By Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
The time was after 587 B.C. The place was Babylon--modern day Iraq. The Babylonians were the superpower at that time, under Emperor Nebuchaddrezzar. Their powerful armies destroyed Jerusalem along with the earthly symbol of God's dwelling place, the Temple. Many of the Jews, including the prophet-priest Ezekiel, were captured and hauled off to live a life of exile in Babylon.
In this foreign country of exile, living in despair and hopelessness, God's Spirit comes to Ezekiel in an allegorical vision. The vision transports Ezekiel bodily out of his occupied place of exile into some valley, which is filled with human bones that had been dried up by the scorching sun.
In the midst of this eerie and lifeless place, God asks Ezekiel, "can these bones live?" The prophet gives God an honest and faithful answer, "O Lord God, thou knowest." He was saying, "Only you can answer that question God."
Then, in verses 11-14, God does give Ezekiel an answer. The answer is a most interesting one--for it provides an interpretation of the prophet's vision.
The valley of dry bones symbolize the life of the Jewish people living in exile. They are a people who have lost all hope of returning back to their homeland and rebuilding their country. They were living as dead people because many of them felt that God had abandoned them. The Jewish people express their situation by saying, in verse 11: " 'Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are clean cut off.' "
In other words, life in exile is like being malnourished, lost, and condemned. Ezekiel is then told by God to address this hopeless, helpless, lifeless situation by preaching a wonderful message of hope, restoration and new life.
God would indeed raise them from their graves--which was a symbolical way of saying that God would lead them out of their Babylonian exile. God would allow them to return to their homeland. Their future with God would be restored, thus giving them new hope, new faith, new life.
We too, like Ezekiel and the Jewish people living in exile in Babylon have our experiences of exile and dry bone situations. For some of us, living in exile may take the form of a serious injury or illness, which suddenly changes our lifestyle. For others, living in exile may take the form of an unexpected or premature death of a loved one. For others, it may take the form of being underemployed or unemployed. For others, it may mean going through the trauma of a divorce. For others, it may mean suffering as a victim of physical, emotional or psychological abuse.
For many people today, myself included, living in exile involves a growing uneasiness with the negative trends in our society. We live in, what is becoming more and more all the time, a cultural wasteland. Movies and television glamorize sex and violence. Our society has over-emphasized materialism and individualism to such an extent that they have become death-producing, and alienate us from God, the God's creation, and one another.
Whatever form our experiences of exile might take, we, like Ezekiel and the Jews living in exile may also have serious questions or doubts about God; about ourselves; about other people. Our experience of exile may cause us to feel malnourished, lost or condemned. We may only be able to see our situation as a hopeless, helpless, lifeless one.
However, as in the case of Ezekiel and the exiled Jews in Babylon; God often speaks to us and comes to our rescue at the most unusual times and in the most unexpected places. When God does this, God gives us a wonderful message of hope, restoration and new life. Even in the worst-possible situations, God is at work in marvellous and surprising ways.
Francis Gay tells the following story: When Louis Pasteur, the
French scientist, lay ill after suffering a stroke, the government
stopped work on a laboratory it was building for him. When
Pasteur heard this, his condition began to deteriorate rapidly
and his friends begged Napoleon III to give orders for the work
to be restarted.
Their request was granted and they hastened to Pasteur to
tell him the good news. Immediately, he took a turn for the
better. Indeed, he recovered and was able to continue with his
work for years afterwards. Hope, indeed, is a wonderful medicine.
We, too, have tasted this medicine of hope. God in Christ has been able to give new life and hope to our dry bone experiences--providing them with sinews, flesh and skin, and breathing his life-giving Spirit into them. Our dry-bone, exilic lifestyle does not last forever. Often when we've reached the end of our rope; when in utter despair; we wonder how we can go on; then, our God comes to us with hope, restoration and new life.
God continues to surprise and rescue us in our experiences of exile--in our Babylons. That's why we're here together in this place today. The creative love and power of God in Christ is stronger than all of the negative , evil forces at work in this world. As we celebrate God's Presence in this community of Word and sacrament, God breathes life into us--abundant life, eternal life. For this, thanks be to God!
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