Sunday, December 3, 2017

Living in Exile

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “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.”

So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “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.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.”Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. Ezekiel 37:1-14 (NRSV)

Last week we talked about how God is with us--with all of God’s people--even in our fiery furnaces. 

Our reading today is from the prophet Ezekiel. It’s the reading of the Valley of the Dry Bones. For many of us, I think, this is perhaps the only reading we know or that we’ve heard from Ezekiel. I would guess that we know it most likely because we are familiar with the song connected to the story. Do you know which song I mean?

Yes, the song “Dem Bones.” You know it, don’t you? It's a lot of fun. Yet, it doesn’t begin to capture how truly gruesome Ezekiel’s vision really is. 

The prophet Ezekiel had been a priest at the temple in Jerusalem. He had been part of the first group of exiles taken into captivity. Actually, he and the other exiles he was with had been forced to walk to Babylon. By the time of this vision in our story today, all of Israel was now exiled. They had experienced the destruction of city and nation, the downfall of their monarchy, the loss of their temple and, as a result, the center of their religious life, and, amidst the horror of all of this, they had been forced to walk to Babylon. To the land from where their earliest ancestor, Abraham, had come.

They thought that the end of the dynasty of King David and the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem meant that their covenant with God had ended. That all hope of restoration for their country was lost. For just a moment, imagine that you are one of the Israelites in exile. God promised you that you would be God’s special people, a great multitude, as many as the stars in the sky, that you would be blessed so that you could be a blessing to others, and that God would always be with you. God promised you a king, a land of your own, and a special relationship that was developed through the rituals in the temple, in the one place where God dwelled on earth.

All of that is now gone. You live in another land. There is no Israelite nation. There is no Davidic king. There is no temple. Is there also no God? Or is this a sign that God is no longer with you? How would you feel in this situation?

The people were in deep despair. Without hope. It is no wonder then, that in Ezekiel’s metaphorical vision, they are pictured as dry bones. Bones after bones after bones in this valley. Dead. Without life. Formless and shapeless. 

But, then, God tells Ezekiel to speak to them. To prophesy. To speak to them the word of the Lord. 

Ezekiel hears it before he sees it. The bones begin to rattle. And then they begin to come together, bone to bone. And then the tendons and the muscles and flesh begin to cover the bones. Yet, as Ezekiel watches, he sees that even though the bones have been re-formed, re-created into bodies, there is no life in them. No breath.

Then God tells Ezekiel to, once again, prophesy. To tell the winds to blow and to breathe into these bodies. To breathe life into these bodies. Into this people. In the very same way that God breathed life into all humanity at creation. (Pause and unmute.)

This prophecy of Ezekiel’s is a vision of hope for Israel. It is a promise for them that, even though they now are exiled, that they have lost everything, that they are dead and lifeless, God will restore them. That God will breathe new life into them. That’s the promise. That God will return them back to their land. 

But, this vision of life does not picture a life that is exactly as it was before their exile. It is a promise of a re-created people. A transformed community. It is not just about restoration. But, it is about transformation. Because God is always creating. Always transforming.

 And yet, it is a resurrection that also has continuity. The people of God will still be the people of God. Israel will still be Israel.  But they will be a transformed people of God.

Transformation and continuity. This is also the story of the work of Father Greg Boyle. Father Greg, or “G” as the gang-bangers of east L.A. call him, is a Jesuit priest working in an area in Los Angeles that has the largest concentration of gang members in the world.

Over the past 30 years, he has witnessed the transformation of many homeboys through the ministry of his parish. Transformation. Transformation and continuity. For once a homeboy, always a homeboy. One such story is that of Bandit, a gang banger from the Aliso Village Housing Project in Los Angeles. Let’s listen as Father Greg tells his story

And the soul feels its worth. Isn’t this the story of Israel? Exiled. Yet, still loved by God and finding its worth in that love. Still given hope. Promised restoration, transformation.

Isn’t this our story, especially in our world today? Often feeling hopeless, despairing of difficulties in our lives or in our country. Feeling separated from each other, or from loved ones who may live far away or who are, perhaps, no longer alive. Like those dry, dry bones in the valley. 

And yet, we, like Israel, hold fast to the hope given to us. A hope that comes to us through the new life we have in Christ. A hope that is renewed this Advent as we are reminded of God coming into our world. In Jesus. Emmanuel. God with us. 

God kept God’s promise to Israel. May we continue to hold fast to hope and to that which God has promised to us--that God’s kingdom will be restored in all its fullness here on earth with justice and with mercy. And that we will be a part of it.

May God grant it. Amen.

Preached December 10, 2017 at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY
2nd Sunday of Advent
Readings: Ezekiel 37:1-14; John 11:25-26

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