God had a plan. He made a promise. It was a promise to Abraham to bless him and to make him a great nation. There were twists and turns. Things didn’t go as smoothly as Abraham or his descendants would have liked, but God had a plan.
The Jews were a nation, a unique people set apart for God, before they ever set foot in the Promised Land. Then the day came when the nation was united, strong, and David was their king. Life could not have been any better and they thought it would never end. The “shalom of YHWH” was resting mightily upon His people and the land. Rather than praising God for His blessings, the people squandered God’s grace. They each one did what was right in their own eyes rather than follow God’s call to be His people.
After David came his son, Solomon. The Bible says that Solomon was a wise man, but his heart was distracted by wine, women, and song and those things led him away from the Lord. The nation sunk deeper and deeper into idolatry, paganism, and they mocked God’s prophets who stood in the town square and shouted, “Thus saith the Lord…” So God raised up adversaries to humble His people. God took His people to the woodshed in hopes that they would learn a valuable lesson. They didn’t learn. The nation split in two with Israel in the north and Judah in the south. They still didn’t learn, so in 721 B.C., the Assyrians came in and destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel. They carted off the people and scattered them among the pagans. Then, Nebuchadnezzar began attacking the southern kingdom of Judah. Ten years before the final destruction of Jerusalem, in 597 B.C., Nebuchadnezzar gathered up 10,000 of the most promising of the people living in Jerusalem and took them back to Babylon. We can read about it in 2 Kings 24:13-14.
13 As the LORD had declared, Nebuchadnezzar removed all the treasures from the temple of the LORD and from the royal palace, and took away all the gold articles that Solomon king of Israel had made for the temple of the LORD. 14 He carried into exile all Jerusalem: all the officers and fighting men, and all the craftsmen and artisans–a total of ten thousand. Only the poorest people of the land were left. (2 Kings 24:13-14 NIV)
There was a young man, just 25 years old, who was in Seminary in Jerusalem training to be a priest, when Nebuchadnezzar cast his net over 10,000 of the people living in Jerusalem. He was taken from his homeland, taken from his studies, and he found himself living in a strange land. Ezekiel had been living among the exiles for five years when he began to write the record of his life in a strange land and the visions the Lord gave him. He writes,
1 On July 31 of my thirtieth year, while I was with the Judean exiles beside the Kebar River in Babylon, the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God. (Ezekiel 1:1 NLT)
Ezekiel began to write on July 31, 593 B.C. The worst was yet to come. In less than ten years, in 586 B.C., Nebuchadnezzar would march on Jerusalem and literally destroy the city. It was a devastating time for the people. The nation of Israel was gone. No United Kingdom. No Northern Kingdom. No Southern Kingdom. No King. It seemed to God’s people that all hope was gone. In Psalm 137:1-4 we can get a glimpse of the despair of God’s people. Read along with me.
1 Beside the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept as we thought of Jerusalem. 2 We put away our harps, hanging them on the branches of poplar trees. 3 For our captors demanded a song from us. Our tormentors insisted on a joyful hymn: “Sing us one of those songs of Jerusalem!” 4 But how can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a pagan land? (Psalm 137:1-4 NLT)
The prophet Jeremiah had said that God’s people would stay in Babylon for 70 years before God would rescue them and bring them back to their homeland, but for many of the Jews living in exile they would never see Jerusalem again. Many of God’s people living in Babylon believed that they had been cut off, that their nation was forever lost. God spoke to Ezekiel in Ezekiel 37:11 and said,
11 Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ (Ezekiel 37:11 NIV)
“Our hope is gone; we are cut off.” That is a desperate feeling isn’t it? Have you ever felt like all hope was gone? There maybe someone here today who feels that way right now. I’m so glad you are here this morning. You could not have come on a better morning because God has something to say to you today.
I would say the atmosphere in Babylon among God’s people was heavy. Their hearts were broken. Their hopes were gone. Yet, God was at work. God is always at work. God came to Ezekiel while he is living by the Kebar River, and in Genesis 37, the Lord takes Ezekiel on a tour. Turn with me to Ezekiel 37.
1 The hand of the LORD was upon 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, “O Sovereign LORD, you alone know.” (Ezekiel 37:1-3 NIV)
This past week, while I was spending time with these verses, I closed my eyes and imagined Ezekiel walking through the valley. Won’t you do that now? Just close your eyes. See Ezekiel walking. See those “dry bones?” We’re not talking about a few bones lying around. They are everywhere. Ezekiel says, “…I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry.” And the Lord took him back and forth, back and forth. “Look closely Ezekiel. I want this picture to really sink in. These are not the bones of the recently expired—these bones are dry…dry as a bone.”
After the Lord took Ezekiel on a tour through the valley, He asked him, “Can these bones live?” Now that’s a crazy question isn’t it? There isn’t an inch of flesh left on any of the skeletons. “Can these bones live?” “Reason” would tell you “definitely not!” “Logic” would speak up, “There’s not a chance!” But Ezekiel answers the Lord, “O Sovereign Lord, you alone know.” That’s a great answer! Ezekiel knows that it’s in the Lord’s hands. They sure can’t live by their own power or strength can they? If they live, if they come back to life, it will be because God alone breathes new life into those dry bones.
In Ezekiel 37:4, after Ezekiel answers the Lord’s question, the Lord speaks to Ezekiel. Read along with me.
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 from the four winds, O breath, 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 whole house 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: O 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.'” (Ezekiel 37:4-14 NIV)
Some have said that this section of Scripture is about resurrection, the resurrection of the dead as in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead following His crucifixion on Golgotha, but that’s not what this scene is about at all. God is speaking to His people in exile. They were a people who had given up all hope of ever returning to their homeland. They were a people who considered themselves dead to the promises of God. God said that He would raise the dead nation to life, He would settle them once again in the land He had promised them, and then they would know that He alone had done it.
We’ve spent so much time this morning taking a look at this experience from the life of Ezekiel because I believe that it serves as a perfect backdrop for our Scripture for this morning found in Ephesians 2:1-3. What the Jews living in Babylon could never do for themselves, God did for them. As we look at our Scripture in Ephesians we will see the same dilemma that was faced, not just by those ancient Jews who were living in Babylon, but by all of humanity. Let’s turn there and get started.
1 As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2 in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. 3 All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath. (Ephesians 2:1-3 NIV)
As we study Paul’s letter to the folks in Ephesus we have to remember that this letter, when it was written, had no chapters or verses. It was a letter to be read from beginning to end. We’ve taken our time in working through the opening of Paul’s letter. We’ve heard how Paul opened his letter with praise to God for all that He had done. Then we read on as Paul transitioned from praise to God into prayer for the people of Ephesus. His prayer was that they might come to know the Lord more and more, that God might open the eyes of their hearts to the blessings He had made available to them, and that they would know His mighty power in their lives, the same power that raised Jesus from the dead. And that is where we should pick up. Jesus was dead, but God raised Him back to life. We were dead, but God…
Paul, in Ephesians 2:1-3 paints what some would call the most pessimistic picture of humanity possible. John Stott writes,
Paul first plumbs the depths of pessimism about man, and then rises to the heights of optimism about God. It is this combination of pessimism and optimism, of despair and faith, which constitutes the refreshing realism of the Bible. For what Paul does in this passage is to paint a vivid contrast between what man is by nature and what he can become by grace. (Stott, John. The Message of the Ephesians. pg. 69)
I would say that Paul is a realist, not a pessimist. There are various beliefs about the state of humanity today. Some say that we are getting better all the time. Others would say that we are in real trouble, but there is still hope for us. All we have to do is come up with solutions to the most pressing problems that are plaguing us. The Bible is unashamed and unapologetic in declaring that we are dead, spiritually dead. We are spiritual “flat liners.” There is no spiritual pulse whatsoever. Oh, it’s not that we lack life. We are physically alive, our hearts are beating, and we are drawing in breath after breath throughout the day, but all the while we are spiritually dead.
We are fully alive, but we are alive to all of the wrong things. If you will notice the three verses we just read from Ephesians 2 you will notice there’s activity present, but it is activity of the wrong kind. Remember, Paul is writing to the church in Ephesus, and in this section of Scripture he is reminding them of their condition before they came to know Christ. Paul speaks with the same seriousness to you and me. He makes it clear that before we come to know Jesus as Lord of our life, we live “in our transgressions and sins.” (vs. 1) He says we “follow the ways of the world and the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.” (vs. 2) He says we “gratify the cravings of our sinful nature” and we “follow its desires and thoughts.” There is plenty of activity going on. Activity that might lead you to believe that we are alive and well on planet earth, but in actuality, our activity is a sign of death and not life. The Bible says that apart from Christ we are dead. Martyn Lloyd-Jones says,
The best way, of defining death is to say that it is the exact opposite and antithesis of life. What then is life? Well, in the Bible life is always described and defined in terms of our relationship with God. Take the words of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in John 17:3, ‘And this is life eternal, that they might know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.’ That is life! What is death? The opposite of that. God is the Author of life—‘Who alone hath life and immortality.’ He is the source of life, the sustainer of life. God is Life and gives life, and apart from God there is no life. So we can define life like this: Life is to know God, to be in relationship to God, to enjoy God, to correspond with God, to be like God, to share the life of God, and to be blessed of God. According to the Bible that is life. (Lloyd-Jones, Martyn. Ephesians 2: God’s Way of Reconciliation. pg. 18.)
We all have sinned and fallen far, far short of God’s plan for our lives. We are born sinners. We are not sinners because we sin, but we sin because we are sinners. A dog isn’t a dog because it barks, it barks because it is a dog. An apple tree isn’t an apple tree because it has apples hanging on it, but it is produces apples because it is an apple tree. A bird isn’t a bird because it sings, but it sings because it is a bird. And so it is with us. We sin because we are sinners. It is our very nature.
Paul is so right when he says that we “follow the ways of the world, the ways of the ruler of the air…” We do not follow God. We follow the world. We care what the world thinks. We want to fit in with the world’s ideas of success, fashion, happiness, etc. We want what the world wants, what it is willing to work for, sacrifice for, and pursue to the ends of the earth. Apart from God we are controlled by the mindset of this world. That is why John wrote to those in his day and urged them,
15 Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For everything in the world–the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does–comes not from the Father but from the world. 17 The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever. (1 John 2:15-17 NIV)
What is it that characterizes those who are being controlled by the mindset of the world? John lists the characteristics for us: The “cravings of sinful man, the lust of the eyes, and the boasting of what we have and do.” These are the characteristics of those who are controlled, not by God, but by the world. These are the things that control us. Our cravings and our lusts—our obsession with what we desire and our willingness to do whatever we have to do to get what we want—these are signs. This is “Exhibit A” that we are controlled by this world’s mindset. “Exhibit B” is our “boasting of what we have and what we do” which we use to set us above the rest of humanity. And society hears this indictment from God and says, “What’s the big deal? There’s nothing wrong with any of these things. After all, who knows what’s best for me other than me?” This is our problem. Not only are we separated from God, but we don’t have any clue that the things which drive us are the very things that are killing us. A little later in Ephesians 2, Paul urges the people of Ephesus to remember their lives before they came to know Jesus. He says,
12 remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. (Ephesians 2:12 NIV)
Before they came to know the new life that is found in Jesus, they were just living life as they saw fit, doing what they thought was best for them. Paul says they were “without hope and without God in the world.” That is a powerful description of modern-day men and women living life apart from Jesus today. We know that there is something missing, we know that there is something wrong, but you can’t convince us that what is wrong is our separation from God. It’s got to be something different. It must be that I can’t find the right “Mr. Right” or I haven’t found the woman who fits the glass slipper that I’ve been carrying around for years. If that’s not it then it must be that I haven’t landed that promotion I’ve working for; killing myself to get for the past five years. If that isn’t it then it must be that I need that new car I saw advertised on television. If that isn’t it then it must be that I can’t afford to live in that gated community I drive by each day on my way to work. If I just lived in “that” neighborhood. If that isn’t it… I know that nothing seems to satisfy, but I don’t think becoming a Jesus freak or some kind of “churchgoer” is the answer I’m looking for in life.
Do you sense the desperation? Do you sense the futility as we search high and low looking for something, or someone, that will fill us up and satisfy us longer than a few minutes, a few days, or a few weeks? Generations come and generations go and yet we are as stuck as any generation that has gone before us.
My friends, I believe with all of my heart that we are that valley of dry bones. We are lifeless when it comes to the things of God. We are hopeless if left to ourselves. We are without God and, by nature, we are enemies of God if left to ourselves. The more we work to try and bring some kind of meaning to our lives it just will not happen apart from God. So my question to you this morning, before we get out of here is, “Can these bones live?” Not the bones that were laying all over the valley that Ezekiel walked through that day so long ago, but the lifeless zombies who are walking, frantically running around, all over the planet looking for meaning and purpose in our day. “Can these bones live?”
Humanity is in a desperate, hopeless situation. This is nothing new. It is the same hopeless situation that has confronted humanity since the Fall found in Genesis. With the description that we have read from Paul in Ephesians 2:1-3 we have come to see our plight. If this were the last word then we would be shrouded in darkness and the answer to the question, “Can these bones live?” Would be “no way!” But verse 3 is not the final word. The opening words of verse 4 are a game changer. “But God…” When God moves among the lifeless, life comes forth. When God moves among the blind, eyes are opened. When God moves among the broken, healing takes place. When God steps foot in the graveyard, even the dead come to life. Paul says in verses 4-5,
4 But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, 5 that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. (It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved!) (Ephesians 2:4-5 NLT)
Just as God breathed new life in those dry bones of the nation of Israel, so has God breathed the breath of life into those of us who are willing to trust in Jesus, those who seek the life that is found only in Him. My friend, I told you earlier that if you are hopeless you’ve come on the right day, the best day, to hear that He can take your hopelessness and give you hope. He can take your sin and transgressions and fill you with forgiveness like you have never known. Oh, I once was lost, but God. I once was hopeless, but God. I once was a sinner, an enemy of God, but God. But God changed it all. And He will change it all for you this very morning if you will but ask Jesus into your heart. Won’t you do that right now?
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
OKC, OK. 73114
December 12, 2011