In 9 AD the Roman general Varus was leading his men through the Teutoberg Forest in northern Germany east of the Rhine River. The Romans normally did not operate this far north and did not know the area well. But Varus had no real misgivings about this. After all he has leading the Seventeenth, Eighteenth and Nineteenth legions – crack professional soldiers of the Roman army. In addition he had cavalry and supporting auxiliary units. All told, he had more than 18,000 men.
The Romans considered Germany to be pacified all the way east to the Elbe River. Varus, a respected administrator, had been brought in to establish the structure of a Roman province. A key part of his work was to establish the taxation system.
The land was not easy for marching. There was dense forest in this wilderness. In this low-lying land there were steep hills in a number of places surrounded by bogs. Varus wasn’t concerned because the course they were taking in their march had been guided by Arminius.
Arminius was a German tribesman. He had served with the Roman army in an auxiliary unit. Varus had come to trust and rely on this German ally. But unknown to Varus, all was not as it appeared. Arminius had served with the Roman army. He had seen it in action. He had studied its tactics. And he had a plan.
Arminius realized that the professional soldiers of the Roman army were highly skilled and disciplined. Far more heavily armed, they maneuvered and fought in their formations, and in a set piece battle the Germans had little chance of winning. However, if the Romans could be engaged in a setting where they couldn’t get organized; if they could be surprised and overwhelmed by numbers, they could be beaten.
And so Arminius led the Romans into a trap. The Kalkrieser Berg was a 350 foot hill. On their march the army went around the hill and through a passage that was located between the hill and a large bog. The passage was only a half mile wide in middle and was four miles long.
At this spot Arminius had used what had learned from the Romans about military engineering and had built a long sod berm. Hidden behind the berm were German warriors with spears. At the moment when the Germans sprung the trap they reigned down thousands of spears on the unsuspecting Romans. The confined area and surprise of the attack prevented the Romans from offering an organized defense. The result was a slaughter as the entire Roman force was annihilated.
The disaster in the Teutoberg Forest was the end of Roman hopes to establish all of Germany as a province. Henceforth the Rhine River would serve as the eastern boundary of the empire. But the Romans did launch several retaliatory campaigns. And few years later a Roman army returned to the site of the ambush. They found there the scene of a land strewn with the bones of Roman soldiers. Some lay where the soldiers has been killed. Some had been laid out in a ritual fashion by the Germans. Some were piled up where they had been offered as human sacrifices to the gods.
The scene in the Teutoberg Forest is a historical example of the kind of thing that the prophet Ezekiel describes in our text today. In a visionary experience he sees a valley filled with bones – the grisly scene of a slaughtered army. Yet God brings this army back to life – he raises them from the dead. Through this experience God reveals to Israel hope for their future. And in this word of God we find resurrection hope.
The prophet Ezekiel wrote at the beginning of the sixth century B.C. He was a priest who had been taken into exile in Babylon in 597 B.C. It was not the entire population that had been taken, but rather like the group taken in 605 B.C., it was an educated and well-to-do part of people. Ezekiel wrote his prophecy in Babylon. He condemned the people for the unfaithfulness – for the fact that they were worshipping false gods of the surrounding peoples. They had even brought the idols and altars of those false gods into the temple in Jerusalem.
The book of Ezekiel follows an exact pattern of Law and Gospel. For the first thirty three chapters Yahweh condemns the sin of the people and tells them that judgment is coming. In chapter thirty three Ezekiel writes, “In the twelfth year of our exile, in the tenth month, on the fifth day of the month, a fugitive from Jerusalem came to me and said, ‘The city has been struck down.’” The exiles in Babylon receive word that the city of Jerusalem has been taken in a failed rebellion and the temple has been destroyed. All but the very poorest people in the land are taken into exile in Babylon.
From that point on, Ezekiel speaks a word of Gospel. God had not forgotten his people. He will restore them to their land and at the end of the book we learn that he will renew and transform things to be like the Garden of Eden.
In the previous chapter Yahweh has said that he is going to do something new. He says through Ezekiel, “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” God says that he is going to do something dramatically new through the work of his Spirit.
To illustrate this for Ezekiel, God takes him in the Spirit to see a valley filled with very dry bones. Yahweh tells Ezekiel, “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.’”
There is a rattling sound. The bones come together; they are joined by sinews and covered by flesh. But there is no life in the bodies. And then, just like in the creation when God formed Adams body out of dust and breathed into it the breath of life, Yahweh has Ezekiel prophecy the breath into the bodies. They live and stand as a great army.
And then God provides the explanation of what this means. He says, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to 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.”
In our text, bodily resurrection is a metaphor for the restoration of Israel to their land. But if that was all there was here, this text wouldn’t be of all that much significance to us. However, the Scriptures teach us that Israel’s return from exile was a type. As our catechumens will tell you, a type is person, institution or event in the Old Testament that points forward to something even greater God that does in the New Testament.
At his baptism, we learn that Jesus Christ is Israel reduced to One. He is Israel, the Son of God who is faithful where Israel the nation failed. And the mission that he fulfills is God’s intention for Israel to be blessing to all peoples. During Holy Week we saw Jesus go to the cross as the suffering Servant who bore the sins of all. He died and was buried. But on the third day – as the vision in our text describes – God opened the grave and raised Jesus from the it. By his death and resurrection for the forgiveness of your sins, God fulfilled his promise to Abraham: “In your seed all nations will be blessed.”
God the Father raised Jesus from the dead. And after his ascension and exaltation to the right hand, Jesus Christ poured forth the Holy Spirit just as he had promised – just as God says he will do in our text today. The Holy Spirit who gave you new spiritual life in Baptism is within you. And this changes everything, for as the apostle Paul told the Romans, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.”
The Gospel message of forgiveness and resurrection is one that we desperately need. In our text the words are spoken for Israel, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.” It is easy to look around at the movement of our culture on issues of sexuality and marriage and feel this way. It is easy to look at the circumstances of our own lives – the hardships caused by physical and mental illness – and feel this way. It is easy to look at the continuing presence of sin – those occasions when yet again we fall into temptation – and feel this way.
But the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ means that you are forgiven and have hope. You are forgiven. You are a child of God. You have been clothed with Christ in your baptism. Our Lord himself declares you forgiven in Holy Absolution. He gives his true body and blood given and shed for you in the Sacrament of the Altar.
It means that the Spirit of God who raised Jesus dwells in you and that Christ’s resurrection life is already at work in you in order to conform you to Christ. Is the old Adam still present? Yes. That guy is a good swimmer and though daily you drown him in repentance as you return in faith to your baptism, he keeps popping up out of the water. But nourished by the Means of Grace through the work of Christ’s Spirit our God does bring about change. He enables you to struggle against the sin in our life – indeed he gives you the desire to struggle against it and to live in ways the please God.
And it means that this struggle takes place with hope. This past Monday, Duke University won the men’s NCAA basketball championship. When a team wins a championship, they always say that it made all of the struggles – all of the work, and the ups and downs of a season – worth it. What would it be like if a team started out a season, not knowing how the season would go, but knowing for sure that they were going to be champions? They wouldn’t know the path that would take them there, only that if they kept at it until the end they would win. They would have the encouragement needed to push through the setbacks because they knew what awaited them.
That is how things are for us as Christians because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We walk by faith in the midst of the struggles, but we know how it ends because the end has already started in the resurrection of our Lord. Because Jesus rose from the dead through the work of the Spirit, we know that same Spirit who dwells in us will raise us up. The final and ultimate restoration to which our text directs us will be ours. It’s certain. It’s sure. Just as we hear in our text, “Then you shall know that I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the LORD.”