It was getting to be the end of October 1992. Our oldest was seven years old, and the boys were four and two. Halloween was just around the corner with Pat busy helping the two oldest put together a costume for their coming classroom parties. The two-year-old would participate in the first “trick-or-treat” neighborhood walk-around that he would remember—or at least the candy collected from it.
The big news that dominated their attention, however, was that their Mom (Pat) could deliver a new brother or sister any day. As time marched on, discussions among the children regarding their soon-to-arrive sibling increased. The three children thought it would be great to have a brother or sister born on Halloween … and the jokes began to cascade like a waterfall: how scary the baby would look, how many fangs it would have, what cemetery it would live in, etc. Pat and I prayed that the baby would not be born on Halloween, and fortunately, Hannah arrived on November 1, All Saints Day. (There were no fangs by the way, and Hannah lived with us until she headed off to college last year!)
Halloween and Reformation Day—when Martin Luther, on October 31, 1517, nailed the 95 Theses to the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany—have shared chronological proximity for a long time. But that is where most similarities cease. The world’s present-day observance of Halloween provides a dramatic contrast to the message and meaning of the Reformation where the justification of the sinner by grace through faith was clearly proclaimed, along with the recognition of the clarity, reliability, power, and inspiration of the Holy Scriptures, EXCEPT, perhaps, when it comes to the possibility of walking through a graveyard. Allow me to elaborate.
Few stories from the Scripture illustrate those truths nailed to the great door of the Castle Church, on the birth of the Reformation, more dramatically than the account found in Ezekiel 37.
When I was younger, it was scary to walk through a graveyard. Imagine how scary, how sad, it must have been for Ezekiel to have been led out by the Spirit of the LORD and placed in the middle of a valley full of bones. Not even skeletons, mind you, but bones, so complete the devastation, destruction, and death the former life of what had once held those bones together. Very dry bones, scavenged of any rotten flesh, sinews, or muscle. They were dead indeed. And the worst, most disheartening news the prophet could have heard was when God told him, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off’” (v.11). God was giving Ezekiel a vision of the spiritual lives of Israel.
In 586 BC Nebuchadnezzer had totally destroyed Jerusalem with the great Babylonian army. Solomon’s Temple, the pride and glory of Israel for almost 400 years, was reduced to ashes. Jerusalem’s inhabitants had been taken into captivity. Even Mattaniah, the last king of Judah, was blinded and taken in chains to Babylon. Although Israel had been warned repeatedly by God through His prophets, including Ezekiel, they had turned a deaf ear to His Word! Now they were spiritually dead. They acknowledged their wretched condition—their death and hopelessness—in Ezekiel’s vision by saying, “Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.” They had come to complete despair in their Babylonian Captivity. Since they had no hope, they also had completely lost their faith in God.
That is the way the Holy Spirit describes every unbeliever, “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). Here in Ezekiel 37, that is the way God’s former children, who have fallen away, are also described. So complete is their demise, so hopeless their condition, that after Ezekiel deflated their pride and self-conceit in chapter 36 of Ezekiel, he had to overcome their reluctance to hear and understand the ‘Good News’ of restoration that he had just shared with them. Like our hearts, the hearts of the exiles were “deceitful … and desperately sick” (Jeremiah 17:9). The Scriptures also communicate the fact that the mind of sinful man “is hostile to God” (Romans 8:7).
So when God presented Ezekiel with this graveyard and asked him, “Son of man, can these bones live?” what did Ezekiel say? “O Sovereign LORD, you alone know.” He honestly said, “I don’t know,” or “I don’t think so.” Ezekiel knew God was almighty, and he wanted to believe it, but how could he?
When you stand in the middle of a graveyard, don’t you often have the same question, especially after the death of a loved one? Or, in a different way, perhaps you are living in a graveyard of finances? Does it seem there is no way out of debt? Is your marriage headed for a burial under a tombstone which reads, “Dead Love”? Does it seem hopeless? Are you trying to exist in the cemetery of addiction, recognize its deadly grip, and feel like you are living “dead”? Do you wonder, “Can these very dry bones live?”
When I see how paganistic America has become, where pluralism has become the accepted norm with its “we all go to the same place anyway” decree, I wonder, “can these bones live?” When you watch the convention of one of our nation’s political parties on TV celebrating as part of their national platform “same sex marriage,” when you see kids in college boasting about the drugs and sex they are having, I wonder, “can these dry and dead bones live?”
When I think about what kind of pressures my children continue to face with “safe sex” and evolution being taught and expounded everywhere they go, I wonder to myself, “can these living, spiritual bodies continue to live?” or, “will their faith go dry?” It certainly, at times, seems hopeless, doesn’t it? Like the prophet, we muster some remaining faith and hope and say, “Lord, You alone know!”
Yes, He does! … and it pleases the Lord to share with us the Good News that He does know, and through the Holy Spirit’s power, desires us to know, believe, and embrace!
I would like to get at that Good News by going to another graveyard. We begin to read about it in the first verses of John 11: “Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair. So the sisters sent word to Jesus, ‘Lord, the one you love is sick.’ When he heard this, Jesus said, ‘This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.’ Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. Yet when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days” (John 11:1-6).
I believe that Jesus purposely stayed away from Bethany for two days to give Lazarus’ body time to start decaying. He wanted us to see that the situation was assuredly, noticeably, unarguably, totally … hopeless—completely impossible. I also believe that is why the Lord took Ezekiel to a valley of dead and dry bones. It was seemingly hopeless, impossible, that these bones could ever live again.
But not with the LORD of hosts!
Ezekiel seemed hesitant to say, “Yes, they can live.” It is interesting to see how God renewed Ezekiel’s faith in this time of questioning. Ezekiel recounts: “Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to these bones and say to them, Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the LORD.’ So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them” (Ezekiel 37:4-8).
But God was not done with Ezekiel. “Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, “This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe into these slain, that they may live.”’ So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army” (Ezekiel 37:9-10).
God gave Ezekiel an experience by which he would remember, “There is hope for the Israelites! What I have to do is preach the Word!”
This is the way God has continually worked throughout history (and still does). When Lazarus’ body lay dead in the grave for four days, it was beginning to decompose. It couldn’t hear. It couldn’t move. It was in reality unalterably dead. But what did Jesus do? Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face, came out FULLY ALIVE.
Friends, Lazarus’ resurrection had nothing to do with anything that he did. He was dead. But with His powerful Word, Jesus was able to put life into Lazarus’ decaying corpse and breath back into his lungs. Just as in creation, God created life where there was none. (Cf. Genesis 2:7)
None of this can happen apart from the God of the Word and apart from the Word of God. Here’s why. Only life can create life. Only life can generate life. Life never comes out of the inanimate. Life never comes out of that which is dead. Quite frankly, that is the problem with evolution. The evolutionist cannot explain the origin of life. “Where did life come from?” (They can’t answer two other questions either: Where did “force” come from? Where did “matter” come from?)
“Life,” even in its basest form, cannot be explained apart from God, who is life. It especially cannot be explained when you begin to talk about human life. John writes, “In Him was life and that life was the light of man,” (John 1:4) and the Apostle Paul states in the Areopagus to the men of Athens, “For in Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Only life can beget or effect life.
So, when Ezekiel conveyed this vision to the Israelites who were living under captivity the Holy Spirit used it to create new life and to give them hope! God promised them, “O my people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you, my people, will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the LORD have spoken, and I have done it, declares the LORD” (Ezekiel 37:12-14).
God had not given up on them. He was going to take them back to the Promised Land! That is what God, by His grace, did for His people. A remnant was brought back to the Promised Land under the guidance of people like Ezra and Nehemiah. Through that remnant the Savior was eventually born. The Israelites were resurrected to spiritual life, the fullness of life, in intimate relationship with their God.
Martin Luther had been living in a graveyard of despair and hopelessness, knowing that he could never do enough to appease the holy God and earn His favor. Fortunately, he was directed to read the Word of God, which is living and active. “Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). That Living Word which convicted Martin Luther of his sin, more importantly, convinced him, through the work of the Holy Spirit, who accompanies the Word, that the redeeming work of the world’s Savior, Jesus Christ, through His life, suffering, death, and resurrection, was all sufficient for salvation. This merit of the Savior Jesus was freely offered Luther—and anyone who would hear this Good News—by God’s amazing grace to faith. Even that faith, the beggar’s empty hand held out to receive the grace of God and the riches of the kingdom, is a gift from God. (Cf. Ephesians 2:8-9) These Gospel truths, which transformed Luther, he would never compromise and never keep to himself.
Neither should we.
If you have been living in the middle of a graveyard, or you know of anyone who has been, what’s the news today? Friends, there’s hope! If God could bring not only a graveyard, but a whole valley of dead bones to life, then he can breathe life into you, your situation, or the seemingly hopeless lives and situations of the people you know! No matter what the circumstance, there is hope for a resurrection! If you have given up on your neighbor, thinking, “he’ll never come to faith,” think again! If you think your life cannot change, or that your faith, or family, or church could never grow, do not give up! Why? The Word of God is living and active.
The encouragement for Ezekiel is the same for us Christians who celebrate the Reformation – “STICK TO THE WORD!” It works! It plows up the soil of our sinful hearts, convicts and damns with the Law of God. But it also most assuredly renews and brings to life with the promise of forgiveness and eternal life through the Good News of Jesus Christ and what He has done. That message is still powerful and brings life from death. That message still creates saving faith.
Friends, the only thing that will give life to that which is dead is the Word of Christ. That is true for you. That is true for anyone else you know, and for any impossible situation or circumstance that you, or they, will ever face.
I still do not enjoy going to cemeteries; however, to truly get a good picture of what the Reformation was all about, or to understand that there are NO HOPELESS situations with God, it is a place all of us should visit. Take the Holy Scriptures with you, read and listen to the Word, SPEAK the Word—and know that dead things come back to life!”
What a miraculous sight it is! What a magnificent, mighty power there is in God’s Word!
This Halloween REFORMATION … Go to a Graveyard.
Rev. Dr. David P. E. Maier
President, Michigan District, LCMS
The Reformation began on October 31, 1517 when Martin Luther nailed the Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany.