Can these bones live again? (Ezekiel 37.1-14) [sermon 12-10-17, Advent 2]

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December 9, 2017 by jmar198013

Manuscript of my sermon for December 10th, 2017.

Text is Ezekiel 37.1-14.



Dr. Cornel West is a theology professor who has taught at the divinity schools at Yale, Harvard, and Princeton. And he has a way of putting things—even seemingly off-the-cuff remarks—so they get stuck in my head.

I don’t always agree with what Dr. West says. But I usually love the way he says it.

Anyway, there’s this one thing he said that I came across several years back that’s stuck with me, because I can totally relate to it. Dr. West said: I cannot be an optimist, but I am a prisoner of hope.

I suspect many of you probably think of optimism and hope as synonyms. But they’re really not. Optimism is a strong belief that everything will turn out okay. This means that when an optimist is confronted by disappointment or trouble or failure, they’re going to look for some bright spot in it. And I mean, sometimes they’re really going to be grasping for the bright side. Like, an optimist could fall off the top of a ten-story building, and all the way down, they’d be shouting, Everything’s great so far! Besides, it’s not like I’ll be falling forever! And now we see the limits of optimism—at some point, the optimist is going to have a meeting with the pavement.

And that’s the trouble with optimism. It can tend to disregard reality. I mean, optimism’s fine if we’re only talking the: Is the glass half-full or half-empty? proposition. The optimist says: Doesn’t matter. We’ll put some ice and maybe a splash of lemon in that and drink it up! But there’s a lot of things in life that carry a lot more consequences than how much water is in the glass in front of you.

Like, I really don’t know what an optimist would say to a starving child in a poor country who’s infested with parasites. I don’t see how you could find a bright spot in that without being insulting.

And it turns out optimism may partly be a matter of sheer dumb luck. There’s actually an optimism gene, and if it’s not configured the same way in everyone. [1] So optimism is at least partly just a matter of winning a trait in the genetic lottery. Like having blue eyes. Or being able to roll your tongue.

Now there are some in the field of psychology who say that optimism can be learned. But I’ve read some of their books, and honestly … to me it seems more like they’re just training you to lie to yourself.

I guess some of you have picked up on the fact that I am not an optimist. But on the bright side, I can roll my tongue. Won that prize in the genetic jackpot.

But like Dr. West—I am a prisoner of hope. Here’s what makes hope different from optimism. Optimism says, Things will be better, and just kind of leaves it at that. Hope, on the other hand, says: Things can get better. [2]

Hope sees all the bad stuff in our lives and in our world. And it tells the truth about the bad stuff without flinching. Hope will admit: Yes, we’re in a hot mess. But hope doesn’t end there. The mess doesn’t defeat hope, nor will hope compromise with the mess. Hope envisions a better future, and spurs us on to work for that better future. Hope gives us a clear vision of where we’re going, and how wonderful it’s going to be when we get there. So it inspires us to keep working for a better future—even when we meet tough obstacles.

So I can say that I am a prisoner of hope. Now, my captivity to hope is a personal choice. If I didn’t bind myself to hope, I wouldn’t get out of bed in the mornings. But I have learned over the course of my life that you miss out on a lot of awesome things when you can’t get out of bed. So I choose hope. Full disclosure: there have been times when I choose hope with an assist from Citalopram.

I am constitutionally incapable of optimism, so I have to settle for hope.

If you’re here today and you’re an optimist by nature, I promise I’m not picking on you. You have been blessed with with a gift that probably kept the human race alive for eons. Some scientists believe the optimism gene is what allowed people to survive brutal winters and food scarcity and all that stuff that threatened our very existence until we left our caves and settled down and got central heating and air. [3] So thank you! We’re so glad that God wired you people with an optimism bias. You are the ones who kept the rest of us going, promising us all that everything would be okay, even when you had absolutely no evidence whatsoever to back it up. And truth be told, we still need you. Everyone needs at least one Little Orphan Annie in our lives, to walk beside us and sing to us reassuringly that the sun will indeed come out tomorrow.

But here’s what I want us all to understand up front: Nowhere in scripture does it say God requires Christians to be optimists. But God does expect his people to live with hope. If you are a Christian, you can be an optimist, or you can be a hopeful person. But pessimism is not a fruit of the Spirit. And cynicism is right out. Hope is a fruit of the Spirit. And optimism is hope’s less-disciplined younger cousin with a bubbly personality.

Now all this time I’ve been talking about hope in the general sense. Hope is powerful because it motivates us to move toward a better future. Hope inspires us, it gives us courage, it makes us strong and resilient and even relentless in our pursuit of our goals.

But you know what’s more important than just having hope? It’s making sure we’re putting our hope where it belongs. It matters very much what we hope for. I’ve already pointed out the limits of optimism. Well, hope has its limitations, too. If you put your hope in the wrong thing or outcome, you will spend all your time and energy working for something that may be meaningless or worse—could hurt you. Brian talked about that in Bible class last week, when we watched A Christmas Story. Ralphie’s one hope that totally consumed his life was that Red Ryder air rifle. And when he got it, he was a bit reckless and ended up nearly shooting his eye out.

Christians have a very particular hope we’re living out. And our story today—Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones—is really a story about our hope as God’s people. It’s about the hope God has for us, and for all creation. Yes—this bizarre and kind of gross story from the Old Testament is actually a story of hope.

In our story today, God took Ezekiel on a walk through a valley of dry bones. These bones weren’t even complete skeletons anymore, just scattered piles of bones, picked over by predators and scattered by the elements. It’s the kind of thing you’d expect to see in a horror movie set after a nuclear holocaust.

Those bones represented the fallen nation of Israel. God’s people who’d lost everything because of generations of disobedience. And now they were scattered among the nations in exile.

This pile of dry bones didn’t just represent tragedy for Israel. They suggest that there’s no hope at all for the world. If God’s handpicked people, nurtured by all the love and grace and mercy God has to offer, could fail so miserably, what hope is there for the rest of the world? 

I’m sure that’s about what Ezekiel was thinking when God asked him: Human one, can these bones live again? 

As a mere human, Ezekiel didn’t see how it was possible. He didn’t see any future for his people. When we can’t see any way forward, that’s when we lose hope. Hope depends on a vision for the future, and Ezekiel couldn’t see one. So Ezekiel answered: Lord God, only you know.

Ezekiel couldn’t be an optimist in the valley of dry bones. But in hope, Ezekiel obeyed God when God told him to prophesy to the bones, and prophesy to the winds. Ezekiel boldly ordered those bones to reassemble, and flesh to grow on them. And he called to the wind to breathe the breath of life into their lungs, and bring them to life again.

And that’s what happened. Ezekiel spoke God’s hope into those bones, and into the winds. And God brought the bones back to life again.

Church, the world needs the kind of hope Ezekiel spoke into those dry bones. Desperately. Because all of human history—our sin, our greed, our wars, our genocides, our pollution, our shattered families, the neglected homeless, our blighted inner cities, the shadow of nuclear annihilation—leads us to God’s question: Human One, can these bones live again? Is there a way out of this? Is there any hope for this world?

Oh, but let’s bring it closer to home. We feel the weight of our own sins. We look back on our past with regrets and remorse, seeing the things we’ve done and can’t undo. The things we ought to have done, and can’t go back and do. We feel the consequences of the choices we’ve made. And the destructive choices others have made that have brought brokenness into our lives. We carry burdens—guilt and pain and shame and secrets. And some of us—our hearts and souls are a graveyard of hurt and regret. And we wonder—Can these bones live again? We not only need to know that God has hope for the world. We need to know that we have hope, personally. And we need to know what that hope is.

Well, the name of our hope is Jesus. When God asked Ezekiel, Can these bones live again?, his ultimate answer is Jesus.

Jesus came and lived among us. Jesus bore our sin and shame and sorrow and even our death on the cross. And then on the third day, God raised him again.

What was God doing through all that? He was giving us all hope. God was speaking hope into our hearts. Because in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God comes down and walks among the dry bones of our world and our hearts. And God says: No! None of this gets the final word! Not sin. Not shame. Not fear. Not suffering. Not death. These dry bones aren’t the end of your story. You will live again!

Through Christ, God promises us that even death will not be the final word, because we will also be united together in a resurrection like his (Rom. 6.5).

There may not be much to be optimistic about in this life—but resurrection gives us hope. Not hope to be raised as spirits or angels. Through Christ, we are promised new, incorruptible bodies. Living forever in love and fellowship, with God dwelling among us—wiping away every tear. So we can glorify God and enjoy him forever.

And this resurrection hope isn’t just for humans. God promises to do for all creation what he does for Jesus, and for us. Rom. 8.20-21 says: with eager hope, the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay.

Yes, the mountains and the skies and the trees and the flowers and the streams and the creatures on land and in the sea are also waiting with hope for the resurrection. Creation lives out its hope with every sunrise, and every springtime. Because God has promised to renew and restore them along with us. One of God’s final promises in the Bible is: Look! I’m making all things new (Rev. 21.5). That promise is not just for humanity. All things includes all creation.

That’s the hope Christians live by. That’s our vision for the future. God is going to make all things new. Even us. Those dry bones can live again.

We Christians are prisoners to that particular hope. The hope of resurrection and new creation. So that even when our world and our lives feel like a pile of dry bones, we live in hope that God will make those dry bones live again. And that hope for the future sustains and inspires our lives now. Because Rom. 8.11 promises believers that the Spirit of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, lives in you. So even if, like me, you’re constitutionally incapable of optimism, you still have a deep, wild, powerful hope living in you.

The God who brings life to dry bones lives inside you. The God who has promised to make all things new is with you. That’s not just hope to get you out of bed in the morning. You need to do something with hope like that.

Think about it. Ezekiel knew the only hope those dry bones had to live again was God. God knew it, too. But God has ordered the world so that God does what God’s going to do through humans. Phil. 2.13 says: God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him. In our story today, God worked through Ezekiel prophesying to the bones and to the wind. It was only when Ezekiel spoke God’s hope, and his hope, into those bones that God began to put flesh on them. It was only when Ezekiel spoke hope into the wind that they breathed into the bodies and made them come alive.

It’s the same with you and me, church. Through Jesus, God has given us a hope of new life. Of resurrection, restoration, and renewal for humanity and all creation. But God calls us—like Ezekiel—to speak that hope into our world. Into the each others lives, and the lives of our neighbors. God calls us to speak that hope into our church, our homes, our workplaces, and our neighborhoods.

And so today—I’m inviting you to speak some hope into the world. Some of you donated some household items to the women’s shelter last week. Did you know that you were speaking hope into the lives of those women and children who might not have a lot of hope? The simple gifts you gave them supplied them not only with toilet paper and shampoo, but with just a little hope that things can be better. I want to see us doing more of that, but also doing it with the understanding that we’re speaking hope into our world. We’re showing people a glimpse of the God who makes dry bones live.

So this week, commit to doing one thing to speak hope into the world. It can be sending an encouraging card or note. Visiting someone in the hospital, or someone who’s at home sick. Buying a meal for a homeless person and eating it with them. Talking to your classmate who seems lonely or left out. Saying something kind to a friend or coworker who’s having a hard time. Volunteering for some good work in our city. Maybe even adopting a new pet. It can be a big thing or a small thing. But do something this week to speak some of God’s hope into the world.

And as you do that one thing that speaks hope into the world, I want you to look and listen for sneak peeks of the future we’ve been promised through Christ. God has promised to make the dry bones live again. To rescue our world from its bondage to death and decay. To eliminate suffering. To wipe away all tears. To make all things new. The hope we speak into the world should embody those promises.

So as you maybe write that encouraging note. Or visit that lonely person. Or listen to somebody else’s troubles, and maybe even weep with them—know that you’re working towards the day when no one is lonely or troubled, and God wipes away all the tears.

Or perhaps as you share a meal with a hungry person, remember that a day is coming when God will welcome us to his big banquet table. Where no one will be a stranger, and everyone will have enough and more.

Or maybe you’ll find some volunteer work to do in the city, to make some improvement or contribution to the lives of others. Know that you’re doing this for the God who promises to make all things new.

And even if you end up adopting a pet—please understand that your love and care for them is an extension of God’s love for all creation. You are God’s response to that animal’s hope.

Because God sees the same world we see. And he still asks each of us:

Human one, can these bones live again? And we actually know more than Ezekiel did. Though scripture, and through Christ, God has promised us that those dry bones will certainly live again. And more than that—they will thrive and flourish and dance and be productive and live in joy.

And even if—like me—you can’t be an optimist; we can all live as prisoners to that glorious hope.


[1] Denise Mann. “Optimism May Be Partly in Your Genes.” WebMD. September 16, 2011. Accessed December 04, 2017. https://www.webmd.com/balance/news/20110916/optimism-partly-in-your-genes#1.

[2] “Difference Between Hope and Optimism.” Difference Between. March 15, 2015. Accessed December 04, 2017. http://www.differencebetween.com/difference-between-hope-and-vs-optimism/.

[3] Tali Sharot. “The Optimism Bias.” Time. May 28, 2011. Accessed December 04, 2017. http://content.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,2074067,00.html.

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