The year is somewhere around 585 BC. Ezekiel speaks from Babylon, exiled from a country that has died, its temple and capital city completely destroyed. Like his fellow prophets, Ezekiel understands this disaster not simply as collateral damage of Babylon’s empire-building. To him, since nothing can happen unless God knows it, Judah’s people and leaders brought this devastation upon themselves through their disobedience to God. For many, this exile was a crisis of faith. Had God abandoned them?
According to Ezekiel’s understanding, as a consequence of their continued disobedience and disregard for the ways of God, ancient Israel was conquered and overcome first by Assyria and then, with much more devastating results, by the Babylonian empire.
However, Ezekiel has a vision – and through it comes to see that God still has a plan for them: God’s spirit will bring new life to a people dead as stone, dead as dry old bones.
The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.” So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “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.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. “
We know this reading, if we know it at all, because we know our basic anatomy – ‘the toe bone’s connected to the foot bone, the foot bone connected to the leg bone, the leg bone connected to the knee bone, now hear the word of the Lord’ – and the bass section’s refrain – “dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones…. now hear the word of the Lord.” When we sang it in High School, it came to a triumphant climax, “Dem bones gonna rise again!”
In the traditional lectionary, this vision of Ezekiel is a side reading during Lent. Heard in that context, it foreshadows the Resurrection of Jesus, and the rising of the people of God on the last day.
The beauty of the Narrative lectionary, however, is that we get to hear the reading in its own setting within the cohort of Hebrew prophets; we get the chance to think about why Ezekiel was given this vision to start with.
The passage lingers over the details: a large valley filled with bones – dry, brittle bones: and a rattling, a clacking heard as the bones align themselves, as they are stitched together with tendons, dressed with muscle, draped with skin. And as the four winds swirl around them, they come to life.
It is a metaphor for the restoration of a nation that has been devastated by war. Not in reference to any specific battle, Ezekiel paints this visual metaphor of what Exile feels like to its survivors: they are as good as dead, hope is lost; they are lifeless and out of joint, scattered, dried up. And through Ezekiel, God offers an image of unfathomable hope: being brought together again, being a living people, and at home.
One of the things that I find very cool about scripture is in trying to put the bigger picture together. For example, Ezekiel is writing at the same time as Jeremiah, but from different places, and different experiences of exile. Both prophets talk about, warn about, the destruction of Jerusalem and implore the people to turn back to God, to turn back to the source of their life and being… and both – in the midst of the awfulness of desecration and destruction, the death of thousands and thousands of solders and civilians, amidst the dis-embodiment of the people of Judah in exile – both speak of God’s intention to claim and renew, of God’s compassion that overrides the horror they have experienced.
“I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place, says the Lord God,” Jeremiah prophesies from Jerusalem. “For surely I know the plans I have for you, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope…I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.” “I will put my law within you, and I will write it on your hearts; and I will be your God, and you shall be my people.” (from Jeremiah 29 and 31)
And at roughly the same time, from Ezekiel in Babylon, God says,
“Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. The people say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, … I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord. I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them; I will remove the heart of stone … and give them a heart of flesh, so that they may follow my statutes and keep my ordinances and obey them. Then they shall be my people, and I will be their God. (from Ezekiel 37 and 11)
Ezekiel and Jeremiah were not in communication – there was no texting going back and forth, no instant messaging, but the message of God spoken through them was the same: God intends to be God to these scattered people. God will come among them, enter into them in breath and spirit to restore life, to bring them home again. And, historically, God did that through King Cyrus, the Persian king who conquered Babylon and ended their exile. He is the king that the word of God spoken through Isaiah calls the Messiah, or in the Greek Septuagint, the christ, the savior.
The language is interesting, evocative. But even within Hebrew thought and faith, King Cyrus the Persian, was not the awaited Messiah. Cyrus was an encouraging word, but not the ultimate Word.
And the word placed within their hearts, the breath blown into their lungs, the piecing together of the dried up bones of the nation of ancient Israel – was at best a resuscitation. God’s word continued to speak of a new creation, a new saving, a new living beyond empire, beyond oppression and upheaval. And, although we believe that Jesus is the fulness of that word, the full expression of incarnation and resurrection, even we are still awaiting the finality of the event amidst our live’s hopes and fears.
The other thing I like about scripture, the magic of inspired scripture, is that we always hear the word of God spoken into our own context, into our own need and hope and longing.
So, we may hear today’s reading as a gospel spiritual rising from the disembodied bones of slavery; we may hear it as our Christian hope for the depth and breadth and height of life held within the eternal presence of God; we may hear it in the context of Mary’s magnificat where the strong are toppled from their thrones and the humble lifted, restored, and fed…. and, because this the the second Sunday of Advent, we hear it today in the context of the Incarnation – the coming of Christ in the birth of Jesus, God in human flesh and form… and of the Cookie Walk.
It’s my nature, I guess to think of big things in small, whimsical ways … and I was mulling over the sermon topic while I was baking cookies on Friday night.
So, if you imagine all the baking that happened on Thursday and Friday – all the sticks of butter sitting out on counters throughout the realm of West Denmark, all the bags or bins of sugar, the eggs sitting on countertops waiting to be cracked, the little vials of vanilla or almond extract, the flour, salt, spices, nuts, dried fruit – all the bones of ingredients are the same spread on all our scattered kitchen counters; then that the butter is connected to the su-gar.. No! not going to do that! … it’s creamed together, the eggs are added, the dry ingredients are mixed in – it’s all the same process – the same chemistry – as butter takes on sinew and flesh and skin – and in the oven comes to life as a cookie. Each has the same basic ingredients – and each is unique – and each batch is brought together in the Hall to then go out again, boxed in new combinations – from many kitchens to one new kitchen and hands and hearts and bellies.
I mean, it’s whimsical, but it’s a view of how a stick of butter comes to life, how a cup of firmly packed brown sugar takes on flesh. It doesn’t do it of its own accord; cookies are not part of the intrinsic nature of butter. But whether it’s in Selma’s or Patty’s or Brenda’s of Ronnie’s or Kristan’s or any of our kitchens, the chemistry that forms a cookie is the same.
Just so, and in this way, the word of God, the spirit of God, comes to each of us as different individuals, different minds and hearts and needs and gifts, and forms sinew and skin in our particular shape, and brings us together and creates a community of faith, a people of the Word, a cookie of God’s own design, to be irresistable and delicious in the world.
May the word of God find you, and fill you, and through a chemistry of God’s own, create in you an irresistable sweetness and joy, a little nourishment for our wait, and for the way home.