Mar29SunA sermon on Ezekiel 37 for Lent 5 March 29, 2020
Our sermon text this morning is our first reading from the Book of Ezekiel, Chapter 37.
In our reading, Ezekiel tells of a mysterious vision he had about a valley of dry bones that came to life when God’s Word spoke them into being.
This passage fits well into our present situation as a self-isolating society.
We are feeling like dried-up, disconnected bones, and we wonder:
will we ever get back to normal?
Will we ever get back to life as we knew it?
Ezekiel, called by God to be a sentry for Israel,
to warn them and to comfort them,
was both a Priest, and a prophet.
His writings are from the early 6th Century BCE (before and after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonian King Nebukadnezar the 2nd.)
Ezekiel had been taken to Babylon as a prisoner of war, and from his home in exile in Babylon, wrote down visions, prophecies, blessings, curses and other types of writings.
The vision of the valley of the dry bones has “captured the imagination of readers of the Hebrew Bible for centuries.”
This “desert scene with bones and skulls lying in disarray as far as the eye can see” is an image that sticks in our mind.
In Ezekiel’s dream, the hand of the Lord brings him to this valley of dried up human bones.
The bones had been there for a long time,
so that the bones were very dry.
In this Death Valley, you might imagine a cliché shot from a Western movie of a steer skull with a scorpion crawling out of the eye socket.
In this incredibly striking image, you could picture in your mind’s eye drone footage sweeping across the landscape with bones upon bones in all directions.
This brings to mind deserted streets in countries with lockdowns.
Even our streets in Kitchener are eerily quiet, with non-essential businesses shut down.
Even a week ago, things were not quite as silent yet, where only restaurants, churches, and community centres were ordered closed.
Nobody in their lifetime has ever seen dead cities like the ones we are witnessing today.
Janitors and security who are taking care of these empty properties tell of how eery and quiet and lonely it is,
in these noiseless buildings without a human soul around.
And God asked Ezekiel in this dream: Mortal can these bones live?
Assuming this to be a rhetorical question, this should be answered with a NO.
No, it’s impossible for bones to become living again.
This defies all what we know about biology and physiology and life in general.
Bones are dead. The dead don’t rise.
But Ezekiel wisely evades the question: Lord God you know! He answers.
You asking me?
I’m obviously out of my league here, I’m just a mortal.
And God commands Ezekiel to prophecy to the bones.
To proclaim an oracle of God:
“O dry bones; hear the word of the Lord:
God says: I will cause breath to enter the bones, I will lay sinews on these bones, cause flesh to come upon you, and I will cover you with skin, and then put breath in you, so you shall live.”
And this prophecy comes to pass, well, after a second try.
After the first try, the human bodies are fully formed, but lifeless.
The breath, the spirit of the Lord needs a second cajoling for it to fully work.
This new Spirit, this New Breath, which had been previously promised to the people of Israel living in Exile, is shared.
And life returns.
The Bones represent the people of Israel who are in exile, those who had been dispersed by the war against Babylon.
The people who said: “our bones are dried up, our hope is lost, we are cut off completely.”
We are lonely, we have lost our sense of being, we don’t know where we are, who we are anymore!
Our routines are broken up, our daily schedule is thrown out of whack, our sense of purpose is deleted.
But the promise is there: God will open your graves, and bring you up from the tombs, and you will meet and gather again and party with your friends.
There is renewed hope.
God will bring you back to the promised land, the land of covenant,
(where things will be OK and normal).
God will put God’s spirit within you!
You shall live!
And the point of this: is for you to know that God is the Lord!!
The point of this restoration, is greater relationships!
Both with God and with neighbour.
The rescued redeemed sing with praise: “God is the Lord!”
Now Ezekiel’s vision is not a straightforward allegory of Israel in exile.
It’s actually kind of complicated, but that’s part of why it’s such a great passage and why we can still use it today.
Otherwise it would be just a dusty text we use to refer to a specific historical context in 580 BCE which doesn’t speak to us in March 2020.
Now it’s important to remember what this passage from Ezekiel is and what it isn’t.
It’s a dream, a vision, a metaphor.
It’s not about physiology, and it’s not a horror movie of a zombie apocalypse.
The image of the valley of dry Bones exudes a ”dusty sense of hopelessness that the exiles would ever find their way home”.
The image of dry bones, cluttered about, with no sense of purpose or hope should resonate clearly with us on this Sunday in Lent.
In “normal times” we might characterize our dry bones as representing for example: lost relationships, low energy, diminished potential, ill health, loneliness, or sense of distance to God.
And now, in March 2020, all of these apply but even more so:
the dry bones are exemplified by
Lost employment, lost businesses, uncertainty as to the future, vulnerable populations at increased risk of the coronavirus, and loneliness due to self-isolation and quarantine.
My experience over the past two weeks has been
that I am often disoriented
(and wonder what day it is),
I am often stressed, sometimes tired, often worried,
observing every cold-like symptom like a hypochondriac.
The St. Matthews building is very quiet, the office is like dead,
although occasionally Scott, Konrad or Larry pops in to say hi.
However I have calmed down a bit as the new normal sets in,
and the initial important Board decisions have been made.
One helpful post I read was the one entitled “Nobody signed up for this!”
From a Chapel Hill Professor’s revised syllabus (Brandon Bayne)
Recognizing that we did not sign up for this:
Not for the sickness, not for the social distancing…
We are going to prioritize supporting each other as humans
We will remain flexible and adjust to the situation.
Nobody knows where this is going and what we’ll need to adapt…
Everybody needs support and understanding in this unprecedented moment.
The Story of displacement, of exile and return,
is a primary theme in the Bible.
We are in exile right now.
Our enforced sabbath, whether self-imposed, or forced-upon by medical authorities or the government,
gives us pause to contemplate our dusty and dried-up bones.
In our time of exile, we have too much time on our hands to wonder and worry and bemoan.
(unless you’re in an essential business or in the medical profession, then you’re probably overworked beyond capacity).
In Babylonian exile, the people of Israel did some real soul-searching about their values, priorities and theologies, as their entire worldview was turned upside down.
We are in a similar place now.
What have you learned so far from your COVID-19 experience?
What have you learned from this brief period of dry bones
(these past 2 weeks)?
If we see this time as a spiritual journey, what is there to learn?
What can your spiritual dry bones now teach you?
This may be a “Dark night of the soul” for you, where doubts, hopelessness, depression, fear and anxiety, or the sense of disconnectedness and dislocation are taking over.
On the other hand, there might be silver linings and new opportunities or new ways of thinking.
For myself, what I have learned:
Is that we humans (and creation) are resilient,
I see people coming together for a common cause esp. in the sciences,
I have seen the power of togetherness, esp. with video-conferencing and computer technologies.
I see the environment bouncing back.
I’m noticing cool stuff happening in churches, things being shaken up and people envisioning what community can be like,
what church really is about,
not just about bricks and mortar but about relationships, and gathering, across time and space, with global connections.
New digital forms of community and worship are spouting up.
And I have a renewed appreciation for our Golden Hour to reach people wherever they are.
What makes me sad is the shadow side of all this:
The hoarding, the selfishness,
the ignoring of sensible advice that still goes on.
Furthermore I’m sad about how this situation is intensifying mental illness,
Making things worse for the most marginalized
(the refugees, the homeless, the poor),
I lament the rise of domestic violence,
And the increased number of people and businesses in desperate financial situations.
But our passage from Ezekiel,
this vision of the dry bones being rescued reminds us that
“God is willing to breathe into us and fill us once more with the transformation that allows us to be a part of the kingdom of God”.
God will sustain us and comfort us through these times.
Just let God’s Spirit blow,
and “offer our bones up to God for the breath of restoration and resurrection”!
God’s Spirit blew for the people of Israel 2,500 years ago,
and it blows even today.
These dusty bones and this vision of new breath, new spirit, evokes hope!
Based on the “more fundamental hope for the resurrection of the dead that is the source of all hope”
“the chief model of all the deliverances that believers experience in this world” according to Calvin.”
Hope of new life after death is the crux of the Christian worldview,
The reason to keep on trudging, day in and day out.
This passage at the end, is about new possibilities,
New life and new hope,
and reminding us of God the true shepherd
Who promises Blessings to us,
A God who says: You shall shoot out your branches and yield fruit (ch 36).
The passage speaks hope and promise to us (which we so desperately need in these desperate times.)
God will give us a new heart, and will place his spirit of Truth in us.
God’s Word will provide sustenance to our dried-up hearts,
and living water to our parched souls.
God will calm our anxious minds and breathe comfort into our existence.
May the Spirit touch and mend
and rouse your dry bones
from the grave this week. Amen.