A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian in Boise, Idaho.
December 9, 2017
Our passage from Ezekiel’s prophecy is full of evocative language and imagery. We can picture a valley where life is nowhere to be seen. Cracked and parched earth, piles of bones wherever you look.
And what can we do in such a situation?
We humans can do lots of things. Science, technology, and human ingenuity make our lives better. Just think about advances in medicine—prenatal care, cancer treatments.
But there’s nothing that human ingenuity can do with a valley of dead bones. We could stack them up. We could clear them away. But when God asks Ezekiel the question, “mortal, can these bones live?”, our answer has to be, “only you know that, Lord. There’s nothing we can do here.”
What else could our answer be to God’s question? If we say “nope, these bones are dead, dead, dead, pining for the fjords and pushing up the daisies” (to quote Monty Python) we deny God’s ability to do what we cannot.
Mortal, can these bones live? If we say “sure, why not? I’ll just get out the jumper cables and some twine and we’ll Macgyver this situation into life”—if we do that, we vastly overestimate our abilities, or we are in denial about the power of death.
Mortal, can these bones live? “Only you know that, Lord. We have reached our limits.”
This feeling of hopelessness is strong some days.
What can we do when the world around us is dead, dry, and desolate? From the killing fields of war and civil unrest around the world, to the dry bones in our own souls, we feel helpless and hopeless.
We’ve done everything we know how to do, and we can’t fix the problems and pains of our lives.
We can’t heal a terminal illness.
We can’t knit back together some broken relationships.
We attempt to use our voices to speak out for justice in our community and in our world, but it is as if we have no breath in our bodies. And when you are breathless, it is hard to cry out for justice. The bones in this story don’t speak. It is God who gives voice to their cry. “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.”
Oh mortal, can these bones live?
“No,” we cry out in our despair. “They can’t. They are remnants of life that used to be. They are reminders of what we’ve lost.”
Thankfully, Ezekiel has a better answer than do the dead bones. Ezekiel still has a voice to answer. Ezekiel doesn’t look around at the despair he sees and then decide that all is lost.
“O Lord GOD, you know.”
Ezekiel acknowledges that he doesn’t have the solution to this problem. No amount of his gumption will fix this by itself.
“O Lord GOD, you know.”
Sometimes that is the only statement of faith that we need to utter. Acknowledging that things are beyond our control and we surrender them to God.
“O Lord GOD, you know.”
Ezekiel’s reply also makes it clear that God’s imagination is better than ours.
God can imagine life where we can only see death.
God can imagine solutions where we see wreckage.
God can still cry out in a loud voice, creating life, creating justice, when we fall mute before the desolation.
Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the LORD.”
Ezekiel’s Prophecy of the Living Dead reminds us to rely on an imagination other than our own—we are to rely on God determining where life can be.
We are to suspend our disbelief.
We are called to trust that what we can see is not all that can be seen.
Maybe this is a good time for some divine imagination. I confess my own imagination is worn out and exhausted. It keeps coming up with nightmares shaped from the news. Not pretty. I want to fire my imagination when it does that.
One of the songs we’ll sing on Christmas Eve is O Little Town of Bethlehem, and I always love the refrain:
O holy child of Bethlehem,
descend to us, we pray;
cast out our sin and enter in;
be born in us today.
I need something creative and new to be born in me today. I need some divine imagination to move through me with God’s holy breath, to knit back together things I can only see as broken, to give life to things that appear to be dead. I need some divine imagination to quench the dry, parched corners of my soul.
A few years ago, Carolyn Blackhurst shared this painting with us during Advent. It is by Tim Mooney and is called Theotokos, which means God Bearer. As you can see, everyone on this train is pregnant—men, women, young, old—bearing God into the world.
There’s some divine imagination at work in this painting. It is not art he painted from a photograph of something he saw in real life. It’s not something we would imagine on our own. Dead bones coming to life? Men, pregnant on a train?
Advent is preparing for Christ to be born in us today, and if we rely on only our own imaginations for it, we’ll see more of the same—valleys of dry bones.
Oh Lord God, you know. Be born in us today.
The world is pretty good at showing us the dry bones, the empty plains, devoid of life. Is that what we want to see? It’s surely no place to plant our hope.
I don’t have a lot of clear directions for you here. If I did, it would be my imagination and not God’s. I guess what I can say is we have to start considering the possibility that what we see as endings might actually be beginnings. And that roads that are dead ends might only be construction delays.
In Through the Looking Glass, Alice has this conversation with the White Queen. The queen starts:
“I’m just one hundred and one, five months and a day.”
“I can’t believe that!” said Alice.
“Can’t you?” the Queen said in a pitying tone. “Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.”
Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”.
We often speak with such certainty about the way things are.
Congress will never compromise and talk each other.
There will never be peace in the Middle East.
Maybe our call is to spend 30 minutes a day believing impossible things, working toward that which we hope, even if we can’t quite see it, preparing the way for God’s divine imagination to be born in us, in our world.
Let’s practice. Draw a long breath and shut your eyes.
We are a few short weeks from Christmas. In the busy-ness of this time, I pray you will leave some time for believing in impossible things before breakfast. It is a sacred gift that God would choose to become human, to live among us, full of grace and truth.
The Christmas story itself is an impossible one, except for the fact that it happened.
The idea that God would become human in the form of a helpless infant, born to parents far from the halls of power—it’s an impossible idea, except for the fact that it happened.
The notion that the grace of God would flow freely in our lives is an impossible thought, except for the fact that it happens.
How is that grace and truth being born in us today? Where are the dead places, the parched corners, waiting for new life?
Be born in us today, we pray. Amen