When we speak about the history of God’s people in the Old Testament, we usually refer to “the exile” which occurred in 587 B.C. when the Babylonians captured the city of Jerusalem, destroyed the temple and took all but the very poorest in the land to Babylon in southern Iraq. However, that way of speaking is not quite accurate. In fact while this was the largest occurrence, it was actually the third time that a group of people had been taken into exile.
In 605 B.C. the Babylonians defeated the Egyptians at Carchemish and became the overlords of Judah. The king of Judah was allowed to rule as the puppet leader of a vassal state. However, the Babylonians took young men who were part of the elite of society back to Babylon. Included in this group were Daniel, and the Judahites we know as Shadrach, Meshach and Abendego.
After the Babylonians and the Egyptians fought to a draw in another great battle in 601 B.C., Judah chose to rebel. However in 597 B.C. King Nebuchadnezzar led the Babylonians in capturing Jerusalem. This time the Babylonians took Judah’s king, Jehoiachin back to Babylon. They also took another and larger group of leading citizens to Babylon. Included in this group was the prophet Ezekiel who was a priest. Ezekiel writes his prophecy not in Judah, but as an exile in Babylon.
The structure of the book of Ezekiel is fascinating because it breaks down into a perfect presentation of Law and Gospel. In the first thirty three chapters Ezekiel does nothing except condemn Judah for her sin and announce that judgment is coming. Then near the end of that chapter Ezekiel says that “a fugitive from Jerusalem came to me and said, ‘The city has been struck down.’” News arrives that Jerusalem has been taken, the walls torn down and the temple destroyed. From that moment, Ezekiel speaks hope and comfort to God’s people. He speaks Gospel.
It’s important to understand that some of the people of God had already been in exile for nearly twenty years; some for more than ten years when the event we usually describe as “the exile” took place in 587 B.C. Imagine what it was like to be forced to live for that long in a foreign land, hoping to return. And then you learn that your home has been devastated and everyone else is being brought into exile. The hope of ever returning had been crushed.
That is the setting for Ezekiel’s vision in chapter thirty seven. The prophet tells us, “The hand of the LORD was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. And he led me around among them, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold, they were very dry.”
Ezekiel encounters a scene of devastation. He views what appears to be the remains of a slaughtered army, now nothing more than dried out skeletons. Yahweh asked Ezekiel, “Son of man, can these bones live?” Ezekiel provided a sensible response: “O Lord GOD, you know.” Then God said to 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.’”
As we heard in the reading, Ezekiel does as commanded. First there was the sound of rattling as the bones came together, and then were covered by sinews and flesh and skin. But there was no life in the bodies – no breath. So Yahweh commanded Ezekiel, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.’” Ezekiel did so and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army.
Yahweh then explained what the vision meant. He said, “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.’” The people were crushed and hopeless because of what had happened to them.
Does that sound familiar? There are certainly times when we want to say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.” Illness – our own and that of family and friends - make us feel this way. Struggles in our family life make us feel this way. Problems at work make us feel this way. It is easy to feel like all hope is lost. Yet these feelings of hopelessness are the temptation of unbelief – of failing to trust in God.
That’s where God’s people were at in the sixth century B.C. And so Yahweh commanded Ezekiel, “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.’”
God used the metaphor of resurrection to announce that he would return the people to their land. The nation seemed dead and buried. But God would restore them to life by returning them to the land he had given to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. There was hope! Yahweh had given a promise and his word would not fail.
We hear about a metaphor of resurrection on this Second Sunday of Easter. Of course, this text was chosen for today because it makes us think about the resurrection of Jesus Christ. God did return his people to the land as he used the surprising events that surrounded the Persian King Cyrus in 538 B.C. And that act of deliverance pointed forward to the great act of deliverance that God has now worked it the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The Lord Jesus died on the cross to reconcile you to God. God the Father judged your sin in Christ. But then, on the third day, he raised Jesus from the dead! Jesus lives, and because he does you have hope. The apostle Peter said, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.”
Because of Jesus Christ you have a living hope. Your sins are forgiven. You have the assurance of God’s continuing love and care. And you have hope. God has spoken his great “Yes!” to you in the resurrection of Jesus. You know the final outcome. You know where all of this is going. Jesus Christ is the first fruits of your resurrection. Your resurrection has already started in Jesus. This living hope crushes hopelessness and the temptation of unbelief – of failing to trust in God.
In our text Ezekiel is told to prophesy for the breath to come into the bodies. Later as God explains the vision he says, “And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live.” The Hebrew text actually uses the same word because it can mean both “breath” and “Spirit.”
It is the Spirit who is the Lord and giver of life. It is the Spirit who gave life to the body of Jesus as it was transformed in the resurrection so that it can never die again. And the Spirit who is already in you who will do the same for you. St. 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.” Elsewhere on several occasions Paul describes the Spirit as a pledge or down payment of our resurrection.
You were born again of water and the Spirit in Holy Baptism. How do you know you have the Spirit? You’ve been baptized! The name for this Sunday is Quasimodo Geniti. Those are the first words in Latin of the beginning of the introit for today from 1 Peter 2:2 in which the apostle says, “Like newborn infants long for the pure spiritual milk of the Word.” This language in Peter’s letters describes Christians who have been baptized. You have been born again in baptism. And now you continue to receive the work of the Spirit through the Word, and as you taste and see that the Lord is good in the Sacrament of the Altar where Christ gives you his true body and blood.
In our text we hear God speak about the Spirit in reference to resurrection. In the previous chapter, Ezekiel had already mentioned the Spirit. God had said, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 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.”
The Holy Spirit who raised Jesus is present in you. He has made you a new creation in Christ. The power of Christ’s resurrection is present and at work in you to lead and enable you to walk in the ways of the Lord. The Spirit leads, but you must also want to follow. The Spirit provides the power and ability, but you must also wish to use it. The creation of faith is something worked by the Spirit alone. The living out of the faith is something that is done in cooperation with Spirit.
It is only through the Spirit’s leading and power that anything is possible because the old Adam to present too. He wants to suck you into worry, hopelessness and despair. He wants you to say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.” He wants you to fall to the temptation of unbelief – of failing to trust in God.
So by the work of the Spirit, we recognize these thoughts and feelings for what they are. They do not come from God. They come from the devil, sin and the old Adam. By the Spirit’s power we decide that we aren’t going to listen to them. Instead we are going to set our eyes on Jesus the risen Lord. We are going to listen to his Word. For in Jesus Christ and his resurrection we have the living hope that will carry us to the Last Day.