Imagine a battlefield in an arid place. A huge fight must have taken place, and horrifically, the casualties were left dead or dying where they fell. The sun and the wind and the animals of the wild all did their work, and the battlefield was littered with dry bones, the skeletal remains of warriors who had been strong and courageous enough to fight, but who died.
This is a dramatic image of defeat, of the mighty and proud struck down, of the plans of conquerors or defenders gone awry. A valley of dry bones represents disappointment, hopelessness,, despair. What good could come from visiting such a sad, sad place, even in a vision?
This description of the valley of dry bones can remind us of the dry, and dead or dying places within ourselves, and our own lives. Are there ways that we feel stuck? Are there areas of our own lives that feel beyond renewal, beyond new possibility? Do we believe that our lives can change for the better? Are we open to that?
Where does hope come from, in the times that feel dry, and dead, and beyond restoration? In this vision, the Spirit says : “Prophesy over these bones: ‘Dry bones, listen to the Message of God!'”
Then, God speaks directly to the bones. A vision must be something like a dream, in which weird things can happen, that have meaning and make sense within the context of the dream.
“God, the Master, told the dry bones, “Watch this: I’m bringing the breath of life to you and you’ll come to life. I’ll attach sinews to you, put meat on your bones, cover you with skin, and breathe life into you. You’ll come alive and you’ll realize that I am God!”
In this dream-like vision, the combination of God’s power, and Ezekiel’s prophesying, or preaching, has the effect of rousing the fragments of dried up skeletons. God’s power causes sinew and flesh to re-grow, and knit together the bones, to re-form and revive the dead.
If someone came to me for help in understanding their dream, which happens sometimes, and told me about a dream like this, I would ask them, “ What feels dead in your life? “
Last week we spent some time with a spiritual exercise called the Examen. You ask yourself two little questions. The first question is along these lines,” When did I feel closest to God today, or when did I feel most alive, or filled with hope, and joy, and love. “ The second question is kind of the reverse. “When did I feel the most distant from God, or the most despairing, or without joy? When did parts of me feel dead, or hopeless inside?”
In the terminology of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, who taught the Examen, we ask about moments of consolation, when we feel held in God’s love, and we ask about moments of desolation, when God seems impossibly distant, or disinterested in us, and we feel alone, or despairing, perhaps something like dry bones in a desert place.
The exercise of the Examen teaches that the dry times, when we feel that God is very far away, or that maybe there is no God, that even that feeling, that dryness, can be seen as a prayer. If we are thirsty for something, longing for relief from the dryness, that is a prayer deeper than words. It is a prayer we make, without even knowing we are praying, because our longing, our desire for a change, for hope, comes from such a deep place. It is good God can hear and see the prayer, because we ourselves may not know what our own soul has to say.
In Ezekiel’s vision there are both aspects of the Examen prayer exercise. There is awareness of desolation, of the dry desert, and there is also the consolation, when Ezekiel becomes aware that God is with him even in the terrible place. Ezekiel responds to God’s very strange instruction to prophesy, or preach to the dry bones, God becomes involved, and the bones knit, and grow flesh.
If this were a dream, we might ask the dreamer, what parts of your life are thirsting, hungering for God’s word, for a message of hope, encouragement, challenge?
The second story we heard is often spoken of as the birth of the Jesus movement, or the Christian church.
There was a very dry, and sad, and desolate time for the small group of Jesus’ original disciples. They were in Jerusalem, very likely back in the same upper room where they had gathered for Passover, and where they’d had that last Supper with Jesus, before he was arrested. Jesus’ friends were gathered because they believed they were supposed to be in Jerusalem for the Pentecost Festival, but the story says they were behind closed and locked doors, because they were afraid.
In the days after the first Easter, Jesus’ friends heard reports, and had their own experiences of Jesus still being with them, even though they had seen him die on the cross, and be buried. Somehow Jesus had overcome death. The word people use is resurrection, but a fancy word does not make this any less mysterious.
It must have been a great consolation to the disciples, to see and hear and feel Jesus with them. But the story we heard in church last week describes Jesus ascending into heaven, and leaving the disciples behind. However we make sense of the location of heaven, of the place that souls go when they leave the body behind, it was away from the disciples, and they would experience that as a loss, as grief all over again.
In their desolate condition, they returned to the upper room in Jerusalem. They may have gone there to hide. They may have gone there because they expected something to happen. They may have gone there because they did not know what else to do. The upper room was the location of the last supper, during which Jesus told them to remember him.
The story says while they were gathered in that place, “ Without warning there was a sound like a strong wind, gale force—no one could tell where it came from. It filled the whole building. Then, like a wildfire, the Holy Spirit spread through their ranks, and they started speaking in a number of different languages as the Spirit prompted them. “
God was in the midst of this situation, as God was in Ezekiel’s dream. Jews from many different places in the ancient world, gathered in Jerusalem for the Pentecost Festival were also aware something extraordinary was happening. No matter what nation or ethnic background they came from, these visitors all understood what was being said to them, as if it were in their own languages.
“Their heads were spinning; they couldn’t make head or tail of any of it. They talked back and forth, confused: “What’s going on here?”
That was when Peter, backed by the other disciples stood where the crowds could see him- they must have left the locked room, and began doing what God had told Ezekiel to do in his vision. Peter started preaching. Peter told the crowd about Jesus’ message of God’s love. Peter told them about how Jesus had been betrayed, arrested, crucified and killed. Peter told him that not even death could stop what Jesus had started.
Peter was pretty fired up, and he held the attention of many, who accepted his invitation to be baptized that day as followers of Jesus. Soon the little group of Jesus followers, had multiplied into hundreds and thousands of people.
The disciples, like Ezekiel, found their desert time of desolation was transformed. They felt and heard and saw the presence of God in their lives, and it made all the difference. These early followers of Jesus now had new work to do, as leaders of the growing Jesus movement. They worked together with the new followers to share their belongings, to offer care and comfort to hurting and hungry people, and to organize regular worship and shared meals, for the new community of faith.
They picked themselves up out of their dusty sadness, a little like those old piles of bones in the other story. They became warriors in a new kind of army, with purpose, and vision, with hope, and joy. To use familiar words, God gave them the choice to live boldly or die sadly, and they chose to live boldly.
We all have dry, desolate times. We may have parts of our lives where there is need for hope, and change, and newness. It may be that we could do with a little Pentecost ourselves, in our own lives, and in the life of our church.
Let’s take a moment now for a guided prayer exercise. I invite you to close your eyes. Get comfortable where you are sitting. Imagine that the Holy Spirit is just above us, like a warm breath of wind. Imagine that it touches you, maybe on the top of your head, maybe on your shoulders. It is a loving, reassuring touch, to let you know that you are one of God’s beloved. Is there something that needs healing in your life, or a dry and dusty place that craves renewal? Ask God to be with you, and to transform what is broken or wounded within you. God bless you.
It may be that this blessing will lead to a deeper consolation, and to a slightly different vision for life. You may find something that needs doing, that you are meant to do. And God will be with you in it. When you feel ready, open your eyes, and we will sing our hymn together.
Voices United 400 Lord, listen to your children praying
Lord, listen to your children praying,
Lord, send your Spirit in this place;
Lord, listen to your children praying,
send us love, send us power, send us grace!