Sunday, 9 April 2017

Dry Bones- Lent 5

Shortly after King David’s son Solomon died, the kingdom of Israel was split into two- the northern kingdom and the southern kingdom. In the 6th century the Babylonian Empire invaded the southern kingdom and destroyed Jerusalem and the temple and took a number of people off as captives to Babylon (586 BC). The northern part of the empire fell to the Assyrian Empire 134 years earlier (720BC).

One of the people that was taken away into captivity was Ezekiel, who was both a priest and a prophet. This is one of the darkest times of their history. Ezekiel is speaking to his people in exile. The temple King Solomon built has been destroyed. It was the place heaven and earth overlapped. It was the place the presence of God was witnessed and experienced. It was the place of the Arc of the Covenant. Jerusalem was the City of David. They had been taken from the Promised Land God had promised to the ancestor Abraham. It was the land they went to after God used Moses to rescue them from slavery. 

Now they were being integrated into a larger Babylonian culture. Within a few generations their identity was going to be stripped away. They lost everything. They lost their identity. They tied God to the temple and the land, so it must have felt like they lost their God. They must have felt like they lost everything- They might as well have been slaves once again. Nothing to give their children. No hope. Nothing but lament.

That’s about as dark as it gets for human beings. I’m not sure how much we can relate to that situation, but most of us know what it’s like to lose hope. Maybe someone you love has died and you didn’t know who you were anymore. Maybe you lost your job, or had to change careers, or suddenly was diagnosed with a long term illness. Maybe you didn’t know what your future looked like.

Maybe it isn’t as intense or dramatic as that. Maybe you just have a sense of emptiness in your life. You live not really sure about what you’re doing, or why you’re doing it. You’re just going through the motions. Maybe you feel morally or spiritually dead. Maybe you have an addiction that you can’t shake. Maybe you have anger that takes over your life and hurts the people you care about. Maybe you just don’t know what your purpose is. Maybe you have lost your hope that life can be anything other than what it is.

The broader story of the Bible tells us that we are all experiencing a kind of exile. When we go back to Genesis and the first human couple loses paradise, they entered into exile. Human being lose access to the tree of life and so they live with death. In Genesis work was supposed to be fulfilling, but now in exile it will become difficult and unfulfilling. We live lives knowing we will die someday and we try to hide away from that thought which can leave us without hope and without meaning. There is something in us that feels like our life and work should be meaningful. And there is something inside us that says death is not the way things are supposed to be. C.S. Lewis said in his book “Mere Christianity” that 
“Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or to be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that country and to help others to do the same.” 
We are in exile.

Now we have to be careful with this too. God created the earth to be our home. So this way of thinking isn’t a rejection of the earth. What we are in exile from is the way we were meant to live here. God meant it to be paradise, but we are in exile.

There is a Jewish doctor named Victor Frankl who wrote a book called “Man’s Search for Meaning”. He was writing about his experience in the Nazi death camps. He said that in the camps death was everywhere. He noticed that when confronted with death people generally reacted in 3 ways (I heard the preacher Timothy Keller point this out). 

Some turned bad. They lost all their principals and did anything they possibly could to survive. They became informants for the Nazis. They betrayed one another. They exploited people. 

Some people just gave up. Some literally curled up on the floor and withered away. 

Some became heroic. They acted self-sacrificially for the benefit of others. Frankl asked himself what the difference was. 

His conclusion was that It depended on what your hope was. If your hope could be taken away from you in the death camp, then you might go bad as you scramble to rescue it, or you could give up because of the inevitability of death. Your hope might have been in money, or your family, or your social class, but in the death camps that was all taken away. Frankl realized that most people didn’t have a hope that could up against death. Those who had a hope that could stand up against death were able to become heroic (1 Cor 15:19).

Through Ezekiel God gives the Israelites an image of hope. These dry bones are brought together. Tendons tie them together and flesh and skin grows over them. But they are still corpses until God breathes life into them. This passage really emphasizes the need for the breath. It’s worth saying that in Hebrew and Greek the same work is used for breath, for spirit, and for wind. In Hebrew it is “ruach”. This word appears many times in our passage. After the breath, or spirit, arrives then the bodes are made alive. This is a powerful image that was given to the people in exile. It reminded them of the sovereignty of God. When they were tempted to look at the world around them and their circumstances and draw hope from that, God gave them this vision to draw hope from him. Eventually the exile will end.

However, the bigger exile still existed. We are still exiled from paradise, from the life meant for human beings. We are still faced with death that can strip away the meaning of our lives.

Jesus gives us an image to draw from that is not a vision. Jesus comes to the tomb of a friend, Lazarus. He has been dead for 4 days. He is dead. His body is decaying and stinks. This is the equivalent of the bones being dry. Dry Bones are the least alive those bones have ever been. Lazarus in the tomb for 4 days and doing nothing but filling the air with the smell of his decaying flesh is as dead as Lazarus has ever been. Jesus calls Lazurus out of the tomb and the dead man is alive and is returned to his family. It is a real act, but still symbolic of the greater thing God wants to do. Lazarus would eventually die again. Jesus brought him back showing God’s desire and the power available to him. God is going to remake the world. Bringing Lazarus back was a sign. Jesus’ resurrection was the first fruit. His resurrection is the true resurrection that has been promised as the never ending and ultimately meaningful life.

It was Jesus’ victory over death, and the promise of their own resurrection, that gave the early Christians confidence to face all kinds of opposition- be it lions in the coliseum, or tyrants, or mobs, or shipwrecks. Paul talks about all he suffered as he spread the news about Jesus- hard work, imprisonments, countless beatings (often close to death), 5 times receiving the forty lashes minus one, beaten with rods, once stoned, shipwrecked, adrift at sea overnight, frequently travelling and in danger from rivers, robbers, danger from people opposed to his message, often without food, exposed to the elements (2 Cor 11:23-33). Paul knew a hope that stood up in the face of death. Paul could have looked around and saw the power of the Roman Empire and the fact that his own people were largely turned against him and he could have given up. But he didn’t. He knew God was greater. And he knew that whatever the circumstances looked like on the outside God was able to accomplish his goals. No one could have guessed that Christianity would eventually sweep over the entire Roman Empire and even become the religion of the emperor by the 4th century.

The preacher and poet, John Donne, speaks to death about the Christian’s victory over death in his poem “Death Be Not Proud”.
DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,

For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men, And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well,
And better then thy stroke; why swell'st thou then;
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

Donne expands on Paul’s statement in 1 Cor 15:54-55, “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”

We are invited by God to live lives of deep meaning because death has been overcome by Jesus on the cross and by his resurrection. We are invited to have God’s Spirit breathed into us and to have whatever dead bones are within us reinvigorated and filled with hope. We can live out of the future God has in store for us.
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