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Text: Ezekiel 37: 1-14
Welcome to worshiping in a different way. I invite you to take a moment and imagine the room where we normally gather and the people who are usually sitting with you. Maybe you can hear “This Is the Day” playing on the piano. Can you see the lovely flowers on the altar and the candles burning? I am seeing all of you.
As we hear these words from the prophet Ezekiel, you may find yourself relating to those dry bones. We are walking through uncharted territory and living in uncertain times. We have had to change some of our usual routines. And, who would guess that dried beans, hand sanitizer and toilet paper would become valuable commodities? This can all leave us feeling adrift, not clear what to hold onto. And this experience of worshiping apart may feel a little dry to you as well, a little lonely.
The prophet Ezekiel was active from 593 BCE to 571 BCE. He was a priest in Judah, likely in the capital city of Jerusalem.
To briefly recap the history: The United Kingdom ruled by David and then Solomon split into the kingdoms of Israel and Judah around 900 BCE. Israel was the northern kingdom, Judah the southern kingdom. Jerusalem, the capital city of Judah, was home to the temple and where the Davidic line of kings continued to rule. Both states were essentially pawns in the larger battle for domination of the region. In 721 BCE the nation of Israel was conquered by the Assyrians. Judah escaped this fate by not opposing Assyria, becoming a vassal nation.
In the 600’s BCE both Egypt and Babylonia were vying for control of the region having defeated the Assyrians. The Judean rulers were in a tough spot about who to side with and initially chose the Egyptians. In 597 BCE the Babylonians got the upper hand and they sent the king along with a number of officials and elites into exile into Babylon. Ezekiel was among those sent into exile at this time. A series of rulers came to power in Judah but ultimately Babylon asserted it’s power by destroying the temple and city of Jerusalem and taking more people into exile in 586 BCE.
This was the environment that Ezekiel lived in. He began prophesying a few years after being sent into exile, while Judah was still in existence. The message that Ezekiel brought was certainly not a positive one. Ezekiel believed that God was in control of all that was happening to the people. He told them that the promises they had come to trust; that they were the chosen people, living in the promised land, ruled by ancestors of King David, were no longer valid. Ezekiel’s initial message to the people was that they would be conquered, and they would lose their land. This was happening because those in power, had not heeded the word of God—they had not been faithful. They had not provided for those in need and they had put idols of other gods in the temple. So now all the people and the promises would be destroyed, and it was all God’s doing.
Ezekiel’s terrible vision came to pass. The temple was destroyed, and many more people taken into exile. The interesting thing is that once this happened, the tone of Ezekiel’s message changed. He brought a more positive and hopeful word to the people. He told them the whole house of Israel would survive and God was not going to completely abandon the people. It was in this time that Ezekiel has his vision of the valley of dry bones.
When God asks, “Can these bones live?” Ezekiel responds “Oh, Lord God, you know.” It is a continued expression of Ezekiel’s confidence that God is firmly in charge and even has the power to bring life into these dry bones. Ezekiel sees only the dry bones, God sees life.
We are not living in times quite as desperate as those of Ezekiel, but we are experiencing a kind of exile—exiled to our own homes, asked to stay in, to not get together with friends and family, to not come together in worship or book groups, and when we do venture out to the store to stay 6 feet away from anyone else. And we know that things are going to get worse before they get better. We can see what is going on in Italy and other countries.
So, can these bones live? Will we be able to return to our usual lives? We don’t know for sure—but certainly God can see life in this situation.
And perhaps, you also, have already started seeing benefits in this situation. We talked last week about some reasons to be hopeful. People are paying better attention to washing their hands, something that can make us all healthier. And people are kinder. Several people have reached out to ask if there is anything we need, and I am guessing you have experienced the same thing. Maybe you are finding ways to use your time to catch up on projects around the house or read more books or even write a letter.
These are all reasons to stay hopeful and we can be confident that there will be more opportunities to be creative and more lessons to learn. In times of struggle there are always “silver linings” that are not immediately clear while we are feeling dried out or under siege.
As the bones come together, and the bodies are enfleshed, there is still something missing—they are not yet breathing. And so, God asks Ezekiel to prophesy to the breath and the breath of God—the ruach comes into the bodies. This Hebrew word, ruach is used frequently in the scriptures and has multiple meanings: breath, wind and spirit. For these bones to live they must be filled with God’s Spirit.
We are being forced in some ways to slow down and pay closer attention, to pause and breathe, which is always a good thing. When you think about how you respond in difficult situations, often the first step is to be still, to breathe. When you are feeling nervous or overwhelmed it is helpful to take a few deep breaths. We have all been told to count to 10 when we are angry or upset. There is wisdom in stopping and breathing in.
In Tai Chi there is the concept of our core—our tan tien. It is a place to focus one’s attention, and all movement comes from the tan tien. The translation of this term is: “sea of breath.” Tai chi exercises are focused on practicing deep breathing and moving from this “sea of breath,” this core of our body.
In doing this, in focusing on our breath, ruach, we connect with God’s Spirit, ruach. We remember that the source of our life, our faith, comes from God. These days of social isolation give us time to practice and remember that in all our movements, in everything we do, we are called to act and respond from our core, the ruach of God.
Can these bones live? Yes, if God’s ruach stays alive within us.
Now, Ezekiel would tell us that everything that is happening is God’s will and that we are being punished by God for our sins. Certainly, there are ways that we all have fallen short. We can always find some form of bad or negligent behavior to blame for all that is happening.
I see it differently, however, I don’t think God is punishing us, but I do think that we are experiencing consequences of not living in a way that honors God’s vision for us.
God created us with free will and at the same time created us as interconnected. We are clearly experiencing how interconnected we are, as a virus that started in a remote city in China is now spreading all over the world.
In some ways our lack of appreciating how interconnected we all are allowed this virus to spread. We thought that it would not affect us here, or we thought we had a handle on it. In some ways our impulses to see ourselves as “separate than” and “better than” others, our desires in this and other European countries to tighten our borders led to sense of isolation that did not serve us well in this situation.
At the same time, it is ironic that part of the solution to stopping the virus is for us to separate ourselves from one another. To close borders and to stay put. But of course, that is just a physical separation. We are also being called to work together and to act together in honoring the social distancing guidelines. We are being asked to think about the larger whole and those who might be at risk even if we re not. And we are experiencing once again that it takes all of us working together to get through this situation.
In Ezekiel’s time, the people had to leave their homeland and all that was familiar. Their place of worship had been destroyed; their homes were now occupied by strangers. They were forced to create a “new normal” for themselves in very big ways. And the prophets were there to encourage them. Ezekiel brings them this image of the dry bones coming to life. The prophet Jeremiah encourages them to “build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce…seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf” (Jeremiah 29: 5-7) And Isaiah brings the message, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (Isaiah 43:19).
We are able to continue telling the stories of these ancient people and be inspired by their prophets because they pulled together, held onto their faith and remembered that they belonged to God. We are their faith descendants. We share in their struggles to stay faithful and their hopefulness that no matter what, God continues to work in our lives.
Can these bones live? God says YES! Because God created us to be people who know how to come together and work together. Yes, it is and will continue to be a challenge. We are just in the early stages of this situation and we don’t know yet all that will be required of us moving forward. We are learning about and discovering together ways to stay connected and distant at the same time. Worshiping in this new way for now is part of that process. I am guessing that you are still staying in touch with your friends and family even when you can’t see them in person. People are using video conferencing options to keep in touch with the groups they are part of. It is a time to be creative and imagine what is possible.
The vision that Ezekiel has is a way of God saying: If you can imagine life in these dry bones and see it happen, what are the other possibilities for this community? What word of hope and new life can you bring to them?
As we gather together this morning, each of us in our own homes, we are invited to remember that we are still community, even if we cannot see one another. We can still pray for each other, still send each other the peace of Christ, and know that God’s ruach continues to swirl around and within us like the wind outside your doors.
Together we will be facing some new and unique challenges. During this time of personal “exile” it is important to remember that we are facing these challenges together, that we are part of larger and broader solutions. In working together and cooperating together we make space for God’s ruach to do something new.
So, what do you say? Can these bones live?