Transcribed from the sermon preached April 2, 2017
The Reverend Max Lynn, Pastor
Scripture Readings: Romans 8:1-11, Ezekiel 37:1-14
Can you remember the first time you saw a skeleton? A squirrel, a coyote or a cow maybe. I think the first skeleton I saw in nature was a coyote, down in the southern California desert. It was hot and dry and so were the bones, dried up and fallen apart. My father would use the occasion to teach me about biology, yet there is something creepy about realizing this was something that had been alive but was now long since dead. It was probably a museum where most of us saw our first human skeleton. I think the image of the skeleton has got to be a Jungian archtype, for which there is a myriad of feelings that come automatically, inherited from the collective unconscious. Skeletons remind us of our mortality, that our breath and flesh and blood will one day cease to flow and will dry up. Most of us would rather not spend much time around or thinking about skeletons. I’m sure that is why we humans began burying our dead, and sticking them into closets.
Skeletons often work well in drama and story. In psychology, or just conventional wisdom, there are certain aspects to ourselves, our families, our nation that we would rather not deal with –slavery, abuse, alcoholism and lack of love. Maybe there are parts of us, experiences in our lives or our family, battles lost that invoke fear, weakness, guilt, or shame, so we stuff them in the closet, down in the valley of our psyche. We try to shake them off, pretend they are not there, but they still frighten us. They still haunt our dreams.
Ezekial dreams, and finds himself carried away to a valley, a valley of dry bones. It is probably a known scene to his audience, the site of a horrible battle in or around 597 where Babylon destroyed the forces of Israel and left the bodies there to decay. The survivors of the war, at least the ruling elite are dragged off into exile. It could have been worse. The Babylonians allowed the conquered people to live as part of Babylonian culture, to work and marry and have homes. They probably put the educated and experienced to work in the service of the empire.
But the loss of family members, the destruction of the cities and the temple, being dragged off into exile sapped the spirit from them. They were just going through the motions. Their dreams seemed to be crushed. They had lost their sense of purpose and meaning.
Before they got to such a dire place, there were some warnings. The prophets had been angry at them for selling out their faith, first for profit and then fear in their interactions with the empires surrounding them. The prophets, like Ezekial, said, watch out, God’s judgement is coming. God’s judgement came. Now did that mean that God’s spirit had abandoned them? Had God decided to toss them aside in favor of the Babylonians? Were they left alone, Godless, destroyed, with nothing to do but succumb to vultures, hyenas, scavengers, wind, sun and dust?
Before we answer that question it is worthy to note Ezekial’s and Jesus’ relationsip. We might think that the prophets who are so angry and critical of the nation’s leaders might, cheer at the fall of the nation. After all, they were right. And it is often hard for a society to tell the difference between those who seek in their criticism to destroy a nation because they hate it, and those whose criticism seeks to redeem the nation because they love it and hope that it would live up to all God calls it to be. Reinhold Niebuhr writes, “Idolatry, the sin of making the finite an infinite end…is almost congenital to statism…The national mind, not having the agility and refinement of the self-critical individual, is unable to distinguish between a healthy self-criticism and a dangerous form of inner conflict. So “Nations crucify their moral rebels with their criminals upon the same Golgotha, not being able to distinguish between the moral idealism which surpasses, and the antisocial conduct which falls below that moral mediocrity, on the level of which every society unifies its life.”
But even though Ezekial pronounced God’s judgment on Israel, and he was no doubt criticized for being un-patriotic, when the judgement came to pass, he was heartbroken. Probably more heartbroken than those leaders who held on so tight to their wealth and power that they didn’t listen and lost it all. And this is one of the great things about the Bible, the prophets are included. We know that the winners write history, so that those who take power of the state write about how worthy they are of having that power. And that is true in the Bible as well. But in the Bible, the critics get written into the national story as well. Now typically, the prophets are put in by rivals to that power. Nevertheless this sets up and even sanctifies an ongoing self-criticism, a check and balance, and it gives space for God to be present in both victory and defeat, up in the light of the mountain top and down in the darkness of our valleys, closets and dreams. We need people to root for us, people who will tell us we are great and cheer our victories. And certainly we will run into people who for whatever reason want to cut us down, to suck the spirit out of us. It is alright to resist or avoid those folks, but we need prophets, people who love us and precisely because they don’t want the spirit sucked out of us will tell it to us straight. We shouldn’t just look for people to pretend with us that everything is rosy when it isn’t. Find a person or two or three who will grieve with you and challenge you with God’s word when you need it.
At the point of Ezekial’s vision, however, it appears that all is lost, that the vision and relationship of the people of God with God is finished, dried up with those bones whose flesh and breath is long since gone, lost in the brutal defeat of a lopsided war. The Spirit of God seems to have abandoned them. They may not all be poor in Babylon but they are depressed and just going about their lives with no sense of meaning or purpose, no sense of a future. They are as dry as the bones in that field.
We as a nation, but also each of us as individuals have our ups and downs. We will have times of defeat, times when our sin, our attempts to deny our finitude and fallibility lead us down into valleys of dry bones, where our faith dries up, our soul dries up, and we wonder if God has abandoned us.
But the beauty of this vision of Ezekiel’s is that God is still there. Even with the dry bones. God has not abandoned us, even where we have abandoned Her. The Ruah of God, the Spirit is alive and eternal, and God calls the prophet to command flesh back onto those bones, and Spirit to bring them back to life.
Paul says, If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.
We are children of God, and no matter how lonely and dry life may get, God is still with us. In fact, it may be that we have to die to ourselves and our own efforts, to experience defeat from our mistakes, to be open once again to the life giving Spirit. May Christ be the first and the last person in our lives, the one who loves us enough to challenge us, the one who when we are defeated, loves us still, and raises us with him to new life.