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Inviting the Light: Ezekiel’s Folly

Inviting the Light: Ezekiel’s Folly

By the Rev. Carole A. Wageman

“Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones…now hear the word of the Lord” is a familiar African-American spiritual that children love to sing. It creates a unique anatomy lesson to learn how one’s bones are connected but originally it was a song the African slaves would sing in the fields of their American masters. The slave owners and overseers allowed them to sing because the rhythm would help them do the work; but singing these songs was really a way to send to each other a secret code about Ezekiel’s message of hope and to sustain their belief that God would prevail in their hopelessness and despair. And, in time, God did—but the backstory to this song in the Book of Ezekiel (37:1-14) is an interesting one.

The Israelites had become a mighty people. Over the centuries, they had gone from being a wandering band of sheep and goat herders to a monarchy that provided strong and solid governing structure to this growing and influential nation. At the heart of this success was their unshakable faith in a deity that had called them from obscurity and blessed them with abundance. They had been given a unique role to be a light to the nations and bring the people of the world to know Yahweh’s justice and mercy. In their minds, the proof of that was certainly in the military might they controlled, in the glorious temple that had been built in the days of King Solomon, in the artistry that flourished, in the modern advances they enjoyed and in the rock solid assurance that at the heart of their success was the One True God who superseded all other gods. Theirs was a covenant relationship with that one God whom they called Yahweh.

Then, the roof and walls of this well-tended house collapsed. In a relatively short period of time, all twelve tribes, who had once been united under King David and his son King Solomon, divided into two fractious camps of the north and the south. The northern kingdom called Israel was conquered by Assyria and disappeared from the world’s map forever. They were assimilated so thoroughly, even today we know nothing about what happened to them. Not long afterward, the remaining southern kingdom called Judah was likewise conquered by another nation, Babylon, and taken into exile as well.

For a proud and previously mighty nation, this was a very broken and humiliating place to be. The taunting of the conquering Babylonians and the deep grief of the People of God echoes in some of the Psalms we have inherited:

Psalm 137:1-4 “By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered you, O Zion. As for our harps, we hung them up on the trees in the midst of that land. For those who led us away captive asked us for a song and our oppressors called for mirth: ’Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”  But…How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”

In their despair, there was no guarantee that things would change nor was there a timeline when deliverance would come. Some of them probably assimilated quickly into the Babylonian landscape as they intermarried with the native population. Some of them resisted, trying to hold on to their uniqueness as a people. Their despair and utter failure was a dry and lifeless time with no hope that they could see immediately out in front of them.

In the midst of that hopelessness lived Ezekiel the Prophet. He was a priest of the people and one of the exiles himself. Before the fall of Judah, Ezekiel had visions and preached messages of impending doom and destruction. Now he was among the aristocracy, elite, artisans and leaders who had been taken prisoner and were living in Babylon.

In the reading cited above, Ezekiel reports a vision sent from God. He sees an impossible situation: an entire valley filled with dried up, dehydrated, old bones. Thousands of bones large and small. The long forgotten and neglected leftovers from some terrible loss and destruction. It must have looked like an entire army was cut down and left dead on the battlefield to rot in the sun. How impossible that this vista full of shriveled up old bones could ever come alive again.  But God says: “Prophesy to these bones, Ezekiel, and tell them that I will make them whole again.  Prophesy to these dead and lifeless forms and tell them that I will breathe life into them. Prophesy that that which seems hopeless and forsaken must be viewed through God’s eyes. Where there is a valley of bones, I see potential. Where there is destruction, I offer hope. Where there is death, I breathe life.”(paraphrased)

Ezekiel surely felt his own discouragement and despair at this seemingly impossible task. It might have felt a bit like spitting into the wind to be instructed to hold out a word of hope to a people who didn’t need words that would slip away in a strong gust. They needed and wanted something concrete to hold onto, not something they would have to take on faith. The challenge was immense. It was folly. Ezekiel couldn’t explain how it was that God would transform their situation, but it wasn’t up to him to explain how God would do that. It was his job to tell the people that God would prevail. And in time, God did. The Babylonians themselves were eventually conquered by the Persians and the Israelites were allowed to return to their homeland to rebuild and begin again.

“Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel has observed that Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dried bones bears no date because every generation needs to hear in its own time that these bones can live again.”[1]

In our time, we, too, are faced with Ezekiel’s dilemma of seeing a wide expanse of dead, dry bones before us that is discouraging, blindingly unjust, filled with despair and surely not in tune with God’s vision and hope for his people. People are afraid for their future and the future of loved ones. Trust in each other and in our institutions is being radically and intentionally eroded. Rampant intolerance and narrow-mindedness bargains for our souls as it extends its toxic reach beyond that of skin color to include one’s faith beliefs, one’s sexuality and one’s economic standing.

These are the dead, dry bones of our time. How can something good and loving, abundant and  just possibly live again? Seems just impossible, doesn’t it?

But that is what this story in Ezekiel is about. Something that seems so impossibly dead can actually live again because of one reason: God is still there with us—still listening—still finding hope in us—still traveling with us. And with God, nothing is impossible. There is nothing, absolutely nothing to which God cannot bring new life. It might look different from the old life, but it will be in keeping with God’s justice.

This is not to suggest that God will ride in on a magnificent warhorse and rescue us from ourselves. We were never created to be puppets waiting for someone to pull the strings. We were created in the image of God which means freedom and choice. We have the means to be a partner with God and make a difference through what we do even if that means we take small steps at first. Like sap from a Maple tree dripping in a bucket, eventually the bucket is filled to overflowing and change happens.

In the times of American slavery, slaves sang in the fields as a way to pass on messages of hope to others but there were also white people like Harriet Beecher Stowe who followed that which was troubling her spirit. She was moved to write a number of things about slavery but none as popular as Uncle Tom’s Cabin. She used her skills as a writer to expose the actual details of slavery to a nation content to overlook the obvious until they could ignore it no longer. She joined with God in bringing about God’s change.

“Initially content to stay out of the argument over slavery in the mid-1800s, … [the death of her 18 month old son in the Cincinnati Cholera epidemic of 1849 prompted her to profoundly empathize] “with slave mothers who lost their children on the auction block … The intense popularity of the book [Uncle Tom’s Cabin] enraged the slaveholding establishment, causing them to accuse Harriet of fabrication and lying through her teeth, but Harriet was prepared. She published A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in 1854, in which she directed her white audience to the numerous slave narratives that she had used in her research for her novel…[which]…had the added benefit of bringing the first-person slave narratives of Solomon Northrup (of “12 Years a Slave” fame), Frederick Douglass, and many others, to a wider audience.” [2]

What is God saying to us about prophesying to the dry bones of our time? What word of God’s justice, mercy, forgiveness and life are we to speak to those valleys of despair that seem so wide and impossibly, hopelessly dead?  Where is God moving in these things? Where is God bringing life to these valleys of dry bones where the problems are extensive and it seems utterly impossible and futile that anything good or whole could rise from such ruin?

Perhaps it is respectful and committed alliance with each other and faithful partnership with God that will eventually produce the fruits of new life. Poverty will not be changed if we do not join in addressing the systems that create such economic disparity.  Religious and racial profiling will not be converted to dignity if we do not find some small way to model compassion and justice in our own communities. National regional mistrust will not be affected if we do not find a way to sit down with those who are different from us and just listen to their stories.

“It is God who has the power to bring Lazarus back from the dead. It is God who has the power to breathe life into skeletons in the desert. It is God who also has the power to breathe life into our urban and rural deserts,” [3] into the loneliness, heartache and suffering of our fellow human beings, into the valleys of dry bones in our day and time. We are called to join with God in bringing about God’s change. Each step we can take is one step closer toward God’s vision.

As Jesus calls out to Lazarus when raising him from the dead: “Come out of the tomb, Lazarus – step away from the tomb” he is also saying to us: “Come out of the place in yourself where there is no life and step into the light where there is. And I will be there for you. I will be there with you.”

Prayer: Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of your wandering children. Grant us grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely be fixed on you – where true joys are to be found. [Adaptation of Collect for Lent 5[4]]

Copyright © 2017 Carole A. Wageman. All rights reserved. www.carolewageman.com

NOTE: Similar stories from Scripture are explored more fully in my newly released book: “The Light Shines Through: Our Stories Are God’s Story” by Church Publishing, Inc.  Ordering available now at www.churchpublishing.org/lightshinesthrough.

Interested in supporting Independent Bookshops? Check out: Hopkins Bookshop at Trinity/Shelburne, VT www.hopkinsbookshop.com; , Phoenix Books/Burlington VT  www.phoenixbooks.biz , Bear Pond Books/Montpelier VT www.bearpondbook.com , The Vermont Bookshop/Middlebury VT www.vermontbookshop.com ;  Next Chapter Bookstore/Barre VT www.NextChapterBooksVT.com  or your local independent bookstore.

[1] Elie Wiesel, “Ezekiel” in Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible, ed.David Rosenberg (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1987) 186. [from New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol VI, Abingdon Press, Nashville 2001) 1504]

[2] Megan  Castellan  http://www.lentmadness.org/2014/03/harriet-beecher-stowe-vs-alcuin/   [A second driving force was the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850].  Accessed March 2014.

[3] Stephanie Jaeger  “Living  By The Word” April 6 2014 (Christian Century April 2, 2014)  p 20

[4] Book of Common Prayer pg 219.

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