situation and spiritually dead.”
But the LORD continued, “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.” There is in these words a promise that some of these captives and their descendants born in Babylon would return to rebuild Jerusalem. But God’s promise was far more profound than just some physical return to Jerusalem. In these words God is talking about giving life where there is only death, giving spiritual life where there is only spiritual death.
“I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, . . .” These words make it clear to us why this rather strange reading from Ezekiel is the Old Testament reading for Pentecost Sunday. God sent the Holy Spirit in a very powerfully miraculous way on that special Pentecost about 2000 years ago. The disciples who were afraid and cowering from their enemies in Jerusalem were suddenly strengthened to boldly walk out into the streets of Jerusalem and preach that Jesus had died for the sins of the world, but God had raised him again from the dead.
And since that day God has again and again sent the Holy Spirit to millions and millions of people to give them faith in Jesus and raise them up from their sin and spiritual deadness to spiritual life. The Holy Spirit has breathed new life into the dry bones of millions.
The Holy Spirit has breathed new life into you and me. We were born spiritually dead into this world. We were as spiritually dead and hopeless as those dry bones that Ezekiel saw in the middle of the valley. But the Holy Spirit brought the message of Jesus Christ to us. He gave us faith to believe that Jesus died for our sins. He caused us to believe that Jesus really did rise from the dead. He gave us spiritual life, eternal life, where there was no life and hope.
The Holy Spirit has brought us back to the land of Israel, but not the Israel whose capital is Jerusalem where the U.S. embassy is. He has brought us to a much more profound Israel. The Holy Spirit has brought us to the Israel of God, the Israel of all true believers in Jesus, the Israel that will never be defeated, the Israel that will never end. Amen.