In three weeks’ time, as the sun is just beginning to show its first rays over the horizon, a little band of us will gather for what has to be one of the most dramatic services of the church year: the Easter Sunrise Vigil. As we gather around the newly lighted Paschal candle and sound the first Alleluia since Epiphany, we will hear once again the remarkable vision of Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones. I can never hear that reading without feeling tingles going down my spine. So allow me to read it to you this morning.
The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live…” So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people… And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live…,’ says the Lord.”
Of course Ezekiel’s immediate reference was to the fact that the nation of Judah had been conquered, its people taken from their land and transported into captivity in Babylon. Yet Christians have recognized in that dramatic scene a deeper lesson. It is not just ancient Judah that has been held in captivity. Jesus warned, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin.” (John 8:34) And in his letter to the Romans the apostle Paul reminds his readers that they had once been held captive and enslaved by sin (Romans 6:6,17).
We find that same theme underlying the opening verses in this morning’s reading from the Letter to the Ephesians. There, Paul begins by reminding his readers of their natural condition outside of Christ. He lays it out in graphic terms and we will find that he does not leave a single stone unturned. “You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived.” The two words he uses for sin here each have slightly different shades of meaning. The first has to do with stumbling or straying from a path. Jesus warned, “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” (Matthew 6:13,14) The second word brings with it the idea of falling short or missing the mark. Paul defines it for us in Romans 3:23, where he writes, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Putting the two together, we recognize that sin encompasses both intentional acts and unintentional failures. We recognized that fact it in our confession in this morning’s worship when we acknowledged, “We have left undone what we ought to have done, and we have done what we ought not to have done.”
Paul goes on to elaborate three ways in which this works out in our lives: following the course of this world, following what he calls “the ruler of the power of the air”, and following the passions of our flesh. It’s not quite the same order, but our Book of Common Prayer summarizes this in the three renunciations that precede a baptism. The candidate is asked,
Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?
I renounce them.
I renounce them.
Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?
I renounce them.
I renounce them.
Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?
I renounce them.
I renounce them.
And so on the one side we have all the persuasive powers of the world around us—advertisers, peers, media and a whole host of others all attempting to pressure us into their mold. On the other we have the devil himself with his vast array of lies and deceit. And if that were not enough we have within us the capacity to choose and to commit unimaginable acts of evil. Bishop Handley Moule put it well a century ago when he wrote, “Man is not merely a sufferer; he is a runaway, a criminal, a rebel, a conspirator.”
Uncomfortable as it is, Paul has held a mirror up to us. As we look on with Ezekiel at the valley of dry bones, we see ourselves and we cry, “Who will rescue me from this body of death?”
At this point we come to what is the pivotal word in the passage. Indeed, I believe it may be the most important word in the whole Bible. “You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived… We were by nature children of wrath… But…” “But God made us alive.” We will hear it again in this morning’s service as we kneel before receiving communion. “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs from under your table. But…” “But you are the same Lord, whose nature is always to have mercy.”
How has he done this? How has God brought us from death to life? Paul actually had to invent three words to explain what has happened. They are found in verses 4 and 6. God has made us alive with Christ; he has raised us up with Christ; and he has seated us with Christ. Do you see how each of these three actions corresponds with a stage in Jesus’ ministry? In a few moments’ time we will recite them in the Nicene Creed: “On the third day he rose again…, he ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father”—the resurrection, ascension and reign of Christ.
What Paul is telling us in this passage is these truths apply not only to Jesus. They apply also to those who put their trust in him. And so the Bible assures us that, just as Jesus has been raised from the dead, so too we are called and empowered to walk in newness of life. Just as Jesus has ascended into heaven, we know that he has prepared a place for us that we may be with him. Just as Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father, so also we share the hope of reigning with him in glory.
In Christ God has done for us what we could never do for ourselves. Dead bones do not come alive of their own will. So, says Paul, it is “by grace you have been saved”. Indeed, to drive the point home he says it twice. “By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”
We heard this theme repeatedly from Bishop Bruce MacPherson as he spoke here last weekend about the living water that Jesus came to bring. He told of his own experience in the church as a young executive—how he thought that God must be proud to have him as a member of his church, to be serving in the vestry and on the finance committee. Yet it was only late one night as he came into the church alone and knelt before the cross that he came to the realization that it was all God’s doing, all through grace, and he received Christ into his life.
No doubt the Christians in Ephesus could all identify with that experience. The key, though, is to remember it, never to let it fade from our hearts and minds. As the people of Israel were preparing to enter the Promised Land, Moses warned them, “Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.’ But remember the Lord your God, for it is he … who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, who made water flow for you from flint rock, and fed you in the wilderness with manna that your ancestors did not know…” (Deuteronomy 8:17-18,15-16) By grace you have been saved.
Way back in university I had a friend who never tired of reminding us that we have not only been saved from, but we have also been saved for. It was an important lesson, and obviously it has stuck with me ever since. God has rescued us from the clutches of sin, the world and the devil. He has brought us back from death. These are wonderful truths, in which we glory. Yet they are only half the story. And to dwell on them as there were no more to it is to turn the Christian faith into something less than it is. It would be like an apple tree that doesn’t produce apples or a grape vine that doesn’t produce grapes.
Yes, God has saved us for a purpose—and we find that purpose in the final verse of this morning’s passage. Let me read it to you from the New International Version. “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” God has saved us not only so that we might enjoy a place in heaven, but also so that we might join in his work in the world—so that we might be partners with him in making his new creation a reality within the old.
It is a bold claim. One of the criticisms leveled at the first Christians was that they were turning the world upside down. Wherever they went, things happened. We can think of Christians who have done that in remarkable ways down through the centuries, men and women like Francis of Assisi, or William Wilberforce who brought down the West Indian slave trade, or George Müller who was responsible for the rescue of more than 10,000 orphans, or in our own day Mother Teresa.
Few of us can aspire to that kind of greatness. Yet within our families, within our neighborhoods, on the job site or in school, we must believe that God has placed us there for a purpose, for his purpose. Let us never cease to be grateful to God, who has brought us from death to life. And let us never cease to be agents of that life, to share that life, to do the good works that God has prepared in advance for you and me to do.