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Sermon - September 1, 2013 (Ezekiel - Resurrection)

“Living to Die or Dying to Live?”

Ezekiel 37:1-14

Sandpoint United Methodist Church

September 1, 2013

Stan Norman

 

Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones

Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones

Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones

Don’t you hear the Word of the Lord?

 

Dem bones, dem bones, gonna walk around

Dem bones, dem bones, gonna walk around

Dem bones, dem bones, gonna walk around

Now hear the Word of the Lord!

 

Dem bones, dem bones, gonna dance around

Dem bones, dem bones, gonna dance around

Dem bones, dem bones, gonna dance around

Now sing the Word of the Lord!

 

I can’t remember when or where I first heard that song.  I know I was young and I know that it had something to do with church.  You will seldom, if ever, hear that song in children’s church today.  You’re more likely to hear the other verses used in teaching anatomy:

 

The foot bone’s connected to the ankle bone

The ankle bone’s connected to the shin bone

The shin bone’s connected to the thigh bone

And, so on…all the way to the head bone.

 

This is our final week with the Prophet Ezekiel as we explore what it means to be a people, and a church, in exile, living apart from the God who created and sustains us.  There’s a very linear flow to the way God speaks through Ezekiel to the Israelites in exile.

 

First, the Israelites are made aware of why this is happening to them.  God had not abandoned them, they had abandoned God.  Second, the Israelites are told that their suffering has meaning and purpose.  God will use this exile as a time to clear away all the other gods that have taken up residence in their lives.  Third, God will provide fresh new leadership to lead them out of exile and help restore their relationship with God.  Finally, God tells the Israelites that no matter how dark the future looks, there is hope for people of faith; because, God is the God of the living and the dead.  For God, death is not the end of life, it’s an opportunity for new life.

 

Please pray with me.  God, through your Holy Spirit, help us to hear the prophet speak your Word to us today.  Give us the faith to die to our old lives and live into the new life you offer.  In Christ, whom you raised from death and who lives for our sake, we pray.  Amen.

 

When I studied Ezekiel five years ago as part of a Disciple Bible study, one of the things that I learned was that this seldom referred to story of Ezekiel and the valley of the dry bones, is the very first time that resurrection from the dead is mentioned in the Bible.  I had thought that the idea of resurrection from the dead came from Daniel 12:2, where Daniel was visualizing what it will be like at the end of the world when God comes to claim victory over Satan and sin, and restore creation to way it was before we humans screwed it up.  But I was wrong!  Can you imagine that!

 

Ezekiel and Daniel were contemporaries.  They both prophesied to the exiled Israelites who had been carried off to Babylon in 586 BC, after the Babylonians destroyed the Temple built by King Solomon and, in fact, leveled all of Jerusalem.  But based on Daniel’s visions regarding empires that came after the Babylonian empire:  the Persian Empire and the Greek empire of Alexander the Great; most scholars agree that Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones came first.

 

As I began to dig deeper, I discovered a string of connections that led me through the Old Testament to the Gospel accounts of Jesus Christ.  Then, in one of those moments of clarity, as I was preparing for a special friend’s memorial service, the Holy Spirit connected a few more dots for me, and I realized that Ezekiel and Daniel and Jesus, were all talking about the same thing: hope.  Hope in the midst of sorrow.  Hope in the midst of crisis.  Hope for tomorrow and hope for the future.  Hope based on God’s remarkable ability to bring life out of death.

 

You may have noticed that each of our sermons based on Ezekiel have ended with the words, “Be the hope.”  The mission that God gave to the Israelites so many years ago was to be “God’s light to the world,” to be “the hope of the world.”  Through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God chose us, adopted us: Christ’s followers, as God’s children.  As God’s children we become heirs; heirs not just of eternal life, but heirs of God’s mission.  The mission of Christ’s Church is to be God’s light to the world, to be the hope of the world . . . to share the gift; nothing more, and as Pastor Gerri says, “Jesus will never ask for less.”   

 

Let me set the stage for Ezekiel’s vision.  Things could not get much worse for the Israelites.  Five hundred years earlier the Assyrians had conquered the Northern Kingdom and dispersed its inhabitants throughout the sprawling Assyrian Empire.  The inhabitants of the Northern Kingdom included ten of the twelve tribes of Israel.  Remember, only King David and his son, King Solomon, had been able to draw all the tribes together and rule over a combined Kingdom of Israel.

 

The Southern Kingdom of Judea, which included the capital city of Jerusalem, managed to hang on as a tiny city state for several centuries.  Then the mighty Babylonian army rolled over Judea in 586 BC, destroyed Jerusalem, and took most of the members of the remaining two tribes of Israel into exile, including Ezekiel and Daniel.

 

When we study the Old Testament it is hard not to become discouraged because the history of God’s Chosen People and their covenant with God to become a light to the nations is a story of one failure after another.  Several times I’ve heard, “Thank God for the New Testament!”  The pattern seemed to always be the same, though the names changed.  The people would prosper when they put their hope in Yahweh, and they would suffer when they put their hope in other gods . . . or in themselves.

Another phrase I hear a lot during Old Testament Bible studies is, “Gee, that sounds just like us.”  That phrase always brings joy to my heart, because I know that we are starting to experience God’s Word, not just read it!

 

The exiles in Babylon weren’t slaves like their ancestors had been in Egypt, but in many ways they were just as miserable.  Even though they were able to marry, and farm, and become traders, and accumulate wealth, they were home sick.  They were in spiritual pain.

 

Rev. Ed Markquart says that all human beings have four parts:  1) We all have a physical body.  2) We all have a brain or mind.  3)  We all have emotions or feelings, and 4) we all have a soul or spirit.[1]  Jesus said essentially the same thing.  He urged us to worship God with all our heart (our emotions), with all our soul (our inner spirit), with all of our mind (God gave us brains for a reason), and with all our strength (our physical strength).  The Jewish exiles in Babylon couldn’t worship because their souls were home sick for Jerusalem and the Temple, God’s temple.  Listen to this heart-breaking lament from Psalm 137, and imagine what it was like in exile:

 

By the rivers of Babylon –

            there we sat down and there we wept

            when we remembered Zion.

On the willows there

            we hung our harps.

For there our captors

            asked us for songs,

and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,

            “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

 

How could we sing the LORD’s song

            in a foreign land?

If I forget you, O Jerusalem,

            let my right hand wither!

Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,

            if I do not remember you,

if I do not set Jerusalem

            above my highest joy.

 

If you love Christ and Christ’s Church as we do, it won’t be hard to imagine.  Christ’s Church in Europe and North America is in decline, not because God has abandoned us, but because we have abandoned God.  We are in exile.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The exiles were doing okay physically and rationally, but they were in spiritual pain.  Rev. Craig Barnes says that:

 

Like the exiles in Babylon, we try to numb the spiritual pain by making life more comfortable.  We work hard.  We collect a lot of things.  We buy houses, plant our roots, live quietly and try to make Babylon as nice as we can.  But however nicely we decorate it, Babylon is still not our home.  And the day we deaden our longing for God is the day we spiritually die.  Then the rest of us begins to slowly die, from the inside out.[2]

 

I think I just saw a few “light bulbs” go on!  Okay, repeat after me, “Gee, that sounds just like us.”  Maybe Sandpoint is the new Babylon!  Maybe the United States is the new Babylon!  Maybe, just maybe, the new Babylon is the same place as the old Babylon.  Maybe, just maybe, Babylon is any place where we have been exiled from God, by others, or by ourselves.  St. Augustine said that we are restless until we find our rest in God.  Maybe home is not where the heart is.  Maybe home is where God is.

 

God tells Ezekiel that the “whole house of Israel” has cried out to him, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.”  But God says, “Not so!  I will breath my Spirit into them and they will live again.  I will bring life from death.  It’s what I do.”

 

The Apostle Paul describes for the Christians in Rome how God’s resurrection power is revealed in their lives as individuals and as Christ’s Church:

 

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.  And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

 

Whether God is breathing his Spirit into us or pouring his Spirit into us, the result is the same.  Our hope is fulfilled and God once again brings life out of death.

 

Dem bones, dem bones, gonna dance around

Dem bones, dem bones, gonna dance around

Dem bones, dem bones, gonna dance around

Now sing the Word of the Lord!

 

Be the hope!  Amen.

 

I’m going to use a little “preacher’s license” here to add a song to our worship service so that we can dance and sing the Word of the Lord.  Please stand, turn in your red hymnals to page 261, and dance with Jesus.

 

[1] Markquart, Edward F., “Making Skeletons Dance”, Sermons from Seattle, Lent 5A

[2] Barnes, Craig, “Resurrected Hopes”, The Christian Century, February 27-March 6, 2002, page 20.

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