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".

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