Sunday 2 April 2017
The Fifth Sunday in Lent
The vision recorded by Ezekiel comes at a difficult time for the people of Israel. They have been defeated by King Nebuchadnezzar the Great of the Babylonian Empire. The Temple of God in Jerusalem has been destroyed. The King of Judah has been deposed. Most of the people have been carried away from their homes, deported into exile in Babylon.
For the people of Israel, this is nothing short of the end of the world. God had always promised that they were the chosen people. God had promised that a Judean king would always sit on the throne of David in Jerusalem. God had promised to live among the people, to make a home in the Temple of Jerusalem.
But now the people are scattered. Is God still with them in a foreign land? Now the king is gone. Has God been defeated by the Chaldeans of Babylon? Now the temple is destroyed. Does God even still dwell on earth now that God’s home, the temple, has been reduced to dust? Where is God? Has God forsaken the chosen people? Has the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob been defeated by Marduk and the gods of the Babylonians?
These were the questions on the minds of the people when one day, the spirit of God came upon Ezekiel and gave him a divine revelation. He was taken in the spirit to a desert valley. And in the valley, spread out all around him, in every direction, there were human bones, scattered and mingled amongst one another in a horrible puzzle of death and destruction. And when he looked at the bones piled up all around him, he noticed that they were all very dry. These people had been dead a long time, and there was no life left in them.
Now I don’t know how many of you have ever had a dream that you knew was from God. Some of you have, I’m sure. But let me tell you, this dream of Ezekiel’s is not the kind of dream that anyone would want to have. It’s more like a horror film, or some scene from The Lord of the Rings or Indiana Jones than like anything we would expect or hope to hear from God. Stranded in the middle of a valley full of dry bones? That’s not a vision, it’s a nightmare. But that is how the people of Israel felt: dead, dry, lifeless, hopeless.
There are a lot of people who feel that way about the church in general. Not here specifically, but across the nation in all sorts of mainline Protestant denominations. They look at the church now and they see a church in decline, a church that is bound to atrophy away and die a slow, painful death. They think back to a time when they remember the church being strong and vibrant. Some remember the 1950’s and 60’s, when church membership was at its zenith, when church was the place to see and be seen, when just about everyone was expected to go to church. There were over 10 million United Methodists and 9 million Lutherans in the United States. Now, there are only about 7 million of each. And it can be hard to look back at those times and not think that the church is dying, that it is shriveling up into nothing.
When Ezekiel was there, among all those dry bones, God spoke to him and told him to prophesy to the bones. Now, if you thought this was a scary dream before, well, this is when things start to get truly terrifying.
All of the dry bones lying in the valley start floating up and flying around. And they start to find their matches and begin connecting together. And before long, there is an entire army of skeletons surrounding Ezekiel on every side.
And then as he watches, sinew and muscles start to grow on the skeletons, and organs start to appear. And then skin starts to grow on the outside of the muscle. And pretty soon, instead of being surrounded by skeletons, Ezekiel is surrounded by corpses. Hundreds and thousands of corpses standing all around him. What a graphic and terrifying image that is.
But, Ezekiel tells us, there was no breath in those bodies. They had been just a heap of dry bones, and now they were restored to flesh and blood, but they were still dead. An army of zombies. They had no breath in them.
Now here is where we need a short vocabulary lesson. The Hebrew word that is translated here as breath is רוּחַ, and it occurs 10 times in this passage of scripture. Now, if you open your Bible and try to find the word “breath” in this passage, you won’t be able to find it 10 times. Depending on your translation, you will only find it 5 or 7 times. That’s because the word רוּחַ doesn’t just mean breath. It also means wind, and it also means spirit. We think of breath, wind, and spirit as three different things. But in both Hebrew and in Greek, they are all one and the same. The breath is the spirit, the spirit is the wind, and the wind is the breath. And so when we read “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.” we have to understand that wind and breath and spirit are all the same thing. God is calling the four winds to come and to blow into those dead bodies, to breathe into them, to inspire them with the spirit of life. God says, “Come and make these dead bodies alive.”
It’s like that story at the beginning of the Bible, in Genesis 2, when God forms Adam out of the dust. And even though his body is fully formed, there is no breath in him, there is no spirit in him. And God breathes into him, God fills him with breath and wind and spirit, and he becomes alive. That act of creation is being repeated here, but this time as an act of resurrection. God is taking that which has died and is breathing new life into it.
And God tells Ezekiel, “This is what I am doing for the house of Israel. They think that they are dead and gone. They think that the world has ended, that their existence is over. But I have news for them. I have not abandoned them. This is not the end; this is a new beginning. This is not the end of life; this is a chance for new life.”
And it can be that for us, also. Yes, it’s easy to get discouraged. Churches used to have more members. There used to be more people in worship. We used to have programs that we don’t have any more. But that’s missing the point. God is not concerned about what we used to be. God is only concerned about what we are going to be. And what we are going to be is inspired.
Look at what God has already done here in this place. God has already taken our broken and scattered bones and stitched them back together. And right now God is putting new flesh and new skin on our bodies. And God is ready to do more. God is ready and waiting to breathe new life into us, to fill us to overflowing with God’s spirit, and to set us on our way. God is ready, God is able, God is willing. In fact, God has already begun.
The question is, are we ready? Or would we rather lament what we think we have lost, pine for the good old days? Sometimes even pine for the bad old days, and how nice and dry and clean and bleached those bones used to be. What do we think we have lost that we had back then? Have we lost God?
No! By no means! God is still with us. And God is making us into something new and exciting. God is reforming us, and resurrecting us, and breathing new life into us right at this moment. We just need to get out of our own way so we can accept the gift of grace that God is offering. We need to loosen our grip on our preconceived notions of success, to loosen our grip on our yearning for the past, to loosen our grip on our grief over what used to be, loosen our grip so we can simply trust in God. Simply trust that God has a plan for us. Simply trust that God will do what God has promised, that God is making something new in our midst, that God is blowing through this place with the winds of change, filling us with the spirit, and breathing into us the breath of life.
A new wind is coming. And it is the wind of the spirit and breath of God. Do you feel it? Can you hear it? Do you see its effects? Will you let it breathe in you? It’s not going to make things the way they used to be. That’s not how God’s spirit works. What it will do, if we let it, is make things new. What it will do, if we let it, is make things vibrant and alive. What it will do, if we let it, is introduce us to new people with new ideas. What it will do, if we let it, is open us up to the community around us, deploy us in mission with our neighbors, build new relationships with those who until now were strangers. What it will do, if we let it—and this is the hardest thing of all—what it will do, if we let it, is change our minds, change our hearts, change our lives.
A new wind is blowing. It is the wind of the spirit and breath of God. Do you feel it? Can you hear it? Do you see its effects? Will you let it breathe in you?