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  • Mariah Martin

Bone Dry

Ezekiel 37:1-14


The church is dying. This is a reality we must face. Mennonite Church USA used to number around 120 thousand and now it is around 60 thousand. MCUSA has been cut in half, largely due to disagreements over LGBTQ+ inclusion. Entire conferences are leaving. Churches are struggling to fill the pulpit, to find volunteers to teach Sunday school, to generate interest in church activities.


The youth are leaving the church completely. It is no longer meeting their needs. Our communities are irrelevant to millennials and gen-z's alike. You, Bonneyville Mennonite, have witnessed the shrinking numbers in the pews. Some of you might think fondly on the “Bonneyville Glory Days” when you printed over 100 bulletins.


The talk of a “dying church” and the fear about youth leaving the church has been buzzing around my head ever since I can remember. It is a narrative we tell ourselves with growing dread and grief. Where will the church go from here? What will the future of the church look like? Will there BE a future church?


I just talked with a pastor, who was having a conversation about how it was all good an dandy that we have this new, exciting MCUSA Executive Director, Glen Guyton, but with the drastically changing numbers in the church, is it time to reevaluate the church structure we exist within? Do we still need an executive director?


Right now I believe that our church is, to a much lesser degree, experiencing a form of exile. The exile that scarred the early Israelites and Judeans. You see, YHWH’s nation split at one point.


In 922 BCE the nation split, with Israel in the North and Judah in the south.

In 722 Israel was defeated by the Assyrians. This defeat was what birthed the Samaritans.


In 597 BCE, in the south, the armies of Babylon forced Jerusalem to surrender. They deported the Judean king and other Judean leaders—including the prophet Ezekiel—to Babylon.[1] Then, ten years later, Babylon brought down the final deathblow.


The armies of Babylon destroyed the city of Jerusalem, including their beloved temple. Then they gathered those who remained after the raid and deported a second wave to Babylon.[2] God’s people were falling apart.


The center of their world, the home of God, was obliterated.


This exile was a death of sorts for the people of YHWH. Being separated from God meant they were as good as dead. They were left feeling hopeless, with many questions. Where did YHWH go? Why did YHWH allow such destruction? Was YHWH the source of this devastation? OR was YHWH defeated by the Babylonian god Marduk?[3] Was this the fault of the people?


Much of the book is Ezekiel warning everyone who would listen of the words of judgment and punishment that he received from God. Because of the people’s sin, God would act in destruction. But part-way through the book, Ezekiel starts to change his tune.

Instead of devastation at the hands of YHWH we discover a God that wants to remain with the people.


A God that wants to change the hearts of people. A God who wants to restore Israel. This is what we see in Ezekiel’s fantastic visionary experience. God takes Ezekiel to “the valley”, whichever valley that may be, and shows Ezekiel a field, a battlefield presumably, littered with dry bones.


For those of you who have seen Lion King, imagine the scene where Simba and Nala find the elephant grave-yard where the hyenas live.


Picture what Ezekiel might have witnessed. The sun is beating down relentlessly from above, your feet dusty and cracked from walking in this dry valley. Looking around, you see full rib-cages, you feel femur bones cracking underneath your feet.


Vultures circle above, desperately searching for any remaining scrap of flesh, but there is none to be found. You look down after you accidentally kick a skull, making it roll down a hill. This is a scene straight from a horror film. Ezekiel and God are standing amidst the terrifying reality of a people obliterated.

God asked Ezekiel, “can these bones live”?


The obvious answer would be…no. They are dried bones, the life sucked out of them long ago. But a testament to Ezekiel’s faith in YHWH, he says, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”


However it seems that YHWH wasn’t ready to let Ezekiel off the hook yet. YHWH tells Ezekiel to do what he does best, prophesy. So Ezekiel talks to the bones, telling them that God will renew their flesh and fill them with the spirit, breath, wind of God.

There was a great rattling, the dry ground trembled.


And like a zombie movie playing in reverse, bones stacked up on one another, sinew, muscle, flesh attached itself in it’s proper place.

But something wasn’t right.


They were standing there, flesh and bone in proper order, but these bodies were still lifeless. The breath of God, the breath/wind/spirit (all the same word in Hebrew) that God breathed into Adam, hadn’t filled their lungs yet.

So God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the wind!


Ezekiel calls upon the Spirit of God to breathe into these dead bodies so they would live. The zombie-like beings came to life and a great crowd surrounded God and Ezekiel. This crowd represented the house of Israel. The hope and faith of the Israelites and Judeans alike had long dried up. They believed their God was dead, so they themselves were as good as dead. This is not good in God’s eyes. God had not forsaken God’s people. So YHWH breathed in them fresh air, new life, to reassure them that YHWH had been there all along.


They had stopped fighting and believing in their God, but God had never stopped fighting and believing in them. God will follow through with covenantal promises made long ago. All the people needed to do was breathe and believe, and they would know that YHWH is Lord.


Glen Guyton, the MCUSA Executive Director, spoke at the Indiana Michigan conference. He said that he was done with the narrative we preach over and over, the narrative of the decaying, dying church. He challenged us to stop focusing on what has been lost, and focus on the life we still have. Quit spending mental, emotional, and spiritual energy on those who have left and instead funnel that energy on those who are still here.


Glen named something that I have been feeling but haven’t had the words to say. When I look around, at our community here at Bonneyville, at other churches I have been apart of, when I look at Indiana Michigan conference, when I worship at MCUSA convention, I do not see death. I do not see a graveyard, I see a flourishing garden. I see life. I hear music, prayer, and fervent passion for God.


We might feel as though we are in exile. Like God is far away. Our numbers are shrinking. But even if MCUSA faded out of existence, even if God-forbid, Mennonites went extinct. Even if Christianity disappeared, or by some horrible turn of events every Bible was obliterated, do we really think that God would disappear as well?


God and God’s people are bigger than any one church or denomination.

Dare I say, that God is bigger than the Bible?


We see God revealed in scripture, but God is not bound by the binding holding together scripture. God was and is and is to come.


With this knowledge, maybe we can let ourselves breathe again. Maybe we can break through our zombie-like existence and fill our lungs with the Spirit that God is pouring into us, every breath we take.


Ancient Rabbis said that the name of God, YHWH, is not meant to be said, it is meant to be breathed. It is the sound of every breath we take. YAH-WEY. With every inhale and exhale we take; God is flowing through our very being.


At convention, there were many moments when I was overwhelmed with the sense that God was present and alive within God’s people. It was almost as if the Spirit was pulsing though us.


One moment during our worship time, a friend nudged me, directing my attention to the front of the worship hall. There, while the adults were singing, were kids, little kids, dancing with abandon. They were jumping and spinning and throwing their arms around. They were using their body, their entire being, to worship and glorify God.

My entire being swelled with joy and emotion.


Some might say, LOOK these little ones are the future of the church!

But I say, LOOK! There IS the church. ALIVE. Twirling. Jumping.


No regard for what others think, no hesitation, just unfiltered expression. Joy. Praise. And while the kids were jumping and dancing to the music, the youth had swarmed to the stage, mosh-pit style, jumping and singing and clapping and swaying to the music.

I was surrounded by a great crowd. I was surrounded by bodies who were brought to live by the very Spirit, Breath, Wind of God.


This IS the Church. We ARE the body of Christ. Right now.

Young people are not just the future of the church.

They ARE the church, here and now. And they should be treated as such.


Thankfully MCUSA is acting this out. As delegates we approved that youth delegates should be treated as true delegates, with voting privileges and a seat at the table. We voted to give young people a voice. Praise God.


God’s people are greater than the numbers on our bulletins, bigger than the amount of offering money we acquire, we are bigger than our programs. We will only die when we believe and live like God has left us.


When we think that God has been defeated by some other force, money, culture, the busyness of our everyday lives. We die when we stop expecting God to show up.


As Meghan Good said, “The (real) question is: do we actually believe that God will show up?”


We die when we stop breathing. But God lives on, ever extending the invitation to breathe ourselves into new life. So we can bury the fear of our church dying. It is no longer serving us. We can lay to rest our disgruntled whisperings about church structure, diminishing numbers, and financial stress.


For God is much bigger than these petty and pessimistic grumblings, which we think mask the fear that feeds our negativity. We can allow the past to be the past. The church will not look like it used to. The pews might start filling with faces and families that don’t really meet our expectations of what church “should” or “usually” looks like.


Church, faith, following Jesus is a journey of death and resurrection. Some things must die in order to be brought back to life, transformed, made new. But in order for us to live into this new life, we need to keep breathing. Deep breaths, filling our lungs with the promise that God will never stop gathering.


God will never leave us when we are drowning in exile. God will follow through so we can’t help but know that YHWH is the Lord our God. And YHWH WILL show up.

Do we believe this? Do we actually live this out in our daily lives?


Are we ready for the earth to tremble, for our bones to rattle, for death and decay to be the medium of God’s majestic, transformative work in the world?


God will never stop reconciling our pain. Speaking into our despair. Helping us grow when we are at our lowest, weakest, driest moments in our life. For God is doing a new thing. That is who God is. A God of resurrection.


Friends, the church isn’t going anywhere. God isn’t going anywhere. So let’s breathe together. YAH-WEHLet’s live into hope. Let’s lean into trust. For when we choose to breathe with God, when we expect God to show up, when we look for the ways that God is constantly transforming death into new life, then our dry, achy, tired, bone dry faith will be flooded, overwhelmed with the goodness of God’s mercy.


So never stop looking for the children dancing.


Never stop celebrating the head-banging worship of young people.


Look for those, who might be out of their comfort zone, but they choose to lean into worship anyway, raising their hands in heart-wrenching praise.


The church is alive and well and breathing.

Are you?


Amen.



[1] “Commentary on Ezekiel 37:1-14 by Rolf Jacobson,” accessed July 10, 2019, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=39. (2 Kings 24:10-16).


[2] “Commentary on Ezekiel 37.”


[3] “A Theology of Ezekiel: God’s Name and Israel’s History: EBSCOhost,” accessed July 11, 2019, http://web.a.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=0&sid=58182920-265a-42b2-931a-c8543dd26d31%40sessionmgr4006.


Works Consulted

“A Theology of Ezekiel: God’s Name and Israel’s History: EBSCOhost.” Accessed July 11, 2019. http://web.a.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=0&sid=58182920-265a-42b2-931a-c8543dd26d31%40sessionmgr4006.

“Commentary on Ezekiel 37:1-14 by Corrine Carvalho.” Accessed July 10, 2019. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1820.

“Commentary on Ezekiel 37:1-14 by Margaret Odell.” Accessed July 10, 2019. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2070.


“Commentary on Ezekiel 37:1-14 by Patricia Tull.” Accessed July 10, 2019. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3200.

“Commentary on Ezekiel 37:1-14 by Rolf Jacobson.” Accessed July 10, 2019. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=39.

Darr, Katheryn Pfisterer. “Ezekiel’s Justifications of God: Teaching Troubling Texts.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 17, no. 55 (September 1992): 97–117.

Picture from The Lion King (at the elephant graveyard)

The Harper Collins Study Bible


The IVP Bible Background Commentary

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