Monday, October 25, 2010

A River of Life

Last week, we heard of God's promise to return to and restore the Temple in Jerusalem.  However, God's work of restoration does not end with the Temple.  Instead, the Temple is a kind of epicenter of God's restorative work.  The return of God's presence to Jerusalem brings life and health to the entire land.  The final chapters of Ezekiel go on to describe the restoration of the priesthood, feasts, sacrifices, the city, and the entire land of Israel.

As a part of that restoration, Ezekiel 47 narrates for us the last of Ezekiel's guided tour like visions.   Ezekiel's guide takes him back to the door of the Temple where Ezekiel sees water trickling out from underneath the threshold of the Temple.  From there, we are told several of the properties of this babbling brook which indicate to us its supernatural character.  This small stream of water turns so as to avoid the altar then continues on outside of the Temple complex.  It flows directly east, the same direction from which Yahweh had come to return to to the Temple.  It seems the flow of this stream is not determined by geographical factors.  In fact, as it flows further east, its get deeper and deeper despite there being no mention of any tributaries flowing into it.  What started as a trickle eventually turns into a rushing river which flows through the desert region of the Arabah and runs into the Dead Sea.  We are told that this sea, so full of salt that almost nothing can survive in it, will be "healed" by this river which flows from the Temple, its densely salted water turned fresh so that it will teem with life.  We are told it will be a place for "the spreading of nets" from Engedi to Enelgaim.  While the location of these two ancient towns is not absolutely certain, it is thought that Engedi was on the western shore of the Dead Sea and Enelgaim was on the southereastern shore, meaning that the entire Dead Sea will be good for fishing.  However, we are told in v.11 that the swamps and marshes will be left as salt water presumably so that there will still be a source of salt in the area for seasoning and preserving food.  On both sides of the river are an abundance of fruit trees which remarkably are never out of season.  Their leaves do not wither and they bear fruit every month of the year.  Furthermore, their leaves will have healing properties.

Clearly, this vision Ezekiel sees goes well beyond a promise for Israel's historical return from exile.  It is a promise not only that Israel will be restored to its land but that the land itself will be restored and renewed in a dramatic, other-worldly kind of way.  As Ezekiel has made clear in his other prophecies of restoration, a simple return from political captivity is not enough; a cleansing, renewing work of God that frees from the captivity of sin is needed to keep his people from falling back into their same old sins.  They need to be sprinkled with clean water and given a new heart and a new Spirit.  These dry bones need the breathe of God to raise them to new life.  A new creation is needed.

John picks up this idea in Revelation 22 as he describes the new creation which God is going to bring about.  In this new creation, there is no need of a temple since God dwells directly among his people.  So John sees this river issuing out not from the Temple but from the throne of God and the Lamb.  This river flows down the middle street of the new Jerusalem and the tree of life grows on either side of it yielding its twelve fruits twelve months of the year.  The leaves of this tree are for healing as well but not only for Israel but for all the nations.  What Ezekiel saw as God's promise to make Israel new, John sees as a promise to heal all peoples and all of creation.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Promised Temple

Over the course of Ezekiel's prophetic writings, we have been shown the full gamut of Israel's ugliness and sin.  In chapter 8, we heard of Israel's worship of other gods and Israel's complete lack of trust in Yahweh.  Chapter 16 described Israel as an unfaithful whore, actively pursuing everyone except the God who rescued her.  It is all of this sin and unfaithfulness which causes the glory of the Lord to depart from the Temple in chapter 10.  God is driven out of his own home by the filth of his people's idolatry.  As a result, in chapter 1, Ezekiel sees God not in the Temple in Jerusalem but in his chariot-throne on the banks of the Chebar Canal in Babylon.  Much of Ezekiel's writings portray Israel as a sinful and forsaken people.

But in the later chapters of the book, we are reminded that even Israel immense sins are not beyond God's healing power.  In chapter 36, God proclaimed that he would restore those in captivity to their homeland and make them clean for the sake of his own reputation.  In Ezekiel 37, God gives Ezekiel a vision of an army of dry bones coming to life, a promise of the life that God is about to breathe into this dead people.

Chapter 43 is the climax of these prophecies of restoration.  In the opening verses of this chapter, we hear that God is returning to his Temple.  Ezekiel sees the same vision of God that he saw on the banks of the Chebar except now the Spirit of the Lord is approaching the Temple from the east, away from Babylon and back to Jerusalem.  The Temple will once again be God's throne and God's footstool.   His permanent dwelling will once again be with his people.

But the final chapters of Ezekiel are not only about Yahweh's return to the Temple.  It is about the restoration of the Temple itself and all that restoration symbolizes.  When Ezekiel sees this vision of the Temple and God's return to it, there is no Temple.  It has been destroyed in the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem.  Chapter 43 comes in the midst of several chapters which meticulously describe every aspect of this new Temple, much like the meticulous description of the old Temple in earlier parts of the Old Testament.  However, whereas those earlier descriptions served as instruction, this description is one of promise.  There are no commands to build this Temple that is envisioned.  Indeed, there is no opportunity to build since those receiving the vision are still in exile.  Instead, Ezekiel is simply told to convey the vision to the people of Israel, in all of its detail oriented glory, so that "they may be ashamed of their sins."  Strangely, the designs of this building plan are also God's design for his people's repentance.  This building will stand as a physical reminder of God's faithfulness which can only remind Israel of all of its own unfaithfulness.

Of course, the New Testament writers will repeatedly use the Temple as a metaphor for the Church.  Whereas in the past God's Spirit had dwelt in a building, the Church believed that Spirit which also empowered Jesus now dwells in Jesus' followers making the Church God's new temple.  Ezekiel's vision is especially apt for our understanding of ourselves as the Temple since it is a blueprint for a promised building that can not yet be completed.  Likewise, the Church is to be a kind of blueprint for the new creation, God's final restoration of all things.  Undoubtedly, contemplating this final vision of God's restoration will remind us of all the ways that we fall short.  Nevertheless, we are also called to be a physical reminder of God's faithfulness and the promise of restoration which God intends to fulfill.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Preaching in Death Valley

And he said to me, "Son of man, can these bones live?" and I answered, "O Lord God, you know."  Then he said to me, prophesy over these bones and say to them, "O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord."   - Ezekiel 37:3-4
God called Ezekiel to do a lot of absurd things.  This one takes the cake.  At least the strange sign-acts for which God commissioned Ezekiel were in front of people who could see, hear, and have some chance, however small, to respond.  Not so here.  Here Ezekiel stands to preach the message he has been given by God but instead of a congregation of willing and responsive listeners, Ezekiel finds that his figurative pulpit has been placed in front of a bunch of skeletons.  And he is commanded to preach to these skeletons as if they were living people.  "O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord."  At least there will be no complaints about the length of the sermon.

What preacher, at least on some rare occasion, hasn't felt like they were doing what Ezekiel does here?  What preacher hasn't at some time or another felt like they were speaking to a congregation as lifeless as a valley of dry bones?  At some point we've all felt like our sermons were addressed to spiritual zombies who carry on as if they were alive but whose attitudes and actions say "Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off."  (Of course, some of our own sermons and spiritual practices are themselves responsible for turning them into zombies but that's a post for another day.)

This is not some underhanded, back door way to complain about the spiritual failures of my own congregation.  This blog post is not a reflection on some current frustration with my own church people.  In fact, this is a bit easier to write this week because this past Sunday was one of the most alive and responsive services we have had since I've been the pastor here.  This is not to say that we don't have our own spiritual deadness.  It is simply to say that I will confront that deadness on Sunday morning when I preach and in our continued life together as a community of faith rather than in a blog post.

The point is, that as pastors, God has called us to prophesy to these dry bones of a people and as we do God asks us the same question which he asked Ezekiel and which is already running through our own minds.  Is it really possible that these dry bones can live?  Is this preaching, all this ministry doing any good?  I've said the same things over and over again and not only has nothing changed but it doesn't even seem like they've heard what I've said.

Like Ezekiel, we are probably hesitant to give an unambiguous answer.  Can these dead church people be made alive again?  Well God, only you know the answer to that question (...but I have my own opinions on the matter).  Then comes the command that demands trust: "Prophesy over these bones...".  Keep preaching. Don't let the spiritual deadness of your audience prevent you from proclaiming.  Even to dry bones continue to say "Hear the word of the Lord".  This is all Ezekiel is called to.  It is not his task to make alive what is dead.  It is his task to be obedient in proclaiming the word of the Lord, even in the valley of death where it appears there is no one able to hear.

When we preach to those dry bones over and over again, it is tempting to bring our puppet strings; to find something that will make these skeletons dance and play; to use anything we can find that will make those dry bones look and feel more alive.  At least then we would have the illusion of having an audience worthy of our preaching.  But inasmuch as we become puppeteers rather than prophets we reveal what we really believe about that question that God asks us. "No Lord, I don't believe that you can make alive what is dead so I will do my best to give death the appearance of life."

But then, probably when we least expect it, probably when we've become so accustomed to the deadness that it doesn't even feel strange to preach to skeletons anymore, perhaps when we've began to feel like enough of a skeleton ourselves that we no longer have the strength to hold up the marionette, then the bones begin to rattle together and the breath of God floods in from every direction and there is suddenly life where there once was not.  We are reminded that if we will keep proclaiming as we've been commanded then God is more than able to raise up an army of an audience to hear his word.  To continue to prophesy in the valley of dry bones is an act of trust that says to our God "I believe these bones can live again".

Monday, October 4, 2010

Can These Bones Live?

Defeat, death, and decay are the colors of darkness that fill Ezekiel's vision in chapter 37.  There has been a battle in this valley but the victors have long since moved on leaving the bones of the dead and defeated behind to rot.  In fact, by the time Ezekiel sees them, they are done rotting.  These bones are dry.  Their defeat so long past, so complete, so utterly irreversible, that there are not even remnants of flesh on these bones.  They belong to an army not only defeated but also seemingly forgotten, their sacrifice unappreciated, as they are left for the birds to pick clean and the elements to smooth over until one day they will be erased completely, no memory of them left on the earth.

In the midst of this yawning abyss, an absurd question is asked; "Can these bones live?".  A question so absurd that even Ezekiel seems hesitant to offer as an answer what he can only hope.  Instead, he throws the question back to the questioner; "Lord, you know."  And so God begins the work of reversing the utterly irreversible, breathing life where there was once death.

It is not until after the vision is complete that the identity of these bones is revealed.  One might have concluded easily enough that these were the bones of those who lost their lives defending Jerusalem against the Babylonians onslaught.  But v.11 tells us otherwise.  "Then he said to me: "Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, 'Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.'"  It is those who have survived that see themselves as dry bones.  This is a vision for those whose bodies are alive but whose situation is so defeated and hopeless that they feel like nothing more than dry bones. This is a vision for the living dead.

For the exiles in Babylon, this is a promise that they will one day return home.  Their exile is not endless; their destruction is not complete.  But it is also more than that.  It is a demonstration to Israel concerning the kind of God that they serve; the kind of God who reverses the irreversible, the kind of God who can rattle dry bones to life; the kind of God who raises the crucified.

Often we find ourselves asking the same question of ourselves, our churches, and our world; "Can these dry bones live?"  Can those who seem dead to all spiritual counsel ever be spiritually alive?  Can the old, aching bodies that have served Christ for so long still render faithfulness to their Lord?  Can those who have suffered immeasurable loss ever be made whole?  Can a church which has declined in number for two decades be made alive again?  Can a world so full of death and sin ever know life and peace?

Can God raise the dead?  Everything hinges on this.  If the answer is no, then we are to be pitied more than all people.  But if the answer is yes...