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A Breath of Fresh Air
The Reverend Fred Morgan
July 29, 2018
Catastrophe strikes and a person’s world falls apart. People respond variously, but two common responses are denial and despair. Denial refuses to acknowledge the catastrophe. It shuts its eyes tight or looks the other way. It manages to act as if everything is going to be just fine. It takes refuge in distractions and lies and fantasies. Despair is paralyzed by the catastrophe and accepts it as the end of the world. It is unwilling to do anything, concluding that life for all intents and purposes is over. Despair listlessly closes its eyes to a world in which all the color has drained out, a world gone dead. Among the biblical writers, Ezekiel is a master at dealing with catastrophe. He saw what the people with whom he lived either couldn’t or wouldn’t see. He saw God at work. A reading from Ezekiel 37, as translated by Eugene Peterson, in The Message.
A Reading from the Book of Ezekiel
God grabbed me. God’s Spirit took me up and set me down in the middle of an open plain strewn with bones. He led me around and among them—a lot of bones! There were bones all over the plain—dry bones, bleached by the sun.
He said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” I said, “Master God, only you know that.” He said to me, “Prophesy over these bones: ‘Dry bones, listen to the Message of God!’
God, the Master, told the dry bones, “Watch this: I’m bringing the breath of life to you and you’ll come to life. I’ll attach sinews to you, put meat on your bones, cover you with skin, and breathe life into you. You’ll come alive and you’ll realize that I am God!
I prophesied just as I’d been commanded. As I prophesied, there was a sound and, oh, rustling! The bones moved and came together, bone to bone. I kept watching. Sinews formed, then muscles on the bones, then skin stretched over them. But they had no breath in them.
He said to me, “Prophesy to the breath. Prophesy, son of man. Tell the breath, ‘God, the Master, says, Come from the four winds. Come, breath. Breathe on these slain bodies. Breathe life!’”
So I prophesied, just as he commanded me. The breath entered them and they came alive! They stood up on their feet, a huge army.
Then God said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Listen to what they’re saying: ‘Our bones are dried up, our hope is gone, there’s nothing left of us.’
“Therefore, prophesy. Tell them, ‘God, the Master, says: I’ll dig up your graves and bring you out alive—O my people! Then I’ll take you straight to the land of Israel. When I dig up graves and bring you out as my people, you’ll realize that I am God. I’ll breathe my life into you and you’ll live. Then I’ll lead you straight back to your land and you’ll realize that I am God. I’ve said it and I’ll do it. God’s Decree.’”
As a kid perhaps you remember playing the game Gossip. Remember in Gossip how a whispered message makes its way around a circle. The last person to receive the message declares just what was whispered in their ear – and the one who started the message reveals what message was first sent. The two reports almost always are vastly different. From mouth-to-ear, again and again, the message gets garbled, misheard, and turned backwards so that the original whispered message have little in common with the final version.
The same inside-out transition can happen over the years with familiar old sayings. Have you heard the expression, “Make no bones about it?” It means to “Make no mistake about it,” or “Don’t you doubt what I’m about to tell you.”
Yet, the expression started out very differently. “Make no bones about it” was a description of polite acceptance. At medieval suppers, as dinner guests lined up to have their bowls filled from the common pot, it was inevitable that some would receive a nice meaty chunk in their bowl, while others would end up with just a bare-cooked bone. The expression cautioned dinner guests not to grumble to their dinner host about getting a dry bone instead of a meaty morsel.
In today’s reading from Ezekiel there are plenty of bones – dried up, desiccated, decayed, detached, dead bones. Yet, when God asks Ezekiel if such bleached out bones can live again, Ezekiel wisely refuses to make any prediction except, “O Lord God, you know.” Indeed if Ezekiel is God’s guest at this barren place, Ezekiel embodies the medieval meaning of making no bones, not complaining about the desolation he faces.
The crucial word in my reading of the text is not bones but “spirit” or in Hebrew “ruah.” It can also be translated as “breath” or “wind.” When God breathes life into even the driest and most brittle bones, they are filled with God’s life-giving spirit. With a breath of Spirit from God, the bones begin to move with new life, new hope, and new energy.
The context of Ezekiel 37 in set in the midst of Israel’s 50 years exile in Babylonia. After a long siege and fierce fighting, Jerusalem was overcome by Babylonian troops under King Nebuchadnezzar. The city walls were left as nothing but rubble. The magnificent temple lay in ruins. The leading citizens of Jerusalem were taken captive and deported to Babylonia 500 miles away. The scene Ezekiel describes is the desolate plain where the refugees were settled – a place where battles had been fought; a place of death and devastation. Their hopes were dashed; their life seemed helpless despair, their energy was dried up. They had given up all hope of reuniting with friends and family back in home. It seemed as if God had abandoned God’s own people.
As Ezekiel gazes upon the tragic scene, the Lord asks him, “Mortal, can there bones live?” Ezekiel was smart enough to avoid giving a wrong answer, so he answered, “O Lord God, you know.” The Lord told Ezekiel that the dry bones really were the community of Israel. They had given up hope of ever again being a chosen nation of God. It was easy for them to hear only empty promises based on false possibilities.
Perhaps the Lord is asking us today the same question: “Mortals, can bones of apathy find renewed energy?” In Ezekiel’s case, God did know, and God did act, showing Ezekiel just what God’s breath of fresh air could do.
Even today, God is breathing fresh air into our lives. God’s promise to Ezekiel and to us: “I will put my spirit in you and you shall live.” God is reviving that which was dry and dead: dead hope, dead faith, dead community, dead lives.
In scripture, hope is more than a remote possibility that something nearly impossible might happen. In today’s lesson, hope is the sure anticipation and certain expectation of what God has done, is doing, and promises to continue to do with and for God’s people. Hope is the wisdom to see things as they are, and the vision to see what they will become when God breathes on them.
So what does hope look like when dry bones are connected, muscles develop, skin grows, and God’s breath fills them? Look at the Font, and the splash of Jesus’ love that connects and renews. Look at the Table, and the nourishment of Jesus himself that feeds the soul. Look at the Cross, and the love of Jesus that spills out and fills empty hearts. A breath of fresh air from God reduces exhaustion and renews energy for even the driest bones.
I heard the story of a group of senior/seasoned citizen who were on a bus tour in Switzerland. They stopped at a farm, famous for its cheese made from goat’s milk. Pointing to a small herd of goats in a nearby field the guide said: “Those are older goats, put out to pasture when they are too old to produce milk. What do you do in America with your old goats?” With a twinkle in her eye one woman spoke up, “They send us on a bus tour of Switzerland and let us live in Sun City.”
God’s exiled people were so dried up that they couldn’t see anything but devastation. They couldn’t feel anything but isolation. Ezekiel opened their eyes to the wind of the Spirit breathing new life. Even though our times are strange, we have not been deported to foreign lands. Nevertheless, the promise of God to the exiles is the same promise God makes to us: “I will put my spirit within you and you shall live.”
To God Be the Glory!