Saturday, April 22, 2017

YEA, THOUGH I WALK THROUGH THE VALLEY OF BONES

YEA, THOUGH I WALK THROUGH THE VALLEY OF BONES

Today's appointed Psalm pretty well sums up the spiritual condition of the exiled Israelites among whom Ezekiel lived, and to whom he prophesied. Like their spirits, their homeland was devastated, the cities burned and flattened, even the temple in ruins.

1 Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord;
2 Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive
to my cry for mercy.
3 If you, Lord, kept a record of sins,
Lord, who could stand?
4 But with you there is forgiveness,
so that we can, with reverence, serve you.
5 I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits,
and in his word I put my hope.
6 I wait for the Lord
more than watchmen wait for the morning,
more than watchmen wait for the morning.
7 Israel, put your hope in the Lord,
for with the Lord is unfailing love
and with him is full redemption.
8 He himself will redeem Israel
from all their sins.

In the midst of his people's despondency, and under the hand of God, Ezekiel is carried in the spirit to a valley filled with a great many dry bones. Although it is not named, its identification as “the” valley suggests a particular place; other clues suggest a battlefield. In any event, for Ezekiel, and the exiled Jews, it would call to mind funeral customs, and resurrection hopes

Jewish burial customs of the day were two-fold. Immediately upon death, the body was taken to a family crypt or tomb, such as the one Lazarus had been buried in, and sealed in. This was not the final burial, but only an interim step. The body would be left in the tomb, perhaps until the next burial. Only when the body was desiccated, dried up, the flesh disintegrated, with only the bones remaining, would the final disposition of the body be made. Once the bones were dried enough, they would be placed in a large bone coffin, an ossuary, with the bones of those who had previously died. In order to make best use of the space in the ossuary, the bones were disconnected and placed in the ossuary where they best fit. Hence an ankle bone might rest inside a rib cage, and a skull might be in the midst of a shoulder bone. All this was keep the family together for .the resurrection which would come in the reverse order of desiccation. First the bones, then the internal parts, muscles, sinews, and finally the skin.

Joshua T. Andrzejewski points out: “however, this vision has more to do with restoration than resurrection.” Kevin Madigan and Jon Levenson put it this way: “The question it answers is not the familiar, self-interested one, “Will I have life after death?’ but rather a more profound and encompassing one, ‘Will God honor [the] promises to [the] people?”

God’s promises have been impossible from the very start. There is the call of Abraham and Sarah, two impossibly old folks who were charged with giving birth to a nation as plentiful as the stars in the sky. The nation did grow up, but before too long it had been enslaved. When God liberated the people, they continually fell away – even when they had been given their own land, even when they had judges, kings, and prophets to try and keep them in line.

Ezekiel was faced with a situation in which a promise made thousands of years ago, a promise that seemed too good to be true, was turning out to be exactly that. The exile was one of the most traumatic events in Jewish history, and there’s a whole book of the Bible – Lamentations – dedicated to the words of despair and hopelessness God’s people felt at that time. The land was supposed to remind them of God’s promise; the king was supposed to remind them of God’s promise; the Temple was supposed to remind them of God’s promise. Now all those things were gone and the people were left despondent – utterly alone.
But God's promises were still there. God had not, as Israel assumed, abandoned them, Israel had abandoned God. In chapter 36, God had reminded Ezekiel:
(Eze 36:16) The LORD said:
(Eze 36:17) Ezekiel, son of man, when the people of Israel were living in their own country, they made the land unclean by the way they behaved, just as a woman's monthly period makes her unclean.
(Eze 36:18) They committed murders and worshiped idols, which made the land even worse. So in my anger, I punished my people
(Eze 36:19) and scattered them throughout the nations, just as they deserved.

But the promises of God ARE the promises of God, and they remain. “I will gather you from these foreign nations and bring you home.” (Eze 36:24) God assures Ezekiel, and through him, the Israelites. In the bone-on-bone, sinew-on-sinew, flesh-on-flesh resurrection of the dry bones, God demonstrates the restoration that is to come.
(Eze 37:11) The LORD said: Ezekiel, the people of Israel are like dead bones. They complain that they are dried up and that they have no hope for the future.
(Eze 37:12) So tell them, "I, the LORD God, promise to open your graves and set you free. I will bring you back to Israel,
(Eze 37:13) and when that happens, you will realize that I am the LORD.
(Eze 37:14) My Spirit will give you breath, and you will live again. I will bring you home, and you will know that I have kept my promise. I, the LORD, have spoken."

Despite the 2,500 years that separate us from Ezekiel, I think each of us must have some idea how he felt, how his people felt. I suspect that there are things many of us treasure as reminders of God’s promise: a passage of scripture; words spoken by a dear friend at just the right moment; the memory of a particular star in the sky one night. They are meaningless to anyone else, but to us they are touchstones to which we cling when everything else falls away. Now imagine that you’ve lost even those, and I think you begin to grasp the magnitude of the exile.
So we return to that painful conversation between Ezekiel and God. Painful because Ezekiel knew. “Mortal, can these bones live?” And the prophet knew the answer; he knew it was impossible.

And yet, that’s precisely what happens in the vision that follows. In essence, God says, “You think it’s impossible for me to restore my people from exile? I’m going to show you that I could do something infinitely more impossible than that. Not only am I going to restore the bones and sinew and flesh, but I am going to return my breath to these bodies, and they are going to live again.

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.” God keeps promises, even though they have been impossible from the very start.

How many of us have call out from the depths of despair? At some point we all walk in the valley of dry bones? They dry bones of despondency; Grief; Abandonment; Loneliness; Depression; Pain; Fear; Illness, and more. In all these, God's promises hold.
"I, the LORD God, promise to open your graves and set you free.” “ I, the LORD God, will gather the people of Israel and bring them home from the foreign nations where they now live.


Just as God put muscle and flesh on those dry bones. Just as God did bring the people back home again. God brings us home. And like a family gathering around the home table, we gather at this table and receive the food of the promise, the Body and Blood of Christ, who died that we might have life. The table is set. Come, eat, drink, and rejoice in the assurance of promises kept. AMEN.

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