My grandfather was a preacher at Beaverdam, a black Baptist church in Alabama. Periodically, when his ministry would take him from the pulpit, the associate pastor would step in. The joke around my family was that every time the associate preached, he chose the same text: Ezekiel and the valley of dry bones (Ezek. 37:1–14). In the passage, the Spirit takes the prophet to a place where the remains of the dead are strewn about. God commands Ezekiel to preach to them, and when he does, the bones are re-enfleshed and resurrected.
According to my mother, the associate pastor preached on this passage for seven consecutive years. Every time he started in on “them bones,” she and I would give each other a knowing smile and chuckle. Looking back on it now, however, his decision to revisit this story over and over doesn’t seem unreflective or humorous. It seems wise. Maybe Ezekiel’s vision is the answer to the most important question we can ask, especially in this present moment. What will God do in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles? What will he do in a world surrounded by death?
By now, the entire globe is convulsing with death, illness, and economic collapse. COVID-19 has taken the lives of too many, and a certain dread lingers as we wait for the virus to make its way to our communities. There’s not much for us to do but take the advice of professionals, pray for and give to those in need, refresh our news and social media feeds, and wait for test results along with our friends, family members, and neighbors.
The somber season of Lent seems perfectly suited to the moment. This is a time of national lament. But as we turn the corner toward Easter, dare we say more? Dare we speak of joy and resurrection in a world that feels like it’s in the shadow of death?
If the prophets of the Old Testament have anything to teach us, it’s that precisely in the darkest moments of our history, we need divinely inspired and freshly articulated hope.
We find this in the book of Ezekiel. The prophet is among the first group that departs Jerusalem after the Babylonians take the city. He lives with people who have experienced deep trauma and lost loved ones to the siege. Now their future lies in the hands of the same foreign rulers who destroyed their lives. Much of Ezekiel is a lament over Israel’s sin, which led to the exile, but the book also contains passages that look to God’s future restoration of Israel after the season of trial is over.
The most famous of these restoration passages is the dry bones narrative in chapter 37. The point of the story is plain enough: Just as it seemed impossible for dead things to be resurrected, it also seemed impossible for Israel to be restored. But God fulfilled his promise to the Israelites.
Of course, we have to be careful not to misapply the story of Israel to our own experience. Nonetheless, we as Christians know that the dry bones vision isn’t merely metaphorical and that God’s faithfulness does indeed call dead things to life. The Israelites knew that God’s ability to save them had no limits, no matter how dire the situation. The deeper the problem, the greater the glory of God’s redemptive work. For Ezekiel, then, deep human suffering collided with God’s promises, and the result was a vision of the future—dry bones coming to life—that remains with us today.
Similarly, in the black church tradition, the spirituals and hymns that look to a greater future have power precisely because they were written when we weren’t yet free. Those songs were a prophecy, written in the blood of our foremothers and forefathers, declaring that God had a better future for us. Maybe not now, but someday.
It seems, then, that the height of the COVID-19 pandemic is precisely the time to speak about hope rooted in God’s promises. These promises are not about the American economy. God has made no guarantees in that regard. He has also not guaranteed that all of us will survive. We will not. What, then, has he promised? That not even the gates of hell will prevail over the church (Matt. 16:18).
I don’t know what the future of Christianity holds in the weeks and months to come. I do know, however, that the church will not be overcome by a virus. I know this is not the end, and I know that we will in fact worship together again.
But is it possible to say even more? Is it possible to say, like Ezekiel, that the intense pain of this season can lead to a grander vision for a reinvigorated people of God? Is it possible to say that at the end of all this, we won’t simply resume our work but expand and grow the church with fresh confidence in God’s providence? I for one am anxious to see what kind of church emerges from this trial. I pray that it will be glorious.
This hope for the transformation of the church is critical to the kingdom, but the more central promise for Christians is God’s defeat of death. Jesus’ words in the upper room came during a dark time in the lives of his disciples. He knew that the time for his passion drew near and that things would get worse before they got better. He told them, “You will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy” (John 16:20). He wasn’t promising that they wouldn’t weep and mourn. He was promising joy on the other side of their mourning.
What was the source of this coming joy? His own resurrection. What is it, then, that gives hope to the church in the midst of this pandemic? The resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting. It is God’s promise, written in the blood of his son, that he loves us with a love stronger than death and that at the last, he will call us from the grave to see him as a friend and not an enemy.
The celebration of Easter tells us what lies on the other side of COVID-19 and on the other side of all our trials: life with God. This message is necessary not because we are stumbling toward Easter Sunday as a scattered and beleaguered people of God. It is necessary because the truth of the gospel shines most brightly in dark times. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).
This Easter, it doesn’t matter if we can’t be together in our local churches. We can still shout as one people, “Alleluia, Christ is risen.” God hears our triumphant cries, no matter how hampered they are by fears of unemployment, sickness, and death. Satan and the powers of evil hear them, too, and tremble.
Even if we are chained to our homes, the gospel remains free and continues to do its work. Nothing—not even a pandemic—can change that.
Esau McCaulley is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and an assistant professor of New Testament at Wheaton College. He is the author the forthcoming book Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope (IVP Academic).
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