Broadway Christian Church · Columbia, Missouri
The Worship of God · March 11, 2012
The Third Sunday of Lent
Litany of Praise
Based on Psalm 19
The cosmos speaks of the glory of God
Day to day the word is spoken and night to night more knowledge appears.
No speech is adequate, no voice able to tell the mystery of it all.
But the sacred song rings through the earth and into the farthest reaches of
Let us pray:
Your presence fills our hearts with joy, and your stillness sets peace on the
land like a dove.
Confession and Pardon
Let us confess our sin and brokenness to God:
Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought,
word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors
As ourselves. Have mercy on us and forgive us.
God is gracious and merciful, abounding in steadfast love. The old is gone, behold the new has come. We are free and forgiven!
Lord, have mercy upon us.
Christ have mercy upon us.
Lord, have mercy upon us.
Let us pray, stilling our minds, turning our hearts to God, as we receive the gift of silence.
[A Time of Silence]
O God, sometimes we wander through the wilderness, thirsty, hearts and souls liked the parched earth – rocky terrain – longing for drink. In these dry times, lead us beside the still waters of your refreshment. If we are passing through times of disillusionment, fill us with hope. Send the winds of your Spirit to animate this clay. Shape us, O Potter, that we might glorify you.
O God, who will not leave us comfortless, move among us, within us, as we pray the prayer our Lord taught us, saying…
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: for thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.
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 round 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.”
Ezekiel in the Wilderness: Life to Death and Back Again
So, last night just before the game, I have this friend in Texas, who texted me. He said, “I suppose you are going to be watching the game. I just want you to know that my daughter and I must root for Baylor.”
I texted him back and said, “The Lord is merciful and kind and forgiving and will forgive you all of your sins, but the Tigers will not.”
He did not text me back. I may have lost a friend. Oh, my goodness!
Well, let’s try to find a measure of comparison here: Native American Indian tribes that are relocated to reservations; Polish Jews are rounded up and segregated in the Warsaw ghetto; Rwandan refugees who flee over the border in the time of war supposedly to a safe refugee camp.
It’s a terrible thing to be displaced and have to make your home somewhere else. It’s a terrible thing to find yourself dislodged from your life and everything that gives it stability and everything that gives it meaning. And that’s how the Jewish exiles felt after 40 years of refugee life in Babylon: rootless, hopeless, helpless, beaten-down, victims of their past, the walking dead. And that’s the origin of the remarkable wilderness words of Ezekiel this morning.
Ezekiel was never one who lacked for imagination, for compelling images to describe the way things are. And the way he described Israel in exile is unforgettable.
Ezekiel walks up and down a broad plain that was filled with dry bones as far as the eye could see. The bones, of course, represent the people of Israel in exile. And the voice of the Spirit asks him a question: “Can these bones live?”
That is some question! Haven’t we asked that question in one way or another before? It’s surely the main question of the Academy Award winning documentary, Undefeated. Can nobodies on the social margin of North Memphis rise up out of the ashes, as it were? And what will that take? What kind of leadership is required? What new way of thinking is required? Is it even possible for that to happen? Is it so broken it can never be repaired?
You’re down after a gut-slamming failure, wondering if you’ll ever come back from it. Your dreams have been dashed, and now you are looking for plan B, or C or even D. The tornado strikes your neighborhood. The war comes to your city. The tragic accident happens in your family, or your church or your community. The evil of the human heart rises up and leaves a wide path of destruction. An illness breaks you, and you wonder if you’ll ever be able to recover. Your children or your parents throw you another curve ball just when you thought everything had calmed down. The economy undermines everything you’ve built and worked for.
And there is the valley, and there we are, parched and dry, just like those bones. And we hear a voice echoing in the distance and it asks, “Can these bones live again?”
Well, can they? The jury is out, as far as Ezekiel is concerned, and he hands it right back to God: “Only you know, Lord.”
Well, yes. Surely, that’s true. But we are inclined to stop there. Aren’t we? With well wishing. “I’ll pray for you.” “Ain’t it awful?”
Well, God is not content to let it stop there. You often hear people say things like, “Don’t talk about it; do something!”
That’s true, if people just talk and never do anything. That is irritating.
But what we hear from Ezekiel is just opposite of that. He says that the Lord has a job for Ezekiel and it starts with speech. “Prophesy to the people and say, ‘Dry bones, listen to the word of the Lord. I will put breath in you and cover you with skin, sinews, and flesh. The wind will come from all directions and fill you. Even though you feel like a cord that’s snapped, you will rise up as a people, and you will walk again.’”
Life coming to dry bones is remarkable, but the most remarkable thing, in this story, is how it is supposed to happen. Ezekiel is supposed to pronounce particular words. He has to capture their imagination first. He has to fill them with a vision before rebirth can happen. Dry bones just don’t get it automatically. When you’re down, when you are way down, you don’t have energy to generate your own new vision. The future is a blur. There’s no extra energy on board. Somebody has to describe a future that is different from what you are experiencing right now. Once it is named, then it can be possible. Before that, maybe not.
Ezekiel has to name the possible, paint pictures of sinews and flesh and skin growing, the breath of God filling them until they all rise up like the Phoenix, like Atlantis coming out of the sea. And that’s why we have prophets and poets, and science-fiction writers. More than once, a science-fiction writer has created a reality that hard scientists actually follow. They couldn’t until someone imagined it, and then they could invent it. They could create; they could pursue it. That’s why God had Ezekiel speak a new world before it came into being. You have to name the reality before it exists.
You may remember, in what has now certainly become the stuff of urban legend, how when the first clipper ships arrived from Europe in Central America, the native Indians, in that place, could not see them when they arrived. They were new and unfamiliar objects, and because they were unrecognizable, they could not see them. The shaman of the tribe went down to the coast, and sat, and stared and stared, and looked and looked until he could see the ships. Then went back to the tribe and described clipper ships. Then they could come to the coast and see them.
Sometime, we have to have a person that goes before us to describe the vision that could be, before we can embrace it, before we can know.
This is one of the most important aspects of fairy tales and children, for those of you who are parents or teachers. The comedy and sometimes terror of fairy tales sometimes describe a world for children, so they can comprehend it when they see it and find it. To deny children the truths of fairy tales because there is too much violence in them is to deny children access to a way to understand the world when it comes to them.
And all of this has to do with the way God works in our minds, and why Ezekiel has to make pronouncements over the valley of dry bones. Why is that? Because they are boneheads! Not just dummies. The bones, the half-dead people, think like bones, dream like bones, live like bones, hope like bones, imagine like bones, take the initiative of bones, have the motivation and excitement of bones. Which means they lack almost everything one needs to transform a future. Their thinking is self-contained, self-limiting, keeping them exactly where they are now. Their theme song is John Lennon’s Nowhere Man:
He's a real nowhere man,
Sitting in his Nowhere Land,
Making all his nowhere plans
He's as blind as he can be,
Just sees what he wants to see,
Nowhere Man can you see me at all?
And here is the key, the clue, the inner wisdom of Ezekiel’s story: We often live in sealed nowhere canisters, self-contained nowhere systems.
What that means is that we’re stuck on our own treadmill, our gerbil wheel, or train track that goes round and round in a circle, but never goes anywhere. And because we’re inside of the nowhere system, we can’t comprehend a life outside of it. So, you need a voice to take you there.
It’s that self-contained aspect that is the greatest challenge. Bone people are going to stay that way unless something appears from outside of the self-contained, self-limiting system. And that’s why Ezekiel has to be the spokesperson to pronounce that something else is possible. They can’t see it until it’s said. And that’s just as true for us as for those in the valley of bones. Hope is often articulated from the outside first before we can embrace it. Somebody has to speak of a new world before the new world can appear.
I frankly think much of our present political polarization has to do with this. It has to do with people living in self-contained, sealed canisters, disconnected from one another. We’re all boneheads, and we know only what we know, see only what we see, believe only what we believe, and no more. We are the collective personification of Nowhere Man. We’re dominated by sealed-canister-talking-heads, gerbil-wheel-campaign-finance that keeps people skewed to the extremes as they bow to their base, and say anything their base wants them to say, except the truth. We’re trapped, polarized, and it will take an Ezekiel to get us out.
Some of you may be familiar with the Bourne series, the books and the movies, that psychological high-adventure thriller featuring the exploits of Jason Bourne. At the conclusion of one movie, he approaches a young woman, the daughter of two people he assassinated. All her life, she thought her parents died as the result of a murder-suicide. But Jason tells her that’s not how it happened, that he killed them. Her parents died entirely differently than she thought. And after telling her this, he says, “That changes everything, that knowledge; doesn’t it?”
It takes an Ezekiel, a truth-teller, a vision-caster, to articulate a new truth so that something new can emerge, and, of course, it does. The wind of God will blow through you and me, and we will be covered with sinew, flesh and skin, rising as a great multitude! You’ve been in the wilderness, languishing, trapped in this learned helplessness for a generation. It’s time to stand up. It’s time to go home.
And here is the mystery. You and I are meant to be Ezekiel for each another. The words of a loving soul who sees more than we’re seeing, at the moment, is a treasure. It’s a gift. It is life transforming. It takes an Ezekiel to cast a new world, and we can become that for one another.
How does this mystery work? It is miraculous.
I once knew an elderly woman who had cancer, and she was dying. She basically had gone to her bed, to her deathbed. Well, one day her son and daughter-in-law were in an auto accident, and they were both killed, leaving behind two young children. There were no other aunts or uncles who could take in these children. And I’ll tell you what she did. She got up off her deathbed, showered, dressed, prepared her house, and went to pick up her grandchildren and brought them to her own home. She raised them as her own until they both graduated from high school. And then, mission completed, she went back to bed and died within the year.
Will these bones live again? “Only you know, Lord.” But God needs heralds, partners, bearers of good news and hope, so that people who cannot see the way may see. All those who live in the valley of dry bones.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
And now, may the grace of our Lord, Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship and communion of the Holy Spirit be yours forever. Amen.