Lent 5a, April 6, 2014

April 7, 2014

Fleshing Out the Dry Bones
Ezekiel 37:1-14

1 The hand of the LORD came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3 He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord GOD, you know.” 4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. 5 Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6 I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the LORD.” 7 So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8 I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. 9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” 10 I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. 11 Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ 12 Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14 I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken and will act,” says the LORD.

I don’t want to create any unease this morning, but I don’t really know how to preach from the Old Testament. It’s not anything I ever do. It may be something I’ve done at some previous moment in my preaching career, but I don’t remember doing it. Chances are, nobody’s going to get hurt as a result of this situation, but I don’t really know how to do what I’m doing this morning.

It may not seem like a big thing. And you would think a seminary trained pastor would be certified for preaching from both testaments, but I’m not. It’s not that I’m unfamiliar with the older Hebrew texts that are in our Bible. I actually like the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings that make up what we generally call the Old Testament, but I’ve never made a practice of preaching from these older texts. You wouldn’t think it would make that much difference, but I feel like Jesus internalized these more ancient scriptures and then went on to embody them for us.

So while I know there’s value in looking at the same texts that Jesus read and studied. You might say I prefer to learn from him as opposed to doing my own research. It’s not that Jesus gave lectures on specific texts, but I do feel that when we look at Jesus we are looking at a person who was able to put flesh on the essential bones of the Hebrew scripture. And of course I’m tainted by what I believe about Jesus when I look at this passage from Ezekiel, but I’m also trying to understand what Ezekiel was saying to the people of Israel when he shared his remarkable vision.

So I’ve done a little homework. I know that Ezekiel was living in or around Jerusalem about 600 BC when King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon took over the Southern Kingdom of Israel, which was known as Judah, and exiled many of the leaders of Judah to Babylon. That was a terrible thing, because the people of Israel believed God lived at the Temple in Jerusalem. The Babylonians knew this, so carting the Israelites off to Babylon was a great way to make them suffer. But things continued to deteriorate between the Israelites and the Babylonians, so the Babylonians destroyed the Temple in 587 BC.

Ezekiel was one of the Prophets who saw all of this destruction coming. And even before the exile occurred he had tried to warn his people that they needed to repent of their unfaithfulness to God in order to avoid the pending disaster, but they didn’t heed his words, and they found themselves in this horrible situation of living in Babylon and knowing that their revered temple had been destroyed.

This is the background for today’s reading. And I sort of get the context of the situation, but honestly, I don’t even have the illusion that I understand what they were feeling. I did live in Mammoth Spring, AR for a couple of years, so I do have a sense of what it feels like to live in a foreign land, but I knew that God was still accessible up there. And its just not easy for me to enter in to the mind of these people who felt so utterly cut off from God.

Until I hear myself say that.

Because I am a disciple of Jesus, who was very clear about God not abiding in one particular place, I’ve never believed that we should connect God with any piece of real estate, but I don’t think it’s unusual for any of us to find ourselves living in a situation where we feel cut-off from God.

I know there are degrees of alienation from God, and I don’t want to engage in any kind of comparison in regard to the various ways people feel removed from God. Certainly there is always someone who has experienced an even greater degree of alienation from God than what someone else has experienced. But it’s accurate to say that the Israelites who were living in Babylon in the early part of the 6th Century BC, were experiencing a dark night of the soul. They couldn’t help but believe that God had abandoned them – and for good reason. They were conscious of their unfaithfulness, and they couldn’t see how their relationship with God was going to be restored.

But Ezekiel could. Ezekiel had always been able to see unusual things. In fact people are still trying to figure out what he was talking about with some of the things he described seeing. I think it’s safe to say that he’s the favorite prophet for many UFO enthusiasts because of his visions of the multi-wheeled vehicles in the sky, but he’s probably best known for this vision he had of the valley of dry bones that were mysteriously and profoundly brought to life by the word of God.

The surviving people of Israel couldn’t see how they were going to make it. They were cut off from the land and the traditions that they considered to be their link with God – until Ezekiel shared with them the vision that God had placed within his heart.

And when we read of what Ezekiel saw we don’t have to wonder what it’s about – because we know what those exiled Israelites came to understand – which is that true life is a mysterious gift that isn’t controlled by the powers of this world. King Nebuchadnezzar had been able to wreak havoc for the people of Israel. Their loved ones had been killed, their families had been torn apart, their glorious temple had been turned to rubble, but the word of the Lord came to Ezekiel. God provided Ezekiel with a vision of life being restored to those who’s lives had been turned in to dusty bones.

In many ways, the world we are living in is so far removed from the world the people of Judah occupied it’s hard to believe that there is anything in this story that is vital for us to hear. We aren’t people who share a common history. Unlike the people of Israel, who had such a sense of common ancestry and national experience – we come from so many different directions. Some of us come from families who came to this land looking for opportunity – and found it. Some of us come from people who were unwillingly brought to this land in order to enhance the financial opportunities of others. Some of us may have ancestors who were living on this land before the arrival of the immigrants who reduced their villages to bones and built homes and churches and roads upon them.

We aren’t people who share a common sense of crisis, but I don’t think any of us are unfamiliar with the experience of crisis. And I may be wrong about this, but I’m guessing most of us have been drawn in to the church because of some kind of crisis. I’m not saying we are all spiritual mercenaries who showed up in church when we got a foreclosure notice in the mail or some other form of bad news. I don’t believe any of us are here today in hope of persuading God to bring us some good luck in the marketplace. Nor am I saying it’s a bad thing to come to church for any reason. In fact coming to church may in some odd way open some career doors for you or enable you to somehow keep a roof over your head.

But I believe most of us are drawn to church because we have had the experience of recognizing that having flesh on our bones and breath in our lungs isn’t enough. We are people who know that our lives can be reduced to dusty rubble while our bodies are still fit and we are living in the homes of our choice.

I’m guessing most of us have seen something like this valley of dry bones. It’s the first thing some of you may see as soon as you wake up in the morning and it may be the last thing you see as you go to bed at night. Some of us don’t see the dusty rubble of life until we wake up in the middle of night and wonder how in the world we will ever find a way to navigate the deathly obstacles that loom so clearly before us. Valleys of dry bones describe the landscape that many of us know too much about, and we long to believe that this isn’t the final scene.

I know I can find myself in that dry dusty place. It’s a place I found myself living for a period of time as a young adult. For too long I had trouble seeing anything that provided me with hope. Luckily I found a place where they talked a lot about Jesus. The talk of Jesus didn’t immediately resolve my deep sense of despair, but in a gradual way I came to trust that things were going to be ok. Jesus didn’t avoid death or any other form of suffering that we know can occur in this world, but that didn’t seem to be an overwhelming problem for him. Jesus could see that the valley of dry bones is only a small part of a much larger picture.

I still can’t see that whole picture. And as I say, sometimes all I can see is the path to that place that is filled with dry dusty bones, but I never stay there long before I’m struck by that holy breeze that comes from the mouth of God. I feel very fortunate in that sense. No, I don’t just feel fortunate – I feel saved by the grace of God.

I don’t have a perfect sense of trust in the grace of God. If I did I wouldn’t panic every time things don’t go as I expect God to arrange them, but I do sense that I’ve been touched by God’s life-restoring spirit. In fact I feel like I know exactly what Ezekiel was talking about so long ago when he described his remarkable vision in the valley of the dead dry bones. I have been nothing but a pile of dry dusty bones and I’ve had new life breathed in to me – on more than one occasion. I have experienced that divine sense of forgiveness and reconciliation.

I’m guessing some of you share my understanding of this miraculous experience and my gratitude for God’s saving grace. If you’ve never felt so far from life I’m happy for you and I’m grateful that you show up to join in on the celebration of this big beautiful picture of life that has been designed by God.

Some of you may currently continue to abide in that desolate valley. I know it’s a terrible place to be, but I trust that God won’t leave you there forever. Any amount of time in that valley is too long, but it’s good to remember that Ezekiels vision was for people who had been in Babylon for so long they couldn’t even imagine the possibility of restoration. But he brought it to them, and they were nourished by it.

Thanks be to God for the many miraculous ways we come to experience this life restoring message of Ezekiel and Jesus. Amen


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