A Revival in the Graveyard
Ezekiel 32:1-14 & Acts 2:1-21 | May 23, 2021
I still remember when I was a young middle school boy going to the Batesville Eureka movie theatre to see the new horror film that my friends were talking about. We only had one screen at the Eureka movie theatre, so on the weekend, you couldn’t be choosy. But this particular sequel to the Count Dracula films filled up the place. One scene is firmly etched into my memory. There was a cold ancient castle on a jagged rock hill, surrounded by darkness, with a full moon coming out from under the clouds. Count Dracula slowly slides the lid of his sarcophagus and then rises effortlessly from the grave. He displays his pointed fangs as he thirsts to feast on the blood of an unfortunate soul, who is chained to a wall, anticipating his own horrible, terrible end. I do not think that I slept much for a week after that horror film. As I remember, I kept the closet light on all night for over a month, despite my brother teasing me about it. I would not be surprised if I had cloves of garlic under my pillow and a cross beside my bed. Such is the power of images, especially those that frighten us.
The prophet Ezekiel would understand such dreams. In a vision, Ezekiel finds himself in a dark valley surrounded by the signs of death. In every direction he looked, Ezekiel saw bones scattered on the dry and broken earth. What on earth had happened here? Was he looking out onto some ancient battlefield with the scattered remains o fallen soldiers? Was he witnessing another senseless killing field, that we in our day have looked upon in our horror: the bones of Nazi death camps or the killing fields of Rwanda, the rubble and dead of Syria and now Palestine and Israel today? So many bones and so much death.*
Given what Ezekiel and his people have endured, we should not be surprised at his dream. Traumatized people live with such reoccurring dreams of horror and a valley of bones is an apt picture of what they have suffered. Ezekiel was living in exile in Babylon. His nation, Israel, had been ravaged by war. Death was everywhere. Friends, family, and even his wife were among the dry bones, never to rise again. The temple in Jerusalem was now in rubble. His people had been chained and paraded to a foreign land to be enslaved by a people who did not believe in their God. Perhaps even Israel was never to rise again. I am sure Ezekiel must have wondered many times, “Can I get through this? Can my people get through this? Can Your people, O God, return from this?”
But this is not a dream. It is a vision, a vision from God. Ezekiel finds himself in the valley of dry bones and we discover that God speaks clearly in such places. God asked Ezekiel a question, “Ezekiel, can these bones live? The answer is obvious, isn’t it? No, of course, these bones cannot live. Dry bones are the very symbol of the finality of life – the end of the road – the place no one comes back from. But then, with the spoken word, the bones begin to reassemble themselves, and flesh is restored to the bones and the winds from the four directions of the earth blew and breathed new life into the bones and the people of God – once lost are reassembled – restored to new life.
You remember that song, “Dem Bones,” don’t you? The version you know is secularized, but the original version was an African American spiritual written by one of the great poets and preacher, James Weldon Johnson. One version goes:
It is no accident, of course, that this song should come to us from the African American faith way back at the beginning of the 20th century. Other than Native Americans, no people in our nation have endured 400-plus years of the trauma of slavery. Through all of that, the Black church found hope in God. If God could conduct a revival in the graveyard of God’s people, Israel, then God could conduct a revival in their community as well. No matter how bad things got, they found a way to gather together and to be revived by the hope of this great spiritual and others like it.
What happened to Ezekiel and what has happened in the experience of the black church in our nation, was what happened on that first Pentecost, 600 years after Ezekiel, for the disciples of Jesus. The disciples did not go through the level of traumatization of having everything in their lives destroyed, death everywhere, and then followed by slavery. But no one dares question that what the disciples experienced was traumatic. For three years, they traveled with Jesus and found hope for their nation and themselves. As they watched Him heal the sick, restore the sight of the blind, and confront the powers of authority that oppressed life, they saw only transformation before them. Then they had to watch that One die on a cross, taken so quickly from them. It was not how this story was supposed to end. And now they are hiding out, fearful that they may well become the next ones hung on crosses or simply forgotten about in a story that will never be retold.
Can we come back from this? Can we survive and live again? With a wind and dancing tongues of fire, words that are spoken and understood across nations, a new spirit has been blown into them and hope is restored. Those same four winds that blew over the valley of bones, blows now into their lungs and they exhale and share that spirit of Jesus on people from every land and nation.
Let us be honest. None of us absolutely knows what God is like. We have so many ideas about what God is like, only to find ourselves like the Hebrew people or like the disciples or like black folks in our country, disillusioned by the way life goes. We, like generations of faithful before us, have our images of God challenged. I like how one of my seminary professors says this: “Did God fail to come when I rubbed the lantern? Perhaps God is not a genie. Then, who is God? Did God fail to put my enemies in their proper place? Perhaps God is not a cop. Then who is God? Did God fail to make my life work out the way I planned it? Perhaps God is not a mechanic who keeps things running. Who, then, is God?”**
We become disillusioned and we wonder who really is God if God is not the one I have always expected? The truth is God will never be contained by any one image of the images we have built our faith upon. God is always beyond our names and our expectations. But God has sent us One who gives us a glimpse of who God is. We only need to look at Jesus to know that God comes to us in surprising loving ways. The same God who came to Ezekiel in a Valley, dry bones reassembling themselves, is the same God who comes to us in a vision of a crucified Savior who rises out of the grave. And that same God comes to us in a vision of disciples being revived by a new wind in their lungs and fire dancing on their heads, speaking in a language that all understand.
There was a little rural church in Oklahoma that came upon a little money, left by a beloved member who died. They got together and tried to decide how they could both honor their deceased member and bless the church. Someone came up with a great idea. “Why don’t we have that artist in town paint for us a portrait of Jesus and we can put it up in the sanctuary.” Everyone thought that was such a great idea. They gave the job to the local artist everyone liked.
Finally, the day came when it was to be unveiled to the church and the whole church gathered to be the first to see it. The cloth was pulled off and you could hear the gasp of shock from the people. The colors used were all very dark: purples and black and grays. The figure was very homely—ugly with a misshaped face. There was a caption on a card that the artist had sent with the painting. It read from the book of Isaiah: “He had no beauty or comeliness that any should desire him. He was one from whom people hide their face: A man of sorrow, acquainted with grief.”***
The church was scandalized. No one knew what they would do with this. The painting made the way from the sanctuary to some meeting room on the back wall, then to a Sunday room no longer used, and eventually to be left to gather dust in some storage closet never to be heard of again.
This is not the God we expect. We do not expect a crucified Messiah. But this is the way God comes to us to save us and love us, as One who suffers as we do. This is One through whom a broken people are being made whole, a sick people are being healed, and dead people being revived, and poor people being given hope. This is the One we can trust in our lives and we can trust as a church to see us through all the changes that are a part of life.
*Stacey Midge, “Can These Bones Live?” Posted by Stacey Midge on May 23, 2018. Her thoughts and sermon were most helpful in the forming of my sermon.
**Barbara Brown Taylor, Teaching Sermons on Suffering: God in Pain, “The Gift of Disillusionment,” p. 20.
***Fred B. Craddock, Cherry Log Sermons, “People of Resurrection,” p. 100.