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As Peter concluded his sermon on Pentecost, he told the crowds, therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.
Luke tells us that the people were cut to the heart. They asked what should we do? What can we do? How could God ever forgive us for rejecting and killing the Messiah he sent us just as he promised he would? They certainly identified with their ancestors who were captives in Babylon who were saying, our bones are dried up. Our hope is lost. We have been completely cut off. God has made clear the reason that we have been taken as captives to Babylon and that Jerusalem and even the temple has been destroyed. It is because we turned our back on the one true God and trusted in political alliances and idols instead of trusting in him. God has disciplined us before, but this time it seems like there is no hope for the future. With no descendant of David on the throne and no temple how will the promise of the Messiah ever be fulfilled? He is supposed to be a descendant of David and appear at the temple! We had hope for a Messiah and a resurrection but now our bodies will be like those unburied, our bones will lie out in the open, bleached by the sun, scattered by wild animals, never to rise again. Their hope was gone.
There was another group in Scripture that could identify with the captives in Babylon and the people listening to Peter on Pentecost. It was the disciples. Yes, the disciples. Remember the rich young man who came to Jesus? He was a very moral person claiming that he had kept the second table of God’s law, but he was still feeling that he might be lacking something. Jesus helped him see what he was lacking by telling him to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor, and then come and follow him. The rich young man couldn’t bring himself to do that, so he went away sad. Jesus helped him see that he loved his possessions more than God and was therefore not keeping the first commandment. Then Jesus made the comment about being easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. That’s when the disciples identified with the captives in Babylon, with the people in the crowd on Pentecost, and with the rich man who had just left. They were greatly astonished and said, “Who then can be saved?” They too were cut to the heart. They too realized that, like this rich man, as moral and upright as they might be, and even though they had given up a lot to follow Jesus, they were not perfect either. They had not always loved God above all things or their neighbor, even their fellow disciples, as themselves. How then could they be saved?
Hopelessness. Despair. Realizing that you have turned your back on the only one who can save you. Realizing that you deserve to have the one and only almighty God punish you now and forever because of your sins against him. That’s what these people felt. That’s what Paul felt when Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus. That’s what David felt when Nathan confronted him with his sin. In theological terms it’s called contrition. It’s being cut to the heart. It’s feeling hopelessly lost. It’s being terrified by the realization that you deserve to have God punish you and send you off to hell for all eternity.
As terrible as it sounds, contrition is a feeling we all need to have. Unless we realize that we are hopeless, that there is nothing we can do to make up for our sins, we can’t appreciate fully what God has done for us.
What did Peter say to the crowd when they were cut to the heart and felt that they had done something so terrible that God could never forgiven them? He said, repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
What did Jesus say to the disciples when they wondered how anyone could possibly be saved because no one could love God perfectly? He said, with people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.
What message did God have for the captives in Babylon who felt hopeless and cut off from God? He gave Ezekiel a vision to share with them that assured them that they were not hopeless, that God had not cut them off for good. He assured them that the Spirit gives life.
All those bones in the valley, those bones that were scattered, bleached by the sun, not even attached like you see with a skeleton, could the people those bones belonged to be brought back to life?
Ezekiel had a good answer. Lord God, you know. It reminds you of what Jesus told the disciples – with people, impossible, hopeless, no person can raise someone who had just died much less a person whose body had decayed, and their bones scattered and mixed with the bones of others. But with God all things are possible. Ezekiel trusted the power of God.
What may have surprised Ezekiel was how God chose to give life to the dry bones in the valley. He might have expected him to just give a command, like Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus – Lazarus come out! But God told him to preach to the bones. God chose to involve him, and to give him the words to preach.
Again, we see the faith of Ezekiel. What good could preaching to dried up bones possibly do? But, even if it didn’t make sense to him, he did what God told him to do. And when he did, when he preached the words that God gave him to the dry bones lying in the valley, an amazing thing happened. The bones came together, each bone, no matter where it had been scattered in the valley, went back to its proper person and place. Skeletons were formed and flesh and skin covered them. The bodies of those who had died were restored. But there was a problem. There was no life, no breath of life, no spirit in the bodies. So, God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the wind, to the breath. Again, he did as he was told, and as he did, breath, the breath of life, the spirit entered them. It was just like the sixth day of creation when God first made a body for Adam and Eve, and then breathed into those bodies the breath of life and they became living beings.
The whole point of the vision was to assure the captives in Babylon that there was still hope for them. God had not cut them off completely. Twice he addresses them as my people. He assures them that even if there were like dry bones in a valley, he could bring them to life again. His promise of the Messiah still stands, and he will prove it to them by bringing them back to the land he promised them. They will see clearly that he is the Lord, the almighty and gracious God who always keeps his promises. They will see that what he has promised he will do, no matter how impossible it might seem.
Like Ezekiel, we might be surprised at the way in which God has chosen to give life to us, to people who are born dead in sin. We see it pictured in Ezekiel’s vision, but we see it even more clearly on the day of Pentecost. Instead of a booming command from heaven, he chooses to have his disciples, people like you and me who know what it is like to feel hopeless and who know what it is to be forgiven, he has them prophesy. He chooses to have people proclaim his powerful, life-giving message that Jesus came into this world to save sinners, that he lived perfectly, keeping every one of God’s laws for us, that he took upon himself he punishment we deserve for our sins. He died in our place and rose again on the third day. He is the Messiah God promised. In him all your sins are forgiven. There is nothing for you to do. He even provides a special assurance of forgiveness in Baptism which Peter says is for the forgiveness of sins and has the power to save. If you realize that you are hopeless. If you realize that you can’t save yourself, then call on the name of the Lord. Call on Jesus. Thank God that he sent Jesus to save you. Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.
Ezekiel’s vision reminds us still today that the Spirit of God gives life through the proclamation of the word of God. The Spirit gives life as people are cut to the heart by the proclamation of God’s law, and then comforted with the good news that God raised Jesus from the dead and made him Lord and Christ, the way, the truth, and the life, the only way to have salvation.
Ezekiel’s vision also reminds us of what God can and will do on the last day. No matter what has happened to a person’s body, no matter where their bones or ashes are scattered, when Jesus returns and says “come out”, everyone’s flesh and skin will return to their bodies and every soul will return to its own body. Then, all who have experienced the first resurrection, all in whom the Spirit has worked faith through the gospel in word and sacrament, will experience a second resurrection to life with Jesus in the place he has prepared for them.
Whenever you look around the world and are tempted to feel hopeless; whenever you look in the mirror and are tempted to feel that God should cut you off because of your sins; remember what is impossible for us is possible with God. He gives us a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus. He gives us life now, and life forever, by his Spirit who is at work through the word and sacraments.