Skin and Bones

Skin and Bones

Ezekiel 37:1-14

by Daniel Harrell

Ezekiel and Daniel were contemporaries, both prophesied from Israel’s exile in Babylon, the predicament that prods the prayer: “O come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel.”  It only makes sense that if I preach from Daniel on the first Sunday of Advent, I should talk about Ezekiel on this second Sunday. Remember that Advent was designed for the gloomy days of encroaching winter, not as a run-up to Christmas as much as prep work for Jesus’ Second Coming, an apocalypse fraught with darkness and disaster. In the New Testament, much of the apocalyptic doom gets fulfilled by Rome’s demolition of Jerusalem in 70 AD. For Jesus, who saw it coming, Rome’s onslaught was a Babylonian repeat. As that Old Testament pagan power served as God’s gavel against Israel’s infidelity and injustice, so would Rome render God’s judgment in the New Testament.

Of course the Bible does not restrict justice to ancient civilizations. Human sin enjoys no statute of limitations. Borrowing language from Daniel, Jesus portends another day with the “Son of Man coming in clouds with power and great glory.” After Jesus resurrection, Jesus goes away in clouds with power and great glory as he ascends out of his disciples’ sight in Acts 1. Two angels then appear and ask why they’re standing there looking up in the sky? “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” In the meantime, Jesus came back in a different way. In Acts 2, Jesus’ spirit dramatically blew into his people (as Ezekiel predicted) and fired them up (as happened in Daniel). Pentecost was a full-blown revival that gave birth to the body of Christ, only this time instead of a newborn baby, it would be a entire born again people. Jesus revives us with his very presence—Emmanuel which means “God with us”—so that we live and love as Christ’s body on earth.

If you’ve been a Christian for long, you’ve likely been caught up in revival. In that moment, everything came together harmoniously as if by divine intent. Your purpose and calling came clear, you deficits and inadequacies diminished, your fears and worries diminished. You discovered both the passion and power to do all that Scripture invites. Often the praise of God sparks the fire, other times its the company you keep, something you read, an turn of events, and even on occasion, as if miraculously, a sermon you hear. Many of you remarked how last year’s Innové roll out was like a revival meeting: We heard Tasha and our other Proteges inspire us with their projects which are now our projects. We came together to do the work of the Lord in the world. Revival is a glimpse of eternity when it happens. But you can’t make it happen. You can only be ready for it. “The Spirit blows where it will,” Jesus said.

Folks who visit my home state of North Carolina at Christmastime, often make time to attend a Moravian church Lovefeast. It’s a big Christmas tradition where I come from. The Moravians, a Protestant denomination with roots in the Hussite reformation and German pietism, settled near my hometown where they’re mostly known for their sugar cake and beeswax candles. They maintain a colonial living-history community called Old Salem. A refurbishment of their original 18th century settlement, Old Salem welcomes thousands of visitors each Christmas who tour the restored village and attend the Lovefeast.

I’d always assumed the Lovefeast to be a souped-up version of communion until I finally attended one. Gathered in a beeswax candlelit meetinghouse, during a service of lessons and carols like we’ll savor next Sunday, an assemblage of whitely dressed women and men parade through the pews with baskets of strudel. I thought this an odd, if scrumptious, choice for communion bread. The body of Christ never tasted so good. But then the servers followed with neither wine nor grape juice in little cups, but steamy mugs of sugary coffee. Soon everybody was amply supplied with what amounted to an early evening breakfast. We nibbled and sipped as the service went on, the caffeine reviving us when the sermon didn’t.

It was a little like munching popcorn during the movies or hotdogs at the ballpark, though it felt strange in church. Granted, I know that for many, coffee with worship is standard fare, at least based on the number of coffee cups we collect each week. But this coffee and strudel were more than refreshment: they were part of the worship itself. As someone who likes liturgy and the meanings embedded behind its practice, I was curious to know why. I scoured the bulletin for an explanation, but all it said was that Moravians had been doing this for more than 200 years. I asked the lady beside me, but she only complained how they’d put too much sugar in the coffee.

Upon further investigation, I learned that the Lovefeast derived from a time of fervent Moravian revival in Bavaria. Things got so rocking one Sunday that nobody wanted to go home—not even for lunch. So the Moravians ordered in and the worship went on unabated. Being German, however, the Moravians originally brought in beer and bratwurst—a different sort of spirit to help spark their fervor. I have friends who’d be more inclined to attend church if we tapped a keg in the pews. In fact, a smattering of churches are trying to stave off declining attendance by doing just that. What would Jesus brew? Congregations from Manhattan to Fort Worth answer that question by crafting their own beers. Churches here in the Twin Cities feature “Theology on Tap” services in bars. These churches do enforce a two-pint maximum, however. No need to get too charismatic.

Caffeine or alcohol-induced buzzes are notoriously short-lived, and can bring undesired after-effects. Sadly, such is the same with revival. I’ve described on some Sundays, when in a cheeky mood, I’ll respond to those who say “they met God in church in this morning” by saying “it’s too soon to tell.” Rocking pews often turn out to be just rocking chairs. If an encounter with God fails to show itself in your behavior once things get back to normal, you might want to consider the authenticity of the encounter. You can only tell a true tree is by its fruit. Whenever Jesus taught a second coming parable in the gospels, the master always comes back expecting to find his servants doing his work.

As lovely as the Moravian Lovefeast is, it’s pretty tame in terms of revival. Nobody really expects the Spirit to blow in so much anymore. In this morning’s passage, the Lord hauled Ezekiel by the scruff of his neck to a God-forsaken valley piled high with human skeletons dried out by the sun. The pile of bones is evidence of major catastrophe. That these corpses were denied proper burial was reminiscent of many ancient Near Eastern battle-scenes where the victors humiliated the conquered even after they were killed. “What do you think?” the Lord asked Ezekiel, “can these bones live?” It was a silly question. Of course not. These bones were dried up, dead and done. Ezekiel knew this, but he also knew better than to say it out loud to God. So instead, hedging his bets, he rightly replied, “it’s too soon to tell.”

“God only knows!” Ezekiel said. The Lord then set up for the prophet a pulpit right there in the valley. It was every preacher’s nightmare. Bad enough that Ezekiel had preached to an unresponsive and pokerfaced congregation for 36 chapters prior. At least they’d been alive. Why bother now that God’s people were dead? Who wants to hold church in a cemetery with only the gravestones listening?

Still, a good prophet wants to do what God says. So Ezekiel clears his throat: “Hear the word of the Lord, dry bones!” (This was utterly ridiculous.) “Thus says the Lord to you bones, ‘I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.’” And before Ezekiel even finished point one, the bones commenced to clattering, then they popped together and formed muscle and skin, but it wasn’t revival yet since there was no breath—no wind—no spirit (the Hebrew word is the same for each). So Ezekiel preached a little more and the breath came and the bodies lived, “and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.”

The Spirit blows where it will, for good and for ill. The bones were described as “these slain,” underscoring the indignity they suffered due to their chronic rebellion and obstinate evil. The prophet Jeremiah had forecast this doom: “At that time, says the LORD, the bones of the kings of Judah, the bones of its officials, the bones of the priests, the bones of the prophets, and the bones of the inhabitants of Jerusalem shall be spread before the sun and the moon and all the host of heaven, which they have loved and served, which they have followed, and which they have inquired of and worshiped; and they shall not be gathered or buried; they shall be like dung on the surface of the ground.”

Laid waste by Babylon and left as dung in the dirt, the Lord had let Israel have it. Their holy city was decimated, their Holy Temple reduced to a smoking pile of rubble. They had repudiated the prophets, defied God’s law, abused justice and ignored the needy. Israel lamented the bad fruit their tree had borne: “Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost, we are cut off completely”—we are as good as dead.” And dead is good, as far as God is concerned. That’s when the Lord does his best work. It’s when revival is most likely to happen. It’s to the bone dry dead whom God promises: “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.”

Talk about a Lovefeast! In time, captive Israel would be ransomed home to their own soil. Their Temple, God’s house, would be reconstructed and their holy city, Jerusalem, rebuilt. Things would get back to normal, except that revival has nothing to do with normal. Getting back to the old way of doing things was not what God had in mind. Exiled Israel would return and rebuild, but the city and its Temple never enjoyed its previous splendor. You can’t repair the past.

King Herod tried. He did amazing remodeling jobs that still stand today. The problem was that the Temple had lost its anchor tenant. The Lord left the building here in Ezekiel, before the Babylonians blew it up (since presumably they wouldn’t have succeeded had the Lord been holding forth). God decided to take up residence somewhere else on earth. Wise men showed up looking for him in Jerusalem, having seen a promising star in the sky. They’d read the Jewish prophets and understood the Spirit of the Lord was to take on royal flesh and bone, and would breathe fresh air into God’s people. “My servant David shall be king over them; and they shall all have one shepherd,” we read here in Ezekiel. “My dwelling place shall be with them and in them; I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”

Worried for the threat to his throne like any politician would be, King Herod consulted his advisors and found that the wise men weren’t so wise when it came to directions. The new king was to be born in Bethlehem, nine miles to the south. It was an honest mistake. Who’d expect a king to be born in a backwater village? You’d look for royalty in the glitter and grandeur of the capital city. You wouldn’t expect a king to be impoverished, or persecuted and oppressed either. Or eventually convicted and left for dead. Except that dead is good as far as God is concerned.

Nelson Mandela was as good dead years before he died this past week. I remember so vividly the day he walked out of prison: February 11, 1990, a sunny Sunday morning after 27 years of captivity. I rolled a TV into the high school Sunday school class I was teaching so we could watch history. As so many reflected on the moral fire Mandela ignited, the fresh air he breathed onto the devastating stench of South African apartheid, comparisons were rightly made to Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi and Abraham Lincoln, sinners every one of them. The difference was that Nelson Mandela was not assassinated like the others. Somehow reconciliation trumped vengeance. A South African commentator on the BBC remarked that Mandela’s victory was achieved through forgiveness. I could preach that. The question most often asked Mandela was how, after whites had systematically humiliated his people, tortured and murdered many of his friends, and cast him into prison for 27 years, he could be so evidently free of spite.

Mandela answered in part with a sermon he preached in church one Easter soon after his release. Our Savior rose victorious, he said, “over the torture of the cross and the grave… Our Messiah, born like an outcast in a manger, and executed like criminal, bore testimony to the truth that there is no shame in poverty: Those who should be ashamed are they who impoverish others. [Our Savior showed] there is no shame in being persecuted: Those who should be ashamed are they who persecute and oppress others.” “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” South Africans mourned Mandela’s death this week by singing and dancing in the streets. They held a revival meeting.

In Ezekiel, the Lord promises a new heart, a new spirit inside “I will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” Nelson Mandela said that until he was changed, he could not change others. In Ezekiel, the Lord promises a new heart “to make you follow my statutes and carefully observe my commands.” You can only tell a true tree is by its fruit. The Moravians recognize that more than sugary coffee, true revival relies on the Spirit of Jesus. In their Covenant of Christian Living (noticeably distinct from a mere statement of faith), they “realize that it is the Lord’s will that the Church of Jesus Christ should show evidence of Christ and seek unity in Christ with zeal and with love. We consider it to be our responsibility to demonstrate the unity, reconciliation and togetherness created by God who made us one. How well we accomplish [reconciliation and forgiveness and love and unity] will be our witness to the world as to the validity of our faith.”