A New Beginning (Ash Wednesday Service)
Topic: Prophecy & The Season of Lent Scripture: Ezekiel 37:1–37:14
A New Beginning Ezekiel 37:1-14 March 1, 2017 Pastor Matt Wilcox I’m convinced that Ash Wednesday is one of the toughest services to offer a message for. Unlike other significant days in the season of Lent, like Good Friday or Easter Sunday, Ash Wednesday doesn’t have a biblical event to match with. The universal church has commonly used the account of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness but that is more utilized as an allusion or representation for the spirit of the season of Lent. So, with that in mind, I want us to explore a passage that we might be familiar with in some way. It’s the story of Ezekiel and the valley of dry bones.
(Read Ezekiel 37:1-14)
On top of being source material for some great Gospel tunes, this story really sets up for me what I hope Lent can be, and honestly, what I want Lent to be in my own heart and life; but a little background might be helpful.
Ezekiel is one of the prophetic books. And any time we brush up against prophecy we have to keep our eyes even more peeled for the intention and action of God. Context is one of the first things we need to know. Sometimes we can stumble into a situation without any context and be caught by surprise. Let me give you an example.
A few years back at my previous church I had a really awkward and funny encounter with our, at the time, brand new Children’s Ministry Director. Laurie was coming into the office and I guess it was around 9:30am in the morning. Anyway, just as she rounds the corner I am coming around and almost bump into her while I was carrying about a dozen pizza boxes. It’s 9:30am in the morning and I’m rushing around the office area of the church with a dozen pizza boxes. She was rightly a little confused. We laughed and I explained to her that I was planning a game for youth group that week that required a lot of cardboard and that all these boxes were empty. We laughed again and carried on. The point is, she needed a little context to know what I was doing. The same goes for our account of Ezekiel tonight.
The story and work of the prophet Ezekiel occurs within one of the most traumatic and desperate periods of time for the ancient people of God. Their great enemy, the Babylonians, have conquered and laid siege to Jerusalem, 10,000 Jews have been forced out of their homes and exiled to Babylon, and the temple was burned to the ground, and lays in ruins. It really is a dark time, and in this dark time Ezekiel is charged by God to be the messenger of hope and faith.
Ezekiel is given a series of encounters with God with the sole purpose of revealing to the prophet the immense compassion and unwavering sovereignty of the Lord. Our text tonight is one of those encounters. God takes our prophet to a valley filled with the bones of the fallen. We’re told in Jeremiah 7 that this valley was a place actually called the Valley of Slaughter. It is where the Babylonians would execute and leave the bodies of those they conquered. It was essentially a cemetery.
So, Ezekiel is walking through this desolate wasteland and seeing only the sun-scorched remains of the once great nation of God’s people and he hears God ask him a question, “Can these bones live?” The more I read and reflect on this question the more I think it makes an excellent summary for the work of compassion and mercy. It could very well be the title of a book on pastoral care, chaplaincy, hospital ministry, or even simply the hardest moments of life.
The exact details of the event might differ from person to person and moment to moment but the harsh actuality is usually the same. The reality in front of us is so far from hope and filled with such sorrow, and yet, the smallest whisper of faith tells us to hold onto hope. This desperate occurrence can take many shapes: loss, debt, cancer, upheaval, and sorrow. We don’t know how God can or will work in those dark and desperate times, and yet, the mustard seed of our faith compels us to believe He can and will. And so, Ezekiel offers the response of one in the midst of that insoluble concoction of despair and hope. It’s the response of a desperate parent at the bedside of their child. It’s the response of the one who has just lost everything and doesn’t know where to go. It’s the response of a friend or loved one who comes beside the one who is suffering. It’s the response of a pastor: “God, You alone know.”
What happens next is odd, awesome, supernatural, weird and inspiring. God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones. This would be like me going to a cemetery and preaching a sermon to the stones and graves. But God commands the prophet to speak to the bones with the most essential and vital words of hope. “I will put breath in you and you will come to life.” This is unreal. But Ezekiel knows who he is speaking to and so he does as he is commanded. And the most incredible thing happens. Ezekiel begins to hear a rattling fill the valley, the shuffling of the sun-dried earth all around them. He looks around and these bones are moving and shifting and coming together. They are forming the frame of human beings. And then muscles and tendons and flesh grow and appear over the frames until finally before our prophet is a host of human persons.
At the command of God, Ezekiel then speaks to the wind and it comes and rushes over the people and their lungs are filled with breath. And now, for the first time, Ezekiel has the opportunity to prophesy to living, breathing people. To a people who have been dead for some time. Whose last memory is being overwhelmed by the enemy. God gives the prophet one message to convey to the people: “I am your God and I will bring you home.”
That is the message of Lent. I mean, in truth, it’s the message of Christianity as a whole. More to the point, it is God’s message to us. This is a powerful truth about prophecy and the element about it that still blows me away. Prophecy is a message spoken to the people of God…then and later. This message is given to a prophet and then shared to a people centuries ago. And it’s a message for the people of God today, now, in this room. For you. The Lord has not forgotten you and he is not absent. Whether you feel like a prophet with no inspiration or a collection of dry bones, He is your God and He is calling you home. He can and will fill us with His breath and give us all the muscle we need to be the children of God we were created to be. And Lent can be an ideal collection of moments for us to realize and take hold of that truth.
As we enter into the season of Lent, we enter into the darkest of liturgical experiences. It is a time marked by anticipation, forbearance, and waiting. It is a time where we seek to align ourselves with our Savior. To observe the life, ministry, and sacrifice of the one true Son of God. It is a time of preparation for the single most celebration-worthy event that has ever and will ever occur on our planet: the resurrection of Christ. And as with every other element of our faith, it is better when practiced and given action.
Ezekiel walked through the valley and spoke the words the Lord gave him. Christ himself would slip away from his followers and the crowds for personal moments of prayer. We too can employ practices or disciplines that may serve to remind us of our God’s love and his message to us. For years, I gave up meat for Lent. Every time I had to pass up a normal staple of my meal it served as a reminder for me to take a moment and reflect on the sacrifice of Christ and afford me another moment for prayer. That was my regular practice until it became too regular and too easy. Others I know have done a reversal and instead added something, more time in Scripture or an added prayer practice. Something that forces us to orient ourselves for a time on our relationship with God.
That day in that valley, God gave a new beginning. To the people who were given flesh and breath and promise. To a prophet who faced personal sadness and an unimaginably difficult task of ministry before him. But that new beginning isn’t only for the people found in our text. Our God is one of second chances. We too are offered a new beginning. This season of Lent can be the start of something new. It can be a new beginning of intentional devotion to God. It can be a time of turning to habit the virtues of our faith that we may right now only consider when we walk into this space each Sunday. It can mark a new and meaningful chapter in the story of our relationship with God.
God gave life to a host of people who had been beyond all hope. God gave a renewed vision and drive to a servant of God running on fumes. God gave peace and endurance to his Son in the desert. Whatever it is you need from the Lord, He is able. There is no space or circumstance or time that His love and promise cannot reach and restore. Like Ezekiel, maybe all we need to do is be lead. Like those in valley, maybe we need to draw in His breath and presence. What will your new beginning look like? Let’s pray.