Keawala’i Congregational Church
United Church of Christ (USA)
“Breath of Hope”
I was barely a teenager when I saw the 1963 Columbia Pictures fantasy adventure film “Jason and the Argonauts.” There were no special effects from Industrial Light & Magic or others who provide us with CGIs or computer-generated imagery today, only the painstaking work of stop-motion animation expert Ray Harry Hausen. The film was noted for its stop-motion monsters and it was from Harryhausen’s work that the word “dynamation” was coined.
The details of the story of Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece is something I have long since forgotten. But what I do remember is the climactic scene of the film.
The Golden Fleece was guarded by the seven-headed monster Hydra in the land of Colchis. Jason and his companions are betrayed by one who is among them to Aeëtes, the King of Colchis. The king is told of Jason’s intention and is determined to stop him.
Jason and his men accept an invitation from the king to a feast, but once they are off-guard they are captured and imprisoned. But they are able to escape and in the end Jason succeeds in killing the monster and taking the fleece.
Aeëtes is not far behind. He strews the teeth of the seven-headed Hydra on the ground. He prays to goddess Hecate and the planted teeth sprout out of the ground as armed skeletons who pursue and battle Jason and two of his men.
It is said that it took Harryhausen four and a half months to produce the four-minute stop-motion sequence of the battle. At the time his work was an epic accomplishment. It must have so because for years afterward I always felt uneasy about the skeletal remains of human beings.
In the years that followed the image of an army of armed skeletons would reappear in my mind whenever I heard someone tell the story of Ezekiel in the valley of the dry bones. Over time whatever fear I may have felt in the story of Jason and his battle with the army skeletons gave way to awe as I listened more closely to the story of Ezekiel in the valley of the dry bones.
Ezekiel is led to the valley. The Hebrew word for “valley” here is descriptive of a wide plain such as one that might be found in Babylon where Ezekiel and many of the leaders of Israel had been taken as exiles in 597 BCE.
The phrase “dry bones” is found elsewhere in scripture as a metaphor for spiritual desolation. (Psalm 31:10; Proverbs 17:22) The bones before Ezekiel are said to be “cut off” or separated. Who can bring hope to them?
Aeëtes prayed to Hecate and the teeth of Hydra turned into an animated
army of skeletons. We may be inclined to think that the story is far-fetched.
Yet it hardly seems plausible that a valley full of dry bones would come
Nevertheless the story is told. Ezekiel prophesies to the bones that God is the one who will give them life. The bones come together. But they do not live until God’s breath comes upon them.
The Hebrew word for “breath” is “ruach”, a word that can also be translated as “wind” or “spirit.” It is this breath that gives life. We know from the story of creation (Genesis 2) that a human being does not live until God breathes upon her or him.
Some will argue that the story of the valley of dry bones actually happened, that it literally occurred. But we know from the various accounts of the Bible that in some instances stories are told that may not have actually happened but they convey a truth. After all the parables of Jesus are such stories.
The story of Ezekiel and the valley of the dry bones is an allegorical vision. Ezekiel seeks to convey to his listeners – those who have been exiled to Babylon after the fall of Jerusalem - a vision in which symbolic figures (in this case the bones) are animated by the action of God who breathes life into them. The message is clear: God is the source of life.
Ezekiel’s vision was a response to the exiles who felt that they had been
“cut off” from God. They have been lamenting that their bones, their lives
have dried up and their hope for restoration destroyed. Without God’s presence
they consider themselves as good as dead. However, God promises to open
the graves of the exiles, to reanimate them with the Spirit and to return
them to their land.
(Harpers Bible Commentary, James L. Mays, Harper & Row Publishers, San Francisco, 1988, page 691)
James Wallace, a professor at Washington Theological Union in Washington, D.C. reminds us: “Ezekiel’s vision is given for a people who have lost heart, who are suffering a death of the spirit, a living death in exile in a foreign land. Their temple has been destroyed, their holy city plundered, their leaders maimed and put in chains, their soldiers put to the sword, their young men and women either killed or dragged off into a foreign land. Ezekiel witnesses the soul of his people gradually wither and die, becoming as lifeless as a valley of dry bones. Can these bones live? That is what God asks.” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 2, Bartlett & Young, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, 2010, page 125)
Ezekiel answers, “O Lord God, you know.” (Ezekiel 37:3) So it is that God knows. The God who created heaven and earth - who brought a people to birth; who freed their descendants from slavery in Egypt and entered into a covenant with them; who raised up judges and kings and prophets – the God who made all that is not only gives life but restores life. (Ibid.)
Just as Ezekiel’s vision is a breath of hope for the exiles in Babylon, so it is that new life and hope emerge as Jesus calls Lazarus forth from the dead. The ruach or breath moves forth in Ezekiel’s vision and in Lazaraus’ story. This breath moves through all of us and we become aware that God’s glory is revealed once more. God is the source of life.
If the phrase “dry bones” is a metaphor for spiritual desolation then we may ask ourselves: Where have we experienced the “valley of dry bones” in our own lives? What message of hope sustained us in such difficult times? Who may be in need of such a message of hope today?
Someone said, “Grief can come at anytime in life and rise out of a variety of circumstances. Whenever there’s an ending, there’s grief. And grief can easily lead to hopelessness and despair. Sometimes people are tempted to slip away from the faith community, times of worship, and even their relationship with God when weariness and despair consumes their energy. Others will rely on community and worship and speak of having powerful experiences of God’s presence during these times.” (Seasons of the Spirit, Lent, Easter, RCL, Year A, March 13 to June 12, 2011, Wood Lake Publishing Inc., Kelowna, BC, Canada, 2010, page 63)
It is easy for us to say, with Ezekiel, that God is the source of life. It is easy to say that the Spirit of God is always with us offering us the potential for healing.
As we enter Holy Week we do so aware of the challenges we face. We may be tempted to speak too soon about the joy of Easter and Pentecost.
But the story of Ezekiel in the valley of the dry bones and the story of Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus are stories that focus our attention on the renewing power and wonder of God’s Spirit. Whatever we may be feeling in our hearts this morning, whatever our states of mind, whatever may be in the depths of our souls, and whatever may be weighing us down, God seeks to breathe new life into us.
Let us pray: Out of our weary depths we cry to you, O God. Our souls wait for you more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning. Everlasting is your love and it is our great hope that you will revive us again and again. Amen.
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