When God Questions Our Conclusions
Scripture: Ezekiel 37:1, 3-14
Have you ever been listening to someone about what matters most to them? You hear passions, regrets, hopes, insights, dreams, and longings. Many people experience anxiety about the personal or collective changes in the world. Some miss when politicians seemed more civil. Others long for a time when kids could roam their neighborhoods freely without fear for their safety. Still others long for a golden era of economic prosperity and spiritual thriving. Talking heads debate endlessly whether the best years are ahead or behind us. Discerning whether changes have been positive or negative can get as varied a response as the perspective of the person you ask.
Other times a dream or a reality is unquestionably over. A relationship ends. A critical injury prevents further expression of a giftedness. A child dies. A business collapses. A country is reduced to rubble by war, famine, poverty, or disease. All that seems left to do is mourn what was and what will never be again.
When my parents’ neighborhood and house flooded, the city of Austin bought the home I grew up in, and after a few months tore it down. My parents had already moved to a new neighborhood in a nearby town. Over the weeks and months they would share information with me about neighbors who relocated to other parts of Austin or the surrounding region. Soon much of the place I grew up in would be returned to empty grassy fields. I thought about that as I watched the bulldozer demolish my childhood home. All the memories this home held, and all the networks of connection this neighborhood had known were gone. Forever.
In the book of Ezekiel, the prophet has a vision of a valley of bones. They are representative of the Northern (Israel) and Southern (Judah) Kingdoms. By this time Israel had been exiled by Assyria, and Judah was exiled by Babylon. Their lands have been ravaged, the people conquered, and their political autonomy dissolved. Many were replanted in foreign lands from which they would never return. The bones are a picture of the absolute devastation and wasting away of God’s people. This is not merely a valley of slain corpses or rotting flesh scavenged by birds and rodents. Scavenging animals, weather conditions, and time have reduced the dead to dried up bones disconnected and strewn about. It is a picture of finality and hopelessness. This is not a picture of a loss. It’s a picture of the end.
Yet, God asks Ezekiel a question. From my point of view, God asks Ezekiel an absurd question. “Can these bones live again?” You might as well ask if the Roman Empire will spring back into existence, Wooly Mammoths will roam again or if we might throw a feast for the victims of the Bubonic plague. These things have not just been ended. They’ve been long buried and undone by the sands of time.
Still, God asks Ezekiel this question. Ezekiel does his best to respond to God’s perplexing question with the appropriate reverence. But I imagine Ezekiel was flabbergasted and dumbfounded by God’s question. Time had already answered God’s question in the strong negative, and these bones were the monuments to the end of God’s People as a nation. Where we see finality God sees a future.
God questions our settled answers. God probes our routine and interrogates our status quo. Our most assured conclusions are undone by the Divine question mark God breathes into our world. Martin Luther King Jr. suggested Jeremiah’s “Is there no balm in Gilead?” becomes the church’s “There IS a balm in Gilead!” King reminded us there are some question marks which God straightens out into exclamation points.
Ezekiel reveals God can work renewal the other way around too. There are areas in our lives, in our culture, in our churches, and in our world where we have placed resigning exclamation points of finality. We believe what has been is what will be forevermore. Yet, in the valley of dry bones, God questions our conclusions, and sends a wind of upending change to what we thought was permanent.