Sermon from worship at First United Methodist Church in Sweeny, Texas on April 8, 2018
37 The Lord’s power overcame me, and while I was in the Lord’s spirit, he led me out and set me down in the middle of a certain valley. It was full of bones. 2 He led me through them all around, and I saw that there were a great many of them on the valley floor, and they were very dry.
3 He asked me, “Human one, can these bones live again?”
I said, “Lord God, only you know.”
4 He said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, Dry bones, hear the Lord’s word! 5 The Lord God proclaims to these bones: I am about to put breath in you, and you will live again. 6 I will put sinews on you, place flesh on you, and cover you with skin. When I put breath in you, and you come to life, you will know that I am the Lord.”
7 I prophesied just as I was commanded. There was a great noise as I was prophesying, then a great quaking, and the bones came together, bone by bone. 8 When I looked, suddenly there were sinews on them. The flesh appeared, and then they were covered over with skin. But there was still no breath in them.
9 He said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, human one! Say to the breath, The Lord God proclaims: Come from the four winds, breath! Breathe into these dead bodies and let them live.”
10 I prophesied just as he commanded me. When the breath entered them, they came to life and stood on their feet, an extraordinarily large company.
11 He said to me, “Human one, these bones are the entire house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope has perished. We are completely finished.’ 12 So now, prophesy and say to them, The Lord God proclaims: I’m opening your graves! I will raise you up from your graves, my people, and I will bring you to Israel’s fertile land. 13 You will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and raise you up from your graves, my people. 14 I will put my breath[a] in you, and you will live. I will plant you on your fertile land, and you will know that I am the Lord. I’ve spoken, and I will do it. This is what the Lord says.” (Ezekiel 37:1-14, Common English Bible)
What do skeletons say before eating? – Bone=-appetite. Who is the most famous French skeleton? – Napoleon bone-apart. Who was the most famous skeleton detective? Sherlock Bones.
If you go to Denver Colorado you can Shake, Rattle and Roll. No, contrary to the picture on the screen and the bulletin cover, at least in Denver you won’t shake, rattle and roll on the dancefloor. Instead you will be on a giant swing. It is a thrill ride at the Elitch Gardens theme park. When you ride the “Shake Rattle and Roll,” it will take you upside down and around, around and around. Then, if this ride doesn’t shake rattle and roll you enough you can always graduate the Tower of Doom, the Mind Eraser or you can try your hand at snow-boarding the half-pipe. One reviewer/blogger of thrill rides summed up the Shake Rattle and Roll with two words… “Freakin Awesome.”
The truth is, people have been shaking, rattling and rolling around the world for many years. The expression is found in the title of two different movies, one from 1994 starring Renee Zellweger and Howie Mandell. An Alabama support group for people suffering from Parkinson’s Disease shares the name. If you travel to the UK you can find a Hanna-Barbera cartoon series and a miniseries both using the title. Shake Rattle and Roll is even a wrestling move used by Wayne Farris, better known to wrestling fans as, “The Honky-Tonk Man.” I repent for even having known that last bit of trivia.
So where in the world did this expression actually come from? Well, it was 60 years ago, when a singer named Big Joe Turner gathered with a group of rhythm and blues singers in the New York offices of Atlantic Records. They pushed the furniture to the walls and recorded a song titled “Shake, Rattle and Roll.”
Not too much time passed after that when the song was picked up by Bill Haley and His Comets, followed not too long afterward by Elvis. The most famous version of the song became the first international hit for Bill Haley, becoming his first gold record and a best-seller for Decca records in 1954. Let’s listen. The song became an important piece of rock and roll history. Six decades later, people still, “Shake, Rattle and Roll.”
But even with all that, it wasn’t the beginning of shaking, rattling and rolling regardless of it being sung by Big Joe Turner, Bill Haley or Elvis. If we go back a lot further than 60 years ago, back when the Israelites are exiled from Israel and Jerusalem and find themselves living far from home, far from where they wanted to be, in Babylon. While he was in captivity Ezekiel sees seven visions, which include messages of judgment on Israel, messages of judgment on other nations of the world and promises of future blessings for the people of Israel.
Our lesson this morning is one of those visits and it begins in a sad and lifeless place. The passages seems more like a judgment than it does a blessing when Ezekiel reports that the hand and spirit of God, “The Lord’s power overcame me, and while I was in the Lord’s spirit, he led me out and set me down in the middle of a certain valley. It was full of bones. He led me through them all around, and I saw there were a great many of them on the valley floor, and they were very dry.” There were bones, dry bones. There wasn’t a sign of life anywhere in that valley you would find no thrill rides, no cartoons and no rock-and-roll drumbeats.
This talk of dead, dry bones and prophesying, “Here the word of the Lord,” reminds me of another song of the same era. Actually, the song, Dem Bones, is much older than that, the lyrics date back to slavery as an African-American spiritual. The melody was written by James Weldon Johnson in the early 1900s. There have been many groups that have recorded “Dry Bones” including the Delta Rhythm Boys and The Cathedrals. Let’s listen to the Cathedrals.
Speaking of bones, some tourists in the Chicago Museum of Natural History were marveling at the dinosaur bones. One of them asked the guard, “Can you tell me, how old are these dinosaur bones?”
The guard replies, “They are three million, four years and six months old.”
“That’s an awfully exact number,” says the tourist. “How do you know so precisely?”
The guard answers, “Well, the dinosaur bones were three million years old when I started working here and that was four and a half years ago.”
God then asks Ezekiel, “Mortal can these bones live?” I find it interesting that Ezekiel doesn’t give God the most obvious answer, “No, these bones aren’t just dead, they are dry. There is no life in them.” Ezekiel is apparently familiar with the power of God. Despite any lack of evidence to the contrary the prophet says, “O Lord God, you know.” For Ezekiel, life for these bones doesn’t seem possible. They are dead, dry and we all know what dry feels like. Dry is when you find no career path in your 20s, struggling to get pregnant in your 30s, feeling distant from your spouse in your 40s, losing your job in your 50s, worrying about retirement in your 60s, and suffering the death of your spouse in your 70s. Mortal, can these bones live? It doesn’t seem possible. Everything seems dead. The bones are dry. Yet in spite of everything, Ezekiel gives us the example that nothing is impossible with God. “O Lord God,” Ezekiel says, “You know.”
God gives Ezekiel a command. “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.” The prophet is told to deliver the word of the Lord to the dry bones scattered across the valley because this word has the power to create something new, to bring the dead back to life.
“O Lord God,” Ezekiel says, “You know.” I doubt Ezekiel was familiar with the term resurrection as we know the term. Easter would have been a completely foreign idea to him, but when you think about what is about to happen, “O Lord God, you know resurrection,” is not a bad thought either.
God tells Ezekiel, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.” Ezekiel is told to deliver the word of God to the dry bones scattered across the valley, because this word has the power to create something new, to bring life to the dead.
Since the beginning of time, God’s word has shown creative, life-giving power to those who accept it. In the first chapter of Genesis, the first words of the Bible, God says, “Let there be light and there is light – the word of God creates a new reality, bringing light into darkness. Through the prophet Isaiah, God promises, “My word… shall not return to me empty but it shall accomplish that for which I purpose.”
“In the beginning was the Word,” says the Gospel of John, “and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… All things came into being through him.” In the Psalms, we find the psalmist pleads to God, “According to your word.” Give me life he says, according to your enlightening purposeful, world-creating word.
Throughout the Bible, the word of God has life-giving power. But we sometimes overlook this in a world so full of empty, meaningless, trivial or untrustworthy words. A flood of words comes at us constantly, through television, radio, websites, billboards, text messages and ads on our smart phones. We know some of these words are untrue, others are destructive and still others are trying to manipulate us. The end result is, we don’t have a very high opinion of words.
But Ezekiel is willing to trust the word of God. In the middle of his own dry, dusty, lifeless experience in exile, he’s willing to put his faith in the God who says to the bones, “I am about to put breath in you, and you will live again. I will put sinews on you, place flesh on you and cover you with skin. When I put breath in you, and you come to life, you will know that I am the Lord.” God promises to cause breath to enter the bones – literally, he causes ruah. Ruah is a Hebrew word. Ruah means breath but it is more than breath. It can also mean wind and spirit. Whenever you try to translate idioms, parts of speech, colloquialisms, and words that don’t have a literal translation that means the same. Such is the case with ruah. Ruah is the breath but it is more than that, it is the breath that is life itself it is the spirit that is within us.
Ruah is the breath that inspires God’s creative words. Ruah is the “breath of life,” that is snuffed out by the great flood. Ruah is the wind from God that sweeps over the face of the waters at the beginning of creation. Ruah is the Holy Spirit that we need in order to feel the presence of God. Breath. Wind. Spirit. Ruah. God puts it into us so we can live.
Ezekiel trusts God’s breath-wind-spirit and speaks God’s word. As he prophesied to the bones, he reports, “suddenly there was a noise, a rattling and the bones came together, bone to its bone.” Through the power of God, the bones begin to “shake, rattle and roll.”
It doesn’t end there. Sinews, flesh and skin suddenly appear on the bones, and they begin to look like living beings. All they lack is the breath of life – God’s breath-wind-spirit, God’s ruah. And so Ezekiel prophesies to the breath and “the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. What was dusty, dry and dead is now alive. New life is created by the word of God and the breath-wind-spirit, the ruah of God.
God says to Ezekiel, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is lost, we are cut off completely.’” God commands Ezekiel to assure them he will open their graves, bring them back to life, and return them to their homeland in Israel. “I will put my spirit within you,” promises God, “and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord have spoken and will act.”
This promise is true for us as well, when our bones are dried up and our hope is lost. God’s word and God’s breath-wind-sprit, ruah, can give us life, as individuals and as a community.
A woman walked into a church in Virginia, unsure of what to expect. She had grown up in a home with no religion and no talk of God. The members of the church welcomed her, befriended her, included her and nurtured her in the faith. After being baptized she said to the congregation, “Just a few years ago, I tiptoed into the narthex as one who didn’t believe in God. Your love and support transformed me and I stand before you now confidently and say I do now believe in God. I know I could just leave it at that, but as a congregation have always expected me to go a bit deeper, to explore more. Part of your nurture of faith has asked me to seek meaning so I can live into that which I say I believe. So to say I believe in God means for me that I believe hope is stronger than despair, that pain will always be followed by healing, that within darkness there is light, that death is never final, and that in any sadness there is an opportunity of joy.”
God’s word has life-giving power. God’s wind-breath-spirit, God’s ruah, can revive individuals, congregations, communities, countries and even the world. When dry bones begin to rattle and join together, we discover together that hope is stronger than despair, death, is never final and sadness can give way to joy.
Shake, rattle and roll. It is much more than a song or any of those other things. It is a sign God is always raising us to new life.
* While this was the manuscript version, it is not the version on video.