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Can These Bones Live?

April 11, 2011

“Can These Bones Live?” Ezekiel 37:1-14; John 11:1-45 © 4.10.11 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Let’s begin with a little history. In 601 BC, the king of Judah rebelled against his overlord Nebuchadrezzar II, the king of Babylon. This is the ruler known in the Bible as Nebuchadnezzar. The Babylonian monarch couldn’t immediately respond personally to the revolt, but he deployed troops to keep things unsettled until he could attend to the problem. In 597 BC, Nebuchadrezzar laid siege to Jerusalem, the capital of Judah. The campaign resulted in the Judean king being taken into exile to Babylon, with a great number of the leading citizens, military leaders, priests, and artisans.

A new puppet king was appointed. That king, Zedekiah, rebelled after a decade, with disastrous results. Judah was laid waste and many cities reduced to ruins. Jerusalem held out until 586 BC, but it was finally taken and the Temple of Solomon destroyed. Another group of people was taken to Babylon, and yet another in 581 BC. All in all, about 4,600 went to Babylon during the three deportations.

Conditions varied for the exiles. Many of them settled in an area called Tel Abib, which was near one of the canals that brought in water from the Euphrates River. Some of the deportees ended up as slaves or in prison, but many were able to carry on with their lives and their trade and raise families. In fact, the prophet Jeremiah, who stayed behind in Jerusalem, encouraged them in a letter to do just that. Some did adjust; others wrote laments like Psalm 137, crying out for deliverance and revenge.

Whatever the conditions, the exiles had to leave behind everything and start over. However well they got along, Babylon was not their homeland. They didn’t like the weather, and they kept having the nagging feeling that their displacement was their fault, God’s judgment for their unfaithfulness.

Ezekiel the prophet said so, against a good bit of resistance at first from the exiles who came with him in 597. He challenged the dominant theology that assured everyone that God would always keep a king on the throne ruling over his chosen people in the city of Jerusalem, which could never be destroyed. Far from being a sign of God’s weakness or his loss of control, Ezekiel said, the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of the Judeans was God’s doing. It was his judgment against the oppression, idolatry, and injustice that was commonplace in the land. God’s people had forsaken the promises they had made, and this was the result. How could anyone claim still to be worshipping the true God when there were pagan idols set up in the Temple? God had done this, and Nebuchadrezzar, a servant of the god Marduk, was actually Yahweh’s instrument.

Some of this began to sink in, so that a mournful saying circulated among the people: “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” That’s much like what Proverbs has: “A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones” (17:22).

Their loss of hope was not unfounded, and God doesn’t dispute the reality of their despair. Things had gone terribly wrong. Sometimes when that happens, and when what has happened is the consequence of our own stupidity, carelessness or sin, despair is not only the reasonable response, it’s almost demanded. If we did not feel sorrow, that empty feeling in the pit of our stomachs, something would be morally, spiritually wrong with us.

When our experience matches or parallels that of the ancient Jews, we may answer “no” when asked “Can these bones live?” Whether we see ourselves as dried up scattered femurs and ribs in a desert or corpses in a grave, the idea that such lifeless things as we could rise again seems absurd. We can’t see any way out of our problems, which we ourselves created. Or the government or the church or the business is too far gone to be recovered. The social ills that beset us are so immense as to defy solution. We gave up trying a long time ago. We’re bleached bones picked clean by the buzzards, baked in the unrelenting sun, having been cut down by the battles we lost in life. We’re the forgotten dead, in unmarked graves, unmourned.

What killed us? Maybe we died the death of words. Craig Kocher of Duke University observes: “I’ve noticed an alarming trend in ministry with college students: they use words better in technological media than in person. Emails, text messages and even facebook.com posts are often thoughtful, eloquent and witty. But one-on-one, the same students and I will stammer about, our words bumping into one another in mid-air. Awkward silences that don’t exist in cyberspace intrude on our communication.”

He goes on: “[Some writers] have suggested our culture is drowning in words, our lives so bombarded by wordiness that words are losing their meaning, and losing their ability to connect us to one another. Stephen Colbert famously calls this phenomenon truthiness: words in a word-infested culture can mean whatever we feel they should mean…. When we casually toss words around, using them crassly and carelessly, we rob them of their power to create and reconcile… Our people are dying of words” (www.christiancentury.org/blogs/archive/2008-02/dying-words ).

Or it could be we have died of comfort and convenience. When life is too easy, when we face little challenge or hardship, we begin to atrophy spiritually. We sit down, shut down, expect to have everything done for us, handed to us. We take up no spiritual disciplines, want to be spoon-fed the Bible by an expert instead of chewing on the tough stuff ourselves. Ironically, we also begin to die when life is too hard, and we seek comfort to help us get through the pain. Professor and author Craig Barnes writes: “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.

“Eventually things got so cozy for the Hebrew exiles that even after they were encouraged to go to Jerusalem most of them didn’t want to go back. The old dream of living in the Lord’s presence had died buried under piles and piles of coping devices” (www.christiancentury.org/article/2002-02/resurrected-hopes).

Finally, we may be dying the death of a thousand qualifications. We can make things terribly complicated. We can drown in details and be overwhelmed by all the minutiae of daily life. Or consider how information overload is a constant problem in the age of the 24/7 news cycle, the blogosphere, and the Internet. We can become so attentive to every little word in a document, making it go through constant revisions, that it never gets published. An anxious man or woman can go through every possible scenario and never take action or take it too late, missing out on relationships, opportunities, the good things life has to offer someone who doesn’t try to figure out every contingency in advance. And life is robbed of meaning and vitality.

Structures we invent can have form, but no life. We can create administrative, religious, governmental entities and groups with rules, regulations, levels, hierarchies, even power of enforcement, and the appearance of life, evidenced by movement, busy-ness, conversations, projects. But there is no life in them. Sinew and muscle on bone, but no breath.

Can these bones live? What happens if we say “no”? If we lose hope, what do we have? The theologian Emil Brunner wrote that “what oxygen is for the lungs, such is hope for the meaning of human life… the fate of humanity is dependent on its supply of hope.”

But perhaps the answer is not “no,” but “I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not.” That’s one possible way to read Ezekiel’s response to God’s question. We might say it this way: “Only God knows what can be done.” Or “all we can do now is pray.” When the problems of our day are so huge they overwhelm us, the shadow of them likely blocks out the light of imagination and creativity. We start falling back on the same old solutions, which we think are tried and true.

But the situation has changed. When we keep doing the same old things, but expecting a different result, that’s called “magical thinking.” It doesn’t work. Jesus said new wine must be put in new wineskins. When the old solutions don’t work for the old problems or the new ones, then it’s time to try something else, something off the map and out of the box. It’s sailing west to go east. Wondering “what if…?”

These bones can live if we imagine that they can. Envision what God can do, will do. Determine to serve with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love, as the ordination vows commit our officers to do.

There’s a wonderful scene in the classic movie “A Miracle on 34th Street” where Kris Kringle and Suzie, played by a young Natalie Wood, are talking. He asks her about the games she plays with the other children in the apartment building. When she says she doesn’t play silly games, Kris is disturbed. He doesn’t think pretending to be an animal in a zoo is foolish. He tells her: “Sounds like a wonderful game to me. Of course, in order to play it, you need an imagination. Do you know what the imagination is?”

“Oh, sure. That’s when you see things, but they’re not really there.”

Kris replies: “That can be caused by other things, too. No, to me the imagination is a place all by itself… a separate country. You’ve heard of the French or the British nation. Well, this is the lmagine nation. It’s a wonderful place. How would you like to make snowballs in the summertime? Or drive a big bus right down Fifth Avenue? How would you like to have a ship all to yourself.. that makes daily trips to China and Australia? How would you like to be the Statue of Liberty…in the morning, and in the afternoon…fly south with a flock of geese? It’s very simple. Of course, it takes practice.”

Imagination is a spiritual practice. It is the sine qua non of the life of faith, to see beyond ourselves. Robert Kennedy, quoting George Bernard Shaw said: “There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask, ‘Why?’ I dream of things that never were, and ask ‘Why not?’  

“The future does not belong to those who are content with today, apathetic toward common problems and their fellow man alike, timid and fearful in the face of bold projects and new ideas. Rather, it will belong to those who can blend passion, reason and courage in a personal commitment to the great enterprises and ideals of American society.”

We can cultivate our imaginations, so we can ask why not, and dream, and wonder. One way to do that is to watch or read science fiction or to read or listen to creative physicists like Brian Greene or modern preachers like Rob Bell. Rod Serling famously said: “There is a fifth dimension beyond what is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination.”

Of course, for Serling, imagination was “in an area we call the Twilight Zone.” But for people of faith, imagination dwells in the human heart. It’s the gift of God, the result of seeing the world and the problems that beset us with new eyes. It’s believing that indeed somehow, God knows how, dry bones can come together and have flesh on them and skin after years in the desert. Or they can rise from the grave and hope can live. It’s going to the “imagine nation” called “the kingdom of God.”

With imagination we are almost there. But imagination is not quite faith. The bones have come together, they have flesh, but no breath. Lazarus is still in the tomb, bound. But faith knows that the word of God is powerful, life-giving, liberating. Yahweh can speak through the prophet to the four winds and in, with, by and under those currents from the compass points is the very Spirit of God. It’s the same Spirit that turned a man-shaped mud pie into a living being at the dawn of creation. Indeed, the same gentle Force that hovered over the chaotic waters and brought order. Jesus can tell Martha “I am the resurrection and the life,” and her perceptions are changed; she has hope again, not just for some undefined future, but for this moment as her brother lies dead in the grave. Our Lord can shout “Lazarus, come out!” and the dead man appears at the door of the stone-cold tomb, needing only to have his wrappings removed to walk and talk again. That’s how powerful the Word of God is.

We may be drowning in a sea of words in our world, but if the waters can kill, they can also bring life. Words are the tools of our baptismal calling to proclaim the life-giving gospel. With Craig Kocher again: “Walk into a nursing home and say ‘eternal life.’ Utter words of regret and forgiveness to two people in a failing marriage. Clasp hands with those in the hospital room and say the Lord’s Prayer. Touch the casket and speak the language of committal. Sing Amazing Grace at the cemetery. Wrap a child in your arms and say, ‘I love you.’ Call an estranged friend, read scripture, preach a sermon and watch the bones of the body of Christ come together.”

Mortals, can these bones live? By faith, because we trust in the Word of God, Jesus Christ our Lord, because of him, we say “yes, they can.”

Thanks be to God.

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