Sunday, November 2, 2014
Ezekiel, standing in a valley of bones; is there a more bizarre story in the Bible? The story leads with this: “the hand of the Lord came upon me and brought me out in the Spirit of the Lord, and set me down in the midst of the valley.” In the Spirit of the Lord; we know we are hearing a vision, but still. What a vision!
To what can we compare such a passage?
Consider a bizarre bit from the gospel of Matthew. It comes right at the moment Jesus dies on the cross after an agonizing day of trials, floggings, taunts, and then the pain and shame of hanging, nailed to a cross. He breathes his last breath; then Matthew writes
50 And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit.
51 Then, behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth quaked, and the rocks were split, 52 and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; 53 and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many.
If this actually had happened, why didn’t Mark, Luke, or John mention it? Or Paul? I don’t think this was an event in history. Matthew, I believe, tapped into the same spirit of symbolism and prophetic anticipation that Ezekiel used. He may have had Ezekiel’s “dry bones passage” in mind when he wrote these words. We know from Ezekiel 37:1 that the prophet is in a vision. He says as much in verse 11. “Son of man, these bones are the house of Israel.”
Israel will not vanish into the mists of history. The God who chose Israel to be His chosen, special people through whom he would show himself to all humanity, the God who parted the Red Sea and enabled David to defeat Goliath – that God was still God. That God would honor his promises to Israel, even in exile. Even under Babylonian rule, they would be God’s people and live in blessing and relationship. Ezekiel’s story of bones come to life is told to show Israel all is not lost and never will be.
Centuries later, Matthew taps into that unrelenting, unfailing hope in God of Israel when he writes, “The graves were opened.” The minute Jesus, the Son of God, died death was defeated. Matthew wrote as if those things happened in that moment. Thus he struck with a prophetic effect similar to Ezekiel. The specter of death that hangs over all humans was lifted for all in Christ. When Matthew says the graves opened and the inhabitants left death behind and went into the city and testified, he meant the witness that would be given by the apostles.
Peter and John, James and Paul and the rest no longer lived with the notion that death was something to fear. In Christ, it just is not an issue for us. Yes, these bodies die. Yes, in many cases, disease or sickness or tragedy precedes the death of the body and it can be painful and heartbreaking. The apostles though, especially right after meeting the risen Lord, saw past all that death entails. They saw into eternity.
These bodies that die will rise again at the resurrection. On that day, what Matthew spoke of as symbolism and saw as a future reality will actually take place. Graves will open, bodies will reconstitute in eternal form so that the resurrected body can no longer feel pain, be injured or die. People, who were cremated, buried, or whatever else will be brought back together and raised to everlasting life. In resurrected bodies, all who are in Christ live as sons and daughters of God in eternal joy. Until then, we live this life in relationships of love with God and with each other. Even though we know we will likely experience the death of our bodies and we will go through the pains and ailments all people have, we live as people who will live forever. Just as Ezekiel foresaw Israel’s revival as the people of God, Matthew anticipated the end of death for all who follow Christ.
I wonder how this reality lives in the mind of Daniel Ayuba. He lives in the area of Nigeria that has been terrorized by Boko Haram, a Muslim group intent on imposing the strictest of enforcement of sharia law.[i] Boko Haram has turned Northern Nigeria into a war zone with their deadly assaults on civilian populations including the abduction of over 200 girls earlier this year. I think of them and wonder if I lived there, would I have any hope.
The Israelites in exile in Babylon were fixed in despair. Was their identity as people of God gone forever? Had their God been defeated? Ezekiel’s vision of dry bones becoming resurrected was God’s message that he had not gone anywhere, that his vision for his people was life, and that life was absolutely their future.
These bones are the whole house of Israel.
‘Thus says the Lord God: “Behold, O My people, I will open your graves and cause you to come up … and bring you into the land of Israel. 13 Then you shall know that I am the Lord … . 14 I will put My Spirit in you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land.
To Israel’s despair, God promised life.
That life came in an unexpected, new way in Jesus – God fulfilling God’s promise to Israel in the person of God’s messiah. Jesus’ death and resurrection was the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promise. If Matthew wrote in the late first century as most scholars think, then he was writing to specific church or group of churches and the reason he formed his gospel as he did was to aid the church in their development as a missional community whose purpose was to share Jesus with the world. It was a small church that was out of favor with larger entities all around it – Roman paganism, Greek culture, and the synagogue. Surely the church to which Matthew was writing underwent times of despair.
The resurrection had happened, but this was more than 30 years later. Paul was probably dead. The first generation of Jesus – followers were old. Would the entire movement fade and die a slow, forgettable death? I wonder if Matthew, using prophetic anticipation, inspired by the breath, the Spirit of God, gave a resounding “No” to the despair that threatened the nascent church.
We aren’t going to make it. Matthew’s response? Jesus … yielded up His spirit. And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; 53 and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many. Matthew was telling his church, “You are these who were in the grave. You know Jesus was raised and because he was, you come into the city and testify to the life we have in the Lord Jesus Christ.
A despairing exiled community; a demoralized church; God speaks hope where it seems all hope is gone. I mentioned Daniel Ayuba and Nigerians under the threat of violence and death at the hands of Boko Haram. Two years ago, attackers planted a bomb near a car wash in the city of Maiduguri. He was near the explosion. He had 80% of his body covered in shrapnel, one of his legs shattered. He said, "I looked around me and there was fire burning, houses blown up and dead people. I kept on crying, crying for someone to come help me, but no one would come.” His body to this day is covered with scars. He’ll carry this pain and terror.
If I lived in Nigeria, how could I hope? I live in the comfort of middle class America and I feel powerless and despondent when I read the stories or think about the violence in Syria. This event was not the first time he experience heartache due to Boko Haram violence. At one point he asks as I am sure most Nigerians ask, “What is wrong with these people?” When life conspires to break us whether by exile or persecution or terrorism or in our own very real disappointments and losses, it seems natural to ask, what is wrong with this? I find myself in my personal frustrations pounding the table asking, what it wrong here? And yet, Mr. Ayuba had this to say, his final quote in the CNN article. "It was God that saved me. He kept me alive on purpose, and I ask God every day to [reveal] that purpose to me," he said. He felt the breath of God.
That is the source of our hope. The Old Testament uses the same word for breath, spirit, and wind.[ii] One of the passages that uses this word with great frequency is today’s reading, Ezekiel 37. Maybe it is tempting to go through and try to discern each use. “Well here, it means wind, like the wind in the trees.” “And in this case it means, breath, like a person’s breathing.” “But in this other instance, it refers to God’s Spirit.” Such an exercise has its place, but in understanding how we have life from God and what that means, it is better to allow the definitions to flow together into an understanding and experience of God at work.
The breath of God hovered over the chaos even before God began creating (Genesis 1:1). This breath was God’s Spirit that carried Ezekiel to the valley and showed him the vision. Within the vision, after the bones rattled and reassembled and took on flesh and stood, they were still not alive. Not until animating breath of God filled them did they become who God intended them to become.
That same wind/spirit/breath visited Mary. She became pregnant by the Holy Spirit and she gave birth to the son of God, God in the flesh. At the end of John’s Gospel, the resurrected Jesus breathes on the disciples and they receive the Holy Spirit (John 20:22) for the purpose of continuing the work of announcing the Kingdom and calling dying people to life. At the end of Matthew’s Gospel Jesus sends those same disciples to baptize people in the name of the Spirit (Matthew 20:19).
In Genesis, in Ezekiel, in Matthew, in John, in your life, in mine, and in the world today, life comes when we have the breath of God in us. I want to spend time this morning in deep prayer, thinking about resurrection, about the hope that we have, and about being filled with God’s Spirit. Perhaps when you hear words like discouragement and despair you immediate think of your own life. You are going through a difficult time or you fear that is coming. If that is so, as we sing this last song, I invite you to come, kneel at the steps, and pray. There is no shame here. This is a place of healing. There is no need to holdback or hide your fears or try to pretend you are not discouraged. Come. Come and pour it out before the God who brings the dead to life. Please. Let yourself be freed from the pressure to pretend all is well. Come before God.
Perhaps you are not in a rough patch but you know someone who is. Someone you know, someone you love is in the throes of depression. Come to steps, to the cross, to Christ on behalf of that person. Pour your heart before God, the giver of the Spirit, on behalf of another. This is intercession and I am asking you to come and intercede for someone.
Or, maybe you are like me. Your own life is pretty good, but you feel the burden over what’s happening in Nigeria or in Syria or in some place right here in North Carolina were a group of people are suffering to the point of despair. Come before Jesus, our Lord and Savior. Come on behalf of the group under siege, the people God has placed on your heart. Come and ask the God who animates dry bones to give life to this people you carry in your heart
We move from sermon into prayer right now. You have heard this invitation. Together we have walked in stories from the Bible, stories of God bringing life. Our best response is worship and prayer. Come.
- Invite people to bring their discouragement to the steps, to the cross, to Christ