Sermon for Sunday April 2nd, 2017, Passion Sunday
The Lessons: Ezekiel 37:1-14; Ps. 130; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45
The Text: Ezekiel 37:1-14
Topic: God gives His people new life
When Jewish psychiatrist Viktor Frankl was arrested by the Nazis in World War II and put in Auschwitz, the infamous death camp, he was stripped of everything: property, family, possessions – and a manuscript he had spent years researching and writing on finding meaning in life. The manuscript had been sewn into the lining of his coat.
“Now it seemed as if nothing and no one would survive me; neither a physical nor a spiritual child of my own,” Frankl wrote. “I found myself confronted with the question of whether under such circumstances my life was ultimately void of any meaning.”
A few days later, the Nazis forced the prisoners to give up what little clothing they still wore. “I had to surrender my clothes and in turn inherited the worn-out rags of an inmate who had been sent to the gas chamber,” said Frankl. “Instead of the many pages of my manuscript, I found in the pocket of the newly acquired coat a single page torn out of a Hebrew prayer book, which contained the Jewish prayer ‘Shema Yisrael’ (Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is one God. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.)
“How should I have interpreted such a ‘coincidence’ other than as a challenge to ‘live’ my thoughts instead of merely putting them on paper?”
Frankl later reflected on his ordeal in Man’s Search for Meaning, saying, “There is nothing in the world that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions, as the knowledge that there is meaning in one’s life…He who has a ‘why’ to live can bear almost any ‘how.’”
– Based on Viktor Frankl: Man’s Search for Meaning (Pocket, 1997)
THE VISION OF THE VALLEY OF DRY BONES: EZEKIEL 37:1-14
The hope of life and its meaning lies at the heart of the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones. The vision and God’s message to Israel following it are intended to encourage the whole nation of Israel during their exile in Babylon after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonian armies. The message is depicted in terms of a resurrection, and it gave Israel hope of a restoration to their land, and new life. Restoration to their land would make them realize that the Lord alone had performed this miracle of new life.
In reflecting on the meaning of this vision, we must appreciate the implications of the vision. A valley full of dry human bones in Jewish religion would be an accursed place, as these bones were of unburied bodies, which would defile the living, and be a reminder of punishments for disobedience to God. The Holy Spirit brings the prophet to this valley in a vision and sets him down, and causes him to pass around them and view them all. Two things he notes – there are very many bones and they are very dry. The Lord asks Ezekiel a question which might have an obvious answer, “Can these bones live?” Very wisely the prophet leaves that question to the knowledge of God. Then the Lord commands Ezekiel to prophesy life into all these bones that they become live human beings again. When he does so, the bones come together and are clothed with sinews, muscles and flesh. In the second stage of this coming to life, the bodies receive the breath of life from God himself, and stand up on their feet.
As we read on, we realize that this whole vision represents God’s miraculous transformation of His people Israel by restoring their nationhood, their life as a nation in their own land and their hope in God. The Lord promises to open the graves of his people and bring them out of them, put his spirit in them and place them in their own land, so that they will know the Lord has done these marvelous works for them.
Whether or not, we regard these prophecies as fulfilled for Israel or not yet, we must also reflect on the meaning of this message of hope for Christians during this Passiontide. In a sense, the passion and death of the Lord Jesus Christ viewed when they occurred left the disciples despondent and despairing, like the house of Israel who complained in Ezekiel’s vision that their hope was lost (Ezekiel 37:11). This happened despite the Lord’s predictions of both his passion and his resurrection before they happened. After the resurrection, they themselves were restored to hope and in a sense given new life by the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. On the cross, the Lord Jesus Christ seemed like one forgotten, whose hope was cut off, and in this way, represented the death not only of Israel in God’s sight because of sin, but also of the whole world. The vision of the valley of dry bones does not pretend that there is no death, and that there is hope; rather, it takes seriously the reality of death, of spiritual dryness and all the hopelessness man is capable of feeling. But the God who created the world and human beings and breathed life into them, breathes life into Israel, into the Lord Jesus Christ at his resurrection and into the gathered Church after his resurrection and at Pentecost.
It is appropriate, then, that this passage from Ezekiel is read on Passion Sunday, since it holds so much hope both for Israel and for all of humankind. No matter how bad things get on earth, God is our hope, since God breathes new life into us and gives us hope for the future. For Christians this has happened supremely through the Lord Jesus Christ, whose claim we believe:
I am the resurrection and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever believeth in me shall never die.
(John 11:25-26, KJV)
The phrase “though he were dead” in this saying does not mean that a person who has died can believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, but rather it means “even if a person is spiritually dead in God’s sight,” he lives by believing in the Lord Jesus Christ. Similarly “shall never die” does not refer to never dying a physical death, since “it is appointed unto men to die once” (Hebrews 9:27). Instead it means that the believer will not die the second death, that is, the everlasting death in the lake of fire, or everlasting hell.
It is the passion and death of the Lord Jesus Christ that has brought about new life for all and the hope of eternal life in Christ. It is with this hope that God calls us to live, and it is this hope we are called to share with those who have no hope.
Will you continue to live in the hope of the resurrection of the faithful in Christ, and will you share this hope with others?