Can These Bones Yet Live?

In 1987 I was six years old.   You could say 1987 was the best year for movies – after all, The Princess Bride stormed theaters (and castles), letting loose rodents of unusual size, Andre the Giant, and mai-wage on the American public.  The hero, Wesley – the one who would rescue the princess Buttercup – his only true love – from the evil Prince Humperdink –  has been tortured to death by that same prince’s minions, to the dismay of all of his friends.  His co-conspirators, out of sheer desperation, take his dead body to the neighborhood magic man, Miracle Max, and beg for help.  They lay his obviously dead body on the kitchen table and ask for a verdict, a diagnosis.

Max, suspicious of anyone who would haul around a dead man wonders, “He probably owes you money huh? I’ll ask him.”

Inigo Montoya: (reasonably) He’s dead. He can’t talk.

Miracle Max: Whoo-hoo-hoo, look who knows so much. It just so happens that your friend here is only MOSTLY dead. There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive. With all dead, well, with all dead there’s usually only one thing you can do.

Inigo Montoya: What’s that?

Miracle Max: Go through his clothes and look for loose change.


A good joke, but Wesley had been tortured for hours.  He’d been put through the pain machine, a terrible device invented by the evil prince’s partner – they’d cranked it up to 11.


He was dead as a doornail, as far as definitions go.  DEAD. There was no hope – the movie was over.  And here’s this magic man, this miracle man, saying “Whoo-hoo-hoo, look who knows so much.”


When the hand of God lifts Ezekiel into his vision of the valley of the dry bones, it’s after 597 BCE.  If 1987 was a big year in movies, 597 BCE was THE BIG YEAR for the people Israel.


Just about all of the elite of the land had been shipped off, kidnapped if you will – like Princess Buttercup – to Babylon.



God’s told Ezekiel  to preach to the deported peoples in their terrible distress – like the dead flesh of a severed limb, separated from their source of life.  So he goes about his work, himself a kidnapped Jerusalemite, himself missing home, called to the practice of prophetic street theater, an apparent marionette in the hands of his God.


So it is in this emotional space that the hand of the Lord lands on the shoulders of this young prophet and he finds himself standing over a vast valley filled with the remains of what can only appear to Ezekiel as a horrific, ancient genocidal act.

Bones over miles and miles, bleached and burnt in the sun, drier than sand, deader than dead, heaped up and stretching out to the horizon.


The scene of a battlefield where the slain never even received a proper burial.  Skeletons, perhaps of the memory of a beloved, enlivened time.


Can you see it?  Hillocks and mounds, scattered as far as the human eye can see, of arid, jumbled spines and rib cages, bleached and jaggedly vulnerable, entangled.


Intimately naked, but in some way impersonal.


I imagine, looking over that valley with God, that Ezekiel felt… emptiness.  Perhaps he felt a little confusion.  Maybe some curiosity, fear, anxiety, a sense of dread.  But I doubt that he felt hope.


He definitely wasn’t looking toward the future. In fact, one of the most curious phrases of this scripture comes right after Ezekiel first stands over that bone valley and feels whatever he’s feeling that’s not hope.


God asks a terrible question, a question with only one obvious answer: “Mortal, can these bones live?” and Ezekiel, he answers, “O Lord God, you know.”


Now, I’m pretty sure sarcasm existed in 6th century BCE just like today, and as a former teenager, I can spot it.  But it’s not obvious here what the prophet is saying, his tone.  Given what he’s just seen, is he saying, in faith, “Only God knows…” Like, “God’s will”?  Or is it, “God only knows?” We can’t tell from the text – I think it could be argued either way.  Trust, or sarcasm.  O God, you know.  He’s three visions into what will be a four-vision career, and it’s still hard to tell what this prophet thinks of the capabilities of this God he’s called to witness to.


And yet this death-ridden, bone-addled text, riddled with a what may be assurance but is just as probably sarcastic flippancy, is read by Jews and Christians the world over as part of the celebration of the Sabbath of Passover week and the final weeks of the Lenten season.  Times leading into joyous celebration of God’s faithfulness, of God’s miracles of promise in the face of total destruction.  Why?


After all, we live in a world full of dry bones.  So many valleys of dry bones in the world today – visible and invisible, past and yet to come.


The death-dealing social realities of poverty, genocide, abuse, addiction, strip mining, ecological destruction, war, slavery, abandoned children.


And over these arid hills and dales, these memorials to the power of death’s hold on our world, lingers the miasma of spiritual death, our sense of impossibility of rejuvenation, or of transformation.


So the valley of dry bones is not a fantasy – these passages are entirely grounded in the world.  Any one of us honestly looking around our human family can easily join Ezekiel in his panoramic view of the despair below.


Can these bones yet live?  In the time leading up to Easter, I wonder when you – when we – hear about the valley of the dry bones, what images come to mind.  In the midst of Lent, is our instinct to look around our own churches, our own neighborhoods, and wonder, “Can these bones live?”


In the midst of this the 21st century, in a period of decline in the history of the American Protestant church, do we look inward for the dry bones, for the desiccated remains of our own faith?


This wouldn’t be unreasonable.  It may not even be unfaithful.


But it is wrong.


We always want to see ourselves in these stories, in the wonderful and challenging Scriptures that we love so much.




I’m afraid that some of us will look around ourselves, read this story – with its ultimate ending of death becoming life, and hear God saying, “I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live,” and feel a sense of relief – “Well, at least when I die, there’s heaven.”


And we will read this story as God swooping in to provide us with a heaven at the end once we have lived our lives as dry bones.  That the Church will be revitalized and we will be saved.  The Spirit will come and save us.


There’s an old song we sing a lot at my church,

“I’ll fly away, oh Glory, I’ll fly away in the morning” –

I worry that we’ll see this story as an opportunity to fly away.


You probably look out over that valley with Ezekiel and see your own selves, the life-spirit drained out of them.  We think that we’re the dry bones Ezekiel’s prophesying to and about, the people Israel God is trying to call back.  In some ways, that’s fair.  But there’s more to this story than personal salvation.


And there’s more to it than God waving a magic wand over a death-filled situation.  In so many ways, God says to us, “Oh, you – woohoo hoo… look who knows so much.”  Look who knows so much.


The problem with this way of reading the story is that it isn’t full.  It isn’t whole.  The story doesn’t end with a prophet simply looking over a death horizon, with God asking, “Can these bones yet live?”  and then God saying, watch this… look at what I can do, swelling them with breath and life.  The sinews, muscles, and flesh enlivening while the faithful do nothing.


No, God continues, saying to his called-one:


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. …


Yes, God says to the prophet – prophesy! Help them to hear the word of the Lord! God asks, Can these bones live?


And God expects – no, demands – a response.  God brings his faithful one up to survey the damage and asks for participation – you, you prophesy.

You, you tell me what you see.  Tell me how much you really know.

You, you watch the work I am going to do in the world.  You.  You do this.


I know you’re one of them, that you’re as dry a bone as they are, that it might as well be your skeleton on that heap.  But.


But God takes us up and asks us to stand, in our dry-boneness, to stand together at God’s side and look out upon the world and call it what it is.

To witness it with God, and to call life into it, with God.


It’s as though the question God asks, “Can these bones yet live?” is directed at his people, at the Ezekiels he has called out into faith who are a part of the Exiled Ones who come up out of them but who refuse to just lie down and dry out.


The question is, “Will you witness to my power, you who think you know so much?”


God’s Spirit lays upon the man Ezekiel as a call, a question – will YOU attest to the truth that the crushing apparent realities of this world are not My final word, that THAT word is, instead, RESURRECTION THROUGH ME?


Faithfulness, after all, is having a fierce moral vision of right and wrong, of death in relation to life, of the long view, of hope and the assurance that God’s promises are God’s promises which have been, are, and always will be honored, even in the midst of the heaped up skeletons crushing our hope and our human capacity to win against the dominating powers that assault us.


Of revealing God’s glory, of bringing attention to God’s presence and power in a world that denies (with all of its might) that reality.


Of calling out to the bones that are dead and dry, not only in our own selves but in the world around us and responding with every fiber of our being, with conviction that can not be moved, “Yes, Lord, yes!”


The “Can these bones yet live?” vision is the long view – from Eden –  to Canaan – to the New Jerusalem, it is a view encompassing what was as well as

what will be and

what is now.  And we are a part of it, God’s partners, we who only know so much.


We are called to have assurance in the rightness of what we are doing, and when we do, that it is God’s spirit bringing life into our dried up bones.


Rest assured in the grace and full promises of our God who promises that, Yes, these bones can live!

After all, we have only a week til the Cross.

The cross must have seemed the most arid of deserts.

Only a week until the light goes out in the world and the only ones left to witness for those three days of darkness are … us.

Only a few days until you will be called upon and are asked by God, “Can the Crucified Man live?  Can these bones live?”


Only days, mere hours until you must look around this world, into the valley of the dry bones, one more time and answer…


“Yes, Lord, Yes.  These bones WILL live!”


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