Carried by the Spirit of God, the prophet Ezekiel was set down in the midst of a valley full of very many, very dry bones.
Burned bones, hang in a hot spot of their own making with apparently no solid frame of reference, lay shimmering in the heat. They represented the house of Israel. God surely intended them to be up on their feet and ready to go, a functioning part of his “exceedingly great army.” He desires a high state of combat fitness for all of his soldiers.
There is a war to be won, and God has raised the standard and set the battle in array. We sing hymns about it, like, “Fight the good fight with all thy might”—the “good” fight of the conflict between good and evil. Those who know God are supposed to be out there in the thick of things.
Why is it, then, that today we see many “bones” lying around in visionless valleys, mere shadows of all they were meant to be? How can we explain the fact that spooky saints are haunting our churches, frightening away the curious inquirer with their rattling religiosity? If we want to discover “the bare bones of this matter,” we have to ask ourselves: What was the matter with the bones?
First, the bones were very dry; second, they were very depressed; third, they felt pretty desolate (Ezek. 37:11). But God said to the bones, “Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live” (v. 5).
We must never confuse numbers with blessing. There came a time in the ministry of one pastor when he became very self-satisfied. His church was growing, and more and more people were becoming involved in the activities. But without realizing it, he had begun to confuse numbers with blessing. The situation was deceiving. As he was driving home one day, he passed the town cemetery and noticed that it was also growing. He began asking himself some hard questions; he wondered if his big, bustling church was simply a brimming boneyard. He decided that from that point on, he would not confuse numbers with blessing.
We must not confuse busyness with blessing, either. There may be busy little Bible-believing bones gyrating all over our churches, but as far as active duty and fighting in God’s great army are concerned, they have been absent without leave. For too long they have wasted time, talents, and opportunities.
It isn’t a question of how many committed committees we have operating, but rather how many committed Christians we are producing. Are we so busy planning church picnics, women’s day outings, or arguing about the color of the new church carpet that we have little time or energy left to teach people how to pray and study the Bible? Are we running around in evangelical circles thinking up new ideas for popular programs that will entertain our people and keep them coming, or are we motivating folk to minister and serve one another? Do we want to keep people happy or make people holy? This is not to say that holiness is not happiness, for holy means whole, full, fat, and satisfied.
Sinews and flesh are supposed to give substance to our spiritual frame. A skeleton is a permanent nucleus ready to be filled up with vegetable matter. As believers responsibly do their part, eating the spiritual food that God has prepared for them, they will begin to shape up.
Those who profess to know the Bone Maker and claim to have received his life must make choices. But it is this very freedom of choice that is the problem, for it is here that the “will of God” meets the “won’t of man.” “Why will ye die?” Jehovah inquired of Israel as they wasted away to nothing. Having willfully neglected their relationship with God and with his Word, the people of Israel admitted they were suffering from a chronic case of spiritual malnutrition.
It is a sin to refuse the diet that God so graciously provides. He sets our spiritual table Sunday by Sunday. He also lays it daily in the dining room of our souls.
Anorexia nervosa is an illness described by a British physician, Sir William Gull, as a “disease of the rich and privileged, a nervous consumption.” He describes the victim as “a skeleton only clad with skin, and the chief symptom that of severe starvation leading to a devastating weight loss—and this in the midst of plenty.” The outstanding feature of this problem is a “relentless pursuit of excessive thinness on behalf of the patient. Anorexics are defiant and stubborn people,” Gull writes.
I once lived within a mile of a Bible school. Week after week, men of God took the Word of God and explained it to the students. I was free to have it all explained to me as well, since my husband was on the staff at the school. It was a case of feast or famine. Being in a stubborn and rebellious mood, I chose famine. Pursuing excessive thinness, I developed a chronic case of spiritual anorexia—a disease of the wealthy and privileged. Even though God had shown me kindness, watched over my spirit, and prepared a banquet of rich spiritual fare well within reach, I deliberately lay down to die in a desert of my own making. It was not a wilderness of inactivity, either, because while I was losing weight I was working out. I was busy, but bony.
The frightening thing about anorexia is the mind-set a person cultivates. Stubbornly to refuse nourishing food for whatever reason is a totally self-destructive course—one you would think would be too painful to pursue. In the end, it takes a radical change of mind to turn the corner and choose to be a healthy, whole person instead of a bag of bones. In my case, I just got tired of being chronically hungry in the midst of plenty and decided to swap busyness for blessedness.
But what is the answer for our churches? How can the dry bones littering some of our churches be transformed? Part of the responsibility must be laid at the feet of our pastors. When God begins to work, the preacher will often be the first one he rattles. As pastors respond in obedience, they earn the right to apply the Word to others.
It is time to look at Ezekiel, who was certainly not a skeletal sort of saint. Somewhere along the line he had been captured. He chose to let the Bone Maker get a good grip upon his life, for “the hand of the Lord was upon him.” Once grasped by God he was well on the way to grasping for himself the reason for which he had been grasped by God in the first place. He got to know God, feasted at his table, and obeyed his call.
Having been captured by the Lord, Ezekiel was carried by the Spirit into the middle of the valley of dry bones. I am sure that had he been consulted, he would have suggested many other places of service to the Almighty as being far more appropriate. But he was not consulted, he was carried.
I remember similar situations when I cannot recall being consulted, just carried. One particularly dry and dusty valley in England comes to mind. The church buildings were pretty—but what good was that when they were pretty empty? Here and there a few people nodded in the pews. Most of my neighbors were aged, while I was young. I felt very much the way Ezekiel must have felt when he heard the Lord say, “Preach to the bones!”
I thought of what God had asked Ezekiel: “Son of man, can these bones live?” And like Ezekiel, I could not help but answer, “Lord, thou alone knowest.” Somehow I did not believe they could—not these bones. My neighbors were a generation away from regular church attendance. The local pastors had lost heart, and who could blame them?
I remember a wizened little old lady telling me that a new preacher had come to her congregation. She didn’t know what to make of him. “If you ask me, he’s a bit too religious,” she commented wryly. I perked up my ears at that, because he didn’t sound like the last two preachers, who had not been religious at all. I found out to my delight that this young man had been captured by the Lord and carried by the Spirit and set down in our midst. I was so excited. Now, surely, God would bring life into our valley.
But the young pastor soon grew discouraged and became part of the heap of dry bones. It was not long after he had arrived that he left, and I realized anew what a desolate place this was. But I couldn’t leave; this was our home. This was our village and these were “my bones.” The first step of “blessing of the bones” was to believe that God had carried me by his Spirit into that particular valley, set me down “in the midst of them,” and commanded me and nobody else to “preach to them.” Stuart, my husband, was away most of the time and could not do it. The preacher had left because he would not do it. And that left me. I realized the blessing of the bones would have to begin with my own blessing.
After the Lord’s servant had been captured and carried, he was commanded to preach. Some do it better than others, of course, for spiritual gifts are involved. But every Christian can pass on a message to some dry bones. The word preach means to tell forth plainly, and anyone can do that with practice. All we have to do is find out just what we are supposed to say and then say it.
We need not worry about it, either. God told Ezekiel exactly what he wanted him to say, and his methods have not changed. He promises to direct our words and also to look after the results. He does not tell us to get down on our hands and knees and rattle the bones into shape. Rather, he commands us simply to listen to his Word and then to communicate it.
After a time there was a shaking and a moving in our valley in England, and the bones began to stand up. The 5 “little old ladies” in my Bible class grew to 80. What’s more, they were no longer spiritually famished, but fat. They marched around bearing witness to God’s resurrection power. For example, one shared with a terminally ill friend how Christ had taken away her own fear of death. Over the following months, these women shared their new experiences with anyone who would listen. It was not long until the sound of an awakening was heard in our valley.
I have often been told by the organizing committee of evangelistic meetings that “this city is a very dead place; it is desolate.”
“Great,” I reply, “let’s go and preach to the bones.”
No doubt many pastors feel dry and depressed. They have lost their confidence; they feel cut off from the Bone Maker. They need to let God’s hand grip them anew and to consider again the call that “carried” them to their place of service in the first place. They also need to ask themselves what it was God commanded them to do. What was the message he asked them to preach?
In their frustration, some pastors resort to entertainment, or to some modern manipulative method to set the “fractured fragments of bones” into place. With some kind of fake finagling they try to get at least a slight rattle from the “rows of ribs” that face them Sunday by sad Sunday. But they need to start again and ask God what he wants them to do and to say.
In addition, it is absolutely essential to pray. The prophet Ezekiel was not only commanded to preach but also to pray: “Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.”
In the end, we will have to learn to call upon the Spirit of God. We can stick it out in dry desperation. We can preach faithfully week afer week and even see the sinews and the flesh start to fill in the frames of the people. We can certainly begin to feed them faithfully. But in the end, we will need to know what it is to pray with power.
Some changes, however, will have to occur before the wind blows. The complaint of the dry bones as they lay in their desperate condition was, “We are cut off.” Feeling unconnected with God and with each other, they confessed that sins and offenses had come between.
An offense is the art of hurting someone else. Have we offended another? Have we been contentious? Did we pick a fight? Do we know that we are a bone of contention with God? God does not like some of the things we have done and said. He wants us to come together “bone to bone,” to say that we are sorry, and to start again. He wants us to write that letter or make that phone call. I am well aware that this sort of behavior will cause a considerable uproar as a “rattled bone” tries to make amends. Perhaps there will be much shaking and quaking until we come together, but come together we must if God is ever to bring renewal. How can there be blessing if we are out of fellowship with a connecting bone?
I remember being responsible for a youth work and suddenly becoming aware that my coleader seemed distant. I realized I must have offended her, but I had not the remotest idea of how or why. You would think it would have been the easiest thing in the world simply to ask her what I had done, but it wasn’t; it was the hardest.
First, I did not want to ask because I really didn’t want to hear her answer. I knew the Bible verse that said, “faithful are the wounds of a friend,” but being very fond of myself, I did not like wounds. Why ask for trouble? Surely it would be best to pretend I hadn’t noticed anything was wrong, and then hope things would work out right. They seldom do, of course, and this situation simply deteriorated until the atmosphere between us fairly crackled.
In the end, I plucked up courage to ask her if something was wrong. Usually we won’t say, “Have I hurt you?” or “What’s wrong with me?” Instead we ask, “What’s wrong with you?” My faithful friend told me she had been offended by my bossy manner. I was able to say how sorry I was. It was not my authority she resented, but my attitude. As our “bones” came together, we could work in harmony again.
There is little that is more painful than having a bone out of joint. Dislocated bones must be set in proper relation to each other if normal activity is to continue. In the church, as the bones come together and find their place in the body, the feeling of isolation is also dealt with. Bone needs bone: we cannot do without one other. When we are truly connected, our gifts are detected and we are elected to the right spot. The jaw bone has to rest on the neck bone; the leg bone must lend its support to the foot bone. Then the whole body can begin to take shape and get moving.
Again, prayer is absolutely necessary. Think about the bones Ezekiel saw in the valley. After he prophesied as God had commanded, there was a rattling and the bones came together. There they lay, beautifully set in order at last, held together by sinews, fat with flesh, and covered with skin. But it was still only a valley full of corpses: “There was no breath in them.” Everything had come together—but to what purpose? There was no life yet in their frames, no spirit, no liveliness. Then Ezekiel prayed, for he knew the Spirit of God would have to quicken those bodies.
Do we know how to call for the breath of blessing? Many churches do not resemble boneyards full of bones so much as caverns full of corpses. Perhaps the Word of God has been preached faithfully, and perhaps the substance has been given; the flesh and the sinews have gone up and skin covers the whole. We may even be correctly connected to one another. But there is no life. Notice what happened when Ezekiel prayed: “The breath came into them, and they lived, and stood upon their feet, an exceedingly great host” (37:10).
We know that God is against dry, dusty, depressed, disintegrating disciples. He would not have us so, for Jesus Christ came to tell us personally that he wants us to have life, and to have it more abundantly. He wants to bend the brittle bones with the breath of his blessing. He wants to bring renewal to us all.
Jill Briscoe, a native of Great Britain, is a homemaker and pastor’s wife who lives in Brookfield, Wisconsin. She is the author of a number of books, and is also engaged in a speaking ministry. This article was adapted from a message given at the 1981 American Festival of Evangelism in Kansas City.
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