Sunday, April 10, 2011

5th Sunday of Lent - April 10, 2011

Imagine walking out of the church and over to the cemetery.  But instead of looking at the gravestones that neatly kept and cared for, imagine instead look off to the East, over the plain and over the rolling hills towards Highway 75.   Instead of dried up grass and unplanted fields, imagine a sea of bones, corpses picked dry by the vultures and baked white by the sun.  This is the scene that God presents to the prophet Ezekiel in our reading this morning, a field of death. 

Now of course, the point of the vision is not death, but life.  We read the lesson today to hear not about dead bones, but resurrection.  Nevertheless, we must attend to death for awhile.  We must take a closer look at the bones as they lie. 

We need some context for all of these bones.  Why are there so many bones?  Why are they lying out in a field and not properly buried?  This isn’t a normal scene for us to be seeing.  It must have some explanation.  And so it does.

The story all begins like this.  Back in Genesis, God chose Abraham.  He told him, “I will give you descendants more numerous than the stars in the sky.”  This was the first indication that God was going to choose a people and give them a promise.  Beyond that, God also promised Abraham his own country, the Promised Land.  And he also promised that through him and his descendents other nations would be blessed.  For a childless man who was 75 years old at the time it sounded like a pretty good promise indeed.  The ball got rolling pretty slowly, but finally at the age of one hundred, the first descendent, the heir of the promise, Isaac, is born. 

In Exodus, we meet a large group of Abraham’s descendents who are slaves of Pharoah down in Egypt.  God uses Moses to bring his people out of Egypt, across the Red Sea and into the wilderness.  It turns out they don’t have much faith in God, so instead of getting into the Promised Land, they stay in that wilderness for 40 years until a new generation is born and grows up to replace the unfaithful ones.  And so then they finally get into the Promised Land. 

As the years go by, the people go through cycles of faithfulness and unfaithfulness.  When they screw things badly enough, God punishes them.  Then they call out to God for his help.  God has mercy on them.  And then they forget and they screw things up badly again.  God punishes them.  Then they call out to God for his help.  God has mercy on them.  And then they forget and they screw things up badly again.  This goes on for centuries.  During this time we meet people like Samson, King David, King Solomon, Elijah, and Isaiah.  During this time the Temple is built and becomes the center of worship.  These are the glory years of Israel.

Finally, there comes a point when God says, “I am going to raise up a people called the Babylonians and they will destroy Jerusalem and take you prisoner and lead you OUT of the Promised Land.”  This does indeed happen.  The Babylonians come with a huge army.  They conquer all the towns in the countryside and then finally lay siege to Jerusalem.  It is a horrible time.  Many, many people die; Jerusalem gets leveled; the Temple gets leveled; the people are carted off to Babylon as slaves. 

At this point, everything has fallen apart.  There is no hope.  They have no homeland.  No temple.  No King.  No nothing.  The promise has been squandered and the fat lady is singing for Israel

It is at this point that the prophet Ezekiel has his vision.  The bones in the field are the descendents of Abraham, the Israelites, the people who have been unfaithful.  They have been  killed and left out in the field by the Babylonians, because God has pronounced a judgment against them for their unfaithfulness.  These are not random bones nor are they merely bones in a vision.  These are the bones of the people who have squandered the promise and rejected their God.

God comes to Ezekiel and he shows him this vision and he asks him an extraordinary question, “Can these bones live?”  God was asking Ezekiel, “Will I have mercy on my people?  Can I give them the promise again, even though they squandered it and reviled it?  Must the dead stay dead?  Or can the dead be brought back to life?  Can I have mercy on such a people?”  Ezekiel replies noncommittally, “You know Lord.”  He may as well have said, “I have no idea what kind of God you are.  I don’t know if you are going to have mercy or not.  I’ve seen what happened to Jerusalem.  It was terrible.  Here we are in Babylon and we are slaves.  It’s terrible.  I don’t know what you are going to do.  Life is tough; we’ve messed it badly; and I don’t know what you are going to do.”

 “Prophecy to the bones!” God says.  “Use your mouth Ezekiel.  Preach to these bones and tell them that they are going to live!” 

Ezekiel isn’t about to disobey the living God and so he prophesies, he uses his mouth, he preaches to the dry bones.  And then the remarkable thing begins to happen.  That which was dead starts to rattle about, bone meets bone, sinews tie them together, flesh grows over the top of them all......  But there is something missing.

“Prophecy to the breath!”  God says, “Tell the bones that I am putting my life into them!”  And so Ezekiel speaks.  He uses words.  He preaches to these bones.  And the Spirit of God responds to this speech and comes blowing into these bodies and they come to life.

The vision of Ezekiel is saying loudly and clearly that, though they have been faithless, God will not leave his people in exile.  He will restore them to their own country, their own land, their own homes.  It’s not that they deserve to be restored.  No, they are ever the faithless people.  But God is declaring to Ezekiel that he has made a decision about them.  He has decided to have mercy.  He has decided to bring them back from the dead.

Now this is all well and good.  It’s nice to hear a story about restoration.  But how does this relate to us?  I think there are all kinds of connections that you could make to your own lives, about the cycle of faith and faithlessness, about being a slave to sin, about receiving mercy.  This could be a very long sermon.  But I just want to talk about one particular thing.  It has to do with how God works.  Think for a moment about how God worked to raise those bones from the dead. 

God sent them a preacher, Ezekiel, who spoke his word.  This spoken word had actual power in it, power to bring the dead back to life.

This is the heart of the matter.  If you are taking sermon notes, here is something for you to write down. 

God sends preachers who speak his word.  This spoken word has actual power in it, power to bring the dead back to life.

Now when I hear that, my mind immediately goes to the idea of finding someone who has died and bringing them back to life.  It can happen.  It has happened.  But that is a lesser power than what we are talking about.  What we are talking about is this.  Every Sunday morning, piles of bones drive here in their cars and their trucks.  Bones like those old Israelites, bones who have heard the promise, but have been picked over and dried up by a long week out in the world.  Maybe your faithlessness has been dramatic and flagrant.  Or maybe it’s just been steady and consistent.  Or maybe it’s been so subtle that you hardly even know it’s there.  However it is that you have squandered the promise and rejected your God.  No matter.  The point is that it has dried up your bones.  That’s what sin does.  It kills us. 

And then we assemble in this place, a big pile of bones, a bunch of dead people.  And God sends a preacher to prophecy.  Not to prophecy any old thing, mind you.  No, God sends a preacher to say something very particular.  God sends a preacher to give you a promise.  God sends a preacher to tell this assembly of dry bones, “I therefore declare unto you the entire forgiveness of all of your sins.”  God sends a preacher to tell this assembly of dry bones, “After supper Jesus took the cup and gave thanks, blessed it and gave it for all to drink saying, ‘this cup is the testament in my blood, shed for you.’”  God sends a preacher to tell this assembly of dry bones, “You are dead.  Your sins have killed you.  Nevertheless God has a promise for you.  You are going to live.  Whatever it is that has been happening to you or that you have been doing.  Whatever your faithlessness has been.  It is over.  You are going to live.”  That is the decision that God has made for you.  And he sends a preacher to give it to you.  Amen.

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