Windsor Community United Methodist Church
Wednesday, December 11, 2013
Mike Turgeon “Can these bones live?” April 25, 2010
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 around 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." Ezekiel 37:1-10.
Is there hope still, even when our bones are dried up? Is the spirit and breath of God no longer present? Is that all there is?
Ezekiel and the vision of dry bones always brings me back to a medical ethics conference I sat in on when I was a chaplain at Marin General Hospital in 1999. This was no theoretical exercise, this was life and death. This was a car accident case involving a young person whose internal organs were viable and able to be donated when she died. The family was willing to donate when the moment came. The topic of the conference was just when is that moment—the moment being the disconnection of the breathing machine.
The family was not part of this meeting. They had weighed in already, everyone was aware of their wishes. This meeting was limited to the medical staff, the hospital management and the chaplain’s office. Clear communication was of the essence. The harvesting of organs is always a sensitive subject as you can imagine. There are only a critical few minutes, really, after which certain organs are no longer useful. Maintaining the utmost respect and dignity of human life is crucial. The fixing of that exact moment when life ends is the difficult part.
The upshot of this meeting was that everyone was in favor of waiting through the night to see how the rest of the woman’s body held out other than her breathing.
I remember asking one of the doctors a week later about the case. What I wanted to know was what, in her opinion, was the criteria for declaring a person dead in such cases. Her answer was that after certain tests, if it could be determined there was no longer any hope for meaningful, purposeful existence, then that person is declared dead.
Naturally, my mind very quickly began translating this whole scenario into the spiritual life of human existence. Like this morning’s scripture. When is a person considered spiritually dead? Are dry bones the final word?
Ezekiel was a prophet. What did that mean?
We tend to think that a prophet’s job was to predict the future but that’s really a modern definition. Prophets like Ezekiel were called to warn the people, but also to encourage the people.
Ezekiel was a master at this. He was an encourager, and his words to his people carried a tone of warning to be faithful to God. His people were in trouble; since the time of Moses when he led the people out of Egypt they had been sort of faithful, worshipping false gods when they wanted to hedge their bets.
As usual, this leads nowhere good and so Ezekiel had to speak up. He saw his task as keeping Israel from giving up in despair. At the time of this writing, Israel is in exile in Babylon, 600 miles from their beloved Jerusalem and 600 years before Jesus came along.
Let me give you the quick and dirty version of Middle Eastern politics by the time Ezekiel came along. Let’s call it From Exodus to Exile.
When Moses fled Egypt with the Israelites in tow, Pharaoh was king of the hill, top of the heap. But no earthly power lasts forever, and when the Egyptian empire eventually declined, the Assyrian Empire to the north became dominant. Meanwhile, the Israelites settled for a few hundred years in the Promised Land and tried to stay out of everyone’s way. Unfortunately, by its very location, Palestine and the Holy Land has been and always will be in everyone’s way. The land of Israel and the entire region of Palestine itself is a crossroads for the major trade routes in the region.
The Israelites thought a king would protect them from harmful influences that came through their land, so they raised up a monarchy for a couple hundred years, the most famous kings being David and his son, Solomon, of course. Kings weren’t the answer; the Israelites continued to get drawn into global politics, and they’d mostly get creamed every time.
Now, as Assyrian rule declined, the Babylonian Empire took over. In the time of transition between the two powers, Israel sought to ally with more powerful surrounding forces. So when Israel tried to align themselves with their old oppressors, Egypt to the south and Assyria to the north, Babylon said, “uh-uh.” They swooped in to level the temple in Jerusalem and cart off all the best and the brightest of the political and religious leaders to their capital city of Babylon.
It’s always fun to complete the circle. In recent times, archeologists found the ruins of ancient Babylon, they happen to be located about 80 miles south of Baghdad.
So, the voice of the prophet Ezekiel is broadcasting from the city of Babylon. His people are displaced and in desperate straits, uncertain whether they will ever be able to return to their beloved land? How bad is it? The Lord makes it plain to Ezekiel by showing him a pile of dry bones.
The lifeless bones represent God’s chosen people. They are beyond life support. But the Lord has work for the prophet to accomplish.
Imagine our world if a violent occupying force came in and leveled the cities of Santa Rosa and Windsor and transported all the politicians, clergy, merchants, artisans and able-bodied workers to Los Angeles. Dry bones, indeed. But you don’t have to imagine what it would be like to be an exile, cut off from your spiritual home.
We get it. We live in a time when our spirits have all but dried up and blown away. We’re choking on the bitterness of cynicism; wallowing in the waste and disregard for human life and we are debilitated by the discounting of the dignity of each person. We live as spiritual exiles. In this way, maybe we’re not so different from Ezekiel’s people. So, where is our word of hope?
Some of the deepest conversations I have in counseling as a pastor revolve around lack of meaning in life, and therefore a lack of hope. Pastor, why am I depressed? Why does life seem so arbitrary and random? Why do evildoers seem to get away with evil deeds? It all doesn’t make sense. If God is all powerful and all merciful, why doesn’t God do something? No wonder false gods are so seductive.
I have to chuckle a little at the one-on-one conversation between Ezekiel and God. God uses the word “Mortal.” A clear distinction—I am God and you are not. Then God puts the ball firmly in Ezekiel’s court. “Mortal, help these people understand they must put me first in their lives, and then I will breathe breath back into them. My presence will give them hope. But they must not continue to deny me, to choose other gods before me. Tell them to try it my way.”
The history of Israel in the Old Testament Hebrew Scripture is one of continual judgment by God that the people have fallen short. And each time the people failed, God was there to offer salvation. The people give it their best shot on their own, which usually isn’t all that good, then the Lord offers another chance at redemption. Then the cycle starts all over again.
But let’s fast forward from 2500 years ago to now, to you and me. God did do something, God gave us Jesus. And there is a word for us to hear this morning. It comes from the 9th chapter of the Gospel of Luke. I’ll just bet that Jesus had Ezekiel’s vision in mind and his voice in his ear when he spoke these words:
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit a man should he gain the whole world, but suffer the loss of his soul?” Luke 9:23-25
That’s our Jesus. You think you know everything, then he says think again. Jesus makes it plain, your life is your treasure to spend, like a gold coin to invest, with whom will you place it? Jesus wants to know, he made it personal for us:
“Who do you say that I am?” Luke 9:20
All of us have our own hearts to give away freely. We have an awesome capacity to take hold of our own lives and give them away. No one can do it for us, or do it without our knowledge, or take our place. It is you who utter the fundamental word, you make the final choice. The gift of our lives freely given is the seed of hope that allows Jesus to infuse us with his Holy Breath of the Spirit.
The outcome of God’s purposes awaits our response.
When we say yes to Christ, we are continuing on to pursue the path of spiritual perfection as John Wesley, our forefather in the faith, stated it. Spiritual perfection is not totally possible in this life, but as followers, our dry bones can indeed live as they’ve never lived before, regardless of age, or situation or anything else.
Don’t be taken captive by the tired old seductions of the usual false gods that get paraded before us as worthy purchases. Sure all that stuff, material goods, competitive success, proud achievement looks good. The enemy of great is not awful.
We hardly ever have to choose between the best and the worst. The enemy of great is good. The chasing after all the good sounding possibilities in our lives brings nothing but despair if we don’t first seek God things instead of good things. When pursuing the merely good in life, don’t forget to open up the package and look on the inside before you buy.
Like the Wisconsin farmer who was working out in his field when something fell out of the sky and landed in the next field. He went over to look at it. The strange object was blue, almost diamond-looking and frozen. He could not understand what he had found. Could this be some ancient glacier off the moon? Or from some distant part of the galaxy?
He was so excited that he called the sheriff and the geology department from a local college to come look at it. Everyone was stumped. All they knew was that it had a beautiful blue color and was frozen solid.
When it began to melt, however, it began to smell, so the farmer kept it in his freezer. Eventually, he figured out what it was. It was fluid that had been accidentally ejected from an airplane toilet.
The moral? Not every opportunity that falls into your lap is a gift from heaven. (Thanks to Mike Slaughter for this story from his book, Real Followers: Beyond Virtual Christianity. Page 178-179)
Ezekiel’s encounter with the God who offers second chances, no matter how bleak things look, lets us know that despite despairing situations, loss of hope is not our fate in Jesus Christ.
“Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Luke 12:34
When you place the gold coin of your life in the hands of Jesus, and as a follower, go minister as he would have you, you learn that your condition is far from terminal.
Our lives, both here on earth, and in the next, are spirit-led, not success-driven. True followers of Jesus are lifted up by the wind and breath of the Holy Spirit, much like those dry bones were re-hydrated. Therein lies the lesson of Ezekiel. Keep first things first; deny the false gods that seduce at every turn. Build a life of meaning one brick of integrity at a time. Spiritual exile is not a permanent condition.
When we commit our lives to Christ, we take care of the first thing. When we accept the cross of compassion, then every other thing in our lives will serve God’s purpose.