Sermon planned for Sunday, December 8th, 2013
Text: Ezekiel 37:1-14
Last week we looked at the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the fiery furnace. We looked at Fear, and our propensity to get stuck in the shallow end of our fears, stuck on the What If's. This morning we're looking at the prophet Ezekiel and his message to those left behind in devastated Jerusalem. The people he wrote to were no less sinking in anxieties and fears.
God, you have revealed yourself to your people; and in these scriptures we encounter you in a special way. In the stories of Daniel and his friends, and in the story of Ezekiel and the valley of dry bones, we encounter you. We may not be in Babylon, but we too are far from home; we too are faced with valleys of dryness, of drought, of death. We too are faced with situations that we can't see our way through - where we have to admit that we are up against the limit of our possibility. We know that new life is in Your hands. We know that with Your Spirit, something truly new is possible; that a revival of your church is possible; that a renewal of faith in our hearts and in our community is possible. And so, as we focus our gaze and our hearing on your Word, Lord Jesus we ask that your Spirit would give us understanding and, most importantly of all, that we would meet you in this time of worship. We pray in Jesus' name. Amen.
Before we get to the main course of Ezekiel's message to God's people, and to us this morning, let's spend some time with the appetizer - with his context, just so that we get a better understanding of who he is and how his message was heard in his day. Ezekiel begins his book by stating that God gave him visions during the fifth year of the exile - five years after the first group of Judeans were deported into Babylon. And in chapter 1:3 we read that the prophet was living in Babylon, which means that he been taken along with this deportation. In other words, along with Daniel and three friends, and along with the Judean King Jehoiachin, Ezekiel was also part of the first group that was dragged-off into exile.
We learn that Ezekiel was the son of a guy named Buzi, and that he was a priest. This meant that his entire livelihood was in Jerusalem - this was his job, his duty, his calling; namely, to serve God and God's people in the Jerusalem temple. His job was to offer sacrifices, to preside over worships services, and all that priests were to do. In Babylon, his priestly duties could not be fulfilled. Have you ever been fired? Let go from your job? Laid off? You have a taste of what Ezekiel felt in this journey to Babylon. Perhaps uncertain, anxious, afraid, frustrated, useless or helpless perhaps. But God saw fit to make use of this priest, even if it was no longer as a priest. It was by the river Chebar, in the foreign land of the Chaldeans, that Ezekiel began to receive visions from God. God had commandeered him for a different job. Instead of priest, Ezekiel would now be a prophet. Call it a mid-life career switch. Some of you know what that's like. Is it a bit nerve-racking? Exciting perhaps?
The first section of his book was littered with prophecies of judgment. He laid out the charges that God brought against the people - charges of immorality, injustice, idolatry - the usual slate of crimes against their covenant agreement with God. A shift in his message begins to show up after chapter thirty three. At verse 21 we read: "In the twelfth year of our exile, in the tenth month, on the fifth day of the month, someone who had escaped from Jerusalem came to me and said, "The city has fallen." Jerusalem was destroyed. The temple had been leveled to the ground. This was Ezekiel's fiery furnace moment. How will we ever be God's people now that we can't worship in the temple? How will we make atonement for our sins in Babylon? How can we fulfill the covenant if we cannot make sacrifice? What if we never get out of Babylon? What if we can never rebuild the temple?
Ezekiel describes the situation in the bleakest terms possible: "the Babylonians have made you desolate indeed, and crushed you from all sides, so that you became the possession of the rest of the nations, and you became an object of gossip and slander among the people." (36.3) This is basically the undoing of the covenant between God and Abraham. Instead of countless descendants, the Babylonians have made you a desolate people. Instead of peace and security in the promised land, your enemies have crushed you from all sides. Instead of being a people set-aside for Yahweh alone, belonging to him alone, you have become the possession of the rest of the nations. Instead of being a blessing and a light to the nations, you have become an object of gossip and slander.
The undoing of the covenant with Abraham is the outcome of Israel breaking covenant countless times. If you are a covenant breaker, you can't keep the blessings of the covenant. The blessings come with being faithful to the covenant; unfaithfulness then also results in the loss of blessing. If you cheat on your spouse, you're not going to go on with life as normal. She's gonna move out on you, and rightly so! The prophets had warned the leadership and the people to repent, but how much adultery do you expect God to put up with? And so, after much patience, Jerusalem, the city of David, was destroyed. After much warning, the temple was flattened to the ground. Many would have understood this as the end of Judaism - the end of Abraham's offspring. Many would have seen this as God's having given up on the people. What if their role as God's Covenant people was over? What if? There was fear in the air - debilitating fear.
There was a saying in those times that described the people's fears perfectly. They said, "Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost; we are cut off completely!" They were dried up, as a people. No skin, no ligaments, to connect people to God, to each other... they were scattered in Babylon, like dry bones littering a field. And that's the vision that God gave to Ezekiel. He saw this valley filled with bones and they were very dry. Utter desolation. Complete hopelessness. Like a defeated army, there was nothing left of God's people worth mentioning, not even worth giving a proper burial. Just a field of dry bones, marking their defeat. This vision represented Israel's fears - this is who they saw themselves to be. And in some sense, this was true. Having torn themselves from God's covenant through constant- persistent disobedience, they were as good as dead dry bones. But God had something else in mind.
After Ezekiel heard of the fall of Jerusalem and the temple, he began to prophesy a different message; a message of hope! Beginning already in chapter thirty four, God takes on the role of shepherd searching out for lost and scattered sheep. God will seek out the lost and bring back those who have strayed. God will bind up the injured, strengthen the weak, and feed them with justice. God shows a special care for the weak and the poor, those who had been pushed aside in the former administration of God's people. When the shepherd comes to return his flock to the good land, those who were mistreated and shoved aside will get preferential treatment. The prophet goes on, in chapter thirty six, speaking about the restoration God has planned for these dried-up exiles.
24 I will take you from the nations, and gather you from all the countries, and bring you into your own land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. 28 Then you shall live in the land that I gave to your ancestors; and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. (Eze 36:24-28 NRS)
Will God's people remain cut off, stuck in this valley of dry bones? Will God forgive their sins if they don't make sacrifices of atonement? The prophet points forward to a new arrangement. God will sprinkle clean water upon you and you shall be clean. God will give you a new heart. God will put his Spirit within you. You shall be my people and I will be your God. God will cause flesh and sinews to cover and reconnect these scattered bones. God will put His Spirit back into you and you shall live.
Ezekiel spoke this prophetic word to a people who had given up hope. God is present in the desolate valleys. God is present when there seems to be no way forward. Is there no more temple? God doesn't need a temple of stone to make things right between with His people. In this new arrangement, the people's disobedience and idolatry will be overcome by God Himself. He will transform our hearts of stone and give us a heart that's ready for obedience and faithfulness. The people recognized that they were at the end of their rope; but what would they do with this message of hope?
Where do we fit into the picture this morning? I think we connect into this picture in a variety of ways. Some of you, I know, face situations where you can't see a way forward. You're helpless to change the situation. You don't have any options to bring about a new possibility. What is Ezekiel's message to you this morning? Can God bring life to that valley of bones before you? Will you continue to put your trust in God, with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, so that "even if things go badly, you will continue to place your trust in God"? Will you refuse the devil his desire in having us stuck in the shallow end of our fears?
Some of you are not at all in this kind of situation. You're not facing a wall. You're in a good place. Like Ezekiel, you know that despite the challenges before you, you have a sense of God's calling on your life. Like Ezekiel, who had to change his role from priest to prophet, you have found a way forward as a partner with God in life's challenging situations. The question our text poses for you is: will you share the good news of hope with others? God could have told the bones to live all by himself, God could have breathed His Spirit into them all by Himself; but God didn't. God told Ezekiel to prophecy to the bones and to the winds. God wants our partnership to proclaim this message of hope. All good things that God can do all by Himself, God chooses to do through partnership with us humans. Just think of Christmas - the best message ever - the hope of God with us, the light in the darkness has arrived - this hopeful message was the result of a partnership God chose to make with the virgin Mary.
Over the years God has commandeered all kinds of people, partnering with them to provide a new possibility in the valleys of dry bones. Just think of Mandela and the system of Apartheid in South Africa. Or someone like Bishop David Toews and his efforts to help rescue Mennonites suffering in Russia and Europe.
In my own life, I felt a calling to join a prison visitation program one Saturday in 2002, after hearing a Christian ex-convict share his testimony. He had become a Christian through a relationship with two believers who went to visit with him every month while he was incarcerated in Prince Albert Penitentiary. Many people see criminals as a lost cause; they see murderers as people who might as well be dead and heaped onto a pile of bones. And yet, in my friendship with Dwight Friday in the Penitentiary, I was convinced that God's Spirit was speaking a word of life and light into his heart, which had been so dark. And, not surprisingly, my friendship with Dwight was also a ministry to my own heart, as God gave me a clearer picture of His Kingdom - where murderers, thieves, prostitutes, and pastors break bread together and find grace through Jesus' death on the cross.
I saw a wonderful video this week that I want all of you to see: (Show video of Harrison Okene rescued). This man spent 3 days at the bottom of the ocean floor; barely alive in his own kind of valley of death. He later said that he spent his time reciting a psalm that his wife had texted to him earlier on the day his ship sank. Psalm 55:15. He recited it over and over again, "But I call upon God, and the Lord will save me!" And the Lord did save him. This is a Jonah story if I ever heard one.
This morning, maybe you're the guy stuck on the bottom of the ocean floor. Maybe you're facing something impossible; something where you can't see a way forward. Maybe you're stuck in an addiction that has the waters up to your neck, with barely any room to breathe. Will you let God reach out his hand to you? Will you let him pull you up out of the waters of death? Maybe you're facing a situation and you can't see a good way out - where you feel pressured to compromise your faithfulness to God. Don't get stuck in the shallow-end of your fears. God is with you, even in your challenging situation. I urge you, put your trust in Him. Persevere in trust and faithfulness.
On the other hand, maybe this morning God is urging you to be the diver. To go down into the depths of despair around you, and to reach around with the hope we have in Jesus. Maybe God is urging you to be the prophet Ezekiel, and to prophecy a word of life and breath into a specific situation. What are the valleys of bones around you? What are the hopeless situations you see in our country? In your workplace? In those around you? How is God calling you to partner with Him in bringing new life, new hope? How is God wanting to use you to proclaim his resurrecting power to the people you meet and the situations He has dragged you into?
I think of Mary Magdalene as such a hero here for us. Jesus could have just showed himself to his disciples straight-away after his resurrection; but he didn't. All good things that God wants to do, and could do without us, God chooses to partner with us in doing them. Instead of just going to see the twelve, Jesus chose this woman, Mary Magdalene, and asked her partnership in proclaiming the Easter gospel - He is risen! God chose the virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, Ezekiel -- all these heroes of the bible, to partner with Him in offering hope. And that hasn't changed. God still invites our partnership today! God commandeers all kinds of people for his purposes. Ordinary folks like you and me. Will we do it with willing hearts? This Advent, may we joyfully embrace the partnership God has for us - to be an Advent people, pointing others towards Jesus - the light coming into the world! Let us be an Advent people, like Ezekiel, proclaiming a God who can bring dead things, dead situations, dead relationships, and thankfully even dead people back to life! Amen!