Text: Ezekiel 37:1-14
St. Peter wrote to his hearers, “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation.” (1 Peter 2:2, English Standard Version) From ancient times, these words were heard on this, the first Sunday after Easter in the Introit. In our congregations, we don’t often use the Introit; we use the Psalm in its place. The Introit is a portion of a Psalm, or sometimes other portions of Scripture, that is chosen to emphasize the theme of each Sunday. 1 Peter 2 was chosen for this Sunday because this was the first Sunday after the learners had been confirmed. They spent three years learning Scripture and Christian doctrine and then were baptized and confirmed at the Easter Vigil. They were encouraged today to continue longing for the Scriptures like newborn infants for milk or, in Latin, “Quasimodo Geniti;” our title this Sunday.
These also would’ve been good words for the children of Israel in Ezekiel’s time. Ezekiel’s whole ministry was spent in Babylon among the exiles there. Though their physical existence wasn’t necessarily terrible, their spiritual disposition was. We heard in the text how they considered themselves, spiritually, as old dry bones. They felt that they had been clean cut off from the goodness of the Lord. To the contrary, the Lord would raise them from their graves. Not only did the Lord make good on His promises to them, we also confess today that the Lord raises us from the grave of sin by the resurrection of our Lord, both now and in the life to come.
Let’s go back a little bit and talk about Ezekiel. Lord willing, we’ll hear from the Holy Spirit through Ezekiel this week and next. In Old Testament history, there are some big pillar event things to know. One might be the life of Abraham, another the Exodus. Another important one is the Destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon. Jerusalem itself was conquered around 586 B.C. It was conquered then, but that was only after years of conflict and deportations. Babylon carried the people of Israel off to Babylon in waves before the destruction; Ezekiel was in one of the early waves. God allowed Jerusalem to be destroyed, just as He had the Northern Kingdom, because of their unfaithfulness. As a whole, the inhabitants of Judah were unfaithful to God in a variety of ways and they did not listen to the prophets God sent them to bring them to repentance. Therefore, God sent them more prophets to tell them that they would be carried into exile in Babylon. It would last 70 years, but then the Lord would raise up another servant who would return them to their homes.
The people of Judah forgot that last detail, for the most part. The Lord told people through Jeremiah that the exile would last 70 years and that He would take care of them even in exile. Through Isaiah, a generation earlier, God named King Cyrus of Persia as the one who would return them to their home. To remind them, God sent Ezekiel. The people in exile had forgotten God’s promises and felt, as they said, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.” (Ezekiel 37:11) The people were represented in Ezekiel’s vision as the valley of dry bones.
This is what the Lord sent Ezekiel to say to them,
Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O My people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O My people. And I will put My Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land.Ezekiel 37:12-14
The Lord did exactly what He said. Some time later, the Lord raised Cyrus who returned the children of Israel to their own land. They were not cut off; the Lord raised them from their grave of captivity and brought them home.
That we are cut off from God is maybe something that we’re feeling about now. For members of our congregations here in Iowa, it’s been over a month since we’ve been able to gather in person. We used to take for granted the freedom we had to gather every Sunday – or whenever we want – to sing and pray to the Lord. Now, we are experiencing a sliver of what our Christian brethren around the world and throughout history have. It’s easy to lose hope and feel like old, dry bones. What really cuts us off from God, though, isn’t this pandemic; it’s sin. Each of us, from the youngest to the oldest, has lived and does live in sin. We were sinners before we even drew our first breath. For our sin, we rightly deserve to be cut off from God and severed from His presence eternally in hell.
Thankfully, our God chose not to carry out that sentence on us. Instead, He sent His own Son into the flesh to save us. He didn’t save us by snapping His fingers, no; but by joining us in death. Jesus lived the perfect life, He kept the Law of God perfectly. He did not deserve to die; He instead took our sins into Himself and paid for them with His death. Then, He rose from the dead, showing that our sins really are paid for. We have not been cut off from the goodness of God; He continues to care for us and give us life through the Resurrection of His Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ.
Through Ezekiel, the Lord promised to raise His people from their grave. There, He was speaking about returning His people from their exile to the Promised Land. We can also take courage from this promise today. The Lord has promised, and does, raise us from the grave of sin by the Resurrection of Jesus. The Resurrection of Jesus is applied to us through the Means of Grace. In the Gospel reading today, we heard Christ institute one of those means, the Office of the Keys. By breathing out the Holy Spirit on His disciples, Jesus both gave the Keys to His Church on earth and instituted the office through which they are exercised. The Office of the Keys is the authority Christ gives to His Church to forgive the sins of those who are repentant. When the called pastors of the Church speak to us that, for Christ’s sake, our sins are forgiven – they are forgiven. When the Absolution is spoken, it is like Christ bringing us out of the grave of sin like Lazarus from the tomb.
Our Lord is superabundant in His grace. He doesn’t apply Christ’s resurrection and the forgiveness He won for us only through the Absolution, but also in our Baptism, in the Lord’s Supper and even in the Christian encouragement we give each other. This is all because of the Word. The Word is the instrument of the Holy Spirit, the “active ingredient,” in the Sacraments. Through the Word, in these many ways – and even in this pandemic – we are not cut off from God, but continually raised by Him from the grave of sin.
Hidden in our text is also a preview of the Resurrection that’s yet to come. We heard about it last week from the prophet Job. In Ezekiel’s vision, he saw bones being raised from the dead, covered with muscles and skin. Though it may seem gruesome at first glance, this is exactly what we are awaiting from the Lord. We know that, because of sin and pending our Lord’s return, we will return to the dust from whence we came. Our souls pass unto Christ’s presence, but our bodies will decay. That is, until Christ returns. He will come and call our bodies out of their graves. He will restore our flesh and change our mortal bodies to be like His glorious body. Then, we will live forever with Him and our fellow Christians. The Lord is not one to cut off His people, not then and not now. Yes, we are in a difficult time; but the Lord’s promise holds true. He raises us from the grave of sin now through the Resurrection of Christ and He will raise us to live forever on the Last Day.