As I write I’m busily mugging up on church growth theory for a job interview, and I can remember a time in the past when God spoke to me powerfully through this well-known passage about the Valley of Dry Bones. In particular my attention was drawn to the process by which a pile of dead skeletons became a mighty army. The parallels to the church today are only too obvious, but the passage may speak to us more personally too. Where there is dryness and deadness it is God’s will to bring life and flourishing, whether in the church today with all its dryness or in the lives of Lent-weary Christians.
Stage 1: First of all Ezekiel is invited to take stock. That walking to and fro in the graveyard allowed him to see clearly the true state of affairs. I can remember one staff meeting in one of the churches I served when I made us all go for a walk around the church buildings, really concentrating on what we could see, and trying to see it through the eyes of someone who was visiting for the first time. It was a most depressing morning as we noticed broken windows, peeling paint, piles of junk everywhere, broken bits of equipment which no-one had felt it was their job to throw away – you get the idea. But that miserable perambulation began a process of change and refurbishment of our buildings. So that’s the first question, which God doesn’t actually ask here, although he does in other places: ‘What do you see?’
Stage 2: Then comes the supplementary: ‘Can these bones live?’ After inviting him to face the reality, God brings hope, followed by action: ‘Prophesy to these bones!’ I think there’s a difference between praying about a situation and prophesying over it, but the prophesying can only come at the Lord’s command. It is not something we take upon ourselves to do. But Ezekiel has heard God, and so in obedience he proclaims the purposes of the Lord over the bones, and they begin to stir.
Stage 3: So far so good. The dead bones are now bodies. But they’re only zombies. They haven’t got the breath (or ‘spirit’) of life in them. So a third stage is needed, as Ezekiel, again, note, at God’s command, prophesies to the breath/spirit/wind – it’s all the same word – and life enters the bodies.
This story always reminds me of that famous verse from Psalm 127: ‘Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labour in vain.’ We can build structures, but unless God breathes his Spirit into them, we’re wasting our time. We can do all the right stuff to get our churches to grow, but if the Lord doesn’t sovereignly start revealing his truth to people, what’s the point? We can fast and pray and all the rest through Lent, but if Jesus doesn’t meet us it’s all empty. So much of what we do in the Christian life and in the Church seems only to be half the job, with little in terms of life-bringing or life-changing results. We can’t make God act; we can’t prophesy with our own breath, but we can cry out to God with all that is within us for him to act. In my experience he usually acts on the raw material which we have prepared: he breathes his life into the skeletons we have put together, so this is not an excuse for passivity. But this story does remind us, I believe, of our desperate need for God’s Spirit who alone can bring new life.