Wind, Water, and Life in Desolation

Ezekiel 37:1-10 NRSV

desolateLifeHave you ever felt like you were in a place of desolation? In other words, when have you felt hopeless, stranded, parched from thirst, empty?

Part of our humanity is in recognizing that we do have these low moments—periods of time when we just don’t know if we can continue living. We feel dead. We don’t know if feeling alive again is possible. I invite you to remember when you have felt like this. Where were you? What was happening? What were the sights, sounds, and smells? Maybe today, in this moment, you are experiencing a desolate time.

This is not meant to be a downer of a message. I’m simply saying that we must recognize our “death,” our emptiness, giving ourselves space to express frustration, anger, and sadness. We should not suppress such feelings as this can only entrench us deeper in despair. It’s even important to say and express when God feels far away or even absent. This type of recognition in life is often referred to as spiritual and emotional exile.

In the Jewish tradition, the notion of spiritual exile is important. And it is based on an actual exile and the continuing dynamic of the city of Jerusalem. Most scholars, including Walter Brueggemann believe that the book of Ezekiel was written during the crisis of 587 B.C.E., i.e. the destruction of the Jerusalem temple and the consequent exile of the Israelites in Babylonia.[1] Ezekiel was a priest and a prophet. He witnessed the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem and saw the temple in ruins: desolation. And then Ezekiel, and his community from Judah, were taken to a strange place far from home. The people around them were different religiously and culturally. There was very little hope of returning to Judah, of going back home. And even if they did go back home, the city they loved was in ruins.

So the story goes that Ezekiel had a vision, and in this dream Yahweh’s spirit takes him to a valley of dry bones. As a priest, this would have been extremely uncomfortable, for dead bodies were unclean. This vision was repulsive, actually, it’s supposed to be gruesome. Use your imagination. Think ugly, horrific, disgusting even. This dream is meant to challenge Ezekiel, and all of Israel. Did they really think that Yahweh was confined to a temple or to a city? Did they really think that YHWH could not exist, be present, in a valley of dry bones? Could not YHWH be with them even in exile?

At the moment, the Israelites and Ezekiel thought God had abandoned them. They had no hope because they had lost their financial, cultural, and religious stability. Their community had no life. No way these bones can live.

But YHWH has something to say, something to do.

I will cause breathe, lay sinews, cause flesh to form, I will cover those skeletons—I will put breathe in these bones.

The point YHWH is making is that people must enter into a new way of thinking and doing, leaving the past behind. What they have always thought and done is not helping them—it is hurting them and sucking the life from them. They are challenged to see new life even in a valley full of dry bones. They must ask themselves: can you imagine dry bones coming to life? If so, what can you imagine for your community? What can you imagine for yourself?

Maybe we hear Isaiah’s voice: “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (Isaiah 43:19). The way is the spirit, once again that symbol of Divine wind/breath. Restoration is possible when the people recognize the spirit moving, bringing life even in desolation and despair.

I hope you find some meaning in this story for yourself. Personally, I see this as a call for me to be more honest about those moments when I do feel empty and like dry bones. Because in that honesty, I open myself up to change; I open myself up to others. I also recognize that life will not always be happy, wonderful, and as planned. I won’t always be comfortable or at home. I will sometimes be in spiritual and personal exile.

I also hear, though, that this story is about community. It isn’t just about Ezekiel finding a spiritual path or renewal. It is about whole communities discovering that. So I’m asking this question: what and who in our communities are in need of hope and new life, who is broken and in despair?

Friends, we are all those dry bones; spread out across a massive desolate land we call earth. We all wait for fresh breath of spirit to move through us, reviving us, filling in flesh and skin, making us whole once again. Don’t we? Wherever you are, wherever we are in our community, may we find new life and may we breathe new life into anyone or anything that needs it.

[1] An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination.

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Josh grew up in Indiana and Iowa before completing a Masters of Divinity [M.Div.] at Princeton Theological Seminary [NJ]. He has worked in a variety of settings, including the Presbyterian Church (USA) and United Church of Christ (UCC) in Philadelphia, Hawai’i, Mexico, and Michigan. Currently, he serves as pastor of Love in Action United Church of Christ, a progressive, Christian, LGBTQIA+ affirming and interfaith community in Hatboro, a suburb of Philadelphia. He also holds a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre/Speech from Northwestern College (IA). Josh has worked with youth and young adult programs for 25 years regionally, nationally, and in Latin America. He is also a trained actor and performs regularly with the dinner theatre company, Without a Cue Productions, LLC. He has developed theatre arts curriculum for use in worship, youth groups, education, and group-building. Josh is also committed to promoting religious pluralism and partnering with people of all faiths and those who identify as atheist or agnostic to build bridges of shared values and cooperation. He is honored to work with the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia as a Fellow and a Consultant. Focus areas include: University alternative spring break and summer programs that incorporate faith encounters and service-learning for students; workplace diversity programs that promote understanding in organizations, corporations, schools, and hospital settings. Josh also enjoys playing basketball, strumming on the guitar, traveling, learning language, or making strange and funny faces. He lives in Center City Philadelphia and thinks vegan cheesesteaks are amazingly good.

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