Sermon March 29, 2020
Rev. John Steitz
The prophet Ezekiel was active during the time of the Babylonian exile, roughly between 560 and 590 BCE. About six centuries before Jesus’ time.
Babylon has conquered Israel. The surviving leaders and many of the people have been forced to move to Babylon, living in exile.
In what remains of Jerusalem, the Temple, seen by the people as God’s dwelling place, has been destroyed and now sits as empty fallen stone.
The common understanding during this time was that when two nations went to war the gods of these nations also did battle on a cosmic level. The god of the defeated nation was understood as being vanquished. And in fact the religious practices and theological systems of many defeated peoples did die out.
The people Israel understood God as being the one God of all creation. Not as a tribal god.
God had not been vanquished when Israel was defeated. However, Israel had not been faithful to God and followed God’s ways.
The people Israel had abandoned God. Now what could they do? Where could they find hope?
This was the core theological question during the Babylonian exile. Where would the people find hope?
Ezekiel 37 verse 11 puts very plainly:
Then he said to me, “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.’”
Dried up bones. Lost hope. Completely cut off.
Trapped in Babylon, long away from the Promised Land of Israel, the people are filled with despair. Years have already past and at this point there is no sense that the exile will ever come to an end.
It is during this very difficult time that Ezekiel is given the vision of the spirit of the LORD bringing him to a valley filled with unburied, sun bleached bones.
“Mortal, can these bones live?” Ezekiel answers, “O Lord God, you know.” God commands Ezekiel to prophecy to the bones, giving him instructions on how to do this.
Ezekiel follows these instructions, but the bodies are still lifeless. Then more instructions. To prophecy to the breath.
The Hebrew word here is ruah. This can mean breath, spirit, wind.
How will this vast multitude come alive again? The ruah of God – breath, spirit, wind – will come into them and they will stand alive.
This is a vision of a new creation. It recalls Genesis 1 and 2 as God’s spirit brings order out of chaos and breathes life into creatures including humans.
At the end of the vision we move from the metaphor of bones and flesh and new creation through God’s breath.
We are back to the core theological question: hope. Is there hope for the people Israel?
Hear these words from Ezekiel 37, verse 14. Addressing “O my people,” God through the prophet speaks, “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,” says the LORD.
These are words of hope to a community that sees no way forward. For a community where hope and the vitality of life, are gone, there will be new life, there will be new hope.
Needing to shelter in place, it can begin to feel like we are living in exile, even if we are in our homes. We have all been exiled from the daily lives we knew.
As the number of cases dramatically increase, it is clear to many of us, most of us, that the situation is bad. And is getting worse.
There are those who still deny the seriousness of the present moment. Or who claim we will be able to quickly return to normal.
Denial is false hope. We need hope, but real hope.
On a personal note, the week following March 15th was very hard. We needed to close the church building, and then came the instructions from the governor to shelter in place.
It was a struggle to come to grips with what is before us with this virus.
It was a struggle to adapt to doing sermons and worship and ministry online.
It was a struggle to be here in Norwich, New York while my wife Catherine is in Pennsylvania.
It was a struggle to face my concerns and fears about this disease.
A turning point came when I faced what I was struggling with and gave this to God in prayer.
By giving this to God I don’t mean that by magic the struggles have gone away. The struggles are real.
What I mean is probably best put in the opening words of a book on preaching I once read. The author starts by reminding future preachers: “There is one God in the whole universe. You are not God.”
By facing what I was struggling with and giving this to God I could let go of some of the struggle. I could remember that I was not alone, and that God embraces me, embraces each of us in Love. And in this I could find a sense of hope.
With renewed hope, I could focus on what I can do, and do it.
There are things we can control and there are things we cannot control.
We focus on what we can control. We give to God what is beyond our control.
For me this past week this has meant:
Focus on learning how to do digital ministry, a little at a time, so it’s not like trying to get a drink from a fire hose. That I can control. Check.
Focus on reaching out to family and to friends. Phone calls, video chats, emails of gratitude. That I can control. Check.
Focus on being disciplined about physical distancing and hand washing. That I can control. Check.
Focus on calling people in the church to see how they are doing. Not everyone at once, but keeping at it. That I can control. Check.
Focusing on what I can control and giving to God what is beyond my control was calming. It was hopeful.
God’s ruah – breath, spirit, wind – is with us!
There are still fears, concerns, and even anger. And also hope, joy, and gratitude.
What are the things you can control? Focus on these. Do them.
We are going to have to do this one day at a time. None of us has ever gone through a crisis like this before.
Know that there will be hard days, hard moments within otherwise okay days. Together, with God’s help, we will manage to get through this storm.
God is with us. God’s ruah is with us.
Let me close with a section from Romans 8:
“… neither death, nor life… nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of
God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Amen!