Ezekiel 37:1-14 The hand of the Lord was upon me. He brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley, which was full of bones. 2He had me pass through them and go all over among them. There were very many on the valley floor, and they were very dry. 3He said to me, “Son of man, can these dry bones live?” I answered, “Lord God, you know.” 4Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.’”
5This is what the Lord God says to these bones. I am about to make breath enter you so that you will live. 6I will attach tendons to you. I will put flesh back on you. I will cover you with skin and put breath in you, and you will live. Then you will know that I am the Lord.
7So I prophesied as I had been commanded, and as I was prophesying there was a noise, a rattling, as the bones came together, one bone connecting to another. 8As I watched, tendons were attached to them, then flesh grew over them, and skin covered them. But there was no breath in them.
9Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the wind. Prophesy, son of man, and say to the wind that this is what the Lord God says. From the four winds, come, O wind, and breathe into these slain so that they may live.”
10So I prophesied as he commanded me. Breath entered them, and they came back to life. They stood on their feet, a very, very large army.
11Then he said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They are saying, ‘Our bones are dried up. Our hope is lost. We have been completely cut off.’ 12Therefore, prophesy and say to them that this is what the Lord God says. My people, I am going to open your graves and raise you up from your graves and bring you back to the soil of Israel. 13Then you will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and raise you up from your graves, O my people. 14I will put my Spirit in you, and you will live. I will settle you on your own land, and you will know that I, the Lord, have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.”
“Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord.” (2 Peter 1:2, EHV)
The Lord of life and death called my grandmother home to heaven four years ago. I’ll admit that I was not very pleased with the Catholic priest’s homily at my grandmother’s funeral. He said lots of pleasant things about my grandmother in his homily – how she was the mother of seven children and married to a World War II hero. He told nice stories and then one of my relatives read a sappy poem.
The one thing that was missing in the priest’s homily was Jesus. He did not mention Jesus at all in his homily. Not once.
The reason I was so upset was because I am the oldest of eighteen grandchildren. We were all raised Lutheran or Catholic. But very few of my cousins have continued in their Christian faith now as adults. My relatives needed to hear sin and grace; Law and Gospel; that they are sinners who are deserving of hell, but through faith in Jesus as their Savior, they are given heaven. But, they didn’t hear any of that.
Being the pastor in the family, I was asked to say the meal prayer following the funeral. Except, I didn’t ask for God’s blessing on the food we were about to eat. Instead, I prayed a two-minute sermon. I prayed, “Heavenly Father, we are grateful that you have taken Grandma home to heaven. Being her grandchildren, we did not see her sins, but Grandpa did, and you did, too. We thank you for sending your Son, Jesus, to die on the cross for Grandma’s sins and rise from the grave to give her the eternal life she is enjoying right now …” Then, I continued for another minute and a half.
My father came up to me after the prayer and said, “My friend, Eric, and I had noticed that the priest didn’t mention Jesus in his sermon. We were pretty upset by that. I guess you were upset by that, too. At least everyone heard Jesus now.” I told him I was glad that someone noticed.
Over my twenty years in the ministry, I have preached over a hundred funeral sermons. Whenever I meet with a family to plan a Christian funeral, I communicate to them that I’m not going to tell lots of stories about the departed saint or read the obituary or have people giving eulogies. I let them know that whether it is a private baptism, a chapel devotion, a wedding, or a funeral, it is a worship service. That means the prayers, hymns, Scripture readings and sermon focus on Jesus. It’s His story I’m telling.
Years ago, I met with a family of one of our members to plan their mother’s Christian funeral at our church. After writing down their stories about mom for an hour, I was getting up to leave when one of the daughters stopped me. She said, “Pastor, I know you have to talk about Jesus and all that stuff. But, can you focus on these stories instead.”
After I picked my jaw up off the floor I replied, “No.”
A Christian funeral sermon is about telling the story about how Jesus was in the life of the departed saint.
But, why is preaching God’s Word about Jesus so important?
The Lord gives us a very clear answer when He sets His prophet Ezekiel down in a valley littered with dry bones in Ezekiel 37. This valley of bones was an illustration of the nation of Israel. Israel was God’s special people; a people of His creation. Israel went to Egypt as a family; they came out as a nation. God then filled the Promised Land of Canaan with His chosen children.
But, over the centuries, the children of Israel turned away from their heavenly Father, their life-giver. They refused to listen to God’s Word. They disobeyed God’s commands. They turned to false gods. The heavenly Father then disciplined His children by having them carried into captivity into Babylon. This valley of bones visualized how Israel was dry and dead. The Lord told Ezekiel, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They are saying, ‘Our bones are dried up. Our hope is lost. We have been completely cut off’ (Ezekiel 37:11)
Spanish painter, Francisco Collantes, (1599-1656) painted “The Vision of Ezekiel.” It is a visual representation of Ezekiel 37. The artwork appears to be a haunting painting of destruction. Rather, it is a beautiful painting of resurrection.
The Lord said to Ezekiel: “Say this to [the nation of Israel], ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: As surely as I live, those who are left in the ruins will fall by the sword, those out in the country I will give to the wild animals to be devoured, and those in strongholds and caves will die of a plague. I will make the land a desolate waste, and her proud strength will come to an end, and the mountains of Israel will become desolate so that no one will cross them’” (Ezekiel 33:27-28).
Collantes showed the desolation of the ruins in his painting. He showed the remains of imposing buildings that had long fallen into disrepair. Columns of glory and strong walls had collapsed. The Lord had reduced Israel to rubble. The sky is dark, dreary, and even menacing over the ruins.
Everything appears ashen and gray. The only real color in the painting is the prophet Ezekiel, in his blue robe and brown cloak.
The Lord also told Ezekiel, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord’” (Ezekiel 37:4). Ezekiel preached to the bones. The bones came rattling together. The bones were covered by tendons, flesh, and skin (Ezekiel 37:7-8). Then the Lord told Ezekiel, “Prophesy to the wind. Prophesy, son of man, and say to the wind that this is what the Lord God says. From the four winds, come, O wind, and breathe into these slain so that they may live” (Ezekiel 37:9).
The breath of the Holy Spirit then filled the bones with life. They stood on their feet, becoming a vast army of the Lord (Ezekiel 37:10).
Francisco Collantes painted the Lord’s prophet calling the dead to life. Collantes showed the bones assembling to skeletons, flesh growing upon the bones, and forming people. The dead are crawling out of their graves, protecting their eyes from the meager light in the valley. Slowly, the army of the Lord rises to their feet.
This is what happens when the word of the Lord is preached. It can be in a chapel devotion, a hospital visit, a shut-in call, a Sunday worship service or a wedding or funeral sermon. The people who are hearing God’s Word are dry, dusty bones. We are born dead in sin. We just try to cover up our skeletons with makeup, wavy hair, long beards, and nice clothing. But, underneath, we are still skeletons. There is nothing deader than bleached white bones.
We are in this dark valley all the time. We may think we are alive. We may live in denial of Death. We may try to convince ourselves that we can have a life apart of the Word and the Spirit. But, in the end, we are dead. Dead in our sin. Dead in our unbelief. Dead in our greed, lust, and idolatry. The curse spoken to Adam and Eve is spoken over us, as well: “For dust you are and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19).
We feel so dried up in our lives because we are not constantly and consistently hearing the Word of the Lord and being filled with the Holy Spirit. Our worship becomes irregular. Our Bible reading becomes infrequent. Our prayer life becomes sporadic. Our attendance at the Lord’s Supper becomes routine. Our excitement at receiving absolution becomes paltry. Our remembrance of our Baptism becomes non-existent.
Without God’s Word and the breath of the Holy Spirit, we return to our inborn nature of death and unbelief. Sin makes us dry bones.
The only thing that can make us alive is the Word of God and the breath of the Holy Spirit.
We call the Holy Spirit “The Lord and Giver of Life” in the Nicene Creed.
The Lord spoke and dug His hands in the dirt. The Holy Spirit breathed life into a lump of clay and Adam was alive!
The Lord spoke in the valley of dry bones. The Holy Spirit breathed life into dry bones and turned them into a vast army for the Lord!
The Lord spoke at Pentecost. The Holy Spirit breathed life into three thousand unbelievers who were baptized and converted into Christians!
The words of God are spirit and they are life. The bones hear and obey. They come together. Bone to bone. Flesh and tendons and skin. And then the breath, the wind, the Spirit of God, blows and they stand up and live. Bones come to life! The bones of Israel. The bones of the baby baptized at the font. The bones of the teenager wracked with guilt and depression. The bones of the husband who has cheated on his wife. The bones of the convict in prison. The bones of the grandmother in the nursing home.
All of them can be brought from death, dryness, and unbelief to live, vibrancy and faith. This only happens through the Word of the Lord. That’s because the Word of the Lord is always and only about Jesus. That Word creates what it commands. It does what it says. It produces what it proclaims.
One of my big pet peeves is when I finish preaching for a Christian funeral, the funeral director says to the congregation, “Thank you for coming today to celebrate so-an-so’s life.”
No! This is not a celebration of the saint’s life! This is a celebration of Jesus Christ in that saint’s life!
Jesus is the One who brought her from death to life and unbelief to faith in her Baptism. Jesus is the One kept her faith alive and growing through Word and Sacrament. Jesus is the One who paid for her sins and grants her forgiveness in absolution. Jesus is the One who died on the cross to rescue her from life in hell. Jesus is the One who rose from the dead to grant her eternal life in His heaven. Jesus is the One whom this saint is now worshiping for eternity around His throne.
Stories about a departed saint are good. Those stories can be told at the meal after the Christian funeral. Anybody can tell those stories. But, the Christian Church and her pastors are uniquely called and qualified to be the ones who tell the story about Jesus in the life of the departed saint. That happens in the funeral sermon.
Jesus is the One who took my grandmother’s dry bones and brought her to life and faith. Jesus is the One who breathes His Holy Spirit on you in absolution, Word and Sacrament, to keep you alive in the faith. Jesus is the One who has turned your dry, bleached bones into a vast and living army for the Lord.
That happens only when the stories are all about Jesus. Amen.
“Now to the King eternal, to the immortal, invisible, only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.” (1 Timothy 1:17, EHV)