Sunday, March 29, 2020

Sermon -- 5th Sunday in Lent (March 29, 2020)

EZEKIEL 37:1-14


In the name + of Jesus.

      The Israelite nation was as good as dead.  God's holy temple had been obliterated by the troops of Nebuchadnezzar.  The holy city, Jerusalem, was reduced to ashes.  God's chosen people had been rejected, handed over to their enemies, and carried off into captivity.  They were convinced that God had forsaken them and left them to be swallowed up by a foreign people in a strange land.  “Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.’” (Ezekiel 37:11)  They weren't wrong, at least not as far as changing their own situation.  But the Lord had raised up Ezekiel to speak words of recovery and reconciliation.  A people as good as dead would be raised up and restored.  They would be delivered because the Lord declared that they would be delivered.  The word of the Lord bestowed life.
     God illustrated all of this to Ezekiel by showing him a valley of dry bones.  The fact that the bones were dry and scattered means that they were long dead.  It was not a matter of reviving someone at the point of death or even restoring one who had just died.  Death had worked its worst, leaving nothing but bleached, broken skeletal remains.  And then the Lord asked Ezekiel, “Son of man, can these bones live?” (Ezekiel 37:3)  Ezekiel made no presumption, but deferred to the Lord.  “O Lord GOD, you know.” (Ezekiel 37:3)  The Lord did know, and the Lord made it known.  The word of the Lord would bestow life.
     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.  And I will lay sinews upon 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.” (Ezekiel 37:4-6)  Ezekiel did as the Lord had commanded.  The word of the Lord went forth, and by that word the bones were connected.  Flesh and muscle and tendons were covered them.  But there was one problem.  There was no breath in them.
     What is interesting is that the word used for “breath” actually has three meanings.  It can mean 'breath,' but it can also mean 'wind,' as Ezekiel prophesied: “Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.” (Ezekiel 37:9)  But it can also mean 'spirit' and is even used for the Holy Spirit.  Translators have an impossible task, trying to choose which word to use.  Is it breath that makes man live?  Or is it the spirit in a man that makes him who he is?  Or is it the Holy Spirit who is the Lord and Giver of life?  All seem to be valid choices.  But one fact remains consistent no matter what choice you make: It is the word of the Lord that bestows life.
     The distinction does matter, however, when it comes to the life God gives.  God breathes the breath of life into people so that they can dwell on this earth.  We are born, grow up, and carry on through life with jobs, families, and hobbies.  Our lives express creativity in art and music and humor.  We believe we are most alive when we are most productive and excited.  When we want life to give us more, we work more so we can spend more, party more, and chase greater thrills.  Whether our pleasures are innocent our guilty, we still find them empty. 
     The people of Israel were reduced to captivity to discover how hopeless they were apart from the Lord.  God also reveals just how shallow and hollow our lives and world are without him.  COVID-19 has done that for some.  By taking away our fun and games and even our jobs, by showing us how easily we could contract a disease, and by forcing us to face the reality of death, God reveals how close to death we always are.  We thought we were truly alive because we were fat and happy.  But fear, guilt, death, and loss leave us yearning for something more, something deeper, something of value that endures through difficulty, disability, and even through death.  Merely carrying on through life does not provide that.  Even people whose lives are constantly busy and productive may still feel dead inside.  And we are!  We are by nature spiritually dead.  We are by nature without true fear of God, trust in God, and faith in God.  Behold, our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off from the giver of life, blessing, and all good things. (Ezekiel 37:11)  God grants breath to all people, but we are terrified when we discover that it is not enough, because it will most assuredly run out.  God grants us breath, but real life must be more than this.  And it is.
     The Lord showed Ezekiel the valley of bones which were powerless, hopeless, and worthless.  There was nothing about them which made them desirable.  Yet, the Lord was pleased to bestow life where there was nothing but death.  And he does this for you, too.  The word of the Lord bestows life.  He comes to those who are spiritually dead to bestow life anew in his kingdom.  This life was won for you by the death of Jesus.  It is Jesus who rescues you from your sinful condition by taking what is yours and making it his own.  He bears all guilt.  He dies in shame.  He gave up his spirit for those who are spiritually dead.  He emptied out his life to redeem yours and to fill your life with enduring peace.  He delivers you from death by going into death on your behalf.  And he conquers death for you by overcoming the grave to live forever.  He does not just speak of the resurrection of the body; he is the resurrection and the life.
     The word of the Lord bestows life.  That life begins when the Lord speaks his word to you.  By that word, he breathes his Spirit into you.  He changes sin-dead hearts into vibrant God-fearing hearts which live for honoring the God who saves you from sin and death.  You are truly alive since you have been made alive by the Spirit.  For now you live and devote yourself to what is good and God-pleasing.  Everyone who lives to please the flesh lives to die.  But everyone who lives in Christ dies to sin and lives for God's glory and lives forever. 
     The word of the Lord bestows life.  In Christ, you are no longer dead inside.  You have been raised up anew.  Your value has been given to you by God, and you are loved by him whether you are productive or out of work, whether your life is exciting or boring, whether you are healthy or diseased, active or disabled, living or dying.  What you are experiencing does not change Jesus' love, devotion, mercy, grace, and faithfulness to you.
     The word of the Lord bestows life.  If you are alive in Christ and if the living Spirit dwells in you, then not even death can do any harm to you.  For, this is what the Lord says, “Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection!  Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him...” (Revelation 20:6)  The word of the Lord bestows this indestructible life.
     The nation of Israel in Ezekiel's day was, for all practical purposes, dead.  But the word of the Lord came to them to bestow new life to them.  As if being raised from the dead, these Israelites would be restored to new life as God's chosen people.  The Lord assured them: “Thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people.  And I will bring you into the land of Israel.  And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people.  And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land.  Then you shall know that I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the LORD.” (Ezekiel 37:12-14)  They would return to the Promised Land.  They would rebuild the temple.  They would be reconciled to God.  The Savior would come.
     The word of the Lord bestows life upon you, too.  That word has already delivered you out of sin which condemns.  He has put his Spirit within you so that you are a child of God.  This is the first resurrection.  Therefore, on the Last Day, when the voice of the Lord sounds forth, he will open your grave and raise you up.  He will revive bones long dead and cover you in a holy, glorious, incorruptible body.  And he will place you in your own land, the home of righteousness where you will live forever.  The Lord will not do this so that you will know him; for his word has already made him known to you.  But the Lord will do it, because he is merciful and gracious and because he is the resurrection and the life.  Death has been undone by him, and he grants you a life of peace, comfort, and security now.  The Lord has promised it, and the word of the Lord bestows life.

In the name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen. 

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