TEXTS: Ezekiel 37:1-14; John 11:1-45
Ezekiel was a prophet of Judah during the sixth century BC (or as scientists put it now BCE). This was an important time in the history of the people of Israel, because it was the century in which the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and conquered Judah. Ezekiel proclaimed the word of God to the people of Judah before the Babylonian conquest, during the siege of Jerusalem, and then during the exile of as many as three thousand people to Babylon where they lived in captivity.
Before we get too far into the story, I want to offer a little aside to say that Ezekiel was a prophet of the Lord, which means that he spoke the word of God to people. In the true sense of the word, prophets do not predict the future; they speak the word of God. Fortunetellers and seers and sometimes weather reporters predict the future. Prophets speak the word of God; a word which sometimes contains within it omens of future times, but not always.
Let us also take a moment to try to get into the minds and emotions of the people of Israel who have been exiled to Babylon. This was a people who for 450 years believed that they were invincible, that God Almighty had chosen them and promised them that there would be a Davidic king upon throne of Israel forever and that Jerusalem and later the temple in Jerusalem was the dwelling place of God and that God would never let his city and his temple and his people be conquered. For 450 years they dwelt security. And even when they were threatened by the Assyrians and Jerusalem besieged, they had been able escape through grace and power of God.
And now the people had been utterly defeated, their city had been sacked, their temple destroyed. Their Davidic king was the prisoner of an invading army and most of the royal family had been murdered in his presence. A good portion of the people themselves had been marched mercilessly about 600 miles away from their homes to live captivity. It would be hard to imagine a situation that could be much worse than this.
And in the midst of this nightmarish existence Ezekiel, priest of God’s holy temple, prophet of God Almighty, experienced a vision, and in that vision Ezekiel was swept up by the Spirit of God and deposited in a valley that was filled with the remains of a countless host of people. While the story does not say so specifically, the insinuation is that these are the bones of a great army that had been killed in battle and abandoned in the valley. The Prophet makes it clear that these were not the wounded living, that these were not bodies those recently killed; no, these bodies in this valley had been there long enough that only the bones remained, and even the bones were bleached white from countless days of baking in the sun. Yet we are told that through the word of God, prophesied by Ezekiel, those piles of dry bones were reassembled and reanimated, and that new life was breathed into them. The message f the vision was, of course, that nothing is impossible for God.
Beyond this central message though, there is another subtle messages that I believe must be mentioned and probed a bit. As I noted, the people of Israel, and especially the people of Judah, the southern kingdom, the kingdom which had Jerusalem as its capital, believed fervently not only that they were the chosen people of God, but that Jerusalem was the chosen city of God and that the temple in Jerusalem was the dwelling place of God; that all the work that God performed emanated from that temple. What God was showing Ezekiel in his vision, the message that God was proclaiming to the people in exile through the prophet was that God was not limited by geography; that the destruction of the temple meant nothing in manner in which God acted. God could act in and from the temple in Jerusalem; God could act in some unknown valley; God could act in the heart of the sea or on the surface of the moon for that matter. Coupled with this concept is the message that God had not and would not abandon God’s people; that God was with the children of Abraham even though they were hundreds of miles from their homes; even though they were in captivity in a foreign land. And that, my friends, is what hope is all about.
Now you and I are not a people in exile. We have never been marched by invading troops hundreds of miles to be held in captivity by a hostile nation. Most of us have never seen our homes and churches and civic centers destroyed or the leadership of our communities murdered. Therefore we could easily say, “This story has nothing to do with me.” (I once had confirmands take sermon notes and the form that they used had as its last question, “What does this sermon mean to you?” One of my students would invariably write, “This sermon has nothing to do with me whatsoever.”)
Yet many of us do find ourselves at this moment far from the places of our birth, not driven here by a hostile nation, but nevertheless driven here by social and especially economic factors that are somewhat beyond our control. I would venture to say that a good many of us feel cut off, in some way separated, from the familiar and from the support that the familiar brings. Most us have known tragedy in our lives and some of us are living in the midst of tragedy right now. I would guess that every one of us at some time in our lives has felt abandoned by God, especially if we believed, consciously or subconsciously, that the presence of God in our lives could be translated as physical blessings for us and those around us (as health and prosperity), Nearly all of us, I would venture to say, have had a time in our lives when we wondered where God was and when we felt that God had left us.
So, my friends, hear the word of the Lord to prophet Ezekiel and to us as well. Thus says the Lord, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from graves, O my people, and I will bring you back to a place that you can call home. And you shall know that I am the Lord when I bring you up from your graves. I will put my Spirit within you and place you on your own soil. And you will know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says Lord.
Now, does that mean that God is going to suddenly cure us of all our diseases? Does that mean that God will bring us immediate prosperity, that God will bring peace to the world, that our county’s political system will suddenly run like a well-oiled machine; that Long Valley will suddenly flourish? Does that mean that Zion Church will get a new minister and that the sanctuary will be filled to the brim with new families clamoring to become members; that our financial woes will be swept away in a tidal wave of giving? . . . . . . No. What it does mean is that our lives don’t have to be like a valley of dry bones; that God’s spirit will indeed be in us; that God will meet us where we are and will act within our lives. What it does mean is that God has come to us and shared our common lot through the life, death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It means that through Christ we have the assurance that this finite world in which live is superseded by the infinite love and grace of God made known to us in the Son. It means that death has no power over us because Christ has shown us that God has power to conquer even death and to promise us the gift of resurrection to life eternal.
It means that God resides in the midst of this congregation and that Zion Lutheran Church has within it the power of God to constantly renew its life and to constantly reform its vision in the style of Luther and the great reformers to whom we trace our heritage. It means that there is no challenge that we cannot meet with faith; and not so much with faith in ourselves, but rather with faith in the God whose Spirit lives within us both individually and collectively.
Our task then is the same as it has always been; the same task that was before our parents and our grandparents all the way back to the founding of this congregation. It is the same challenge that stood before Luther and the other reformers 500 years ago. It is the same challenge that stood before their ancestors back to the days of the apostles. The challenge is to hear the word of the Lord; to listen carefully to the word of God, and to embrace those words and believe in those words and to live those words out in our daily lives. For the word of God is true and can be trusted, yesterday, today and throughout all eternity.