Second Sunday of Easter
April 12, 2015
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
In the name of + Jesus.
The prophetic visions of the Old Testament are filled with strange and fantastic things, and Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones ranks among the strangest. Whenever I hear the story I can’t help but envision it like a 1960s science fiction movie with that creepy stop-motion animation—bones rattling together, muscles and sinews and skin wrapping over the skeletons. It’s the stuff of fantasy, and surely the inspiration for countless imaginative stories, this prophecy of Ezekiel.
But where Saturday matinee exists in a world far away from our own, Ezekiel’s vision is grounded in reality. “Son of man,” He said to me, “these bones are all the people of Israel. They are saying, ‘Our bones are dry, and we’ve lost all hope. We’re completely cut off’” (v 11 AAT). The vision is an illustration, an analogy of Israel and the promises of God. It shows that without the Spirit of God, there is no life.
This is the foundational confession of the Church, drawn from the Scriptures. In 381 AD, there had been a dispute in the Church (big surprise, huh?), that the Holy Spirit wasn’t divine. At the Council of Constantinople in the same year, the Nicene Creed from 325 was expanded to include the familiar line: I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life.
This days two things. First, the Holy Spirit is God. He is a distinct person, not simply a movement or energy of God, as exhibited in the baptismal formula and at Jesus’ baptism. And second, He is the Divine Person who gives life. God’s creation of man began with Him forming Adam from the dust, but he was not a creature until God breathed into His face the Breath of Life.
So now Ezekiel is taken by the same Spirit to a valley filled with dry bones. The LORD laid His hand on me and by His Spirit took me out and put me down in the middle of a valley that was full of bones. He led me past them all around. There were a great number lying on the floor of the valley, and they were very dry. “Son of man,” He asked me, “can these bones become alive?” “Lord GOD,” I answered, “You know.”
“Prophesy about these bones,” He told me, “and say to them: ‘Dry bones, listen to what the LORD says. The Lord GOD says this to these bones: I will make breath enter into you, and you will live. I will put sinews on you, have flesh come on you, cover you with skin, and put breath in you so you will live and know I am the LORD.’” I prophesied as I was ordered, and as I prophesied, there was a noise and a rustling as the bones came together, one bone to another. I saw sinews coming on them. Flesh came on them, and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them (vv 1-8 AAT).
Without the Spirit of God Ezekiel’s army remains an army of dead men.
The Spirit does come, as God promises, and the Spirit does give life. But don’t overlook how the Spirit comes. Prophesy to the breath,” He told me. “Prophesy, son of man, and tell the breath, ‘The Lord GOD says this: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain people so they will live.’” So I prophesied as He ordered me, and breath entered into them and they stood on their feet — a very great army (vv 9-10 AAT).
There’s an interesting linguistic phenomenon that is part of both the Hebrew and Greek languages that isn’t as readily apparent in English. It’s that the word for spirit is the same as the word for breath. So when God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the breath, He’s telling him to prophesy to the Spirit. So the Spirit is bound to prophecy, which is to say that the Spirit is bound to preaching. Ezekiel speaks and the Spirit does what he says.
In this episode in the valley of dry bones we can draw an analogy to two kinds of preaching. The first is a preaching that results in a fine looking army of dead men and the second is a preaching that gives life. A couple of millennia after Ezekiel’s vision, the Lutheran reformers would come to call this the preaching of Law and Gospel. The valley of dry bones is a picture of Israel because Israel had come to live by the Law and not by the Spirit. Their ceremonies were right, their sacrifices were according to code, the uttered the prayers God had commanded, but their hearts were given to false gods. They were an army of dead men.
But God has a promise. Can these bones come alive? Lord God, You know. I will make breath enter you and you will live. It’s an Easter promise, a resurrection promise, a promise that gives hope to dead men.
Ezekiel’s Prophecy Is Fulfilled When Jesus Gives the Gift of the Spirit
On the evening of the day Jesus rose from the dead, He appeared to His disciples and gave them the gift of the Holy Spirit, breath and all. He breathed on them and said, Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins they are forgiven, if you retain them they are retained. The gift of the Holy Spirit is nothing other than the gift of Absolution. When the ministers of Christ speak to us in His stead and by His command, this as true and certain as if Christmas stood here Himself and spoke those words. When you receive forgiveness, you have received the Spirit.
St. Paul writes to the Corinthians, The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life (2 Cor 2:6). The letter is the letter of the Law, given by God not to create happy, obedient children, but on account of sin, to restrain the human flesh, to prevent man from making gods in his own image. The Law is always driving us to the valley of dry bones, to show us that there is no life apart from the Spirit.
This is true even in the Law’s third function. Too many Christians think the Gospel is something for the unconverted, for the heathen, and that once you come to faith and your past sins are forgiven, you leave the Gospel behind. In comes the Law to show you how to be an obedient child of God. If you were to take a random walk into any Christian Church this morning, you’d be entirely likely to hear a sermon about how to do some aspect of the Christian life. Any mention of Jesus would simply be as an example to emulate.
But the Law doesn’t work that way, even as it guides a Christian in the way of righteousness. The Law shows true good works and prevents the sinful flesh from inventing works to please God, like the old monastic orders used to do. But the Law never has the power to motivate true works. It never has the power to enliven, to quicken, to give the Spirit. At most the Law can only give a former to the Christian life, to connect bone to bone, cover with sinew and flesh, but those who live by the Law will remain an army of dead men.
It is the Spirit who gives life. And the Spirit comes through the preaching of grace and forgiveness. When you have the Spirit and the forgiveness of sin, you have life.
You have this life right now. Not just in a metaphorical sense, but in a very real sense. The Law of God has shown you the works that please God—works of love and service to your neighbor; works of self-sacrifice; obeying, honoring, and loving your parents; helping your neighbor in his bodily needs and preserving his possessions and reputation; husbands and wives loving each other and remaining faithful to their marriage vows; being content with the unique gifts God has given you. With the Spirit the works become living and active. And with sins forgiven, you become a part of the Israel envisioned by Ezekiel: a very great host of living men.
There is an epilogue to the prophetic vision in Ezekiel, an additional promise of something that’s yet to come. So prophesy and tell them, ‘The Lord GOD says this: I will open your graves and raise you out of them, O My people, and bring you to the land of Israel. Then you will know I am the LORD when I open your graves and raise you out of your graves, O My people. I will put My Spirit in you so you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know I the LORD said it and I did it, says the LORD’” (vv 12-14 AAT).
The promise that comes with the forgiveness of sins isn’t only a new spiritual life, but also a bodily resurrection from the dead. You will know I am the Lord when I open your graves and raise you out of your graves, O My people. The first is Jesus. His grave is open and He is risen. Truly He is risen. Alleluia! And the Spirit He gives is the Lord and giver of life, who spoke by the prophets, who is now at work in the Church, in Her preaching, in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. And so we look for the resurrection of the dead, for our graves to be open even as Christ’s is open.
In the name of + Jesus.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Rev. Jacob Ehrhard