© 2021 Evan D. Garner
Can these bones live? Can these dry bones, the scattered remains of God’s people, the symbol of their abandoned hopes and unfulfilled dreams, come back to life?
The hand of the Lord came upon the prophet Ezekiel and brought him to the middle of a valley that was full of bones. God led him up and down that valley among all those bones—an exhausting tour of death and destruction. And the voice of God said to the prophet, “Mortal, can these bones live?” And the prophet replied, “O Lord God, you are the one who knows.”
These bones were very dry. Not the bones of those killed these last few weeks in Palestine or even the bones of those tortured and murdered in Syria over the last several years. These bones had been dead so long that there was no tissue still clinging to them. These were the kind of bones you find in unmarked graves in Tulsa or Elaine. These were the scattered, abandoned bones of those whose lives had been forgotten and whose deaths hardly anyone remembered. Life had long ago deserted these bones, and now the prophet was asked to imagine whether they might live again: “Mortal, can these bones live?” And the prophet replied, “O Lord God, you are the one who knows.”
In the time of the prophet Ezekiel, God’s people had suffered great loss. Their nation had been defeated. Their cities had been destroyed. Their homes had been demolished. Their people had been carted off in exile. Their God, as far as anyone could tell, had abandoned them and forsaken their name. There was no life in them. Their future was as good as dead. Could these bones live?
God said to the prophet, “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 when the prophet opened his mouth and proclaimed what God had told him, there came a noise—a rustling and rattling—as the bones came together, bone to its bone. What a terrifying sound that must have been! As the prophet looked on, sinews came upon them, holding the bones together, and then muscle tissue and then skin. A multitude—a legion—of Israel standing there, reembodied but breathless until the prophet prophesied to the breath that came from the four corners of the earth and blew new life into those once-dead bodies. What an incredible and terrifying sight that must have been!
Standing there, looking out at the great multitude of God’s resuscitated people, the prophet heard the Lord explain that those dry bones were the whole house of Israel—all of God’s people—who had suffered so long that their “bones were dried up, and [their] hope was lost; [they were] cut off completely.” That’s all they knew. That’s all they could see. They were as hopeless as skeletal remains in a hastily dug mass grave. But not to God. God was not through with them yet. In God, their dry, lifeless hopes found new breath, new life. God was going to do something exciting and terrifying and totally unexpected. God was going to bring them back to life.
God’s Spirit is the breath that breathes life into old, dry bones. And Pentecost is the day when we celebrate that breath coming to breathe God’s new life into the broken, dry bones of this world not just in a moment two thousand years ago but each and every day.
The Spirit’s work in our own day is the same as it was back then. On the night he was arrested, Jesus promised his disciples in John 16, that he would send the Holy Spirit or Advocate, as he called it, to come and prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment. That’s a fancy way of saying that the work of the Holy Spirit is to turn the world’s expectations about Jesus and his ministry and God’s plan for the world on their head. The powers of this world thought that they could defeat the one who came to rescue the lost and lift up the downtrodden by nailing him to a cross. They thought that by killing him in that shameful way they would prove his ministry had run its course. But they were wrong.
At Easter, God reversed their judgment, and at Pentecost God reverses it yet again. The powers of this world think that they have won whenever they convince the brokenhearted and despondent that the world will always be this way—that their hopes and dreams are as lifeless as a valley full of dry bones. But they are the ones in whom God’s Spirit breathes new life—not only at Pentecost but ever since.
These are the last days, Peter tells us, when God’s Spirit is poured out upon all flesh—male and female, young and old, slave and free. In his own vision of God’s saving work, the prophet Joel imagined a day when God’s Spirit would flow so freely that no one would be excluded from its power, and Peter understood that day to have been ushered in at Pentecost. That was two thousand years ago, yet we still live in those last days. God’s work of bringing new life to the broken world is still unfolding. God’s rejection of those who would rob others of hope continues.
The arrival of God’s Spirit was not simply a moment in the past but the inauguration of a new era of God’s ongoing activity in the world. And, as recipients of that Holy Spirit, we are the ones who bear the good news of that new life and new hope to the world. We are the ones empowered for that sacred work. Those who are baptized into this community of faith are those whom God calls and equips to carry the good news of salvation to the ends of the earth.
Whose bones lie scattered in the valleys of today—sometimes even literally? Whose lives have become so hopeless that they cannot see beyond the death and destruction piled around them? What is God’s Spirit saying to them? What are we saying on God’s behalf?
This is the work of the Holy Spirit—to give hope to the hopeless, direction to the lost, and strength to the weary. Even more than that, God’s Spirit is what brings new life to the dead. The Spirit is what brings the promise of resurrection to the ends of the earth. It is the power of God which stands in direct opposition to the powers of this world. It is more than tongues of fire and spontaneous translation. Those strange phenomena must have been exciting to behold, but they were merely signs of this new thing that God is doing. God is breathing new life into long-dead, long-forgotten, long-ignored people and places and institutions. What signs of new life will God show the world through us? Can these dry bones live? God is the one who knows, and we are the ones who are called to make it known.