This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: Ezekiel 37:1-14
Sermon prepared by Rev. John Kerssies (retired), Stayner, Ontario
Dear People of God in Christ,
A famous evangelist once described the North American church as a “sleeping giant.” This description says that she may look impressive and pompous, but there is little real and genuine spiritual life present. The only sound coming from this pompous organization is a very comfortable snoring sound. It needs a lot of prodding to get such a giant moving and to make any significant difference in the world.
When Jesus instructs his servant John to write letters to the churches of Asia Minor, he directs John to write to the church in Sardis, “These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead.” (Revelation 3:1) The evangelist described the North American church as a sleeping giant, a dormant and somewhat useless organization. However, Jesus called the church in Sardis as being altogether dead; if you will, lifeless. A sleeping giant may be temporarily paralyzed. A dead and lifeless church is already permanently in the graveyard, buried in the earth or at least ready to be buried.
For a sleeping giant to become alive and active all it needs is a good solid prod in the behind and chances are it may arouse from its slumber and get moving, be it ever so slowly. But what can be done about a dead body. Can life again enter into it? In other words, can a dead church be revived? Let’s look today at the passage we read, Ezekiel 37:1-14. Ezekiel, from priestly descent, who was led into exile to Babylon with the people of Judah in 597 BC, speaks here about a Revival in the Graveyard.
Let’s observe that this revival is preceded by a desperate condition. It is also prompted by divine prophecy, and finally it produces a dynamic army. First of all then, revival is preceded by a desperate condition. The Lord displays for Ezekiel a vision of a large valley, in fact, a field where it seems that a vicious battle had been fought. The valley is full of bones, a great many bones, hundreds of thousands of bones. The vision is simply terrible, frightening, and even ghastly.
God says to Ezekiel, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel (verse 11a).” These bones represent the ten northern tribes captured and exiled by Assyria in 722 BC as well as the Kingdom of Judah exiled by Babylon some hundred and thirty-five years later. This entire house of Israel is like a valley full of dead and decaying bones. Its condition is like the church in Sardis Jesus identified as dead, although it had a reputation of being alive. Is this perhaps also a picture of the western church today, perhaps of this church as well?
We notice furthermore that Ezekiel says about these bones that they are “very dry (verse 2b)” The death of the house of Israel was not just a recent occurrence, but this death had a long history. These bones have been out in the open blistering sun for a long time and all the marrow and life sap had been drained from them. This is a picture of utter hopelessness and desolation. This is how the people of Israel felt about themselves – hopeless. And, in fact, that is how God himself judges them – hopeless. The question becomes pressing: Is there then not any hope for them? Is any kind of revival out of the question? For Israel? For the church today? For us? When God’s people find themselves in a hopeless situation, does that mean that all hope is lost? Can revival still come? The answer is “Yes!” but not from our side, but from God’s side.
Secondly, we notice from Ezekiel 37 that this revival is prompted by divine prophecy. Although everything looks hopeless from a mere human perspective, God is not yet finished with his people. God begins by posing a question to Ezekiel as the prophet overlooks this valley full of dry bones. The question is, “Son of man, can these bones live?” (Ezekiel 37:3) What a strange question! Sounds preposterous! However, implied in this question, it seems, is that God is far from satisfied with Israel’s (and our) desperate condition and situation. God has a desire for revival. This desire constitutes the very heartbeat of God. Just like God does not want anyone to perish in their sinful state, so he does not want his people to continue to become a lifeless and useless collection of dead and dry bones. So, Ezekiel, what do you say, “Can these bones live?”
The prophet is very careful in answering this question. His answer does not convey a measure of boundless optimism by saying, “Of course, these bones can live!” Neither is the answer one of downright pessimism: “No, Lord, dead is dead is dead. It just can’t be done.” Ezekiel answers, “O Sovereign Lord (all-mighty, all-powerful), you alone know.” That is, “I know that with you, Sovereign Lord, there are no impossibilities. You can make the humanly unthinkable and impossible possible. You spoke the word in the beginning and creation came into being. You led the people of Israel through the impossible to cross Red Sea. In the wilderness you provided bread from heaven and water from a hard rock. With you, Lord, everything is possible. Even dead and dry bones can live. Just say the word.
Then God says to Ezekiel, “You say the word: Prophesy! Prophesy to these bones and prophesy to the wind.” Just repeat what I tell you to say, no more and no less. Just act in obedience to the voice of the Lord. That’s still the task of the preacher today. Speak the word of God! Preaching is not just telling interesting and captivating stories, although at times stories have their proper place. Preaching is not lecturing on some dogmatic truth. Preaching is speaking the word of the Lord, echoing what God says!
And that’s what Ezekiel did, plain and simple. In verse 7 we read, “So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise....” As a result of Ezekiel’s preaching, something happens. There is movement in these lifeless bones. All as a result of faithful and simple prophecy! Jonathan Edwards is known for being God’s instrument in the Great Awakening in the 1700’s in North America. He was not known as a great rhetorical orator. In fact, it has been told that he read most of his sermons he had carefully crafted in his study. But what an amazing result! Parishioners, staunch Puritan Calvinists, would be so convicted of their sins that they would weep and lay prostrate in the church’ aisles, broken and humbled before God! This all happened because of the power of the prophetic word of God.
Finally the revival God would bring to Israel would produce a dynamic army. The revival as prophesied by Ezekiel occurs in three stages: from bones to bones, from bones to live beings, and from live beings to a mighty army. The first stage is from bones to bones. When God commanded Ezekiel to prophesy, he must have felt a bit silly. Speaking to dead bones is like preaching to empty pews. However, when Ezekiel proclaimed, “Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord,” there was a noise, a rattling sound, “and the bones came together, bone to bone. I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them.” So the bones became corpses, but still dead, for the prophet adds, “But there was no breath in them.” (Ezekiel 37:7-8)
The second stage is that the still dead bodies become live beings. God said to Ezekiel, “Prophesy to the breath … and say to it, “This is what the Sovereign LORD says: ‘Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe into these slain, that they may live.” The breath, the wind is the Spirit of God. It’s just like we read in Genesis 2:7, “The LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” Only the Holy Spirit can enter his breath into dead corpses and make them live.
And there is still a third stage: from live beings to a mighty battalion. “So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet – a vast army.” That once mighty army which bones were scattered on the huge battlefield is once again revived and restored. “Like a mighty army moves the church of God!”
It is all so overwhelming. As a result of Ezekiel’s prophetic preaching the graveyard comes to life. God has done the humanly unthinkable. The impossible has become a reality. What once was described as DOA, dead on arrival, has now become alive and vibrant with every pore of its being.
What’s the meaning of this strange but captivating passage of Ezekiel 37? First of all, Israel by God’s mercy did undergo a mini revival some years after Ezekiel spoke these prophetic words to the exiles in Babylon. First under the leadership of Zerubbabel and later under Ezra and still later under Nehemiah the exiles were allowed to return to Judah. They rebuilt the temple and later under Nehemiah’s direction they rebuilt Jerusalem’s city walls. Temple worship was restored and the Mosaic laws were once again read, copied, and followed. It was a revival indeed. There was again feasting and joy. When the foundation of the new temple was laid, so Ezra 3 reports, “the priests in their vestments and with their trumpets and the Levites with cymbals, took their places to praise the Lord, as prescribed by David, king of Israel. With praise and thanksgiving they sang to the Lord: ‘He is good; his love to Israel endures forever.’ And all the people gave a great shout of praise to the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid.” (Ezra 3:10-11)
However, some four hundred years later, the scene looked quite different. Although temple worship still continued in a brand new temple built by Herod the Great, dead formalism had set in. The bones had become bodies, but there was no spirit in them. By the time of Jesus, religious skeletons by the name of Pharisees and religious teachers of the Mosaic laws were walking around in Jerusalem. This is how Jesus described them: “Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces. Woe to you, because you are like unmarked graves, which men walk over without knowing it." (Luke 11:44)
Ezekiel prophesied to such lifeless bodies, such religious skeletons, such unmarked graves, “Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe into these slain, that they may live.” And on the Day of Pentecost the four winds came, the Breath of the Holy Spirit swept through the temple halls and a heavenly fire erupted and those who had been dead before came to life again. On that first day of Pentecost no less than 3000 persons received this new life from the Spirit of God. Revival had happened in the graveyard.
Can it still happen today? Is genuine spiritual revival still possible for dormant and sleeping giants? Is new life still possible for Sardis-like dead churches? Can Jonathan Edwards-like preaching still cause spiritual awakening in our day? Let me answer this question by quoting the Lord’s answer to Abraham found in Genesis 18 after Sarah laughed at what she thought was a ridiculous suggestion for her to have a child at age of nine-nine: “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” (Genesis 18:14)
Before his ascension into heaven Jesus told his disciples to “wait for the gift my Father promised, which you heard me speak about.” (Acts 1:4) That is an extremely tall order, for all prayer is difficult and waiting for an answer is even more challenging. But we are to wait, for to wait is to pray, to pray fervently, and to keep on praying until the Breath of God comes upon us with mighty Pentecostal power. Amen.
Order of Worship
God Gathers Us for Worship
Welcome and Announcements
Call to Worship: Psalm 98:1
Opening Song: PsH # 174:1
Songs of Praise: “This Is the Day” PsH #241
“Come, Thou Almighty King” PsH #246
We Are Reconciled to God
Prayer of Confession
God’s Assurance: 1 John 1:8-10
Guide for Grateful Living: Philippians 2:1-11
Song of Response: “Have Thine Own Way, Lord” PsH #287
We Hear the Word of God
Prayer for Illumination
Scripture Reading: Ezekiel 37:1-14
Sermon: “Revival in the Graveyard”
Prayer of Application: “Father, we yearn for genuine spiritual revival. Breathe on us your mighty Pentecostal Spirit. Do it today! Amen.
We Respond to the Word of God
Hymn of Response: “The Spirit Came as Promised” PsH #418
We Depart to Serve the Lord
God’s Blessing: “May the grace of our Lord, Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be and abide with us all. Amen.”
Doxology: “God, the Father of Your People” PsH # 322