A Breath of New Life

Sermon Preached at St. Mark's Episcopal Church April 10, 2011 - Lent 5A (Ezekiel 37:1-14)

Do any of you remember the 1998 movie, “Patch Adams”? The film, starring Robin Williams as Patch, is based on the book Gesundheit! Written by the real-life Patch Adams (born Hunter Doherty Adams), founder and director of the D.C.-based Gesundheit! Institute, a not-for-profit health care organization that provides holistic medical care – medical care which includes such methods of healing as wearing a big red clown nose (called by the Gesunheit! Institute the “red badge of courage”) and incorporating performing arts, arts and crafts, agriculture, nature, education, recreation and social service into patient care.

In the movie, the Gesundheit Institute has been founded, patients are being healed by Patch’s unorthodox methods. And then comes a powerful scene which takes place shortly after Patch’s girlfriend is murdered. Patch goes out to the West Virginia countryside and is standing at the edge of a cliff looking straight down into a beautiful, green valley. And there, he has a conversation with God:


The very laughter which has been the source of healing for so many of his patients, becomes the sign of a healing process begun in him. A process that he could be fully open to only at this moment of deep despair.

The prophet-priest Ezekiel, received his call to prophecy sometime early in the 6th century BCE and the events referenced in the book of Ezekiel span just over 2 decades including prophecies both before and after the fall of Jerusalem. While the Temple did not fall until 587, the first deportation of Israelites to Babylon occurred in 597. Ezekiel was likely among those first deportees. The life of the early deportees was not as bad as you and I might imagine. Many of the Jews in Babylon were skilled workers who were paid in oil and barley by the Babylonians for much-needed labor. In addition, there is evidence to suggest that they were able to build houses for themselves – Ezekiel even had a private house – to plant gardens, to raise families, and to at least some extent, practice their religion in community – ". . . albeit far from their beloved Temple.[2] Despite the relative comforts of life in exile, Ezekiel knew that the fate which would befall his beloved Jerusalem would be great indeed and so, it is not surprising that his early prophecies (those found in chapters 4 through 24) - those prophecies which warned Judah and Jerusalem of the impending destruction if they did not repent and turn back to God. But, perhaps because things weren't so bad or perhaps because they simply didn't want to believe that such an atrocity could happen to them, they turned a deaf ear on Ezekiel. In a single verse in chapter 12, God tells Ezekiel, “Mortal, you are living in the midst of a rebellious house, who have eyes to see but do not see, who have ears to hear but do not hear.”[3] But Ezekiel persisted in his message of doom and gloom and in his exhortation to repent and return to the faith. But the day of doom did, indeed, arrive and with it the fall of Jerusalem, including its beloved Temple. And the final group of exiles arrived in Babylon.

And with their arrival, Ezekiel’s message and tone changed dramatically. As Bernhard Anderson described it, “when nationalistic feelings ran high, [Ezekiel’s] task had been to shatter illusions with hard-hitting words of doom; now in the new situation, when the people were reduced to utter despair and remorse (33:1-11), his message was one of assurance.”[4] It is this new context of utter desolation and a communal loss of hope in the future and in the promise of God, that today’s reading of the valley of the dry bones takes place.

The passage begins in the middle of a valley, a valley full of dry bones, dry bones which can only symbolize the ultimate victory of death. And it is here in this valley of despair, in this valley cluttered with the permanence of death that God’s healing and restorative work begins anew. In a verse reminiscent of the verse in Genesis chapter 2 in which God formed the first human by breathing the breath of life into his nostrils, God here says to Ezekiel, “I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.”[5] And in what Dr. Ralph Klein describes as “theophany sounds” – “a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. . . there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them. . . and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.”[6] And God said to Ezekiel, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel.”[7] This vision can be no clearer: there is no situation that is beyond the reach of God - not exile, not the destruction of the Temple, not the destruction of the entire city of Jerusalem, not even death itself. God hears the prayers of the forgotten ones. God hears our prayers from the most lifeless places and God breathes new life into them and into us.

1) “Challenging God,” Patch Adams (Universal Studios, 1998) available online at WingClips, LLC, accessed April 6, 2011.
2) Bernhard W. Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament, 4th edition, (Prentice-Hall, 1986), p. 432.
3) Ezekiel 12:2.
4) Anderson, p. 442.
5) Ezekiel 37:5b.
6) Ralph W. Klein, Ezekiel: The Prophet and His Message. (University of South Carolina Press, 1988), p. 148.
7) Ezekiel 37:7-10.
8) Ezekiel 37:11.