5th Sunday of Lent, 2 April 2017
Sutton Montis, Sparkford, West Camel (TeaTime), Weston Bampfylde
He said to me, 'Mortal, can these bones live?' I answered, 'O Lord God, you know.’
How astonishing, Ezekiel's wonderful vision of the valley of the dry bones, dead in the desert, the flesh of God slowly covering them, the breath of God slowly entering them, the Spirit of God bringing them springing and dancing to bold new life - a glorious vision of Israel reborn. It's a remarkable passage of scripture, and it prompts us to wonderfully repeat the question which it asks, with today's world and our lives in mind: can these bones live? In the dead and dried-up places of the world, in the situations which seem most hopeless to us - can these bones live?
Can these bones live: the 16 million people on the brink of starvation and in urgent need of food, water and medical treatment in drought-hit and conflict-torn East Africa?
Can these bones live: the people of Mosul, Iraq, a city devastated by bombing, around 400,000 of them 'trapped' under siege-like conditions as Iraqi forces battle the ISIS for the city's west?
Can God breathe new life into a devastated nation? It's a question which connects the displaced peoples of today with Ezekiel's people, the Israelites deported to Babylon in the year 597BC. That year the Babylonians took Israel's land - which was God's gift to them and a sign of their relationship with God; they smashed Israel's temple - which was not only the place where they worshipped God but was also the sign of God's presence with them; and they exiled Israel's king, Zedekiah, and executed his sons - which brought an end to the monarchy which traced its line all the way back to David and the promise that there would always be a king of his line on Israel's throne. “The fall and destruction of Jerusalem was a catastrophe for Israel for, in that experience, they lost those things which were the basis of their religion and their existence as a people.” 
Everything these people knew and valued had been lost, stripped back to the bone; a community cut off completely from all which had defined them and sustained them. Can these bones live? No wonder that question was in the mind of Ezekiel, looking at the wilderness his people were in, and with them, yearning for the dry bones to live again.
But as we take another look at the passage, a truly remarkable thing emerges about the question we are contemplating today. Who asks the question, “Can these bones live?” Not Ezekiel asking God. It's a question which God asked Ezekiel. Surveying the scene of dereliction and loss in the valley of dry bones, the Lord said to Ezekiel, 'Mortal, can these bones live?'
It is God who gives voice to the question which is on the hearts of all the lost people. Can these bones live? It is God who sees the people's loss, hears their heart's cries, and who longs to help them. It is God who asks Ezekiel for an answer: 'Mortal, can these bones live?'
All God needs is for Ezekiel to respond and then he can set in motion the events which bring help, healing, restoration, resurrection, to the dry bones before them. Ezekiel seems a little lost for words at this point, maybe a little lost for faith, but five small words emerge from his mouth:
He said to me, 'Mortal, can these bones live?' I answered, 'O Lord God, you know.’
That brief exchange is all God needed to start the work of breathing new life into the bones before them. Just a tiny and somewhat tenuous expression of faith from Ezekiel was enough for God to start to use him as the agent for this astonishing transformation. How wonderful for Ezekiel to then know himself caught up deeply in God’s restorative work of bringing breath, life and flesh to those old dry bones.
It always amazes us how God can use the most timid people, the most unlikely people, the people of seemingly little faith, to do great things with him. Ezekiel, an exile wrapped up in the laments and loss of his people, had just enough faith to recognise that if anyone could rescue them, God could; if anyone could breathe life into them, the Spirit of God was the one to do it. And God used him.
God will use audacious people too. God needs us to direct him in his work. God needs us to prompt him to channel the power of the Holy Spirit into restorative actions - into resurrection experiences. Notice how Jesus needed some prompting from Martha, who was angry at Jesus who she believed could have saved her brother Lazarus had he been there at the right time.
Martha said to Jesus, 'Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.' Jesus said to her, 'Your brother will rise again.' 
Martha's angry statement of faith, her bitter expression of belief in the transformative power of Jesus, was her way of asking, “Can these bones live?”
One thing worth noting: just as God had echoed the cries of the people's hearts in the valley of the dried bones, so, standing before his friend Lazarus's tomb, alongside the grieving sisters, Jesus wept.
And then, in the most unexpected and wonderful response to Martha, Jesus brought her brother back from the dead. At his command the Spirit moved. Breath re-entered the body. Decaying flesh healed and re-formed. The bones of Lazarus lived, moved, to dance again.
The story of Lazarus in the tomb and the story of Ezekiel in the valley of the dry bones teach us that in situations of devastating loss and despair God hears the cries of our hearts even before we utter them; that even before we can fully form them God himself brings these cries to the surface. He echoes them back to us. And as we respond by placing our faith in him, he releases his Spirit to revive, resurrect, restore. Through us.
'Mortal, can these bones live?' Can you hear the voice of God still asking that question today, as he casts his loving eye over a world of people at their lowest ebb, as he opens his heart to share in their pain, and as he yearns to find people - like you and me - to release his Spirit into these situations to bring healing and new beginnings?
I dare you to believe that God is always listening to the cries of your heart, always asking you if you believe he can bring new life to the dry-bone situations in the world around you. Always asking you to understand that he wants you to be a channel of his Spirit.
As you meet the man who has just come off the phone to his wife's divorce solicitor, confirming the beginning of the end of his marriage, standing in the wreckage of a relationship gone wrong, God asks you, 'Mortal, can these bones live?'
As you encounter the wheelchair-bound patient, looking with his consultant at a set of x-rays of his shattered pelvis, consequence of an accident at work, considering a future of restricted mobility and joblessness, God asks you, 'Mortal, can these bones live?'
As you witness the great movements of displaced people across the world whose eyes are full of questions about what will happen to them, who will help them, God asks you, 'Mortal, can these bones live?'
One Christian tells another, “I want to ask God why he allows all of this poverty and war and suffering in the world.” And his friend says, “Well, why don’t you ask?” The fellow shakes his head and says he is scared. When his friend asks why, he mutters, “I’m scared God will ask me the same question.” Over and over, when we ask God why all these injustices are allowed to exist in the world, do we feel the Spirit whisper to us, “You tell me why we allow this to happen. You are my body, my hands, my feet.” 
The Christian activist Shane Caliborne says, “When we ask God to move a mountain, God may hand us a shovel. When we throw our hands up at God and say, “Why don’t you do something?”, if we listen closely, we may hear God say back to us, “I did do something. I made you.” 
As Ezekiel looked out on a broken world, God offered him an astonishing vision of restoration, in which he had a role for Ezekiel play. And so from the Babylonian exile to our world today. As we look out on our world, even if we feel we have little faith, or a broken faith, or angry faith, this is what God says: 'O my people. I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live ... then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.'
 Previously preached as Can these bones live? at Sourton, Bridestowe, Lydford in 2011. Then, the ‘dry bones’ were those caught in the crossfire in Libya, and the destitute people of Northern Japan, after the tsunami. Also referencing an 2008 sermon, Ezekiel: voice of the exile.
 Charles R. Biggs, Book of Ezekiel: Epworth Commentary, xii.
 John 11.21-23.
 Shane Claiborne, The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical, p.58, altered.
 Shane Claiborne, The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical, p.365, altered.