I want to begin this morning by challenging you to use your imagination. Imagine the physical and emotional impact of these circumstances. Suppose that a coalition of Middle East nations successfully developed several nuclear bombs. Suppose by covert action they successfully planted those devises in Washington, DC; in New York City; in Norfolk, VA; at Norad in Colorado; at AWAC in Oklahoma City; and in San Diego, CA. Suppose each of those devises exploded simultaneously. The result: our Federal government was crippled; our business world was crippled; and the command for our armed forces was crippled.

Suppose that within a week America surrendered to that coalition of Middle East nations. Suppose the militant Muslim religion immediately became the official religion of this nation, and that Christianity immediately became illegal.

Suppose our captors implemented the policy of displacing devout Christians. Suppose that every member of this congregation was relocated in a northern city to provide labor to a Muslim community. How would that impact you emotionally? physically? spiritually?

You say, "Something like that could never happen in this nation." That is what Israel said. That is what Jerusalem said. But it happened. The nation fell. The city fell. Later, the city was destroyed, the temple was destroyed, and the vast majority of the citizens of the nation were placed in exile.

In Babylon a stunned, disillusioned, dazed nation of captives asked, "How did this happen? How could it happen? We believed in the living God. We had the temple. We had the scriptures. How could a nation who does not even know the living God do this to us?"

Completely disillusioned, most Jews said, "There is nothing God can do to help us now. We will never recover. If God couldn't help us when Jerusalem fell and the temple was destroyed, he can't help us now!" From their human perspective, it was an impossible situation.

The prophet Ezekiel was among those who were forced into exile. He received his call to be a prophet in Babylon. In stark, graphic terms, he told them exactly how it happened and exactly why it happened.

  1. In Ezekiel 37:1-14 the Lord's hand was on Ezekiel and the Lord's spirit took him to a valley that was filled with dry, human bones.
    1. He was placed in the middle of an old battlefield--for centuries it was common for two armies to fight a war by confronting each other in a valley.
      1. One army would camp in the hills on one side, and the other would camp in the hills on the other side.
      2. They would meet in the valley and fight until one army won.
    2. Ezekiel was standing in the middle of an old battlefield where there had been so many thousand casualties that the slain soldiers could not be buried.
      1. When the battle ended, the valley was full of dead bodies.
      2. Then came the vultures and scavengers.
      3. Then time passed.
      4. It became a valley filled with dry, bleached bones instead of a valley of decaying bodies.
    3. In that valley God had a conversation with Ezekiel.
      1. He asked, "Ezekiel, can these bones come back to life?"
      2. Ezekiel gave a noncommittal answer: "Lord, you know."
      3. God told him, "Prophesy to these bones. Say to these bones, 'Hear the word of the Lord.' When you do that, I will turn these bones back into bodies, and I will put life back in those bodies."
    4. Ezekiel told the bones to hear the word of the Lord, and suddenly there was a loud rattling noise as all the bones began fitting back into skeletons again.
      1. And as Ezekiel watched, those skeletons became fleshly bodies, but it was a valley full of bodies that had no life.
      2. And God told Ezekiel to prophesy again and tell the breath, "Thus says the Lord God, come from the fours winds and make these bodies alive again."
      3. And a great army came to life and stood up.
    5. God then said to Ezekiel, "These bones are the whole nation of Israel."
      1. "Everyone is saying, 'Our bones are dried up, our hope has been destroyed, and we are completely cut off.'"
      2. "So you go to Israel and prophesy, 'Thus says the Lord God, I will open your graves and bring you out of them, and I will return you to the land of Israel.'"
      3. "Then you will know that I am the Lord. Then you will understand that you are my people."
      4. "And I will put my spirit in you, and you will come to life, and I will place you in your land."
      5. "Then you will know that I, the Lord, said that I would do it, and did it."

  2. The hardest, most demanding challenge to a living faith is turning loose of the past.
    1. Unfortunately, the present is commonly captive to the past.
      1. Responsibly dealing with the consequences of our past is distinctly different from being a captive to our past.
        1. Our past always produces consequences because we all make mistakes, and we must learn to responsibly deal with consequences of those mistakes.
        2. But a captive to the past has been enslaved to the past; a captive to the past does not live in the present because the past controls his mind, his heart, and his understanding.
      2. Individuals can be captives to the past.
        1. "I had a child when I was 16 and unmarried."
        2. "I stole a car when I was 18."
        3. "I experimented with drugs extensively when I was in college."
        4. "I was divorced when I was 30."
        5. "I lost a business and everything I owned when I was 35."
        6. "I had a car wreck that killed my family when I was 40."
        7. Do such events result in consequences? Absolutely!
        8. Will the person be a captive who is held hostage by that past? That is a matter of decision, of choice.
      3. Congregations can be captives to the past.
        1. "We had some terrible, unkind disagreements in the past, and many people were devastated."
        2. "We had a lot of hard feelings in the past, and some cruel things were done."
        3. "We had alienated groups in the congregation in the past."
        4. "We had power hungry men and women who wanted to control things in the past."
        5. Do such occurrences produce consequences? Absolutely!
        6. Will the congregation be a captive that is held hostage to that past? That is a matter of decision, a matter of choice.
      4. Of this there can be no doubt: when a congregation becomes captive to its past and is held hostage by that past, it will become a valley of dry bones.
    2. What was God really saying to Ezekiel in that valley of dry, sun bleached bones?
      1. God is in control--even of dry bones.
      2. Life comes from God, not from the past, not from favorable circumstances.
      3. God has the power to make those dry, scattered bones skeletons; and those skeletons bodies; and those bodies alive.
      4. God could deliver Israel from the grave of their captivity and put them back in their homeland again, and God would do it.
      5. And when God did it, they would know that He was the Lord God, the God who spoke, the God who made it happen.
    3. Is there a point for us? Yes! When a congregation is becoming a valley of dry bones, the Lord God who raised Jesus from the dead can resurrect that congregation to life.
      1. God is still in control.
      2. God still has the power to make alive.
      3. God can deliver us from being a hostage to our past.
      4. God will do it, and when he does it, we will know that He is the Lord God.

  3. I have a serious question to ask you, personally, and I ask it in all earnestness. I am not asking the person next to you; I am not asking everyone else assembled this morning but you; I am asking you.
    1. "What is the question? " Are you, personally, willing to put the future of this congregation in God's hands?
      1. Are you, personally, willing to say in all honesty, "I don't care what is necessary, and I surrender all my personal preferences to You, God: I want your will to be done in this congregation just like heaven does your will."
      2. "I want us, as a congregation, to have the same sensitivity to your desires and your purposes as heaven has to your desires and your purposes."
    2. "How do I do that?" You pray. "What do I pray?"
      1. I ask every one of us to place the future of this congregation in God's hands by regularly, frequently praying for three things.
      2. Request number one: "God, do whatever is necessary to help me, personally, become more like Jesus Christ."
      3. Request number two: "God, help this congregation grow in all the ways you want it to grow."
        1. Help this congregation look like people who belong to Jesus Christ. Amen?
        2. Help this congregation sound like people who belong to Jesus Christ. Amen?
        3. Help this congregation act like people who belong to Jesus Christ. Amen?
        4. Help this congregation truly belong to Jesus Christ. Amen?
      4. Request number three: "God, use me in any way that You want to help this congregation be and do what you want it to be and do."
    3. Then, as you continue to pray, care; love; get involved.

Religiously, spiritually, are you committed to a cause, or do you love God? Brothers and sisters, we simply must learn to stop playing God. When Christians attempt to play God, as individuals and as a congregation, they become a valley of dry bones.

So many times throughout my life I unknowingly tried to play God. I never realized it. I wasn't consciously trying to play God. God has informed me in powerful ways, "David Chadwell, I never asked you to play God. I never asked you to do what only I can do. David Chadwell, stop trying to play God; just love me, and love people."

If the core of our spirituality is commitment to a cause, it is much too easy to try to play God. When we attempt to play God, we become a valley of dry bones.

The less we pray, the more likely we are to try to play God. The more we pray, the more humble we become before God.

Will you leave here this morning committed to placing the future of this congregation in God's hands? Will you leave here this morning committed to praying for this to happen? Will you leave here this morning committed to becoming more like Jesus Christ?

Have the battles of your past turned your life into a valley of dry bones? Here is the good news: God through Jesus Christ can bring you back to life. Will you let Him?

David Chadwell

West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
Morning Sermon, 5 January 1997

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