It is always true that the context of any passage of Scripture is of the utmost importance for us to understand it correctly, and I want to pay special attention to that today. Not every passage of the Bible meets us where we are right now, so we may not be able to read those passages as directly relevant to us today. But we can file them away in our memory banks to help us when a day arrives when those passages will indeed have a critical word for us.
Ezekiel ministered to the people of Israel while they were in exile in Babylon. They had lost everything. Their homes, their city, their Temple, their country, probably even members of their families. They believed God lived in the Temple and would never allow Jerusalem to fall, so either their God had been defeated or they had understood God incorrectly. They were powerless, homeless, and hopeless. Ezekiel’s call was to bring hope and encouragement to discouraged exiles.
I haven’t been in their situation, having lived a very blessed life. I have never been a prisoner of war. I have never had my country overrun by the army of Hitler. I have never experienced a divorce, or alienation from one of my parents or children. I have not experienced the unexpected, untimely death of a beloved family member. I have never lost my job or been without work or a place to live. If you have been through any of those sorts of catastrophes you do have an idea of what is like to look out over your life and see nothing but dry, dessicated bones which have no possibility of hope or life. If you have, hopefully you have experienced Ezekiel’s truth that with God nothing is impossible. A life which seems utterly without hope can be resurrected and infused with new breath, new spirit, new life, in the most surprising of ways.
These past few weeks we have been tracing the story of Israel through glimpses into the message of the prophets. They have warned the people and leaders of their country that if they don’t stop worshiping the wrong gods, treating the poor with disdain, being dishonest and immoral, there will be a price to be paid and God will not protect them from their enemies. Amos prophesies during good times that appearances are deceiving and the moral core of Israel is actually rotten. As the Babylonian army knocks on the door, Isaiah offers a surprising prophecy of hope that God will send a child who will restore the fortunes of Israel. As exiles are resettled in Babylon, Jeremiah writes them a letter saying it is all in God’s plan, that they should settle in and make the best of things until God is ready to bring them home. Daniel and his friends work for the welfare of Babylon as Jeremiah urged, but their religious beliefs kept getting them in trouble. God always came to their aid.
Each of these prophets had numerous facets to their message and we have only looked at vignettes from each. I want to read an earlier portion of Jeremiah than we looked at. Jeremiah’s ministry began several years before the first Babylonian invasion and in this early section he condemns his nation repeatedly for its wickedness. He called his neighbors out for stealing, committing murder, making offerings to other gods, then on the sabbath coming to the temple thinking that would make up for all they had done wrong, only to go right back out and start sinning again.
Part of his prophecy was a message of doom from the Lord which surely was seared into the memories of the exiles and formed the foundation for Ezekiel’s prophetic vision. Jeremiah 7, verse 33 and following: “The corpses of this people will be food for the birds of the air, and for the animals of the earth; and no one will frighten them away. And I will bring to an end the sound of mirth and gladness, the voice of the bride and the bridegroom in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem; for the land shall become a waste.
“At that time, says the Lord, the bones of the kings of Judah, the bones of its officials, the bones of the priests, the bones of the prophets, and the bones of the inhabitants of Jerusalem shall be brought out of their tombs; and they shall be spread before the sun and the moon and all the host of heaven, which they have loved and served, which they have followed, and which they have inquired of and worshiped; and they shall not be gathered or buried; they shall be like dung on the surface of the ground. Death shall be preferred to life by all the remnant that remains of this evil family in all the places where I have driven them, says the Lord of hosts.” (Jeremiah 7:33-8:3) This is the judgment Jeremiah foretold, and it is the metaphorical reality the exiles in Babylon saw as the truth of their lives. Until Ezekiel took that vision and told them the story did not end there.
Jeremiah’s vision of the valley of bones was intended to inspire people to change their ways. It did not have to become reality. It was like the Ghost of Christmas Future showing Ebenezer Scrooge what the future held for him. In response, Scrooge changed his ways. The people of Jerusalem did not.
So in exile Ezekiel told his people about a new vision in which God took that valley of dried out, dessicated bones and created people with a future that he could recreate a nation with. This did not have to become reality either. The recipients had to embrace this hope and live into it so when the time came they would be prepared to go forth and be a part of this rebirth of Israel.
So the question for us at any given time is where do we see ourselves fitting into this cycle of warning, judgment, hope, and redemption? The answers may be different for us on an individual basis as opposed to a community or national basis. The Old Testament is almost always concerned with the communal nature of life rather than individual so I’d like to focus on that as well. It is up to each of us to determine the meaning for our individual situations.
It seems to me that we are living in a day when warning alarms about brokenness and sinfulness and potential catastrophe are constantly sounding and being tuned out. Alienation and rivalry are everywhere. Black vs. White. Rich vs. Poor. Northern vs. Southern. Liberal vs. Conservative. Men vs. Women. Christian vs. Muslim. American vs. Others. The goal is not just to come out on the right side, but to destroy the other side by words and by deeds.
Jeremiah looked around in amazement at what he saw going on and said in wonderment, “When people fall down, don’t they get up again? When they get lost, don’t they try to get back to where they are supposed to be? What’s with this people who don’t act this way? They are determined to be deceitful, they don’t tell the truth, no one repents of wickedness saying, “What have I done!” It’s always someone else’s fault, or just not true or at least not provable.
This kind of hatred and working against the welfare of those who are supposed to be on the same side with us is a recipe for disaster. Jesus said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” and Abraham Lincoln used this verse in talking about our country’s division at the time of the Civil War.
When another mass shooting occurs and you assume it is a terrorist attack but learn it is again a regular American who has gone off the rails, it is disheartening, disorienting, and numbing. The landscape is a little more filled with bones. When people we have admired are accused of sexual wrongdoing we expect they are being undermined by enemies until more and more victims come forward to tell their story and the landscape is a little more filled with bones. When we hear of children dying at the hands of their parents or suffering abuse of one kind or another we struggle to make any sense at all of that and we see small bones added to the larger ones in the landscape. When we watch news channels and see nothing but people shouting at each other, accusing each other, contradicting each other, pointing fingers at each other, disdaining each other, hope just dies for me a little bit each time I experience that.
The Israelites in exile in Babylon had experienced defeat, the death of loved ones including savagery towards infants, the destruction of homes and the Temple, and the humiliation of being force marched to Babylon to live in subjection. They were tauntingly required to perform by singing their songs, just like African Americans having to sing old slave spirituals for white audiences. A year passed in exile, then five, then ten, then twenty five, then fifty. People died of old age, babies were born, members of the community got married. The hope of returning home grew more and more distant until it was like dried out bones bleaching in the sun with no hope of coming to life again.
No amount of human effort or money can bring restoration in a situation like this. But in his vision, Ezekiel is reminded that for the God who created heaven and earth and people and animals out of nothing, this is a piece of cake. C.S. Lewis wrote a book entitled Your God Is Too Small, in which he says that we have this little box of things we believe God can do but God is so much bigger than anything we can conceive of and capable of doing anything anytime. As Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” (3:18-21)
One day the Babylonian Empire looked like it was all powerful and would last forever. The next, Persia conquered it and the king, Cyrus, made the surprising announcement that any Jews who wanted to return home were free to go. Astonishing. All of a sudden the dessicated bones came together and were covered with sinews and muscles and flesh and breath was breathed into this lifeless, hopeless community, and they had a new future before them provided by God.
This is the way it is with God, and this is our ground for hope: God’s presence brings life. It is never too late. Things are never too far gone. We can turn the corner from grief into life, from enmity into acceptance and even appreciation, from alienation to reconciliation. While learning from the experience of exile, never give up on God.
The exile is about the halfway point between the exodus from Egypt and the birth of Jesus. There are five hundred years left before the coming of the Messiah. While Israel has a cyclical history of ups and downs, good leaders and bad, the overall trend is that Israel is becoming more broken and less of a factor in the world. The longing for a Messiah is getting stronger and stronger, the realization that only God can clean up this mess and make things right.
This Advent I can feel their pain, know their need, identify with their longing. Can the bones we see all around live? Can we relinquish the belief that we can handle things ourselves and let go of the illusion that everything is going to be okay? Can we abandon our arguments, our excuses, our blaming and in humility let God be God?
The valley of dry bones is a significant stop on our Advent journey, an important counterpoint to stops at stores and parties and impressive light displays. It reminds us that we humans are continuing to make a mess of things, that the world is not on a great arc whereby every day in every way we are getting better.
Can these bones live? Yes. But not by following the Republican or the Democratic agenda. Not by amassing enough wealth to feel secure from all the threats around. Not by isolating ourselves from those who are less fortunate or different. Only by letting go and letting God. Get out of the way and let God be God.
O come, Desire of nations, bind all peoples in one heart and mind; bid envy, strife, and discord cease; fill the whole world with heaven’s peace. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
December 10, 2017
Central Presbyterian Church