Sunday, April 6th, 2014 – Fifth Sunday of Lent
Scripture: John 11:1-45, Ezekiel 37:1-14
Hymns: “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus”, “Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart”, “Breathe On Me, Breath of God”, “Just a Closer Walk with Thee”
Special Music: “Skin and Bones”, by Foo Fighters
“Skin and Bones”
Let’s take a trip back through time to nearly half a century before the founding of this church – the year 1807, and talk about a young man named Alexander. Alexander was an Irish lad, nineteen years old. The son of a Presbyterian preacher, he had been preparing to follow his father to America, and join him in working with the Presbyterian churches in Pennsylvania, even as he himself studied become a Presbyterian preacher.
As he set sail for America, however, disaster struck. The ship he was on wrecked off the coast of Scotland, leaving him sick and wounded, miles from home and a full ocean away from his destination. Alexander was rescued from the cruel waves of the North Sea and taken to the city of Glasgow. Sick and injured, he began the long process of rehabilitation.
In today’s Old Testament reading, from the prophet Ezekiel, things do not look good for the people of Judea. Beset by war with Assyria and Egypt for well over a hundred years, they had finally succumbed before the might of King Nebechudnezzar and the Babylonian armies. Jerusalem had been sacked, the temple destroyed, and the people marched into exile in Babylon.
Ezekiel fell into a prophetic trance – as the prophets did – and saw a vision of a valley. This was not the first time he had been to this valley, either – in chapter 3, he had visited this valley and come face to face with God, who had ordered him to STOP prophesying to the King of Judea, because the king had wantonly ignored the prophecy that had come both from Ezekiel and from Jeremiah before him, and God was tired of being ignored.
By the time this vision occurred, years had passed, and Judea had been in exile for some time. It must have been something of a surprise for Ezekiel to find himself in this valley once more – and this time, to find it filled with dried out bones. “They were very dry,” verse 2 says of the bones, indicating that they had been there for a VERY long time.
These bones represented the people of Judea and Israel. Both kingdoms in exile, Judea in Babylon with Ezekiel. Israel had itself been a desolate, vacant land for decades at this point, and whatever “bones” were left there would’ve long been picked clean by time. “Mortal, can these bones live?” God asks Ezekiel.
Can these bones live?
No doubt that thought ran through young Alexander’s mind as he convalesced in Glasgow. A shipwreck that leaves you floundering in the icy waters of the North Sea is no laughing matter. Surely he must have wondered if he would ever leave Glasgow, let alone make it to Pennsylvania to work with his father.
But the vigor of youth is a wonderful thing, and so Alexander began to recover, and while he was in Glasgow, he took advantage of the connections that his father had there. His father had done both undergraduate and seminary studies at the University of Glasgow, and so Alexander began the same, fitting in two solid years of studies before attempting the trip to America once more.
In 1809, he set out for the United States again, this time with his mother and their family, and successfully made it to America. United with his father in Pennsylvania, he resumed his studies to become a minister, continuing to feel the call of God on his life. There was just one problem:
During his studies in Glasgow, Alexander had been exposed to the teachings of a man regarded as a saint by some, and reviled as a heretic by others. That man was Martin Luther, and the teachings Alexander had learned from him would forever change the way he viewed ministry.
“Mortal, can these bones live?”
Ezekiel answers God’s question very carefully and wisely, and indeed, in a way that Christians today could well take a cue from. “Lord, only you know,” he says. Imagine, if you will, the various dilemmas with which we are faced from day to day, and think how different the outcome would be if we were to put our decisions to the discretion of God before plunging headlong into our own. It would probably be a better world, would it not?
And that, of course, is part of the point Jesus attempted to make to His apostles when He received word that Lazarus was ill. The apostles wanted to go to Bethany immediately, and when Jesus arrived after Lazarus’ death, He was chastised by Lazarus’ sister, Martha, who said, “Had you been here, he would not have died!” But in this case, rather than leaning on His human wisdom, Jesus had received news that Lazarus was sick – can these bones live? – and had said, “Lord, only you know.”
Of course, for Ezekiel, the Lord DID know – after all, this was a prophetic vision from God. “Prophesy to these bones,” God said to Israel. “Say to them, ‘O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord!”
Prophesy to these bones.
As Alexander began his ministry in Pennsylvania, he saw a church that had become corrupted. However, unlike Jonathan Edwards before him, he did not see this as the result of sinners who had fallen away from God. Instead, he saw it as the result of a hierarchical system that had tasted power, grown hungry for more, and come to the conclusion that only those in power were given the right to lead the church.
Alexander saw things differently. He had been heavily influenced by Luther’s teaching that the church is a priesthood of all believers, and he thus felt that any person who had claimed Christ as their Savior had the right to be a leader of the church, regardless of whether they were ordained. He believed that the Church should engage in what he called the “democracy of the sacraments”, allowing all persons to lead in worship, and more importantly, to lead in and partake of communion – a practice that was in and of itself akin to heresy within the Presbyterian Church.
Alexander was not alone in these beliefs – indeed, he was influenced in them by his own father nearly as much as by Luther. And so it was that in 1811, both Alexander and his father, Thomas, were called before the Orange Presbytery in western Pennsylvania to stand trial for their heresies, were found guilty, and were subsequently stripped of their status as clergy in the Presbyterian Church.
Just a few years removed from nearly dying in a shipwreck, Alexander had been reduced to dry bones once more.
Prophesy to these bones: the Lord shall cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.
Much of the book of Ezekiel revolves around crime and punishment – the crimes of Israel and the other nations around her, and the judgments of the Lord against those nations. For their crimes, for their heresies, for their apostasy, the people of Israel and Judea were cast out from their country, slaughtered en masse by the enemy, left with nothing but the driest of dry bones. And so, this prophecy marks a distinct change in tone for the prophet Ezekiel – he turns away from judgment, and brings forth a message of hope.
“Prophesy to the bones, and they shall live; prophesy to the Spirit, come from the four winds, and breathe into these bones, that they may live.”
The time has come, the Lord says to Ezekiel. The time has come for my glory to be revealed in the land, and for the people to return home from Babylon to Israel. I will breathe my Spirit into these dry bones, and they shall live once more. And indeed, the people would be set free when Cyrus, King of Persia, conquered Babylon and set the people of Israel and Judea free.
So too it was when Jesus arrived in Bethany. Lazarus was by that point three days dead. Wrapped in grave cloths and placed in the tomb, even his sisters, full of hope though they were, looked askance at Jesus when he ordered them to open the tomb. But this was the time for God’s glory to be revealed through Christ, as he performed his greatest miracle to date. With the command of “Lazarus, come FORTH!”, new life was breathed into dry bones, and Lazarus stood and walked forth from the grave.
Breathe into these bones, that they may live.
For Alexander, it would have been easy to simply give up, to call it quits. Surely he must have felt like something was trying to tell him that maybe ministry wasn’t for him – a shipwreck that kept him from reuniting with his father for two years, followed by defrocking as clergy and excommunication from the Presbyterian Church.
And yet, he would not be deterred. His father’s church joined with a local Baptist association in 1812, and Alexander was ordained that same year. However, he declined to identify himself as a Baptist minister, preferring to say that he was simply a Christian minister. “Christian unity is our polar star,” he declared, hoping to someday reunite not just with the Presbyterian Church in which he was raised, but with Christians everywhere.
As the years passed though, Alexander’s dream of Christian unity seemed to grow stagnant. It wasn’t until 1826, when he met a thirty year old Baptist minister named Walter, that the dream began to move forward once more. As Alexander and Walter worked together, they realized that being part of a Baptist association would hinder their ability to work toward Christian unity. And so, separating from the Baptists, they formed an independent group of Christian churches. As Walter rode forth on the American frontier, seeking to bring more churches into this group, Alexander began to work on the logistics for a new frontier of the church – a movement that would have no creed but Christ, seeking to bring unity among the Christian churches.
New life was being breathed into the dry bones yet again.
In Ezekiel’s vision, the bones that he saw were not just bones. As the Lord told him, they represented the whole nation of Israel – a people that had been in mourning ever since they were carried away into exile. “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost,” they lamented. But now, after these years of exile, the Lord spoke to Ezekiel: “I will open their graves and bring them home.”
As I mentioned before, the people of Israel were set free and allowed to go home. It wasn’t the first time this had happened, and it would prove not to be the last. Indeed, when Jesus brought forth Lazarus from the grave centuries later, Israel was occupied by Rome and would within fifty years see the Jewish people exiled from the land once again.
But in Ezekiel’s time and place, God was promising not just to send them home, but to put the Spirit within them. The very words that God spoke to Ezekiel would be echoed by Jesus himself centuries later, as he prepared his own bones for temporary exile from life – the Spirit would come, and the Spirit would be within each of His disciples, Jesus promised them.
And so the dry bones of Israel had life breathed into them once more. So too did Lazarus have life breathed into his dry bones centuries later.
What, then, of no longer quite-so-young Alexander, even centuries after that?
Well, as the Baptist preacher Walter Scott returned from his journeys on the frontier, he reported that many Christian communities were looking to join with this movement of Christians that sought not division based on creeds, but unity based on Christ. It wasn’t long before a Methodist circuit rider by the name of James O’Kelly and a Presbyterian revivalist named Barton W. Stone came into the picture as well, and the movement took its final form.
But it was Alexander Campbell who sought to create a community where all believers could be as Martin Luther had said, each a priest of Christ. It was Alexander Campbell who sought to breathe new life into the dry bones of a church overburdened with hierarchy and corrupted by power. Indeed, it was Alexander Campbell who stood at the head of this movement and dubbed its followers the name which they still claim today – the Disciples of Christ.
As Paul Harvey might have said, now you know the rest of the story.
So remember as you walk in the world today, tomorrow, and each day – in every failure you see, in every defeat, there still remains potential. When you see the dry bones where promise once existed, say to yourself, “Can these bones live?”
Only God knows the answer to that question, but it is God that has granted resurrection from death. It is God that has granted return from exile.
It is God who has breathed new life into these dry bones.