Can These Bones Live?

From Rev. Jared Buss
March 15, 2016

Rev. Jared Buss

Olivet New Church; March 13, 2016

 

Our story as human beings begins with us being made out of dust. What does that say about what we fundamentally are? That we’re dust? That on the deepest level we’re something dry and empty? Well, what the Word really says is that we were dust, but we have been made into living beings (Gen. 2:7). And then we were put in Eden, in the garden of the Lord. Our story, as human beings, starts in Eden—a paradise of innocence.

For most of us, these ideas are ancient and symbolic and probably not a present piece of our sense of who and what we are. They probably don’t feature in the stories we tell about ourselves. But the bigger story of humanity as a whole that is outlined in the Word does speak directly to who we are and what we’re here for. It’s just describing a deeper level of ourselves than the ones that we’re usually aware of

And yet, most people do seem to have some sort of idea that we were created to be in Eden. We were created for paradise—or created for heaven, as New Church teaching would put it. In our everyday understanding of things, this probably shows up as a sense that human beings are meant to be happy—that everyone out there deserves to feel fulfilled, that I am “supposed” to feel happy.

And at the same time, most of us know and feel that we were made out of dust. Not always—but in our low states probably all of us have the experience of digging down and down and finding only more emptiness, more barrenness, more that’s dry and joyless. And maybe because we’ve all been to that place, or seen glimpses of it, we’re sometimes afraid of what we’ll find if we really search within ourselves, and so we stay away.

So there’s a tension in our lives—a tension between knowing that we should be happy, and knowing that we’re not happy, at least not all the time, at least not as deeply as we wish we were. So maybe we even feel like failures because we know we’re supposed to be living the dream. Or we ask ourselves, “When am I going to feel the way I want to feel? When am I going to be who I set out to be?” And we feel like we’re fighting to stay true to our sense of ourselves, fighting to hold on; like we’re just on the edge of Eden and we can almost get back, but never quite.

And yet if we look at the story of Word as the arc of our story as human beings, it’s clear that we lost Eden a long time ago. The human race leaves Eden right at the beginning. And if we do dig down within ourselves, and listen to the Lord, and let Him show us where we really are, perhaps what we will find is that we, like Ezekiel, are standing in a valley of dry bones.

The hand of the Lord came upon me and brought me out in the Spirit of the Lord, and set me down in the midst of the valley; and it was full of bones. Then He caused me to pass by them all around, and behold, there were very many in the open valley; and indeed they were very dry. And He said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” (Ez. 37:1-3)

What a bleak vision. What a discouraging picture of our state. Those dry bones represent lifelessness, ugliness and futility, and sometimes we find those things within ourselves. Isn’t that exactly what we hoped we wouldn’t find? Isn’t that what we’ve wished would not be so?

But the Lord didn’t bring Ezekiel to that valley to show him defeat. He brought him there to show him a miracle. The bones in that valley were dry. They were something so dead that they serve as an image of death. They were becoming dust again. And the Lord made them into living beings. The people who had died and left their bones in that valley were created again—they were born again into life.

And this is what we’re here for. This is substance of our story. We’re here to be regenerated. We sometimes use that word—regeneration—in a fairly technical way, as though it means something like, “becoming qualified to enter heaven.” But “generation” means “creation,” or “birth.” We as human beings are in this world to be made again. To rise again from the dust. To have what is dead in us be made into something alive.

We live in the first place because the Lord gives us His life. He made us in His image and likeness, which means we move and breathe because He moves and breathes. And the reason we feel alive—really alive, and not just a shuffling animal—is because He breathed His life into us when He formed us out of the dust.

But the first life in us is borrowed, in a sense. Our first humanity, first innocence, first joy are all borrowed. Really borrowed is the wrong term, because the Lord gave us these things freely and doesn’t expect them back. But they’re gifts we don’t understand, gifts we can’t own or hold onto because we hardly even see them. These are the things that created the sense of magic that we felt as children. Most of us remember that magic, though maybe only dimly. Or maybe there are moments in which we feel it clearly again, but they don’t last. These impressions or memories from the beginning of our life are bound up with the Eden that we long for. But we all know that we’ve left those things behind.

In the Word, the first people live in Eden, and then selfishness creeps in and they disobey the Lord, and they leave Eden, and the story as it goes on from there is much rockier. There are beautiful moments, redeeming moments—over and over we hear the Lord’s promise to His people: “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have spoken to you” (Gen. 28:15). But there are ugly stories too, far more of them than we might wish. Over and over again we hear of murders and adulteries and betrayals, and the Lord’s people again and again stubbornly fail to listen to Him.

And all of this is part of our story, part of what we’ve inherited—the promises and the weaknesses. All of us have acted out some of the evils described in the stories of the Word. Probably all of us can relate to the way that the Lord’s people seem to just get stuck in their destructive patterns, no matter how many times they’re warned “this just won’t work out for you.” We get better, but then we get worse again; we go through cycles without ever seeming to get to where we want to be. And so Eden gets farther and farther away. And maybe as we carry on this way we become a little more and more willing to admit that we’re not what we set out to be. We don’t even see how we can get there anymore. We don’t know how to make ourselves happy. We feel like we’re fighting to keep ourselves alive, but we keep dying.

And at some point, if we’re willing, the Lord takes us to the valley of dry bones. And there we see our defeat—and there we see victory. Being in that valley is a picture of temptation, a spiritual temptation in which we come face to face with what we are without the Lord. And we feel that emptiness; we feel despair. Like the children of Israel in this story we say, “Our bones are dry, our hope is lost, and we ourselves are cut off” (Ez. 37:11). But, as was said in the brief reading from the Arcana, “temptation is the starting point to regeneration” (§848). We can’t leave the valley until we see that we’re already there. We can’t get the Lord’s help until we understand that we need it. But when we’re willing to be carried into that valley, willing to see those ugly, thirsty things that are inside us, willing to let them be what they are and let go of them, then the impossible can happen. When the Lord said, “Can these bones live?” the answer should have been “no” (Ez. 37:3). But Ezekiel answered, “O Lord God, you know” (ibid.). And the Lord knows that they can live. We, who are so stuck in our habits and our patterns, so trapped by our doubts and our fears and the lies we’ve swallowed, are able to change. God created us from dust and He can create us again from death. And the second life that we receive is His alone, but it’s also ours as well, really ours, because we choose to let it in.

The details of the raising up of the bones into new life tell us how we start to really live—how we are regenerated. There are two sections to it: first the Lord tells Ezekiel what will happen (Ez. 37:4-6), and then it actually happens (vv. 7-10). In the first section the Lord explains how He will bring breath into the bones, and then put flesh on them And then in the second section the bones rattle and come together, but the story says that first of all flesh covers the bones, but there is no breath in them (vv. 7-8). And then Ezekiel prophesies to the breath, and breath comes into those people, and they live (v. 10). So the two sections are reversed—in one breath comes first, and then flesh; in the other flesh comes first, and then breath. Breath represents life from the Lord, which is where we begin and end. And it also represents truth, because we need to understand that life comes from the Lord or else we simply cannot turn to Him and take it from Him. Flesh represents our will—that is, our ability to want things and to do things and to feel things. Flesh is the part of our body that moves and that feels the life that is in us.

The first part of our regeneration is about re-shaping our understanding of the truth. In this section the Lord says what will happen, but it hasn’t happened yet—the idea is true but not a reality yet. So this first step is about us accepting the idea that life comes from the Lord—breath comes from the Lord. We may not like that fact. We may wish that our dry bones weren’t such dry bones, but they are what they are and that’s the truth. We can’t cling to them. We need to let the Lord be in our lives, so we need to do what He says, whether we feel like it or not. Otherwise we have nothing. So in this state breath comes first, and then flesh. Just knuckling down and listening to the Lord comes first, and wanting to do so comes second.

But then the bones actually start to be remade into human beings, and this is when the Lord’s life starts to truly be in us as though it belongs to us. His plan for us starts to become real: we become what we were made to be. Flesh covers our bones—which means that we start to actually want to do what is good. We look human now; there’s something soft with us, something loving and living. And then breath comes into our bodies—the breath of life from God, the breath that made us in the beginning. When we love and do what He teaches, then an awareness of His life flows into us—an awareness of how His life is everything. And it doesn’t flow into a bony, reluctant mind anymore. It flows into a beating heart, a willing heart—into a living being whose joy is to live that life.

The valley of dry bones is a hard place. We can spend our whole lives fighting never to be there, and when we get there it will feel like a defeat. It will feel like admitting that something is lost. And something is lost—the life that we would’ve made for ourselves if we could’ve done it our own way is dead. That hope is gone. And when we recognize that there is grief, and also a new and transcendent freedom. We can imagine that if we deny the truth we’ll feel more alive—and then we live a half-life in the shadow of our denial. But if we let the Lord show us what is dead then we can rise above it. In the valley of dry bones we see the Lord make death into life. In the valley of dry bones the Lord shows us what it means to stand on our feet and breathe the breath of God as human beings. The life we’re afraid of losing isn’t life at all, so we have nothing to lose. We lost Eden already. But there is nothing that is dead that cannot be reborn. “For the Lord will comfort Zion, He will comfort all her waste places; He will make her wilderness like Eden, and her desert like the garden of the Lord” (Is. 51:3).

Amen.

 

Readings: Genesis 2:4-9; Ezekiel 37:1-14; Arcana Coelestia §848.


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