June 15, 2010 David Balzer

Ezekiel 37-39: From Hopeless to Hope

Dachau was one of ’s dreadful camps for Jews in WW2. Today, there’s a museum there.

And on the wall of the museum is a large and moving photo of a mother and her little . They’re walking towards a gas chamber. You can see the rail lines which carried Jews to the chambers, or carried the bodies away.

The child is walking in front of her mother, but doesn’t know where she’s going. The mother DOES know, but is helpless to stop the tragedy.  In her helplessness, and hopelessness, she performs the only act of love left to her.  She places her hands over the child’s eyes so at least she won’t SEE the horror to come.

Apparently when people come into the museum they don’t walk past this photo in a hurry. They pause and reflect. They can feel the pain, and the hopelessness, and the despair.

I hope none of US are ever in a situation as HOPELESS as that.

Unfortunately, persecution like that is still around today. Against Christians. Even against fellow-Presbyterians.

Sakina and Shazia Alam are Pakistani Presbyterians. Pakistan is 97% Muslim, with many EXTREME groups among them. Christians represent only 1.7% of the population, and they’re frequently persecuted.

Sakina and Shazia are the widow and daughter of Rev. Noor Alam, who, in 1997, built a tiny Presbyterian church in Pakistan.

Three months later, one night a mob burned the church to the ground, “If any Christian comes out to protect the church, we will kill them,” Sakina heard them yell.

Alam immediately began to rebuild from the rubble. But weeks later, on Jan. 28, 1998, three men broke into his house and stabbed him to . Pakistani officials did nothing about the incident.

How would you feel as his widow and daughter? Would you have the strength to still stand up for Jesus? Would you be ANGRY with God?

Listen to the despair of Akhter Bhatti, Alam’s brother-in-law. He said. “Whatever happens in Pakistan, neither the courts, nor the executive nor the legislature care for our Christian community. In present circumstances, we are ABSOLUTELY HOPELESS.”       ABSOLUTELY HOPELESS!

It’s a sad cry, isn’t it? But as much as I FEEL for my Christian brother, and as tragic as the situation is, I have to disagree with him. Because God is still God, and he’s still in control, and his purposes are still being worked out. And ONE DAY, he’ll bring about JUSTICE and RESTORATION and LIFE.

That’s a promise. That’s our HOPE.

And it’s hope that strengthened by passages like today’s. Because when it comes to God’s WORD, NO SITUATION is HOPELESS.

God’s going to do something INCREDIBLE. Something BEYOND hope. He’s going to turn around the situation of his people in such a profound way, they hadn’t even DARED to DREAM it.

It’s a COMPLETE REVERSAL of FORTUNE. FROM HOPELESS TO HOPE.

It’s from to LIFE. From DIVISION to UNITY. From LEADERLESS to LED. And from being DISTANT from God to being INTIMATE.

1. Living instead of

Firstly, living instead of . At the start of Ch 37, Ezekiel tells us that the hand of the Lord is upon him. In other words, he’s about to experience something of God’s world – the way God sees things. He’s picked up and taken in a vision.

And he lands in a valley. And what he sees is beyond his worst nightmare. It’s a valley full of bones. And he’s plonked right down in the middle of it. And as he looks around, it’s all he can see – 360 degree BONES.

And the Spirit of the Lord leads him through it – again and again – just to make sure he experiences every detail. V2

(Ezek 37:2 NIV)  He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry.

Not just bodies, but bones. No flesh left. And not even skeletons – with recognisable human shapes. They’re just piles of random, chaotic bones.

And not just bones, but DRY bones. White, sun-bleached. er than . So , there’s no resemblance to anything living at all.

And when Ezekiel’s had time to take it all in. To realise HOW everything is, the Spirit asks him a question. “Son of man, can these bones LIVE?”

Here’s a test. The est situation you can think of. Do you reckon God can make it live?

This is the God who SPOKE and the UNIVERSE was formed. From NOTHING. This is the God who breathed life into the dust of the ground and MANKIND lived.

And Ezekiel comes back with a very SENSIBLE answer. “O Sovereign Lord, you alone know”

And rather than give the ANSWER, God gives a COMMAND. A command which IS the answer. V4

(Ezek 37:4-6 NIV)  Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! {5} This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. {6} I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the LORD.'”

A promise from God that he’ll make the bones live again. A promise to be spoken TO the bones. And it’s a promise that comes through the instrument of Ezekiel. He’s the mouthpiece.

But WHY USE EZEKIEL? Why doesn’t God just do it himself?

Because it’s a vision for the benefit of EZEKIEL as much as it’s one for THE PEOPLE. It’s for HIS encouragement. Right from the start of the book, God’s emphasised how Ezekiel is God’s mouthpiece. His watchman.

Ezekiel is the MEDIUM by which God’s life-giving words are communicated. And after so long of seeing his words IGNORED, in this vision/ he finally gets to see them ACHIEVE SOMETHING.

And in exactly the same way/ WE’RE the medium by which God’s life-giving words are communicated TODAY.

In God’s wisdom, he uses fallible, weak, disobedient, stumbling servants to communicate the wonder of his life-giving gospel.

And it’s a gospel that changes lives. It’s a miracle that’s no less extraordinary than the dry bones. That our explanations can transform someone from to life. From God’s enemy to his friend. Because it’s God’s Spirit who’s behind the words.

So keep SPEAKING them.

One of the things that Presbyterians affirm is that it’s GOD who converts people. It’s not us. It’s one of the ideas that makes us CALVINISTS. After John Calvin, who emphasised God’s control over EVERYTHING – his sovereignty – INCLUDING salvation.

But one of the MISUNDERSTANDINGS of Calvinism is that we don’t need to evangelise. If God does the converting, then we can just sit back, and wait for people to come to US. And God will have done all the work.

But these verses in Ezekiel tell us something different. YES, God certainly converts. But he uses the INSTRUMENT of PEOPLE who WITNESS to him. Proclaim his message FOR him.

And because God’s the one who ultimately does the job. It actually ENCOURAGES us to witness. Rather than DIScourage us. So keep speaking God’s words.

God commands Ezekiel to speak. And he does as he’s told. He prophesies to the bones. Presumably he says what’s there in v5 and 6. And look at what happens when he does. V7

(Ezek 37:7-8 NIV)  So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. {8} I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.

It’s the full sensory show. Not just SIGHTS. But SOUNDS as well. Rattling bones. The clink of bone on bone. As the pile of bones started moving. Chaos and disorder becomes order.

Individual bones become skeletons. Skeletons grow tendons. Tendons grow muscles. And the whole lot grows skin.

Until what Ezekiel sees before him is a huge gathering  – an ARMY..…. Of BODIES. They had all the BITS, but they were CORPSES. They had no LIFE, no BREATH, or ENERGY. Or Activity. No HUMANITY. No IMAGE OF GOD

God’s PROMISED it. Twice actually. V5 “I will make BREATH enter you”. And again in v6 “I will put breath in you”. And yet, when Ezekiel prophesies, it doesn’t happen. EVERYTHING ELSE BUT breath.

And so a STAGE 2 is needed. Body AND breath. And we find out why soon.

STAGE 2. God speaks again. He’ll complete the job. And once again it comes by HIS WORD. v9.

(Ezek 37:9-10 NIV)  Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the BREATH; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe into these slain, that they may live.'” {10} So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet–a vast army.

Not just bodies. But LIVING bodies. Life that comes from God’s WORD, and God’s SPIRIT.

What a sight that must have been!

And it’s only now that Ezekiel finds out what they whole thing MEANS. It might have seemed like a horror movie. “The Living .” But it’s actually the COMPLETE OPPOSITE. It’s a vivid picture of REVERSAL OF FORTUNE. Of LIFE rather than . And in particular, reversal of fortune FOR ISRAEL. V11

(Ezek 37:11-12 NIV)  Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ {12} Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: O my people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel.

The bones are Israel. In exile they felt AS GOOD AS . BEYOND HOPE. NO CHANCE of a real life anymore.

But anything’s possible with God. He will give them LIFE. FULL life back in the Promised Land.

But there’s more to LIFE than just a physical place. It’s got to be part of a WHOLE NEW RELATIONSHIP.

And it’s here we find the answer to why it was a TWO-STEP process. Why TWO levels of prophecy. First, to the bones. And then to the BREATH. Look at v14. Not only will God bring them back to the land, but he’ll ALSO give them his Holy Spirit.

(Ezek 37:14 NIV)  I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. ”

God will restore them to the land. AND give them his Spirit. And that’s MORE than RESTORATION. Restoration’s only getting back what you ALREADY HAD.

But here, God’s promising A NEW RELATIONSHIP. A new covenant. A new intimacy. Unlike anything they’ve experienced before.

In Ch 36, we see that it’s his Spirit who washes them clean. Who enables them to OBEY him. To be his people. It all comes through God’s Spirit which he BREATHES into his people.

And while we can see that God did the FIRST part of the prophecy. He didn’t do the SECOND. He brought them back from exile. Back to the land.

But he didn’t pour out his Spirit. Until 500 years later. When his only Son. The GREATEST king in the line of King David. Stood before his disciples on the night before he was killed.

And Jesus (in John 20:22) BREATHED on them, and said “Receive the Holy Spirit. {23} If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

And as we stand in the line of those disciples, someone preached the word TO US. And many of US have been made alive. Brought from to life. And when that happened, Jesus breathed his Holy Spirit into us. And made us a child of God.

We USED to be like that army. Physical bodies. But no spiritual life. Until God made us alive. Gave us ETERNAL life. Made us humanity the way we were DESIGNED to be. A living, breathing ARMY FOR GOD.

And as we stand in the line of those disciples, we’re actually ONE BETTER than Ezekiel. We may not have seen the visions he did. But when we PROCLAIM GOD’S MESSAGE TO SOMEONE. And they RESPOND. We get to see God do BOTH steps. Life AND Spirit. Something Ezekiel never got to see. Except in his vision. But we get to see it FOR REAL.

2. Unified instead of divided

And that’s not all that comes through Jesus. Let’s quickly look at another three.

Firstly, God promises UNITY. From v15, it seems to be some later time. He’s back in Babylon, and he’s speaking to the people.

And God’s promising that he’s going to make the two kingdoms of Judah and Israel ONE AGAIN. They’d been split since the time of Solomon. Separate kings. Constant fighting.

And since Israel was defeated by Assyria, they weren’t even a recognisable nation anymore.

But in v15-23, God describes how he’ll make them ONE. Like two sticks lashed together. They’ll be joined by one land. Under one king. Unified instead of divided.

And it’s the same unity we find today in the Christian church. It’s one of the great blessings of being a Christian. The bond between two people at the foot of the cross. It goes beyond language or culture or income or background or education or colour or race.

Ephesians 2 talks about there being no Jew and Greek. Jesus himself is our peace, making the TWO into ONE, destroying the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.

And we could ADD to that. In the gospel, there’s no Aboriginal and White Australian. There’s no wealthy and poor. No Arabic and English. No University-educated or tradesman. No BELLEVUE Hill or ROOTY Hill.

The TWO have been made ONE.

And it’s unity like this that needs to be seen in the church today. Is that something you can see? That you experience?

Unified instead of Divided.

3. Led instead of leaderless

And thirdly, notice that it’s only unity because they’re UNDER ONE KING. Look at v22

(Ezek 37:22 NIV)  I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel. There will be one king over all of them and they will never again be two nations or be divided into two kingdoms.

And down in v24, we see what that king is LIKE. He’s a servant of God. He’s from the line of David. He’s a shepherd. And he guides the people so they will follow God’s laws.

And through him God will bring in the blessings he promised to ABRAHAM. Look at v25. God promises LAND. And CHILDREN. And in v28, we even see that the NATIONS will be blessed.

All under God’s servant, the Son of David.

But there never WAS a king like that for Israel again.

But that didn’t mean God’s promise FAILED. Because Jesus was that king. And rather than being shepherd for the nation Israel, he became shepherd for God’s people throughout the WHOLE WORLD.

And it’s THROUGH HIM that we’re united to his world-wide Church. Having a common SAVIOUR and KING is much more fundamental than any of the OTHER stuff which DIVIDES us.

Through Jesus, we’re LIVING instead of , we’re UNIFIED instead of divided. We’re LED instead of LEADERLESS.

Intimate instead of distant

And there’s one final blessing that comes to God’s people. We’re intimate instead of distant.

God promises that his people will no longer be isolated. In exile they were cut-off, and excluded.

But God promises that once more, he’ll DWELL among his people. Just like in the wilderness, when the tabernacle was pitched right in the middle of the camp. That’s how close he’ll be. The end of v26.

(Ezek 37:26-27 NIV)  …I will put my SANCTUARY AMONG THEM forever. {27} My DWELLING PLACE will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people.

Remember back in Ch 10? Ezekiel’s vision of God’s glory leaving the temple. God was so sick of the sin of his people/ that he couldn’t bear to watch.

But in the vision, God never COMPLETELY left. He was hovering over the mountains to the East of Jerusalem. Just waiting to come back.

And while the temple was eventually rebuilt. TWICE. We never read of God’s glory returning to it. Either to Zerubbabel’s temple, or Herod’s temple. Not like happened to the FIRST temple. To Solomon’s temple.

And while Jesus was a special dwelling of God with men. He was only temporary, and in one place.

And today, God dwells with us by his Holy Spirit. Living in us. The foretaste, the down-payment of heaven. It’s good. But it’s not the WHOLE STORY.

It won’t be until that FINAL DAY. When Jesus returns. And brings THIS world to a close. That God will FULLY dwell with his people. Revelation 21 speaks about it. It’s a book which borrows a lot of its imagery to Ezekiel. And this idea of God DWELLING with his people is one of them. Revelation 21 v1

(Rev 21:1-4 NIV)  Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. {2} I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. {3} And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. {4} He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

Living instead of . Unity instead of division. Led instead of leaderless. And intimate instead of distant.

God promised it to his people through Ezekiel. They experienced PART of it. We’ve experienced SO MUCH MORE. But there’s EVEN MORE that we’ve got in store.

That’s our HOPE. And I can’t WAIT.

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