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Every Tuesday I come into church and one of the first things I do after entering my office is water the plants that I have lined up along the window-ledge. The one I’m proudest of is a poinsettia that was given to me probably about three Christmases ago. I keep it in the dark from time to time to see if its leaves will come out red and I’m always pleased and amazed when they do. There’s something highly symbolic in tending plants. Dan and I have done our best to keep all the church plants alive through the last year and almost a half, and I’ve found something very meaningful in it.
One day a few weeks ago I noticed that the plant on the end of the row didn’t seem to be doing very well. I kept on watering it though. After a few weeks, it seemed that the plant was actually no longer alive. I still kept on watering it. I know it’s often said that the definition of insanity is repeating the same process expecting a different result. I can’t say as I agree with that statement. I prefer to think of it as relentless optimism!
Or maybe I was living in the space between human failure and divine possibility.
Either way, there was no come-back for my end-of-the-row plant. How can something that is dead live again, after all? Would such a belief be insane?
Or would we who hold such a belief be said to be living between human failure and divine possibility? We who follow Christ describe ourselves as post-Easter people. Post-resurrection people. Of course, you can’t have resurrection without death. I know these are heavy topics to be discussing on a summer morning, but if you’re participating in Christian worship on a midsummer morning (or whenever you might be watching) I know you can handle it. We are post-resurrection people and you don’t have resurrection without death, dislocation, disconnection.
But why wouldn’t we want to talk of such things? I wonder how many of us are feeling dislocated and disconnected. How many people around us are feeling dislocated and disconnected? I have felt both keenly over the last year. I read a description of Ezekiel that goes like this – “Ezekiel is a transitional character writing in times of dramatic change. A priest without a temple, called to the prophetic office, an exile without a country, writing to his fellow exiles, a public figure for a while without a voice.” We’re not living in national exile. When Ezekiel is set down by the spirit of the Lord in the middle of this valley, Judah has fallen to the kingdom of Babylon. Jerusalem has fallen. The best and brightest of its citizens carried north into exile. “In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the exiles by the river Chebar…” This is how the book starts. A people in exile. A people who had become disconnected from the roots, from each other. The most famous thing about the book of Ezekiel is probably the African American spiritual “Dem Bones.” For many children, through the years it was their first lesson in human anatomy, and I don’t think there’s a more detailed description of human anatomy in the Bible than the one we have here. For the people of Israel in exile, these words of Ezekiel were a promise of restoration. They were a promise from God that the nation of Israel would be restored in some way. The promise made to Abraham that he would be the father of a great nation through whom all the nations of the world would be blessed would not go unfulfilled. There would be a homecoming for these oppressed people. The song “Dem Bones” was also born out of oppression. The oppression, disconnection, dislocation, death that characterized chattel slavery – a system that reduced women and men and children made in the image of God to property. Here’s how one writer describes the song: “Some versions pose a question, “How did de bones get together?” Slaves were a group, like the exiles, scattered to the four winds and disconnected from one another. Further social fragmentation occurred as families were separated at slave auction blocks and children were sold from plantations. “Dem Bones” sings of the hope of reconnecting, of families reunited, and a community restored. As each bone is connected to the next bone, when one African American is connected to another, they will be able to “rise an’ hear de the word of de Lord.””
How fragmented are we feeling these days? Fragmented from our families? From our churches? From God? It can’t just be me surely. Think of how entire communities have been fragmented by war, by natural disaster, by drought, by government policy, by economic forces. Think of all this as we consider Ezekiel being brought by the spirit of the Lord to this valley which is filled with disarticulated, desiccated bones. Ezekiel was led all around them and we can imagine his discomfort. On top of the fact that it’s an unnerving situation, he’s a priest and it’s not kosher for a priest to have contact with a dead body (or parts thereof in this case). It’s uncomfortable but it doesn’t do us good to ignore dislocation and disconnection. Before the gospel is good news there is bad news. There’s nothing Ezekiel can do about the situation in which he finds himself. There were very many bones lying in the valley and they were very dry. They had been there for a while.
Then comes the question. We often think of the Bible as a book we go to in order to have our questions answered as if I had the slightest idea what questions I should be asking it. We do well to consider the Bible as the word of God that asks questions of us. Sometimes the questions are quite pointed, and this is the case in verse 3. “Mortal, can these bones live?”
On the surface of things, this question is ridiculous. Everyone knows that something that is dead is dead. This is the question the story is asking and how we answer it will determine in large part how we live. “How then can we live?” is actually another great question that is posed in Ezekiel 33:10. “What then should we do?” is another great question which is posed to John the Baptist by the crowds to whom he’s preaching in Luke 3. When we come to the word of God what questions is it posing of us?
“Mortal, can these bones live?” What do we say? Ezekiel doesn’t come up with an easy “of-course” affirmation. He doesn’t come up with a pious platitude, nor does he answer with a response reflective of the seeming hopelessness of the situation. Living in that spot between human frailty/failure and divine possibility, Ezekiel answers “O Lord God, you know.” “Who knows if he will turn and relent and leave a blessing behind him?” the prophet Joel declared. “Who knows? Maybe you have come to royal dignity for such a time as this,” was how Uncle Mordecai put it to his niece Esther. Who knows you, daughter of the King – maybe you have come to royal dignity for such a time as this. Who knows, you son of the King, maybe you have come to royal dignity for such a time as this.
The older I get the more I become aware of how much I don’t know. The older I get, the more sure I am of the One who knows. I’m ok with not knowing because I know the One who knows! “O Lord God, you know.” The older I get and the more I get to know Him the more assured I am that He is the one who brings life.
The older I get the more I want to declare “Great Are You, Lord!”
“Prophesy to these bones and say to them: O dry bones hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall 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 you shall know that I am the Lord.”
I will give you life, and you will live, and you will know me, in other words. This is what God does. We answer the question “How then shall we live?” in all the wrong ways. We look for life in all the wrong places (in too many faces), thinking that we need to come up with a solution to our disarticulation and dislocation and desiccation and disassociation – and the amazing thing was that the whole time we were looking we didn’t need to be looking at all. We simply needed to let ourselves be found by the one who brings life. Prophesy to the bones, says the Lord and this message is not just for the priests and prophets – this is why we talk about the priesthood of all believers yes? We talk about the priesthood of all followers of Christ, who brings life because this commission is laid on each and every one of us. To tell of the one who brings life and of what he does and what he will one day do (long view again and we’ll come back to this next week when we look at Romans 8). To tell of Him with our words and with our deeds. Ezekiel was called to tell of God not just with his words but with a lot of symbolic action.
When we do this, things start to happen. Things start to get shaken up. “So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to bone…” When God is at work bringing life, it’s noticeable. Things start to happen. Ways begin to change. Things we used to do we find we don’t do anymore. Things we never did we begin to do.
Of course, none of this happens without the Spirit of God in us. This prophecy meant something fairly immediate to the exiles to whom Ezekiel brought this message. They would be restored to Israel, they would be brought back under the order of the Persian king Cyrus. It would be a few hundred years later though, that this promise of the Spirit would come about with a sound (again) of a rushing wind. “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breath upon these slain, that they may live.” So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.”
Dem bones, dem bones gonna walk around. These bones have been enlivened for a purpose, not simply for their own benefit. They stood on their feet, a vast multitude – the same sort of language one would use to describe an army.
Because we are in a battle dear brothers and sisters, not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness (living as we do between ages, between human frailty and divine possibility), against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Who are all about dislocation and disassociation and dissension and desiccation?
So let’s get to walking yes? How’s our walk? How’s our way? How’s our halakh going (seeing as we’re in a Hebrew text here)? How are we being called to tell of the one who is life and love in our words and in our deeds? This past week we had a great example of someone who was called to tell of life and love in words and deeds to our children and indeed any children (or adults for that matter). It’s hard to believe two months have almost gone by since we first met Drew, and she followed a call that God placed on her heart to tell and show of the One who created life and the One who brings life in a series of videos which we published every day this last week on the church’s YouTube channel and which will be up there for a while to be seen by the people God purposes to see them. She did this creatively and from scratch and it was a blessing to me and many others.
And so friends may we, as the song goes, hear the Word of the Lord every day and take it to heart. May we like Ezekiel listen to the command of God to tell and show of the one who brings life, pray to the Spirit to fill and enliven, that we might live for Him and know Him and make Him known wherever He might place us. May these things be true for all of us. Amen