A couple of months ago, our Movies That Matter film was a bit of an odd one titled Lars and the Real Girl. It was the story of a man who was filled with fear and sadness and who drew very much on the relationships within and power of community in order to not be afraid or sad any longer; or, at least less so. At one point, this main character – Lars – asks his brother how he knew he had grown up, how he knew he “was a man”. His brother Gus answered, “There's still a kid inside but you grow up when you decide to do right, okay, and not what's right for you, what's right for everybody, even when it hurts.”
Those words have come to my mind these last couple of months many times. One of my extended family members made what I think is fair to be classified as a very poor decision, and then did not tell her mother, or grandmother, or any of us for months after the decision was made. It wasn’t just a decision of getting strawberry ice cream instead of vanilla. It was a decision that will change the course of their life AND not only that, but also the course of things for the rest of the family.
Now, what does one do in a situation like this? I’ve pondered for hours and weeks, consulted some of you, some of my colleagues. What is the right way to respond? What is the right thing to say?
The decision in and of itself was a huge disappointment. But what got me was the hiding. What got me was the deceit. On Thanksgiving Day we found ourselves in our shortest ever Thanksgiving meal - - with unarticulated elephants in the room. My mom and sister seemed to be managing to smile. I, however, was having trouble from keeping my chin off of the floor. I was processing the happenings, processing the lack of sharing, and wondering if anyone was going to say anything about any of it at all!
Days later I heard the radio disc jockey say, “There are no personal decisions.” Thinking about these things that have transpired, I’ve been pondering intently the wisdom of that. It is maybe a stretch to say that it is a fool-proof statement, but it sure does seem to be true in many, many cases!
- Who we marry, and sometimes even date!
- What we buy
- What we eat
- What we throw away
- How we use our time, money, and other resources.
- What we say and what we do not say.
Thinking about it brings chills of responsibility!
God’s people, from the time they entered the wilderness as they fled slavery in Pharaoh’s land seem to have suffered from a complete lack of understanding that their personal decisions - - and corporate ones - - impacted much more than just themselves. They did not do right for everyone. They took the short and easy road. The road of self-indulgence, and self-seeking. The road of “its-all-about-me-dom”.
Moses warned them when they were in the wilderness. Joshua told them to choose this day who they would serve. Samuel called them to truth and righteousness. Jeremiah and Amos and others came and called them to repent. But repentance didn’t come. It was much easier, much more convenient, much more fun - - whatever the reason may have been - - to keep doing what they were doing. To set their identity as the people of God aside and live life their way.
When we get to Ezekiel, things are already bad. In 597, the people of God were sent into exile. This was God’s judgement against the people for their infidelity, for their self-serving, for their stubborn refusal to bend to the will of the Almighty but instead to seek to remain in charge on their own. Personal and corporate decisions were being made with no regard for their implications and impacts. The community that was said to be of faith, even after having been sent into an unknown land, even after having their Temple destroyed, even after having been under the persecuting punishment of Nebuchadnezzar - - even after all of that, they did not rend their hearts and turn to the Lord.
Ezekiel was among them in the exile. He was a priest; part of a privileged class of people. He was a holy and righteous man in the midst of a sinful people. He was called to be a prophet in 593 B.C.; scholars estimate he was about 30 years old. As Ezekiel stood by a “river” (or possibly an irrigation canal), “the heavens are opened” creating the right environment in which he can receive the word of God. Four living creatures are before him and he is surrounded by great splendor. The hand of the Lord is upon him (1:3); “a spirit entered into me” (2:2). “Mortal, I am sending you to the people of Israel, to a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have transgressed against me to this very day” (2:3).
God provides Ezekiel with detail on the sins of the people. Many of them are in worship - - there are images of unclean animals on the walls in the houses of worship; worship of Cannonite deities; worship of the sun “at the door of the temple” - - a particularly holy spot. And the leadership of the people is corrupt - - there were factions fighting with and against one another, unfaithful acts, and greed that filled the work of those who were set amidst the people to lead and serve.
Our reading this morning provides a word of hope in the midst of this very desperate and unfaithful people. Ezekiel is given a vision of this valley of dry bones. These are the bones of the exiles who have no hope for resuscitating the kingdom of Israel than of putting flesh on a skeleton and calling it to life. These are people who have no hope for life or salvation at all. The depth of the loss and helplessness is clear from the state of the bones - - there is a whole valley full and they are lifeless - - dry, bleached by the sun and having no sinews or flesh or skin upon them. They are dead, dead bones. This is the state of God’s people.
“Mortal, can these bones live?” God asks Ezekiel. Ezekiel’s not too sure looking out at the hot mess before him. It doesn’t look like the bones can live. There is no life in them at all. But Ezekiel also knows his God. He has not forgotten the God of Israel. And he knows that God can do things even in the midst of times and places where nothing hopeful seems possible.
“O Lord God, you know.” Ezekiel answers. He’s skeptical but certainly open to the possibility. God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones and to say to them “O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.” “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.” (37:4b-5) So Ezekiel prophesies to the bones as he had been commanded and there is a great rattling and the bones come together with skin and flesh and sinews but no breath. God tells him to prophecy to the Spirit and he does and the bodies then breathe!
“I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves,” says the Lord (32:12).
This is certainly a story of resurrection. But it is also more than that. It is also a story of transformation by the Spirit of the Living God.
When we have been broken - - by our own sin or by life in general - - our human tendency is to want to restore what was; to go back. The people of God wanted the exile to end so that they could be restored to what they had before - - life with the temple, life with routine, life with as much certainty as one could have. But that had not been a faithful life. Their unfaithfulness in the midst of the life that they knew and seemed to love was what resulted in their being in exile! But even yet, they seek to go back to what was instead of going forward into what God had for them. God, in the valley of the dry bones was not just resurrecting his people; he was transforming them.
Transforming them! There is a massive shift that occurs in the pouring out of the Spirit in the valley of the dry bones. It is a shift from the personal to the world! “It is not individual representatives who are going to be raised by the Spirit, but the whole people; and the whole people will itself be made a bearer of the Spirit.” “The outpouring of God’s Spirit therefore leads to the rebirth of all of life, and to the rebirth too of the community of all the living on earth.”
Where there was no hope, no life, there is life. And not a life for some, but for the community. A life in the Spirit through which God transforms God’s people not to be who they were, but to be faithful and true and the people of God as they have always been called to be, but this time instead of falling short, instead of living lives of disobedience, to have the Spirit of God within them and among them and together, as a community, bear witness to Almighty God. To be resurrected. To be made new. To go from death to life even when it seems impossible.
I love, love, love Ezekiel chapter 37. I love the power, the promise, the possibility and the hope that it brings. It just screams of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, of the good news of the Gospel, and I love it. But the good news of chapter 37 cannot be taken in and of itself; it has to be considered within the full of the book of Ezekiel, and in the word of the Lord through the prophet Ezekiel, judgement precedes salvation. There has to be a word of honesty about what is wrong before there can be a word of hope for the future.
Today’s Advent theme is PEACE. In our Bible study this past Wednesday we looked at the Hebrew word shalom, a word used approximately 235 times in the Old Testament that is a greeting and a farewell. It means “May you be well.” “May you be well” in God-speak, in shalom, is not just the absence of sickness, or a feeling of calm within ourselves. It is wholeness, health, and completeness not just for us but for the other. It is a blessing, a prayer for the person who receives the word to be their best self – their healthiest, happiest, rightest with God, and faithful witness to the world. The shalom of God, the peace of God is growing up, like Lar’s brother said. “It is deciding to do right for everybody. . . even when it hurts.”
God’s peace doesn’t come without a cost, because true peace requires honesty. It requires justice, not just for ourselves, but for others. It requires self-sacrifice. It requires us to think about the entire community, and the entire world, not just ourselves. There are no personal decisions. The peace of God is for the world. And as people of faith, as people of PEACE, we are called to bring it as such.
In Advent it is tempting to rush toward the manger. To rush toward the baby. But Advent provides us with important time to understand why that baby, that Savior, was and is so desperately needed. If we don’t understand why Christ came, we really cannot understand the scope of the Good News. The empty tomb was proceeded by the cross, and death, and silence for three days, before resurrection occurred. And just like the resurrection of the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel, the resurrection of Jesus Christ was for us, for you; and it was for the world. That the world might know the Prince of Peace who has come. We, the community of faith, exist, the church exists to take the good news to the world.
I shared this family predicament with one of my colleagues who said, “Wow, that is a mess. Who is going to tell the truth in the midst of it?”
“I guess I am,” I said.
Telling the truth didn’t take away support. It didn’t take away hope. But it required being honest about the decisions made. The bones cannot rise from the dead unless they know and understand how they got into the valley in the first place.
We are waiting in these advent days for the Prince of Peace. The Prince of Peace who confronts us where we are, who convicts us of our failings, who promises us eternal life, and who is counting on us to be bearers of good news in a world that is often times disobedient. To help others hear and understand the “May you be well” that God’s shalom brings. A peace for us, and a peace for all people.
To the glory of God’s Holy name.
All glory be to you, O Lord. Amen.