Sermon for September 17, 2006
Texts: Ezekiel 37:1-14/Romans 8:6-11
Title: “The Tide Will Turn”
I was perhaps seven at the time. The sun had not shone throughout a late autumn day that was the very definition of dreary, a cold intermittent drizzle falling to reinforce the point. It was Sunday afternoon, and my sister, age 5, and I had just returned from a Sunday school outing. Our ride, without checking first to see if our parents were home, deposited us at the front door of our house and sped off leaving Diane and me to our own devices. It’s really strange how the scene has frozen in my memory; that somber, overcast afternoon undisturbed accept for the sound of the rain striking the eaves of the house, and the squirrels, oblivious to the weather, hurriedly scurrying from place to place to assemble a winter’s storm of rations.
It was one of those afternoons folk of more mature years relish as an occasion to crack a good book, enjoy a nap, or get caught up on some neglected correspondence. At seven I was several years away from appreciating the delights that such an afternoon afforded. There was no way my spirit could be coaxed out of its gloom, particularly as the minutes dragged from three o’clock, to three thirty, to four without any sign of our parents. We presented quite a picture; two forlorn children sitting on a porch, the younger near panic stricken, while I, the older brother, tried, none-too-successfully to adapt to my role as protector and counselor. Abandoned. If it wasn’t abandonment we were experiencing, it WAS its first cousin. I, despite the brave front I attempted to maintain, felt that something was terribly wrong. Where were our parents?
Truth be told, neither my sister nor I really believed that our parents had abandoned us. Yet the reality of our situation, set against a backdrop of that somber afternoon, cooperated to make us feel the full force of our vulnerability. We felt terribly alone and isolated, all of that accrued good will our two loving parents had built up, leeching out as the minutes dragged into autumn darkness. Fed, clothed, and loved by two people who would have gladly given up their own lives to assure our welfare, you might have thought that it would have taken more than an hour or so of separation to obscure those realities. Yet it didn’t, and perhaps if you can retrace your steps back into your own mind set at that age you might regard such a response not at all extreme. In a vulnerable state, the fear of abandonment can undermine even the sturdiest constitution.
Who hasn’t experienced the emotions I have attempted to relate? Most of us have had the experience of abandonment; and it is a scary. Given a minute to reflect, each one of you could isolate that dreary autumn passage in your own life, a time when you felt abandoned, disconnected from the lives being lived around you. The feelings that abandonment prompts are so profound and isolating that they never truly disappear from our consciousness. They attack us at our emotional core, obscuring the reality that we are loved and cared for, that we are nourished and sustained in relationship with others.
Though individual persons are perhaps most vulnerable to feelings of abandonment and estrangement, history is replete with examples of entire groups of people who have experienced this form of anguish. The Jews persecuted by the Nazis experienced abandonment. The Palestinians disbursed throughout the Middle East know that experience. So too, the Rohingya who have been forced out of Myanmar.
Israel was no stranger to abandonment, at least as she perceived it. Through numerous experiences that shaped her history this rather minuscule and insignificant nation felt profoundly alienated from the nations surrounding her, and to make the bad worse, she felt alienated from the very God in whom her past, present, and future were shaped.
Our lesson from Ezekiel graphically depicts the emotional state in which Israel found herself. Reality amounted to no more that a valley of bones bleached white in the sun. A conquered people, Israel was on the mat. Defeated and demoralized by the very enemies of God she was charged to conquer, Israel and her leaders resembled nothing quite so much as the dismembered body Ezekiel’s vision yielded. There lay Israel defeated and dead, a random collection of scattered bones. But instead of composing an elegy to lament the dead, Ezekiel did the opposite. He invoked a blessing over the defeated, exhorting Israel to hold on and hold out, for a new day was in the offing. God was preparing something wondrous that would change the entire character of her future. Israel would rise from the dead.
“The test of a first-rate intelligence [F. Scott Fitzgerald once famously wrote] is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” You could make a very good case that Israel’s intelligence was challenged in that way.
Two opposed ideas fought for position in Israel’s consciousness. The first of those ideas was that she was the beloved of God, God’s covenant partner; the second was that nothing qualified her for special standing in God’s eyes if she failed to be obedient. Israel struggled as the circumstances of her life under God evolved generation to generation, her confidence in God, her experience of alienation from God, vying to occupy her mind and control her spirit.
During lengthy seasons of trial and testing under leaders who were typically more corrupt than enlightened, Israel’s ability to function was seriously challenged. This was a people who despite the counsel and the guidance of God’s own emissaries, the prophets, simply could not bring herself to believe that God was faithful in all circumstances.
Tested and found wanting, the people’s faith was never really secure, yet it did not lapse entirely either. From century to century Israel was able to live with this tension her ambivalence toward God created and maintained. Enough faith to trust in God most of the time, but not enough to trust in God all the time—pretty much sums up Israel’s attitude toward her God.
I think we Christians can see our own attitudes toward God reflected in Israel’s response to God. It is quite obvious that the commitment we bring to our relationship with God does in no way equal the commitment God brings to his relationship with us. The faith to which we lay claim, ever preyed upon by doubt, is often transitory, undermined by life’s allotment of challenges and setbacks that stretch and test us. The hand of God in the events of this life is often obscured as we are beset with the ration of obstacles we face. How easy it is to feel abandoned when health deserts us, when a personal relationship falls apart, when an opportunity is withdrawn. It is in those times that the psalmist’s lament most forcefully resonates in our hearts. “My God, my God, [where are you] why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from hearing the words of my groaning?”
The forsakenness and sense of abandonment we from time to time experience as children of God is never fully eradicated from our lives, and sometimes it becomes so overbearing that our faith and hope are no longer sustainable. Our senses are overwhelmed by a gloom and despair that no amount of personal exertion will dissolve. The Israel we meet in this morning’s lesson was impaired in just that way. Dry bones—no more appropriate metaphor could be invented to describe Israel’s state. Israel’s morale under the Babylonians had bottomed out. Yet the Lord challenged Ezekiel with an unexpected question, “Mortal, can these bones live?” What a bizarre question. Who had ever heard of such a thing? When had bones ever reconstituted themselves into a body and come back to life? How could the laws of nature be rewritten? Yet wise in the wisdom of God, Ezekiel did not challenge God, but instead deferred to God, “O Lord God, you know.” “You know the answer.”
“O Lord God, you know.” There are times in life when that is the most authentic confession of faith any of us can muster. We can’t see well, we certainly can’t see all there is to see. “Lord, I’m just going to have to believe that these events will work themselves out.” “Lord, I’m frightened right now, just strengthen me that I might get through this. “O Lord God, you know what the future holds in store.” Isn’t it great to know that least someone knows “something” when life’s craziness hits?
How important it is that we have something firm and stable to which we can anchor our hopes when the world itself threatens to cave in around our heads. Folks, that is precisely what God promises us. “The tide rolls in and out [Vincent van Gogh is quoted as saying] but the sea remains the sea.” Counter all of life’s contingencies; the movement of the tides that reshape the contours of our lives, the sea remains the sea. There is a permanence and stability in God obtainable nowhere else. At our most insecure and abandoned we can count on that. The sea remains the sea. God remains God.
Where any of you are most vulnerable right now, that is where God is poised to help. The tide may have rolled out in our personal lives leaving nothing behind except scattered debris and litter, but God’s mercies still uphold us. The question is, “how do we know that?” We know that through experience. Search the record. God’s past actions are a pretty good indicator of how God will act in the future. The stability and assurance we find in the Living God is not this century’s great discovery, but is a legacy that has been passed generation to generation from the time of Abraham. The tides roll in and out in this life, we are subjected to challenges that appear to be insupportable, but God is still God. The constancy of God’s love is scripture’s sustaining theme.
Where is God in real time? Where is God today? Tentative and sporadic in our commitment to God, it is difficult to fathom a love that is not similarly impaired. But that difficulty, that impediment, is something God is intent to bridge. And God does that through the same means used by generations of parents. God most persuasively demonstrates his love through the constancy of his love.
As frightened as my sister and I were on that autumn day so many years ago, at the age of five and seven our parents had already invested sufficiently in us that we knew, despite what to us was some pretty overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that we had not been abandoned. We were anxious and we were afraid, but we trusted what we knew of our parents sufficiently to persevere in hope. For us the tide was out, but we knew in our hearts that it would turn.
The tide will turn. Parents remain parents. God remains God. The constancy and predictability of the relationships we build with each other and with God are essential elements in the well-adjusted life. God wants us to understand that there is constancy and predictability in him that will withstand any and all of life’s contingencies. The tide is out, you feel as if you are in the dumpster, but the tide will turn. Why? Because God here, and he is not leaving. All you have to do is look at the record. Someone once said, “life under God is strenuous, but not grim.” Any one of us can personally attest to that.
The tide rolls in and out, but the sea is still the sea. And over all the challenges we experience in this life God faithfully and lovingly presides. God is still God. It may appear that the tide has gone out for good, but the tide will turn. It will turn because in God’s realm despair yields to hope, crucifixion to resurrection, and death to life. For God, friends, death is never the last word. Life is the last word. Sure, this life we live is strenuous, but it is never grim. It is never grim. God gloriously reigns over all that is, and in him we also reign. AMEN
O Lord, abiding Spirit, in whose presence we live and from whose breath we draw breath, grant onto us the gift of peace and serenity that we may partake of the rich blessings you are so ready to bestow. Bathe and renew our spirits in the pure waters of thy grace, that from those waters we may emerge cleansed, a people prepared to live and serve you as your Spirit directs.
Lord, we appeal to you on behalf of those who are lonely and forgotten, all those who will enjoy meaningful human companionship today. We pray for those consumed by feelings of inadequacy, who feel they can’t measure up. We pray for young people who are struggling in school, and are falling behind, praying that they will get the encouragement and support they need. We pray for all who mourn, persons who bear the heartache of loss and estrangement. Grant peace to the anxious, calm to the agitated, quiet to those whose inner voice reproaches or accuses them. O Christ who stilled the waters, who exorcised demons, who consoled the broken-hearted, do thy holy works in our midst today, that those for whom you gave you life may embrace their redemption for the gift it truly is.
Make us resilient in spirit, O Lord, that when we face a tide that threatens to overwhelm us we may remember the covenant promises you have made and reaffirmed countless times. O God, we believe that your loving favor will never be withdrawn, that what seems insurmountable to us, is not so to you. We believe you revealed your true intentions for humanity in Christ Jesus our Lord. Even as you chasten us for our sin, you are ever prepared to restore and renew us. In the confidence that we are redeemable we shall live this day, and all the days you allot us.
Glorious and reigning father, source of all that is good, endow us with hope that transcends the challenges of this hour, that eyes fastened on Jesus, the Christ, we may live with joy and confidence. Hear these spoken prayers and those prayers lying on our hearts for which we have yet to find words, for they were formed by hearts and minds created by thee for union with thee. We pray in Jesus’ name using the words he taught us…