Message Jan. 20 and 21 The Kingdoms’ Fall
Scripture: Ezekiel 37: 1-14
Today we continue The Story, a 31-week journey from Creation to the glorious promise that God will one day make all things new. This has been a journey filled with God’s grace, mercy and faithfulness, all of which should inspire us to live with hope. But hope is hard to grasp when you’re standing in the middle of your worst fears. If you have your Bibles…
One of the reasons we gather every week is to keep our eyes focused on God’s activity in our lives. The writers of the Story call this the “Upper Story,” or the divine narrative that God is working out in his good timing. And that’s important to keep in mind because all too often we are fixated on the “Lower Story,” or the day-to-day realities that fill our lives. And if we’re not careful to consider God’s story, we could very easily draw some wrong conclusions about our world and even our faith.
From their vantage point in the “Lower Story,” the Israelites were staring down their worst fears. Babylon had invaded their land, just as Assyria had done with the North, and everything they had known about their life, their kingdom, was in shambles. The worst thing that could’ve happened to them had just happened. Jeremiah, one of God’s messengers who lived through this debacle, explained it this way: “How deserted lies the city, once so full of people. How like a widow was she, who once was great among the nations! She who was queen among the provinces has now become a slave. Bitterly she weeps at night, tears are on her cheeks. Among all her lovers there is no one to comfort her. All her friends have betrayed her; they have become her enemies.” That’s what if felt like to be Israel. Abandoned. Betrayed. Hopeless. Everywhere they looked, they saw death and destruction, smoke and fire, desertion and enemies. Like a hurricane had just ravaged their soul. But that was only their side of the story.
Ever since they started identifying as God’s people, the Israelites struggled to fully live into their identity. You might say they were like a wayward child who just couldn’t seem to stay out of trouble. From time to time they would obey and experience the life-giving presence of God, but then they would stray and put that same life-giving relationship on thin ice. And it exasperated God! Out of a deep and abiding love, like a father speaking to his children, God would remind Israel to turn back, to come home… and occasionally they would. And they probably thought that’s how it would always work. They would do their own thing, go their own way, occasionally return to God and everything would work out the way they wanted it to. But then God had enough. And out of the deepest of loves, God let his children go.
That’s how this part of The Story looks from God’s vantage point. He’s the exasperated parent who has tried every method to help out his children, but nothing seems to be working. He’s tried to lay down the law, so the speak. He’s sent them the best prophetic counselors the world had to offer. He’s even loved them in their most unlovable moments. But as one biblical writer puts it, “They mocked the messengers of God, and despised his words, and misused his prophets, until the wrath of the Lord arose against his people, till there was no remedy” (2 Chronicles 36:16). And so finally God lets his children go. He’s not done with them, not by any stretch of the imagination. But he is done with this part of the Story. And interestingly enough, God begins to write the next chapter of His Story in the oddest of places.
As this new chapter of God’s divine narrative unfolds, we’re introduced to a new prophet named Ezekiel who is standing in the middle of a valley full of dry bones. The place reeks of death and hopelessness, like an earthquake ravaged Haiti or a Nazi concentration camp. There were no signs of life anywhere. No children laughing; no businesses booming; no cries from newborn babies. The desolation and silence would’ve been enough to make even the most optimistic person cringe. As he surveys this death-valley, he knows he’s not in Kansas anymore and probably wished he could be anywhere else. But before he has the chance to change the subject or look away, God asks Ezekiel a question that demands our attention: “Ezekiel, can these bones live again?”
This could very well be one of the most significant questions we’re ever asked to wrestle with. Maybe we’ve never used those exact words, but we’ve asked this question in different ways. Every time we see the unthinkable happen, we ask this question. We’ve asked Can this situation ever change? Can this person ever live differently? Can this town ever recover? Is there any reason to have hope? Can these bones live again? All of these questions point to a common struggle deep within our souls- the struggle to believe that something that looks so hopeless can be redeemed and renewed. Can these bones live again? And we need to keep asking this question, because this is a question of faith.
One reason we need to keep asking this question is because it holds us accountable to our decision to follow Jesus. With this question, we are compelled to fully acknowledge whether or not we are willing to go where Jesus goes… or if we’ll try to avoid places and people that make us uncomfortable. I think we need to pause and recognize that God doesn’t ask this question until Ezekiel is standing in the middle of barrenness. Can these bones live again is a question that can’t be answered from afar. Only those who find themselves in the middle of the mess and stay long enough to see what God is up to can answer this question. That’s what makes this new chapter of God’s story so interesting. Instead of God attempting to save us from afar, God is preparing to enter our dry-bones world (we call this the incarnation) and bring forth new life as one of us. I think this is why God leads Ezekiel to that place of hopelessness, because it’s in those places God begins to write a new story. I wonder how many places remain dark and void of hope because of our unwillingness to enter, to learn and then to stay? If we’re serious about our desire to follow Jesus, then we have to go to people and places that are dead and dying. And we have to stay there, watching for signs of God’s activity. This work can’t be done from afar.
A second reason we need to keep asking this question is because it forces us to wrestle with our understanding of hope and the outworking of our faith. Most of the time, when something is dead, it’s dead. But with God, we are drawn into a new possibility. With God, we are invited to believe that new life can actually happen! Sometimes I wonder if we’re guilty of forgetting the very power of the Gospel that draws us together each week, and we’re as surprised as any when new life happens. God doesn’t want Ezekiel to be surprised. He won’t let this exile and pain endure forever. He made a promise to his people that they would have a King from the tribe of Judah, and God intended to keep that promise. But this promise is more than reclaiming land or building a new temple.
The promise God gives is not relegated to hospitals and surgeons and therapists. The promise God gives is about making hearts new through a different kind of King. What is unfolding before Ezekiel’s eyes is a vision of God’s next move, good news that will be fully experienced in Jesus, who made of a habit of bringing hopeless situations back to life; who broke out of a grave and was resurrected; who knelt with an adulteress and offered her mercy; who looked at a criminal hanging beside him on a cross and offered him forgiveness AND Paradise! You see how the story is changing? God is doing a new thing in the middle of this dead-end desert.
All of this makes me what to ask: If God can add flesh to dry bones and breathe new life into adulteresses and criminals, can he help an addict stop using? Or can a he transform a rebel into a saint? Or can he give peace to the mentally exhausted and offer grace to those who have hurt us? There might even be something in your life that begs this question. You see why this question’s so important? We have to ask it and we have to proclaim it because it’s clear that many in our world have given up any sort of hope that new life can happen. Following the San Bernardino shootings a few years back, a national newspaper covered this shooting with the headline that read, “God Isn’t Fixing This.” It was an attack on the prayers of some leaders, but more generally, that headline revealed what many believe: our world is going to hell and not even God can fix it. And, you know I’m not sure they’re wrong. Maybe our world is beyond repair. But the story God is writing isn’t one of fixing us. It’s a story of making us new. That’s what God invites Ezekiel to see that day. He’s not going to fix this mess. He’s going to make it new. That’s the hope and faith we are invited to ponder with the question Can these bones lives again?
What I love about this dry bones story is that we aren’t the ones who have to figure out how to cultivate new life. We aren’t charged with the task of figuring out how to reconnect bones and create sinew and flesh. That’s God’s job. All we are asked to do is to stand in the brokenness and believe that something new is possible. And isn’t that what faith is all about? A faithful few believing that God is not finished; a faithful few, despite the ever-growing darkness and evil, maintaining their devotion to a God who had promised restoration. Today, it’s not Ezekiel standing in that valley. It’s you and me. We’ve been called by God to pay attention to a different narrative, a narrative that believes new life is possible, no matter how dead something may look. And we’re called to a faith that sticks around long enough to watch those old dry bones begin to rattle. Can these bones live again? I sure hope so, because our faith is built on the conviction that they most definitely can. Amen.