Sermon, Advent II, December 10, 2017 “If bones can live, why not hope” Ezekiel 37 vs. 1-14
We live in a troubled and worrisome time. In many countries, our own included, citizens are strongly divided on critical issues. The challenge for leadership in times such as ours is to work to build bridges of consensus, to speak of the higher values that unite communities and nations, and to speak with a calm assurance that by working together the people will bring resolution to those challenges and comfort for those feeling left behind in the progress of the country. We are not accustomed to these divisions and challenges in our western world and when we perceive it happening we also become aware of the incredible abuse of power by those in power. We saw this on Friday night when President Trump rallied in support of a man who stands accused by numerous women of having molested and abused them when they were teenagers and children. The President argued that it is far more important to have this man in the Senate in order to pass the President’s agenda items than it is to worry about the moral collapse that his candidacy represents. This collapse is not just for the President but the Republican Party which is funding the candidate and the Republican leadership that is supporting the candidate. In a country so divided it is seems to be acceptable for those in leadership to support anyone, even someone who had been banned from a mall for harassing young females, anyone who will give them that one needed vote to pass their agenda. All this in a country that has been viewed traditionally as the leading democracy and moral authority politically on earth.
Then in our divided world, that same President, going against the best thinking of the rest of the world, announced that he will have the US embassy moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The most divisive issue in the Holy Land since the creation of Israel after the Second World War has been the status of Jerusalem. Two peoples and three faiths claim Jerusalem as both sacred and fundamental to their faith. Two peoples claim the land as fundamental to their future. The region has been in a constant state of war, or the threat of war, since the creation of the modern Israel and at the heart of the concern, the issue which must be resolved if there is ever to be peace, is the ancient city of Jerusalem.
The tensions caused by one leader of one country may indeed affect the entire world. I need not remind you of Mr. Trump’s childish behaviour toward the president of North Korea. Childish behaviour, yes, but his behaviour is also a threat to the whole Asian region and indeed the world. Canadians, as with the rest of the world, really have no way to influence or educate someone who would rather have one vote at any cost as he simultaneously further divides the Holy Land and threatens nuclear war in Asia. We find ourselves standing looking at a wasteland where life once flourished and now is so imperiled. We do not see bones, as did Ezekiel, but we see the work of the nations of the world over many, many decades, laid waste by one man and his winner takes all view of the world. It is, in our day, our valley of dry bones.
This is not all Mr. Trump’s doing of course. Over the last many years the conditions which allow for his type of leadership to prevail in the most powerful country on earth, and increasingly in other countries as well, have been quietly festering away until that moment when it all became possible for lies to be presented as truths, and truths to be dismissed as fake news, and men who are not allowed in malls in order to protect young woman to be touted as essential to the future of America. One is tempted to laugh but for the seriousness of the consequences of these actions. At least half of the US population and a very large majority of the world stand and stare at this valley of dry bones and wonder how we can put the world back together again. It is entirely justifiable for the world to be in a global sense of despair.
Ezekiel was ordered to speak to all those people for whom life felt like being exiled and/or living in a time of deep despair. For the first 36 chapters of Ezekiel the prophecy was always about judgement, reminding the Hebrew people why they were in exile and emphasizing that exile was their punishment. When God saw how utterly desperate the people had become the message changed. With the metaphor of the valley of dry bones Ezekiel was to introduce a new promise to the people of Israel. The promise was this: even when in exile and in the depth of despair, there is hope. With this message God also introduced the beginning of a sense of resurrection. Yes, these bones are dead, picked clean even, yet God is still present, God remains in charge and God has the power to restore life, albeit life in a way that had not been previously experienced nor perhaps even imagined.
Into a situation so totally devoid of life, dry bones in a barren land, God says: “…I will cause breath to enter you and you will live. 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 know that I am the Lord.” God is promising to restore the community of people to a new life. God achieves this in classic God ways: blowing the spirit of God into their lives, just as the spirit first hovered over the waters in creation, and was blown into the clay figure to give it life, and now causing the wind to restore that which was thought to be dead. Ezekiel reminds us that we need God to breathe life back into our lives and that in restoring our lives God gives us the gift of the Holy Spirit. With the Spirit we can make a difference no matter how dry the bones, barren the landscape or oppressive those in power might appear to be. Scripture is not something that gives us easy answers that help us to look at our world and say “oh alright, I do not have to worry.” Scripture is not like a Tylenol tablet to take away a headache. What Scripture does do though is to remind us that God takes a long view of life in God’s world and that we should as well. Where we find situations that cause us to despair there may not be immediate and easy answers, yet one thing remains true: we are not alone, even in a valley of dry bones, we live in God’s world.
This is not in any way a message that says “don`t worry, be happy, all will be fine”. You cannot stand in the valley of dry bones and anticipate easy answers. Death or loss of a relationship, or friendship, even of a dream is very real. Loss hurts. Loss causes us to suffer. Life is diminished and one’s quality of life suffers. Prof. Craig Koester suggests: Ezekiel’s message is that the God who gives life can meet you here. The God who gives life is not absent from this despair but can be present and at work here even in those places where death feels all too real. God offers a future in the face of death. Ezekiel lays out God’s promise and begins to point to what we will experience at Christmas and eventually Easter. There is still almost 600 years to go from the time of this story to the birth of Jesus but we find here the first note that God’s ultimate intention is not judgement but resurrection. For those 6 centuries the story of God’s faithful people would be on a trajectory towards Christmas for even before the birth of the child in Bethlehem they had experienced and known the birth of hope.
So we must resist what some see as the future of the world. God has offered life to the dry bones and those who seek to divide, to despoil, and to destroy all that has gone before and all that which has been the basis for moving forward do not offer life. Under their watch the bodies of governance, decency and justice see their very flesh fall away. God’s promise though is that such death will not last. To a people fearful for their future and longing to have a renewed sense of community, of life together where the goal is to serve the needs of all equitably with decency and respect, God says these bones will rise again. These bones are enough for the whole house to be restored and renewed.
Prof. Brent Strawn points out that “…not to be missed, however, is how God accomplishes these things among the exiles is through the breath of one of their fellow exiles, the prophet Ezekiel: breath form his lungs, forced out over the vocal cords, shaped into sounds by lips and tongue, expressed as words—God’s words that brought hope to those who felt like they were so far gone that no one and nothing could reach them.” Yet God did reach them, the dry bones did live again, and the people had a vision of hope for surely if bones can live, why not hope?