A sermon based upon Matthew 15:21-31
Here we are, just a couple days until Halloween, & I brought a skeleton to church! That’s because we’ve just hear from the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel!" Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones!" But, really, who brings a dead guy to church? Don’t skeletons belong to the "Day of the Dead" and to horror movies? Well, just think about it: we believe that at Easter Jesus returned from his death in order to help his followers --to heal his followers, emotionally--whose discouragement seemed to be bottomless. (We call it the "Resurrection".) Although, Jesus didn’t appear as a skeleton, did he? He wasn’t like one of the "un-dead" zombies of the movies. This same Jesus--who we are told had already been buried, & had harrowed the halls of Hell (descended to the dead, as it says in the Apostle’s Creed), and who had then risen to be "seated at the right hand of God" --apparently had to come back to earth to rescue his church. It was as though the disciples would not --could not --believe that there was life-after-death unless Jesus returned to them in the flesh. And so, he did. In the Gospel of John (Chap. 20, verse 15) we recall Jesus’ words of reassurance and compassion to Mary Magdalene’s crippling sadness outside the Garden Tomb: "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?"…2 …and, then, one week later, Jesus returned a second time in order to bring personal reassurance to Thomas’s profound doubts: "Put your finger here, and see my hands. ("For a ghost does not have flesh and bone as you see I do." Luke 24:39) Do not doubt, but believe!"(John 20:27) Those "appearances" by Jesus Christ in the weeks following his "resurrection" brought reassurances, peace, & compassion to his grieving disciples --men &women alike. Assurance, peace, &compassion are simply other words for Faith, Hope, &Love. We would not expect any-thing less from Jesus than to do what he could to reassure their faith, bolster their hope, and express his continuing love. It makes me think that if it had not been for those several memorable re-engagements(in real time, in real life) over those next 40 days after his crucifixion, the community Jesus had gathered(the religious renewal movement he started) would have dissipated! But because those early Christians knew in their hearts and minds that Jesus was still alive--that he was still with them, and would one day come again(as he had already done in their own experience) --they went forth! Defiant of impossible odds, they laid the foundation of a church that --despite our many flaws &endless short-comings throughout history --continues (to this very day!)proclaiming his work as God’s work done in Jesus’ name. That work is precisely what Jesus himself had been doing: rising again, against all odds; creating out of doubt: faith; bringing out of despair & grief: hope; out of hatred: reconciliation and love. That’s what Jesus was doing during his lifetime, and it’s what he continued doing after his death… through the in-dwelling presence of God’s Holy Spirit in us(his followers). That’s what the church should be doing: giving the world second chances!Finding reconciliationwhere there has been deep alienationis one way of giving something (or someone) in your world a second chance. Forgivenessis another. Even learning to look at one’s difficulties &hard-shipsas potential sources of creativeexperience --which makes you stronger, wiser, & more alive for having come through it --is like a moment of "resurrection" inthe very midst of life… a "revival" of hope. 3 Let me give you an example:I am always impressed by the fortitudeI see exhibited by women who have found their way outof abusive relationships. In their decision for "liberation" they have not only changed their circumstances(changed their surroundingsand their lifestyles), they have changed themselves. Jo McLain Getzinger counsels just such women survivors(as we heard, first-hand, just last Saturday). Here in town, we assist Hope Shores Alliance toprovide shelterfor families on the run from domestic violence. Thedecisionof these women to abandontheir former abusers, to confronttheir addictions, and to regain custodyof their children,make these women models of couragein my opinion… not merely "objects"of our compassion. Their circumstances have changed because they are now freefrom the degradations of their former lives. They have changedto the degree that they understand that they need no longer be burdened by those pieces of their character that unwittingly capitulatedto the abuse. They have put away their role as "a victim" and have been resurrected to the role of "a survivor." These women have prevailed over circumstances that seemed to be "out to get them" --to drag them down, and to keep them captive. These women have come face-to-face with those parts of them-selves that made them susceptible to toxic relationships in the first place: whether it was an abusive domestic partner, a pimp, or a pusher. When I thought about all the potential second chances that life may offer (in those everyday occasions when what looks likes "over" & "gone" is simply awaiting our renewed energy…our participation…our faith, hope, and love) --Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of "dry bones" came to mind. There is no more dramatic account of "revival"/"resuscitation"/"resurrection" in all the Bible than what Ezekiel witnessed 500 years before Christ. Forty-nine times in the book of Ezekiel we are told that "The Word of the Lord came unto me."4 One would think that the prophet Ezekiel must have been extremely lucky --or blessed--to have so many personal contacts with Israel’s God Yahweh/the Lord. By way of contrast, the prophet Amos only had one occasion(only once did the Word of the Lord come to him). The prophet Jonah had two opportunities. (I guess we could say that Jonah was given a literal "second chance "to do the right thing, after his initial sea-going misadventure with the whale. But that’s a story for another time.) Ezekiel heard the Word of the Lord 49 times, over a period of 22 years.(!)Unfortunately, those encounters were all during the period of the Babylonian Captivity --the generation that had seen the destruction of Jerusalem, the demolition of the Temple, and the deaths of tens of thousands of Jewish soldiers (hundreds of thousands of civilians!). Ezekiel had gone into Exile with the defeated Jewish nation… the single remnant tribe of Israel. Ezekiel was about 25 years old when he was taken into Exile with the first wave of 10,000 captives. That would have made him a contemporary to Daniel(of the Lion’s Den fame) and of Shadrack, Meshack, & Abednego(the three Hebrew lads in the fiery furnace). Jeremiah(on the other hand) was still preaching back in Jerusalem for the next 11 years…until the Babylonians had had enough…and obliterated the Jewish homeland, taking everyone else captive. 49 times the Word of the Lord came to Ezekiel –which makes me think that God’s greatest communications seem to come to people whose hearts have been broken… someone who feels deeply the suffering of others… perhaps because he or she is going through it themselves! 49 times the Word of the Lord came to Ezekiel during the Exile, but only once do we read: "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. … There were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry." This was all that remained of the former glory of Israel & Judah: bones. Scattered skeletons. Piles of dry bones.5 Feydor Dostoevsky, in The Brothers Karamazov, said: "For every hour and every moment thousands of men [& women]leave life on this earth, and their souls appear before God. And how many of them depart in solitude, unknown, sad, dejected, that no one mourns for the more even knows whether they have lived or not?" Such was the mood of Judea in Exile. Such is the fear(I suppose)of everyone who stares death in the face :shall I be frightened? Shall I be sad? Will I be remembered? Will I be alone? Ezekiel sees a valley of dry bones, scattered by the chaos of war &the ravaging of wild animals, bleached white and dry in the hot Middle Eastern desert sun. These are the remains of soldiers, the so-called "ten lost tribes" of Israel, the dead children of the Jews. Dry bones. I suppose it was for Ezekiel as it would be for any of us, as we face the death of our loved ones --their breathless and lifeless remains --that poignant sense of hopelessness and utter ending. When our loved ones die, we are faced with the same melancholy question: "Mortal, can these bones live?"(What would you say?)"Can these bones
live?" Ezekiel’s reply is noncommittal: "O Lord God, you know. "Or, as we might say it: "God only knows!" In this era of the Old Testament, no one was thinking about "resurrection. "In fact, most of the theologians (priests and prophets) were having a hard time reconciling their ideas about being the "Chosen" People --whom God would always rescue & bless…whose City of Jerusalem and Temple of God Almighty would always stand…and where the Throne of David would reign forever --coming face-to-face with the facts(the changed circumstances)of their total defeat! "Mortal, can these bones live?": "O Lord God, you know." Ezekiel speaks to the bones… and suddenly, with a great rattling noise, the bones came together. ("The foot-bone’s connected to ankle-bone; the shin-bone’s connected to the thighbone," and so on…to the knee-bone, the hip-bone, the head-bone…"Oh, hear the word of the Lord! "Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones!)Suddenly there were a whole bunch of folks looking a lot like thisskeletonhere.6 And then sinews attached, and flesh came upon them, and skin covered them. But there was no breath! No wind blew in them; no spirit. Thus said the Lord God: "Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live! "And there was inspiration; respiration; breathing of life (as on that original day of Creation!). They lived again, and stood on their feet: a vast multitude. And then God explained what was going on: "Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say: "Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost! We are cut off completely!" Therefore, go to them & say to them: "I, the Lord God, am going to open your graves, &bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel.… I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live!" For the broken hearts and hurting lives that surrounded Ezekiel in that bleak day of national destruction and despair, what do you suppose this vision said to them? Remember: their losses had been too numerous to count. So many hundreds of thousands of their fellow Jews had left the world through violent death :first under attacks from Damascus, and then the Assyrian Empire, now the Babylonians…and later in their history the pogroms of Russia and the gas chambers of Treblinka. So many ordinary people, dead! Unnoticed while alive and alienated even in death by the millions! These dry bones of old Israel still represent those countless masses of humanity who have departed "in solitude, unknown, sad, dejected; [where] no one mourns for them or even knows whether they have lived or not." God wants Ezekiel to know --and through his words, wants all of us to know --that God will never leave any of us desolate. To God, even the dead live again! God’s loving embrace is wrapped around our loneliness. We need have no "grave doubts" about the fact of God’s loving embrace, even in our moments of deepest dejection. 7 To me, as a believer in Jesus Christ, I see Ezekiel’s promise from so long ago being fulfilled when the stone rolled away from Jesus’ Tomb on that first Easter…and it was found to be empty. Jesus’ bones were not even dry, when they rose again! And we are told that whoever believes in him, whether living or dead, will have "eternal" life. That life-giving relationship begins right now, while you and I are still breathing. To be "eternal" means having neither a beginning nor an ending; we’re in it now! God intends for you &me to have, not a grave, but a warm&loving embrace in God’s Kingdom! I believe that the promise we call "Easter" was already therein Ezekiel’s words: "My people, I will open your graves… and cause you to rise again!" Jesus Christ rose from the dead so that we might have eternal life, and to know it as a certainty! So, do you believe it? The promise of resurrection, which includes both "eternal" life with God and also "second chances" here on earth, is sufficient for me. But the people in Ezekiel’s day had one more concern: they would be coming out of their graves of "Exile. "And so, let me read the rest of Chapter 37to you as well(verses 21-28): Thus says the Lord God: "I will take the people of Israel from the nations among which they have gone, and will gather them from every quarter, and bring them to their own land… Never again shall they be two nations; never again shall they be divided into two kingdoms… My servant David shall be King over them; and they shall all have one shepherd.… They shall live in the land that I gave to my servant Jacob; they &their children, &their children’s children shall live there forever… "…I will make a covenant of peace with them; it shall be an everlasting covenant with them; and I will bless them, and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary among them forevermore. My dwelling place shall be with them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people… and all the nations shall know it." After 70 years of captivity, the Jews were released by Babylon to go home. What they found was that their former homeland had become a wasteland, without cities… or walls… or cultivated ground. 8 The revival of their national life was difficult, but with the faith and hope (and hard work) that Ezekiel’s vision inspired, it came to pass. A new Jerusalem arose from the ashes of disaster! The Jewish understanding of "resurrection" is not of "individuals," but of their entire nation. All the dry bones arose together, and -- having been "raised from the death" of warfare and of exile -- they went to work, side by side. The remnant people from the Northern tribes of "Israel" and the southern kingdom of Judah joined forces. In the end, Ezekiel’s vision sees a king coming from the line of David who will be the "shepherd" of the people as one: a people no longer divided. And with his reign -- when this "Anointed One" (the "Messiah") reigns -- will come such earthly (& spiritual) blessings as have not been known since the world began! God will make a covenant of peace -- everlasting peace -- with all nations. So said Ezekiel. May it be so! That dramatic story was in the Bible (in the folklore of the Jewish people) for 500 years by the time Jesus Christ came to them. God’s desire for peace and God’s power of resurrection was well known! The question remains: Do we believe it? No, more like: Will we act on it?