Saturday, April 1, 2017

Year A, Lent 5, Ezekiel 37.1-14, Dry Bones

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen
If you knew your story would be included in the scriptures would it affect the way you lived your life?
Our tendency is twofold:
·         Either we read the scriptures as an old story whose ending was written long ago. . .
·         Or we read ourselves and our situation into the scripture, in ways that ignore the context and actual content of the scripture.
When we read the Bible as a story that ended long ago we make Christianity, and modern Judaism, merely a history cult.
We gather together to celebrate our past, to claim our heritage, and understand from whence we came.  There are lessons to be learned, but they are largely history lessons. 
It’s not unlike the way we tell the history of our nation.
  • ·         We tell the story of the pilgrims coming to Plymouth Rock, and there establishing a colony in the new world, as a way of emphasizing the importance of religious freedom in our nation.  (An interest side note to this history, in most of the colonies, there was not religious freedom at all.  The freedom they sought in New England was not that everyone could worship God in their own way, but rather just a freedom from the established Church of England.  Other colonies, especially in the south, reestablished the Church of England as the official religion and there wasn’t freedom of religion at all.)  That said, today we tell the story of the pilgrim’s journey to this land to underscore what became, much later, a principle upon which the nation was founded, religious freedom.
  • ·         In the same way we tell the story of the Boston Tea party, to emphasize our commitment as a people to a representative government.  “No taxation without representation”, right?

Well, one way to read scripture is simply as an old story that ended long ago, but from which we can learn a few lessons, and so we constantly look for the ‘moral of the story’.
The second way that we have tended to read the Bible today is to read our story into the scripture in ways that ignore the context and content about which the Bible was originally written. 
The Book of Revelation, for example, was written to the Church during the time of great persecution under the Roman Empire, and the events so colorfully described there are related to that specific time period, not ours.
And so, for example, when Revelation refers to the whore of Babylon, seated on ‘seven mountains’ it is a direct reference to Rome, the City of Seven Hills, and would have clearly been understood by everyone who originally heard that message. 
Likewise, when in Revelation the time of great tribulation is described, the Churches to whom the Letter was written, who were themselves experiencing day by day that tribulation at the hands of the Roman Empire, knew what the book was referring to. 
For us to ignore that original context and content of the Bible is to be unfaithful in our reading of scripture.

There is another way to read scripture, that does not view it merely as an old story that ended long ago, nor understands it out of context by reading into it our current experiences.
This way to read scripture recognizes the historical reality that is unfolding throughout scripture, but also sees our own contemporary experience in the context of that ongoing history of the people of God.
This Lent we have been talking a lot about the Kingdom of God and the Exile.  As Christians we have failed to understand that these two themes ARE the contemporary situation, the story that forms and shapes the content of the Bible as it is being written. 
Part of the problem for us is that within scripture the more historical stories, like the Exodus, are developed more deeply. 
Well that is the Old Testament history, it is not the current situation that dominated the hearts and minds of the Israelites at the time the scriptures were being written.
The Exile was the context for the writing of both the Old Testament and the New.
To review, The Exile began with the destruction of the northern Kingdom of Israel, in about 720 b.c.  Prior to that, the Kingdom of Israel had been divided, the ten tribes to the north comprising “Israel”, and the two tribes of the south, were called “Judah”.
Following the collapse of the northern Kingdom, in 587 b.c. the southern Kingdom of Judah was conquered and its people taken into captivity in Babylon.  Though that exile lasted but a generation, they returned not as an independent nation, but rather to be ruled by one empire after another, including, at the time of Jesus, the Roman Empire.
It was Rome that completed the destruction of Israel during the Jewish wars from 66 A.D. through 70 AD, and continuing for yet another generation.
The result was that those Jewish people that survived were dispersed throughout the known world, and the nation never again was reestablished until 1948, when the modern state of Israel emerged following the holocaust, where millions of Jewish people died in the German concentration camps.
“Mortal, can these bones live?”
Ezekiel could never have imagined how many of Israel’s dry bones would have piled up in that valley.
Nor would Israel have ever imagined that the Exile that they experienced beginning in 720 BC would continue in one shape or another for nearly 2,700 years, but it did.
And there would be many who would question whether or not the Zionist belief in the reestablishment of the modern state of Israel should be seen within the context of the end of the Exile.
But what we have in the Bible, from the prophet Ezekiel, is a question:
“Mortal, can these bones live?”
Ezekiel’s response is “O Lord God, you know.”
“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.”
And 2,700 years later, Israel is established once again as a sovereign nation on Zion, God’s holy mountain.
The Biblical narrative is still being written today.
But it also bears noting that the work is hardly done.
When Isaiah envisions the return of Israel to Zion, he writes:
6 The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
7 The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den.
9 They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
The ongoing conflict between the Palestinians and Israelis is evidence that God is not done yet.

New life in old bones.
“Lazarus, come out!”
As Christians we have almost always thought of resurrection exclusively as dealing with our own life after death.
And I’m certainly not here to minimize that, or deny that reality in any way shape or form.
However, within the context of the Bible, and the ongoing saga of the Exile and Return, and Jesus’ own proclamation of the Kingdom of God, resurrection has an additional meaning.
God can and does breathe new life into his people, even as their dry bones lie bleached in desert sun.
This gives me hope.
On a personal note:
I followed my father into the ministry nearly thirty years ago.  And  when I entered ministry, it was that my ministry might be much the same as the ministry of my father and his generation.
Karla and I had been members of a mission congregation, established about the same time as Peace Lutheran was established.
I hoped that I might experience that in my own ministry.
But that mission orientation, the building of new congregations that was part of the Churches life from the end of WWII through about 1980, ceased.
The Church has been on a decline, ever since.
Some trace the beginning of that decline, interestingly enough, to the introduction of the birth control pill, in 1960.  Since then birth rates have dropped, and the growth we were experiencing largely because we were having lots of kids, stopped.
Today, the birthrate is not sufficient to overcome the losses we incur by attrition. 
And so the Church is in decline.  And we wonder if “these bones can live”.  It is depressing.
Unless we see ourselves within the context of the long and ongoing saga of God’s relationship with his people.
Unless we recognize that God is in the business of resurrection.
Unless we hear the words God spoke to Ezekiel once again: “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.”
That perhaps is our mission today.
To prophesy to the Wind.  The Breath of God.
That it might once again rattle those dried up bones and breathe life into them.
And so I hope that we might say what Ezekiel said:
“I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.”
I also hope that it won’t take 2,700 years.


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