Pastor of Decatur United Methodist Church
A few years ago I had the opportunity to travel to the Czech republic with a group from church. It was a great time. We spent time connecting with pastors in there and also leading music with a youth conference in Prague. We spent time in three different cities, all of which were great.
During the final few days we spent some time in Prague, the capital city. Prague is an amazing city, beautiful architecture, historic churches, castles, history, food, and so much more. On top of all this, it is incredibly affordable. Due to exchange rates and other factors, Prague is really a great value, and it is a world class, European city.
The Holston Conference has a special relationship the Czech Republic; in fact, we host a missionary in Prague who serves an English speaking congregation there.
While we were in Prague I was talking with some of my friends who were with us and told them that I wanted to take a trip out of city to a town called Kutna Hora. It is a small town with a very interesting and unique church. There in Kutna Hora is Sedlec Ossuary, or commonly referred to as the bone church.
Churches are decorated in different ways; this church has very unique style. The decorations, so to speak, are constructed out of tens of thousands of human bones. Candelabras constructed from human bones. Arches decorated with human bones. Large vaults that hold the bones of countless human bodies. This place is incredibly unique.
I don’t really know the whole story about why and how this place was begun. But partly it was begun during the time of the 30 years war in the 17th century and they just ran out space to burry bodies. And so the church created a sacred place for bones of the deceased.
Today the sight bones is an odd thing and startling thing. We don’t see the bones of deceased loved ones. These days we burry or cremate our loved ones when they die, but we don’t hold on to their bones. We don’t display their bones.
When we think about bones, maybe we think about Halloween. Young children dressing up as skeletons. There is nothing more lifeless than bones. Bones once held flesh. Bones once served as the strength of the body. But devoid of flesh? Devoid of the rest of the body, bones are just bones. They have no hope of life. They have no hope really at all.
This fact about bones was everclear to the ancient Israelites. These people had been kicked out of their homes and forced to move to a new land, to Babylon. While they were in Babylon they were treated pretty nicely; they had many of the comforts of home. But one thing was missing. They did not have hope, because they could not worship God. Since they weren’t able to worship God, they weren’t able to connect with God. It was as if they were these bones, devoid of bodies because they weren’t connected with God.
At this time, though, there was a prophet named Ezekiel. Prophets were people who had a special connection to God. One day, we read in Ezekiel’s writings of how God came to him.
This is what we read in Ezekiel 37:
The Lord’s power overcame me, and while I was in the Lord’s spirit, he led me out and set me down in the middle of a certain valley. It was full of bones. 2 He led me through them all around, and I saw that there were a great many of them on the valley floor, and they were very dry.
God leads Ezekiel from his home in Babylon to show him a desolate and hopeless scene. God takes him to valley that is full of bones. Ezekiel comments that there were a “great many of them” and that they were dry. They devoid of life. They were wasting away in the desert sun.
When we think about stories like this, it easy to imagine God giving Ezekiel some dream about a valley of bones. But here we read that Ezekiel observed these bones. It could have happened in a dream, but he also could be walking the ground of old battle ground. The bones that lay in waste might be the bones left behind from bodies of fallen warriors. Once strong bodies, full of fear and hope and promise; now bones—lifeless and hopeless.
Looking over these bones, God asks Ezekiel a very puzzling question.
3 He asked me, “Human one, can these bones live again?”
I said, “Lord God, only you know.”
We know that bones are the end. They are what is left of us once life is gone.
Sometimes it doesn’t take death, though, to feel as if all the life is gone. After all these Israelites were still living, yet they had so little life left so little hope left. I think about times in my own life that have felt so dark, so hopeless. Sometimes it can feel as if all the marrow is sucked out of life and all that is left darkness and hopelessness. Sometimes the joy is gone, and it feels as if a valley of dried bones is all that is left.
What about you? When have you experienced this hopelessness? The death of a loved one? The death of a spouse? Issues with your children? Loss of a long held job? The loss of your home? Maybe the loss of fun in your life? Or the loss of a dream? Sometimes these times can feel as if being in a certain valley that is full of dry bones. No hope for life.
If it were up to us, there is no possibility to get out of the valley. No possibility for bones to live again, as God asks Ezekiel. The good news is that the story doesn’t end there. God speaks again in verse 4:
4 He said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, Dry bones, hear the Lord’s word! 5 The Lord God proclaims to these bones: I am about to put breath in you, and you will live again. 6 I will put sinews on you, place flesh on you, and cover you with skin. When I put breath in you, and you come to life, you will know that I am the Lord.”
7 I prophesied just as I was commanded. There was a great noise as I was prophesying, then a great quaking, and the bones came together, bone by bone. 8 When I looked, suddenly there were sinews on them. The flesh appeared, and then they were covered over with skin. But there was still no breath in them.
9 He said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, human one! Say to the breath, The Lord God proclaims: Come from the four winds, breath! Breathe into these dead bodies and let them live.”
10 I prophesied just as he commanded me. When the breath entered them, they came to life and stood on their feet, an extraordinarily large company.
Bones, lifelessness, hopelessness is not the end for God. Even from the depths of sorrow, even in valley scattered with bones, God can bring hope, God can bring new life.
In fact, God is always and has always been in the work of doing something new. With Ezekiel God shows him these bones rising up in flesh, and the God breathes into the dead bodies. It is with God’s breath that death during into life.
In Genesis, God made the first human, but it was only after God breathed into him that he became human, that he gained life. God breathes and we gain life.
Sometimes I wonder why we do this every week. I’m a pastor, but sometimes I wonder why we come to worship each week. After all, churches around the country have less people in them they did 10, 20, 30 years ago? People have been coming worship God in a church for 2000 years, but there is still hopelessness and heartache. Sometimes I wonder. And I know many of you wonder, why do we gather each week. If you don’t wonder, this is a question your neighbors have, a question your kids have, a question your grandkids have. What’s the purpose of church.
Maybe this is why we have a difficult time of inviting people to worship. If you were to invite someone to worship they may ask you why? You might tell them that the music to good—but they listen to any music they want at any time. You might tell them that the people are nice—but they can see nice people in their family. You might tell them that sometimes the sermons are ok —but they can listen to sermon or motivational speech at any time online or on TV or radio.
Sometimes I wonder if we come to worship and we really are just in a valley of dried bones.
Sometimes I wonder, but then I remember that it is only God who breaths new life. It is only in God who can offer us newness when all is lost. When we gather each it more than music, more than friendship, more than a sermon. When we gather each week in worship, we gather with the God who breathes new life into scattered bones. We gather with the God who offers make all things new. We gather with the God who offers hope.
Maybe the bone church in the Czech Republic was on to something. Maybe seeing those bones in the midst of a space of worship reminds us the hope cannot depend on us. That hope for newness must always begin with the God who breathes life into scattered bones.
Wherever you are. However you hurt — in God we can find hope. In God, we can find hope for new life. And when we gather in worship, we gather with this God who breathes new life in us. We gather and practice hope.
One way that we practice hope is in receiving of Holy Communion. Communion is more than symbol; it is a meal of ultimate hope. It is a meal that testifies that death and hopelessness and bones are not the end. It is a meal that testifies that the death of Jesus was not the end, but was the start of something new, something full of hope. This is something that God gives us to allow us to share in the hope of newness.
Decatur United Methodist Church
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