“Can these bones live?”
It was a good question, which put the prophet Ezekiel on the spot. He in turn refused to be drawn, politely ducking the question with the dexterity of a seasoned politician. He simply threw it back at the Lord. “You’re God,” he said, “so You know.”
It was a pertinent question, for sure. And the prophet wasn’t stupid: I guess he must have figured where the question was likely leading. If Israel’s whole calling had been to embody before the watching world the grace of their Saviour God … well that body had now been reduced to dry bones.
Persistent disobedience had resulted in their spiritual death: exile for Israel was the nailing down of their coffin: and Babylon was the cemetery in which their remains had been buried. There wasn’t even any of that symmetry in a cemetery which customarily prevails – no neat little rows of headstones: the bones were just scattered all over the place.
“That’s what’s become of this people,” the prophet Ezekiel was told.
A chaotic spread of dry and dust-bound bones. Devoid of any residual flesh: detached from any skeletal form. Total disintegration.
Dead. Defunct. Done for.
So here’s the question, prophet. “Can these bones live?”
Can a people come back from the dead? Can a church be revived? Can a nation be changed? Can these bones live?
When the Lord does with us what He did with His prophet of old, and walks us through the streets of Aberdeen, takes us on a tour across our national life, and lets us see today what Scotland has become, it’s the same probing question we’re asked. Can these bones live?
Is there any way back for a people who have lost the plot and scorned the King, a nation which has spurned its roots, dispensed with God and celebrates its self-bequeathed autonomy? Because Babylon’s where such living always takes us: and a valley full of dry and scattered bones is where we end. Dead. Defunct. And done for.
There is such a thing as a spiritual ‘law of gravity’: it can be stated like this. When the One who holds all things together is dispensed with, then everything falls apart. This ‘law of gravity’ is easily explained: it’s simply Genesis 1 and 2 in reverse. Remove the Creator from the picture and there’s an often quite speedy reversion back to how things were at the start. Formless, empty, dark.
At the start there was only the ‘formless’. Confusion and chaos. No order, no shape. And the first thing the Lord is seen to be doing is giving definition, creating clear distinction. Indeed, it’s precisely this work of giving ‘definition’ which lies at the heart of the task God gives the man in the ‘naming’ of the animals: he is to learn the importance of making and marking distinctions.
If I seem to labour the point, it’s only because I want you to notice how in this particular facet of God’s creative activity, namely His bringing order in place of the chaos, shape in place of the formless – I want you to notice how there is something inherently and significantly ‘binary’ in this particular facet of His great creative work. The heavens and the earth. The light and the dark. The sea and the land. The animals and humanity. And finally, of course, the man and the woman.
It’s fundamentally binary.
For one of the tell-tale features of this country’s spiraling drift away from our firm historical roots is precisely this removal of the ‘binary’. With that customary sleight of his slippery hand, the devil has cleverly pulled the wool right over our eyes by insisting that equality must mean sameness: justice and fairness, so the devil demands, requires that we drop the distinctions. There’s an obvious flaw and a very basic fallacy in the line he’s persistently pushed – of course there is.
And the flaw, undetected, is the thing which has thoroughly floored us. The binary has been binned – and we’ve spiraled right back to the formless and shapeless and genderless primeval chaos, where animal rights are as weighty as any human rights, where male and female are interchangeable terms, and where pretty much anything goes.
Dispense with the rule of God, pull up your roots in the word of the Lord, turn your back on the Lordship of Jesus, and you pull the plug on the three great basic hallmarks of God’s created world – order, fullness and light. Remove the Creator, and Genesis 1 and 2 then work in reverse, with a dreadful gravitational pull back to the formless, empty darkness of a world bereft of life.
That’s what we’re seeing today. Socially, morally, politically, relationally – just about every way – the fabric of our society is falling apart, reverting back to a culture that’s no better than a quagmire. Formless. Meaningless. Lifeless.
And here’s where it ends: this is what such a people soon become, at least in picture-language. Simply dry and dust-bound bones, scattered without any ceremony across the barren wastes of so much of the western world. Dead. Defunct. Done for.
So we’re back to the question – except now it’s a good deal closer to home: this isn’t Israel in exile, this is now ourselves in turmoil. “Can these bones live?”
“Sovereign LORD, You alone know!”
‘Yes’ is the short answer. Dry and dead and dust-bound bones can live. The Scriptures underline just that from beginning to end: this is the essence of the Bible’s message. Resurrection power is God’s ever-present calling card which trumps all else, and Jesus is Himself the resurrection.
So, yes, of course, these dead bones can live. God hasn’t lost His resurrecting power. His church can be revived. A people can be restored. A nation can be changed.
The Scriptures teach it. Our history teaches it too. Ours has been the story of repeated interventions from on high; it’s a story that’s been punctuated time and time again by huge, great waves of sovereign grace as God has bathed this tiny little nation on the fringes of the continent with mighty, culture-shaping movements of His Spirit. Time after time we have known God at work in reviving, restoring power.
From Ninian to Knox. From Columba on to Cambuslang. From Mungo through to Melville. From Hamilton out to the Hebrides. God has been pleased again and again to raise up Spirit-anointed giants of the faith, and through them He has changed the face of the land.
No nation on earth has quite such a rich and repeated history of God’s reviving grace. No nation on earth has known over such a long time, and to such great effect – and on so many recurring occasions – this grace of the Spirit of God at work in reviving power.
We as the church here in Scotland should know better than any how able God is to erupt right into the heart of a decadent nation and cause dry bones to live. No matter how dry those bones may be. No matter how dead in their decadence that people may have become. No matter how defunct and how done for we presently are.
So, yes, of course these dry bones can live. We may pray to that end. We must pray to that end: we must pray indeed for revival.
But we may not presume upon it. There isn’t any room now for presumption on our part. I know He’s the God of all grace and I know He has resurrecting power. I know there has been that long history of God’s great gracious dealings with our land. I know He’s done it before, again and again; so why, you may think, why may we not anticipate His doing it again?
Well, here are two good reasons why we need to put the brakes on any easy optimism.
First because of that very history. No nation should know better than ourselves the folly of departing from the Lord and spurning all His overtures of grace: there’s a case for saying we’ve had more ‘second chances’ than any other nation on earth! And to that extent we have less cause than any to think that God might look with patience and forbearance on our miss-placed, foolish waywardness.
But, secondly, this may be the first time in our story, in the last thousand years and much more, when as a nation we have openly, brazenly, defiantly, and categorically turned our back on those roots in the Word of God. We have often departed in practice from such a way of life; sure. We have often paid no more than lip service to the Scriptures which we’ve had; agreed. We have often tried building with foolish and futile materials on the foundations which our forbears long-since put in place: granted.
But up until now the Lord and His Word remained our nation’s foundations.
Not so any longer. And when a nation, which so repeatedly, so markedly, over such a great length of time, and to such a transforming extent, has known such remarkable effusions of grace in Spirit-wrought revivals down the years – when such a nation deliberately and defiantly ditches the Word of God and spitefully spurns its rich and expansive heritage of grace, then there are Scriptures suggesting that God might well simply give them over to what they have lusted for and sought.
And Genesis 1 and 2 gets read in reverse.
Is there hope for our nation even yet? Can a future that’s steeped in the grace of God’s presence among us and shaped by His gracious hand upon us – can such a future even yet be secured for our children and their children? Is the prospect of revival realistic? Can these bones live?
Well, yes. Of course they can, by the grace of God. And please God in His mercy they will. But not as a matter of course, far less as a matter of right. Our only recourse is to do what the prophet himself long since did, and get out there – out there, in among the dreadful dusty deadness of a culture gone to seed – to get out there and start speaking for all that we’re worth to those bones, with a ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says…’.
And then as well to get down on our knees, begging, beseeching, crying out with urgency and tears in humble, united, persistent prayer and calling on, pleading with the Spirit of Almighty God to ‘Come, Holy Spirit, come from the four winds and breathe again into these slain, that they may live.’
Can these bones live? Will they? Sovereign LORD, You alone know.
Yours in Christ’s service