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In The Valley of Dry Bones / Fifth Sunday in Lent

Ezekiel 37:1-14

Then He said to me, Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the LORD God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.

The toe bone’s connected to the foot bone, the foot bone’s connected to the ankle bone, the ankle bone’s connected to the shin bone…now hear the word of the LORD. That delightful little spiritual brings to mind one of the most dynamic, hopeful images in all the Old Testament. It’s Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones.

By the Spirit of the Lord, Ezekiel says, I was set down in the midst of a valley; it was full of bones. Maybe these were the bones of an army that had been trapped in this valley by hostile forces and had been instantly slaughtered. The flesh had long ago fallen away. Now there was nothing left but a pile of bones baked by the sun. In Ezekiel’s words, they “were very dry.”

Amidst this scene of death, decay and destruction, the Lord asks Ezekiel a powerful question, a question that’s important to your life and mine, “Son of man, can these bones live?”

A young man in a wheelchair, crippled by an accident, asks his friend, “Do I have a future?” A couple sits in a counselor’s office, “Can our marriage be saved?” A widow sinks into a chair. Only a few hours before they lowered into the ground the casket that contained her precious husband. “Can I go on?” she wonders as she softly cries.

“Son of man, can these bones live?” Can that which is dead be returned to life? Can a situation that has been written off as hopeless be recovered, revived, resurrected? Is there any hope?

Many, many people live in the valley of dry bones. Charles was a fighter pilot in Vietnam. One day his plane was hit. As it fell toward the earth, it turned upside down, threatening to trap him inside. He managed to turn the plane around enough so that he could eject. He landed in enemy territory and was quickly captured. For the next six years his home was an eight-by-eight-foot cell with a dirt floor and a tin can for a toilet. His captors frequently tortured him by twisting his body with ropes.

They would twist my body and I would think, I can take this much, I know I couldn’t take any more, and then they would twist me tighter. Often, he would be thrown back in his cell with torn muscles, and he would tell himself, well, I lived through that. I know I couldn’t take any more. Somehow, though, he survived each instance of torture.

One day Charles saw a wire appear beneath the bamboo wall of his cell and wiggle as if giving a signal. He watched the wire for several days before he had enough courage to pull on it. When he did, he found it came from another prisoner. Using the wire to signal letters of the alphabet, he began to ask questions. He discovered that two hundred other men were being brutalized just as he was.

When he was finally freed, Charles was flown to San Francisco, where he quickly tried to call his wife. He couldn’t find her. Then he called his father, who told him that his wife had left him. Come on home, son, said his father. It’s a new day. Let’s start fresh. After all he’d been through, was a new start even possible? For a while he thought not. Could dry bones live again?

Many, many people live in the valley of dry bones. Some live in that valley for a long time, all of us at least for a season. Mary and Martha were in that valley when their brother Lazarus died. They sent for Jesus as soon as he got sick, but Jesus was delayed. Now Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days. Lord, if You had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. Then she began to cry. Her tears were so moving that Jesus began to cry too. Mary and Martha were living in the valley of dry bones. Some of you have been there. All of us will be in that valley at some time in our lives.

There in that lonesome valley we will find ourselves asking, Is there any hope? Can I go on? Can these bones live again?

The answer is a resounding yes. There’s hope. You can go on. These bones can live again. The question, then, is how? How can we find hope in the midst of desolation, courage in the face of impending collapse, comfort in our hour of ultimate distress? The answer is, by the word of the LORD.

And He said to me, Son of man, can these bones live? And I answered, O Lord God, You know. Again [the LORD] said to me, Prophesy to these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.

The answer is in the Word of the Lord. Remember, it was with a word that the world was created. And God said, Let there be light, and there was light. (Gen. 1:3) It was by the Word that God revealed the fullness of His love for humanity, And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us… (John 1:14) And it was by a Word that Christ brought Lazarus back from the dead, [Jesus] cried with a loud voice, Lazarus, come out. The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with bandages, and his face wrapped with a cloth. It’s by the Word of the Lord that we live and move and have our being.

Our hope is in the word of the Lord. That’s why the scriptures are so important to our lives. I say that even though I realize that many of you rarely read your Bibles. There’s an old story about a bandit in a foreign land who had been badly injured and was taken to a Christian mission hospital. As the result of weeks of excellent care, the bandit recovered completely. He was so grateful for the treatment he received that he resolved he would never again rob a Christian. The word got around, and everyone he tried to hold up would immediately say, I’m a Christian. Obviously, this was bad for his business. So, he went back to the hospital and asked the missionaries how he could distinguish who really were Christians. They said, well, every Christian should know the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments. And from that time on, he would tell his intended victims to recite the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments. If they couldn’t, he would rob them.

How would you do on that test? Particularly the Ten Commandments? Many of us are practically illiterate when it comes to the Scriptures. So, we miss a tremendous source of comfort and strength. The brilliant writer, Katherine Mansfield, died of tuberculosis. She came upon the Bible only in her mature life, never having read or studied it until then. I feel so bitterly, she wrote in her journal, that I have never known these writings before. They ought to be part of my very breathing. That’s true of all of us. Particularly when we’re in the valley of dry bones. We need the written Word of the Lord. It will give us comfort and strength.

Our hope is in the Word of the Lord. That’s why the Scriptures are so important to our lives. That’s also why worship is so important to our lives. In worship we also discover the Word of the Lord for our lives.

A speedboat driver was near top speed when his boat veered slightly and hit a wave at a dangerous angle. The combined force of his speed and the size and angle of the wave sent the boat spinning crazily into the air. He was thrown from his seat and propelled deeply into the water, so deep, in fact, that he had no idea which direction the surface was. He had to remain calm and wait for the buoyancy of his life vest to begin pulling him up. Once he discovered which way was up, he could swim for the surface.

Worship is that time in the week when we wait calmly so that we can rediscover which way is up. This is extremely important when we are in the valley.

There’s a gigantic statue of Atlas in the entrance of the RCA Building on Fifth Avenue in New York City. Here is Atlas, this beautifully proportioned man who, with all his muscles straining, is holding the world upon his shoulders. Even though he is the most powerfully built man on earth, he can barely stand up under this burden. Now that’s one way to live, trying to carry the world on your shoulders.

On the other side of Fifth Avenue, is Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, and there behind the altar is a little shrine of the boy Jesus. He’s maybe eight or nine years old, and with no effort He’s holding the world in one hand.

We have a choice. We can carry the world on our shoulders, or we can say, I give up, LORD; here’s my life. I give you my world, the whole world. For many of us this hour of worship is that time when we shift our burden from our shoulders to His. We find our strength in the word of the Lord. That’s why the Scriptures are important to us. That’s why Worship is important to us.

Finally, that’s why prayer is so important to us. When you are in the valley of dry bones is when you discover that prayer is more than a mere ritual at mealtime or before retiring.

A pastor was visiting in the home of one of his parishioners. A small boy in the home started reaching for the potatoes before the blessing was said. His mother gently scolded him. The boy was confused. Why were they at the table, except to eat? As the adults bowed their heads to say grace, the child suddenly caught on. As his father started to pray, the boy, shouted, Hey, Dad! Could I be the one that talks to the plate this time?

Some people could easily be talking to their plates, their prayers have so little forethought and passion. Such is not the case for those who have been in the valley. In the darkness of the valley, we have reached out and felt an unseen hand.

When Norris Dam was first built in the hills of East Tennessee, a worker on the night shift noticed how strange it was to hear the giant generators humming in the quiet of the night and then look across the lake and see cabins lit with kerosene lamps. When he asked why this was, he was told that the transmission lines hadn’t been installed yet. Even though these folks lived in the shadow of this great hydroelectric dam, they couldn’t receive its power, because there were no lines linking the dam to their homes. So, it is with many people today. They have no link with the One who can restore new life to dry bones. Prayer is that link.

Can these bones live again? Yes, there’s hope even in the valley of dry bones. For God is a living God, a God who is faithful to His promises and is powerful enough to accomplish whatever He wills. Listen as Ezekiel’s vision moves toward a climax, So I prophesied as I was commanded; and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold a rattling; and the bones came together, bone to bone. That’s the origin of the spiritual’s little refrain, the shin bone’s connected to the knee bone and the knee bones connected to the thigh bone and the thigh bones connected to the hip bone. But listen to the climax in vs. 10: So, I prophesied as He commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived.

What an exciting piece of news for us. There’s hope, in the Word, in Worship and through Prayer. Even dry bones can live again.