RPM, Volume 19, Number 16, April 16 to April 22, 2017

Dry Bones — Anyone Can Do It

Ezekiel 37:4

By Reverend Mr. David Meredith

If you have your Bible, please would you open it at Ezekiel, chapter 37, a famous passage, the valley of dry bones. Let me just read one verse. You know the passage well.

"Then He said to me, 'Prophesy to these bones, and say to them, 'Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.' This is what the sovereign Lord says to these bones, 'I will make breath into you and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you, and cover you with skin. I will put breath in you and you will come to life; then you will know that I am the Lord.'"

Let me take you to two valleys...perhaps even time for three valleys.

The first valley is the jungle of West Papua, New Guinea, and it is a home to the Yali people.

The Yali people in the 1960's were described almost as a Stone Age tribe, an incredibly primitive civilization living with a cannibalistic society...into child sacrifice — Peace Child, a famous book there, emerges from that particular culture of the Yali people. They lived in fear of themselves; they lived in fear of evil spirits.

In the 1960's missionaries went to the Yali people. They translated the word of God, and the word of God transformed that people. From a culture of death there emerged a culture of life; from people living in fear of one another, they began to fear the Lord and knew the beginning of wisdom. And that's all because someone brought the Bible into that valley. It was a valley, spiritually, of dry bones, and it heard the word of the Lord.

Last week I wondered what has happened to the Yali people, so again I did the famous Google search and wondered what was going on amongst the Yali. And I read there a travel blog. Some student was traveling in West Papua, and he met the Yali people and he wrote this:

"In fact, when you look at the valley more seriously, there's something rather repulsive about watching these well-funded missionaries from places like the U.S., Germany, and Australia busily destroying one of the last traditional cultures on earth. Still there is hope. As recently as the mid-80's the Yali people caught and ate a missionary."

Isn't that so typical of the liberal elite? Listen to what they say: "...Busily destroying one of the last traditional cultures on earth." You know, there were these guys happily sacrificing their children, and these missionaries came and they stopped these nice folk from doing that to one another.

What we have here is when God comes into a situation, He does not bring death, He brings life. So that's the first valley, one valley of dry bones which heard the word of the Lord.

The second valley is Ezekiel's valley.

Now, I have preached to some strange people in my day (present company excluded), I have to say! There are some places in Scotland where I will preach to three people, and it's not unusual for these three people to fall asleep during the sermon. I could probably come back and pronounce the benediction and they would not notice the difference! But here we find this incredible congregation. The prophet Ezekiel has been brought by the Spirit of God into this valley, and God tells him to preach to a crowd of dry bones.

Now, Ezekiel was a fascinating character. We saw last night the call of Isaiah into the mission field. This, in a sense, is Ezekiel's introduction into the mission field. Ezekiel was a minister to a church in exile. The people in exile didn't really care. They were intimidated by the surrounding culture. It was a Babylonian culture. It seemed so relevant, it seemed so in-touch. Compared to the religion of Jehovah, they thought that the Babylonian culture was "hip and happening." They thought that their own religion had lost power. And so Ezekiel was ministering to a culture which had lost faith and confidence in the power of God.

Now back home in Judah things weren't much better. They said "the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord...." They were a building-based people. They were living in past nostalgia. They were living on the assets of the past, and they also had forgotten the power of the living God.

But in the midst of all this there was one man who was different: this man Ezekiel. Now, it wasn't that he was a natural optimist. "Y'all" are a nation of optimists. That's why I love coming to the USA, because the grass is always green, the bottle is always half-full. You've got this pioneer mentality "We can do it!"

The other day my luggage got lost. Northwest ("Northworst", they call it) — they lost the luggage, and the lady said, "I don't know what we can do." I said, "Madam, your nation put the first man on the moon! You can get a suitcase from Memphis to Atlanta." She said, "Consider it done, sir!" That's how you get an American to be motivated. You say, "You are an American! You can do it!" And they will say, "Yes, sir, we can."

Now I don't think Ezekiel was an American. He probably was not. But this thing that he had was not natural optimism. After his experience in chapter 37, what fueled him was not a "can do" mentality, and that's not the only thing that can fuel you in missionary service. What he had was a "can do" mentality baptized by the Spirit of God. Not superficially, but one which emerged from this vision which God gave him. So this afternoon let's look at Ezekiel 37, and let's notice about the spiritual vision, let's notice two or three things.

I. Number One: Spiritual life comes when we admit the presence of spiritual death.

Spiritual life comes when we admit the presence of spiritual death. God brought him into this valley, and the language suggests that God wanted him to see the reality. Brought him into the middle of the valley, and it was full of bones on the floor of the valley...bones that were very, very dry. So God wants him to see the situation as it is. And that's what we want in mission, whether it's Mission to Jackson, whether it's mission to wherever we go. (Someone here is from LSU. I was told that LSU campus is the most dangerous mission field in the whole world — you become Tiger bait immediately when you go in there!) Wherever you go, it is absolutely essential to recognize the desperate nature of the situation.

Now, you don't have to be a grade-A student from the school of the prophets to get the picture. God said to Ezekiel, "What do you see here?" Unburied bones in that culture was a sign of God's wrath and God's curse, and here Ezekiel sees that the people of God are portrayed as dead bones. Now that is a contradiction in terms...the people of God portrayed as dry bones. That just "ain't right." There's something wrong here.

And so it is, I hope, in First Pres Jackson. I sincerely hope that you all are not a valley of dry bones. And perhaps that's where the third valley is. Maybe there is someone here this afternoon who is experiencing a dry-bones situation in their own lives. They feel dry; they feel that God has abandoned them. And God is saying to all of us 'I don't do dry bones. The people of God are living people.'

And so He took Ezekiel on this journey. And of course, He said to Ezekiel, "Can these bones live?" And I love Ezekiel's reaction. It is "Lord, You alone know." Now, the scholars say that Ezekiel was bowing to the sovereignty of God. "Lord, You alone know." I would come in with a different interpretation. I think Ezekiel said 'Absolutely no way. Can these bones live? No.' I like Ezekiel's reaction. It is honest.

I think there are two lessons that we can take out of that. The spiritual life comes when we admit the presence of spiritual death.

But first let's list the folly of baseless optimism: you know, the situation that says 'everything will come all right in the end.' You know, you're in some situation in Mexico, you're in some situation in Tibet, and somewhere in Italy or France, and you read some book that says that technique Number "A" will fix everything. The strategy will work. This exposes the arrogance of human calculation. What strategy can make dry bones live?

And friends, that is one of the first keys in missionary service, to realize that the job is absolutely impossible. How do you grow a church in Salt Lake County? How do you grow a church in Tibet? You look at it, and it's exactly like this, and the last thing you want is the folly of baseless optimism.

The second thing we see here, however, practically, is that often it's the valley that's the place of vision. One of my favorite books, I don't know if it's known to this congregation, is The Valley of Vision, edited by Arthur Bennett. And to me it's a tremendous book, a book of Puritan prayers. My favorite is the first one. I don't even think it's a Puritan prayer. I think it's Bennett's own prayer. He says

Thou hast brought me to the valley of vision,
Where I live in the depths but see thee in the heights;
Hemmed in by mountains of sin I behold thy glory.
Let me learn by paradox
That the way down is the way up,
That to be low is to be high...
That to wear the cross is to wear the crown,
That to give is to receive,
That the valley is the place of vision.

Ezekiel had to come into that point of absolute dependence on God. He had to be brought to the valley to see the height and majesty of God.

God will transform. That's what He does. Ephesians 2:1 — "As to you," He says to the Ephesians, "you were dead in your trespasses and sins." Spiritual life comes when we admit the presence of spiritual death.

II. But, secondly, spiritual life comes when we seize the instruments that God provides.

What are we to do with these dry bones? This is where the passage becomes absolutely ridiculous from a human perspective. God says, "Prophesy to the bones." Now I love verse 7, that laconic comment, "So I prophesied as I was commanded."

That's what you do! You simply do what God says. "So I prophesied as I was commanded." No hype, no conjuring trick with bones, just speak. And as he spoke, the living power of God was sent to these dry bones. As he prophesied, as he spoke God's word into that valley, an amazing thing happened.

Now here we see a great mystery. God could bring the bones to life without us but He uses us, and that's one of the great thrills of missionary service. God says 'Come with Us, come with Me, I want to use people [like you and me]. I could do it on My own; I could use anything I want to bring the bones alive, but I want you to prophesy to the bones.'

And all Ezekiel does is speak the word of God. Evangelism is not measuring the results. Evangelism is sowing the seed. Let God do the work!

I remember at school in Scotland, all the kids did this science experiment at school with a yogurt carton and a seed. And we planted the seed — I don't know what the plant was — and I got home and every half hour I would go to the yogurt carton and dig it up and see if the seed had grown! And that's what we're like so often. We are constantly thinking that the results are the thing that matter, whereas God says 'No, prophesy to the bones. I'll look after the results. That's what I do, that's who I am. You are simply obedient to what I say.'

And when he spoke (verse 10), the breath came into them. But he did something else. Not only did he prophesy to the bones, God said to him 'Now what I want you to do is I want you to prophesy to the winds (verse 9), and say to it 'Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.'

Now, those of you who are Hebrew scholars will know that the Hebrew word for wind is ruach. The Hebrew word is exactly the same as that for spirit. So what we have here are the two instruments which God provides for missionary work: We speak to the bones on behalf of God, and we speak to God on behalf of the bones. It is not rocket science. We proclaim God's word to those who are spiritually dead, and we speak to God in prayer. (And it was wonderful...the mission faculty had a prayer meeting on Wednesday at lunch time, and it reminded me of when I was in Korea a few years ago, just everybody praying at once, the room filled with people praying. And God wants to hear the prayers of His people. Will you pray for the missionaries?)

Patrick Johnson wrote a book, The Church is Bigger Than We Think. He tells a story in that book of his wife, the late Jo Johnson, and she had a group of kids. And it was during the time when Communism held force in Albania, and her children had a prayer meeting and they prayed specifically for Albania. And when the Communistic wall was coming down, one of the kids said, "Jo, we brought the gospel to Albania." Yes, that's true: Speak to the bones on behalf of God, and speak to God on behalf of the bones.

The cry is, I hope, from this church "Come, Holy Spirit, come." I love the hymn of Isaac Watts,

"Come, Holy Spirit, heavenly dove,
With all Thy quickening powers.
Come shed abroad the Savior's love,
And that shall kindle ours."

This is simplicity itself. That's the wonderful thing about mission. Anyone can do it, if they know God! They can simply speak God's word into the dry bones.

One of the best books on Ezekiel, apart from Derek Thomas's book, God Strengthens, is a book by an OMF missionary called Dennis Lane. I think it's A Cloud in the Silver Lining. Dennis Lane was a missionary in Asia for many years. He said this:

"Evangelism that makes no impact in the roots of a person's life and litters the scene with half-nourished people who have not so much as heard that there was a Holy Spirit, yet own experience His creative power in their lives."

In Ezekiel 37 word and Spirit come together as they ought to, and people go on in the Lord as they were found of the Lord. That's how the way you evangelize is absolutely crucial. One of the curses of missionary endeavor today is superficial evangelism. One of the great curses of our world is a mere flip and dry decision-ism. Here the word of God came in great power.

What we see here is a parallel to creation itself. Adam was created and his body was filled with life. Dear friends, I cannot think of anything more wonderful than being involved with God in the valley of dry bones.

Yesterday afternoon I found my favorite place in Jackson, apart from being with you all here - Starbucks in Barnes & Noble! I was sitting down there and to my left-hand side of me was a section about how to manage your money and how to plan for your retirement. If you are thinking of retiring, don't even go there! Remember there is a world out there. Whether you are beginning your life or whether you are in the last quarter, wherever you are, God has great mission. Yes, there are valleys of dry bones, but His word is still powerful and His Spirit is still living.

Let's bow our heads. Let's pray.

Our gracious Father, we pray that we would know the power of the Spirit of God coming among us. We thank You for what Ezekiel experienced, and may we have hope in the gospel. Thank You for the dear people gathered here this afternoon. Thank You for the missionaries all over the world. We've been thinking today of South America and Mexico; we've been thinking of Malawi and Uganda in Africa; we think of the valley of dry bones in different parts of the USA. Help us to know and be encouraged that the battle is the Lord's. Help us not to be neutral by-standers, but help us to be involved in speaking the word, speaking to the bones in behalf of God, and speaking to You, O Lord, on behalf of the bones. Bless us now, and be with us. Amen.

©2013 First Presbyterian Church.

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