Call to Worship
God of all creation,
There has never been a time, nor will there ever be a time when you are not with us, even though we may be scattered.
We ask you that our time now be a revelation and reminder of how deep and vast is your presence in our lives and in our world. Amen.
Prayer of Confession based on psalm 130
Out of the depths we cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear our voices!
Let your ears be attentive to the voices of our supplications!
If you, O Lord, should mark our iniquities, Lord, who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered.
We wait for the Lord, our souls wait, and in your word, we hope;
Brothers and sisters, hope in the Lord!
For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem.
It is the Lord who will redeem us from all our iniquities.
Forgive us, Lord, all our shortcomings, all our failings, all the times when we have failed to live our lives to your glory.
In your mercy, forgive us and change us, in the name of Jesus Christ our saviour,
Assurance of Forgiveness
The prophet Ezekiel tells us that God says:
I will make a covenant of peace with you;
my dwelling place shall be with you,
and I will be your God. (Ezekiel 37.26-27)
Friends, children of the living God: Be assured you are known, you are remembered, you are forgiven, and you are loved.
Thanks be to God.
Meditation (by Samuel Crossman)
My song is love unknown,
My Saviour’s love to me,
Love to the loveless shown
That they might lovely be.
Oh, who am I
That for my sake
My Lord should take
Frail flesh and die.
Prayers of Intercession
Loving God, at this difficult time, we pray for peace in the world: peace between nations, in villages and towns and in families. We pray for the world leaders to have the wisdom and vision to lead their nations with care. We pray for disadvantaged countries, especially in Africa and the islands of the Pacific and east Indonesia, and we pray for “Act for Peace” and other aid agencies caring for them. In Australia, we pray for people to follow instructions and not be selfish but be supportive of others.
We pray for those who have lost loved ones, those who have lost their jobs and those who are in financial stress. May they find relief and support through various sources. We remember those who have tested positive for the corona virus, that they may experience your healing power. We pray for the medical professionals who put themselves at risk. May they have protection, wisdom and good health. We also pray for a cure and for the development of a vaccine.
We pray for those who need to know your love and grace revealed to us through Jesus Christ. May we all learn to trust you more and may we be guided by your Holy Spirit.
We pray for a good response to Lent Event. We pray for the people of Ambon Island in the Maluku Province, Indonesia, to be lifted up from the poverty and ongoing resentment which began in a Muslim-Christian clash 20 years ago, and we pray for them to recover from the major earthquake of September 2019.
We pray for those known to us who are sick, having treatment, recovering from surgery or in care. May they know your loving and healing presence.
We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.
Ezekiel 37:1-14 (NIV)
37 The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. 3 He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”
I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”
4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! 5 This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. 6 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.’”
7 So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. 8 I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.
9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.
11 Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’”
Breath of new life
It’s Friday morning, and here I am at Carlingford Uniting Church, and it’s really, really quiet. On a normal Friday morning, there’d be a team here wearing our blue shirts and getting ready for our Mainly Music group – opening the hall, setting out furniture, turning the urn on, getting the video and audio ready, moving boxes of toys… Then, from 9:30 on, the families would start arriving – children from 1 to 4 years old and their parents and carers. There’d be chatter of greetings and news exchanged, excitement of seeing one another again, and then the session would begin and the music would start…
But today, it’s silent. As our church building and church buildings have been across Sydney, and throughout Australia, and in fact all around the world have been for a week or more.
Things have fallen silent. Instruments aren’t played. Church bells do not ring out. Candles remain unlit. Doors are locked. The week to week gathering for worship which has gone on here for more than forty years has ceased.
Last week I asked ‘is the end nigh?’ and while the end of the world isn’t nigh, it seems that even if the world isn’t ending, many things as we know it might be. Football matches and horse races were held without crowds last weekend and are now suspended indefinitely, concerts and plays cancelled, Bondi Beach closed. And of course, what we’re doing for church at the moment doesn’t look or feel anything like what we’re used to.
People talk about a ‘new normal’ for our society. It’s hard to see things returning to anything like they were before. If and when restrictions are lifted, we wonder if people will return to concerts? Will they go to the football? Will they come back to church?
Or is it all hopeless? Because sometimes it feels like it might be.
The prophet Ezekiel was given a vision of a valley full of dry bones. It is a scene of desolation and death. The bones are a gruesome image, and a grim reminder of defeat. The bones represent the nation of Israel, carried off to Babylon in captivity.
The bones are scatted in the valley. No funeral. No burial. No headstones. Just scattered bones.
The army is left on the battlefield where it was defeated, and the bones are bleached in the sun. Lifeless, dry bones.
God leads Ezekiel around the valley and so he can have a good look. He then asks the prophet, “Can these bones live?”
Based on what we know about how things work; the answer should be ‘no’. They’re dead. The bones are dry and they’re scatted. CPR is not going to work. A defibrillator isn’t going to make a difference. I get the impression that you couldn’t even identify individual bodies.
But Ezekiel, knowing that nothing is impossible for God answers, “Lord, You alone know.”
Lord, you alone know.
God knows. And God has the power to bring life to those bones. Into those dry and scattered bones.
And strangely God tells Ezekiel to “prophesy” to the bones. We commonly think of ‘prophesying’ as predicting the future, but to ‘prophesy’ is speak God’s word. The work of a prophet isn’t so much as to tell future, but to tell people what God has to say.
So, God tells Ezekiel to speak God’s word to these dry bones. And Ezekiel does, which if you think about it, is a really weird thing to do. Today we often despair at sharing the good news of Jesus with people who aren’t interested, but this is so much more crazy, because Ezekiel begins speaking to people who are dead.
Ezekiel doesn’t question God’s instruction, but prophesies to the bones.
And in that valley of dry bones, Ezekiel gets a response.
The bones lament, they cry out, “our hope is gone; we are cut off” (verse 11).
They’ve been separated from God, and now, through Ezekiel, God reaches out to them.
I think this a good parallel to being human. The end result of being human is dying. And there’s nothing we can do about it. We can socially isolate, and wash our hands, and do regular exercise and eat healthy diets and all the rest of it, but in the end, there’s nothing we can do to stop dying.
But God reaches out to each one of us. Even when there’s nothing that we can do, there’s something God can do – in fact that God has already done.
Paul tells us that apart from God we are spiritually “dead through the trespasses and sins” (Eph 2:1-2). We’re not merely sick, but dead. Only God can raise the dead. Paul assures us that, “when you were dead in trespasses …, God made you alive together with [Christ], when he forgave us all our trespasses” (Col 2:13). On the cross, Jesus took on our sins and died in our place, taking our punishment. But just like those dry bones in the valley that Ezekiel saw, Jesus rose again.
Even as Ezekiel prophesied in that valley, “suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone” (v7) You’ll probably know the old spiritual:
“Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones,
now hear the word of the Lord!
Toe bone connected to the foot bone
Foot bone connected to the heel bone
Heel bone connected to the ankle bone….” and so on.
And then, in verse 8, as he looked at the reassembled skeletons, which was impossible enough, suddenly “there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them;” (37:8)
There wasn’t life in them yet… but it seems a whole lot more possible now.
And God continues to work through Ezekiel, saying to him “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” (37:9)
And again, Ezekiel prophesies as God commanded and we read in verse 10 that “breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.”
Through the power of God, the impossible had been achieved: the valley of the dry bones was alive with the people of Israel.
The fact that the bodies were restored and then the breath of life came in to them echoes the story of the creation of Adam we have in Genesis 2:7 “then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.”
In that valley of death, God brings life. In a time of hopelessness, God brings hope.
One of the things I tend to think about during Lent and Easter is Easter Saturday. I know in churches it’s always about Good Friday and Easter Sunday, with Palm Sunday and maybe Maundy Thursday in distant third and fourth places. But what about Easter Saturday?
If you think about that first Easter, it seemed like it was all over in the afternoon on Friday. Jesus had been tried, taken to Calvary, crucified, died and sealed up in the tomb. All over. Imagine what it was like for Jesus’ followers – their teacher, their leader, their friend, their messiah, their saviour, was dead. All that they hoped for was over. They hid – Jesus had been arrested and killed, they would have been worried that they were next, and they locked themselves away in fear.
They thought that death had won. They thought it had all come to nothing. They thought it was hopeless.
And sometimes, things do feel hopeless, for all of us. All around us at the moment, things seem hopeless. Churches closed. Clubs and pubs closed. Businesses closed and staff laid off. Savings and superannuation invested in the share market decimated. Borders closed. Queues stretching around blocks outside Centrelink offices.
We get despair, don’t we? Here we are, privileged to live in some of the nicest places in one of the best cities in one of the best countries in the world. But despair gets to us.
I understand that at the moment Lifeline is bracing for an increase in depression, and increase in suicide, and an increase in domestic violence.
But no matter how dire our situation, no matter how miserable we may feel, we need to remember that there is hope. But we need to have our hope in the right thing – and not in walls of toilet paper, or vats of hand sanitizer, but hope in Jesus. And not just hope that Jesus will save us, but trust that Jesus, in his death and resurrection, has saved us.
Those scared and hiding disciples on Easter Saturday didn’t understand what was happening, but we can look forward to Easter Sunday, when Jesus conquered death, when Jesus brought new hope and new life into the world.
Like those dry bones in the valley, we can’t raise ourselves. That is the work of the Holy Spirit. God takes the initiative; He doesn’t wait for us to seek Him, but he reaches out to us.
People want God to change their circumstances, to give them health, to give them prosperity, to give them security – but often it’s so they don’t have to change themselves. People complain: “I’ll be content if…,” or “I’ll be happy when….” or “if I can just get through this, I’ll be alright”.
But part of our response to God is to open ourselves to change. Perhaps rather than thinking about what it will take to make us content, we need to think about what we can do to make others content. Perhaps rather than hiding behind a wall of toilet paper rolls, we need to give them to people in need. Perhaps instead of hoarding hand sanitizer to make our own hands clean, we’d all be better off giving it to others to sanitize their hands.
Before Ezekiel’s eyes, the dry bones of that valley become a vast and living multitude, and the message to defeated and captive Israel was clear: God would revive them. They could become a people restored. Even though they were torn from the promised land and spiritually dead, they would live again and return to the land that God had given them.
Sure enough, a remnant did return and rebuild Jerusalem, rebuild the temple and the city wall., but Ezekiel’s vision of physical resurrection pointed to an even greater spiritual resurrection.
Ezekiel’s message was a message of hope to the hopeless. Even of life to the lifeless.
In the previous chapter the prophet writes that God says, “On the day that I cleanse you from all your iniquities, I will cause the towns to be inhabited, and the waste places shall be rebuilt. The land that was desolate shall be tilled, instead of being the desolation that it was in the sight of all who passed by. And they will say, “This land that was desolate has become like the garden of Eden;” (36:33-35a)
It brings to mind images of our own country earlier this year in the aftermath of the bushfires. Great swathes of land destroyed and blackened. We looked at the ashes and the charred remains, and wondered how anything could live there again.
But not long after the devastation there were shoots of green appearing in the blackness of the bush.
And today we look around at our city, at our country, and at our world and wonder how anything will ever be better again.
But we can look to China, and see signs of the situation improving.
Ezekiel’s vision is certainly a strange one. Prophesying to dry and scattered bones. A couple of years ago, I taught school scripture – three year five classes at three different local schools, and it felt like my words were falling on the deaf ears – I guess it felt like I was preaching to dry bones.
In the world’s terms it was a crazy thing to do. But with God, all things are possible: it wasn’t Ezekiel’s words that brought the bones together, it was the power of God. It wasn’t Ezekiel’s prophesy that put life in those bodies, it was the breath – the Spirit – of God.
Our world today might feel to us like a valley of dry bones. A place of death and hopelessness.
But there is hope, and the world, even if it seems beyond saving, can be saved through the power of God’s spirit.
But the lessons for us from Ezekiel’s vision can be much more personal, too.
The organised church in Australia has been in decline for quite some time. Congregations have become more inwardly focused as pressures of membership and finances have mounted. And while there are many exceptions to that, it is the general trend. I read a comment this week that COVID-19 could spell the end of organised religion, and while that’s probably hyperbolic, I get the point.
Might our church – and by that, I mean the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, and I mean the Uniting Church in Australia, and I also mean the congregation of Carlingford Uniting Church, be like the valley of dry bones that Ezekiel saw? Clearly, in many ways, we’re struggling. If we look at things in the way a business would look at things, would we be a hopeless case?
But the church isn’t a business, and although for good reasons we do look at many aspects of our church life in a business-like way, we shouldn’t judge it like a business. The power of the church, the life of the church, doesn’t come from us – although we do get to be part of it – it comes from God.
The dry bones of the valley didn’t join themselves together. They bodies didn’t breathe new life into each other. It was all done by God’s power and God’s spirit.
And even more personal, still: Our lives can easily become valleys of dry bones. Lives which become preoccupied with all the things of the world, lives which are lived apart of God, lives which are preoccupied with accumulating wealth and toilet paper, lives which are spent judging others and blaming others, lives which are spent pushing others down so we can raise ourselves up.
But God has the power to change that, God has the power to bring life to a valley of dead bones, God has the power to bring new life into a land devastated by bushfire, God has the power to breathe new life into his church, and God has the power to raise each one of us up, and empower each one us as his child and a member of his kingdom.
We need God’s breath in our lives. At the moment, it seems like we live day to day in a valley of dry bones with death and despair all around.
But remember that God can and God will, if we open our hearts to him, breathe new life into his world, his church, and each one of us, today and always.
As this time of reflection ends I encourage you to always be confident in the power of God, to breath new life, into our lives and our church.
Know that where ever you are, you are blessed by the father, the son and the holy spirit.
Hymns for this week:
Looking Out: New ways of reaching out
Next Sunday: 5 April, 2020
Theme: What does the Lord need of You? Readings: Mt 21: 1-11
Lectionary Readings for next week:
Is 50: 4-9a, Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29, Phil 2: 5-11, Mt 21: 1-11