Christmas Eve message

  • I have to admit, friends, that I’ve started this message about 15 times in the last few weeks.
    • Tried to write some of the image-conjuring poetry that I’ve written in the past à But I just couldn’t get the words to come this year.
    • Tried a couple of different illustrations that I thought I could carry throughout the sermon à Only to find out that they’re illustrations I’ve used in the past. (Hey … at least I’m consistent, right?)
    • Tried a lot of different things
    • But I seemed to keep ending up staring at a dauntingly blank page and a maddeningly blinking cursor. This year was just a struggle. This year … was just … a struggle. In all the ways. Right?
  • But tonight, we’re still here. Here in person or here virtually in our hearts. And the angels’ ancient good news is still our good news: “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”[1] And on hearing that joyful declaration, friends, the shepherds dropped everything and made their way to the side of the manger. They went immediately. They went eagerly. They went with haste, as Scripture tells us. And they went as they were.
    • Didn’t pause to consider the implications of their impromptu journey
      • Political implications
      • Career implications
      • Social media implications
      • Expectations (their own or anyone else’s)
    • Didn’t stop to pack anything – not the things they would definitely need … or the things they’d probably need … or the things they might need … or the things they probably wouldn’t need (but decided to pack anyway … just in case)
    • Didn’t stop to freshen up or change their clothes or make themselves “presentable” (whatever that means) → They arrived in the presence of the Savior dirty, road-worn, tired, and unsure of what exactly they were encounter. But still, they came. And tonight, friends, still … we come. We come seeking the Wonderful Counselor the guide us through the immense and overwhelming complexities of this world that we live in. We come seeking the Mighty God to bear our burdens when our strength fails us and we can no longer lift our foot … or our head … or our heart. We come seeking the Prince of Peace to wash our worries and anxieties and looming fears with peace everlasting.
      • Don’t come because we’ve done enough
      • Don’t come because we have enough
      • Don’t come because we’re prepared enough
      • With the shepherds, we come to the manger because God is our enough. When we’re out of words … when we’re out of trust … when we’re out of prayers … when we’re out of ideas … God is our enough. Tomorrow. Two weeks from Thursday. Six months from yestertime. Everyday. Always. God is our enough. Alleluia. Amen.

[1] Lk 2:10-11 (NRSV).

Sunday’s sermon: Salvation Comes in the Word

Text used – John 1:1-18

  • Increasingly, friends, it seems as though we live in an “either/or” society.
    • Either something is right or it’s wrong
    • Either you are with someone or you’re opposed to them
    • Either you’re for something or against it
    • Either you do something all the time or you would never dream of doing it
    • Increasingly, we are drawing bold, jagged lines between ourselves and those “opposed.” Or, if we aren’t necessarily drawing the lines ourselves, we’re passively allowing others to draw them for us.
      • Either you vote this way or that way
      • Either you pray this way or that way
      • Either you speak this way or that way
      • Either you believe this way or that way
      • And never the twain shall meet, right?
      • In part, the gospel of John that we read this morning was born out of a world of dangerous dichotomies.[1]
        • Written roughly 100 yrs. after Jesus’ birth
        • Gospel born out of religious turmoil
          • Persecution of Christians by Roman empire
          • Intra-religious struggles btwn. different factions of Christians at the time → different groups trying to decide exactly what they believed about who Jesus was in relation to humanity and in relation to God
        • Gospel most heavily influenced by Greek philosophy (extensive use of sharp dualistic, “either/or” language throughout Jn: dark/light, good/evil, flesh/spirit, etc.)
    • But how often is the starkness of those “either/or” choices true to reality? Logicians call these “either/or” dichotomies false dilemmas or either-or fallacies because they assume a certain problem (or belief system or experience or even simple choice) has only two potential answers or outcomes and that those outcomes must be mutually exclusive.
      • Blatantly obvious false dichotomy = offering either chocolate or vanilla ice cream doesn’t exclude every other fabulous ice cream flavor out there
    • Reality = most problems and experiences come not with one or two obvious choices but with a multitude of options and possibilities → More often than not, the answer to some problem or the choices that lie before us are more “both/and” choices than “either/or” choices.
  • Scripture reading this morning = “both/and” sort of Scripture → Most of the time, we talk about God as Divine – holy and sacred and unequivocally “other,” so far beyond us … so much greater than us … so much more than us that even within our deepest imaginings and our wildest dreams, we cannot even begin to wrap our frail and feeble human minds around the reality that is God.
    • Certainly have this reinforced in Scripture
      • Reading from Is last week: My plans aren’t your plans, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. Just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my plans than your plans.[2]
      • Passage from Ps 139: There isn’t a word on my tongue, Lord, that you don’t know completely. You surround me – front and back. You put your hand on me. That kind of knowledge is too much for me; it’s so high above me that I can’t fathom it.[3]
      • Paul’s words in 1 Cor: Where are the wise? Where are the legal experts? Where are today’s debaters? Hasn’t God made the wisdom of the world foolish? … The foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.[4]
      • Naming God’s innate, divine “otherness” is even a part of the prayer that we pray every Sunday: Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name → “hallowed” = holy … sacred … revered … set apart … beyond me
      • Truly, friends, we cannot deny that the God we gather to praise and to worship every Sunday … the God to whom we offer our prayers and our longings and our hearts and our very lives … the God who calls us and names us and knows us inside and out … Truly, we cannot deny that our God is sacred and “other” and wholly awesome.
        • “Awesome” in the truer, older sense of the word (as opposed to the 1980s California surfer dude sense): extremely impressive or daunting; inspiring great admiration, apprehension, or fear → Indeed, as Michael W. Smith’s popular praise song declares, our God is an awesome God.
    • Awesomeness and sacred otherness = woven throughout this morning’s prologue from the gospel of Jn: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. The Word was with God in the beginning. Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word nothing came into being. What came into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.[5] → Clearly this God of whom this gospel speaks is set apart … is more … is beyond. And since John tells us that the Word was with God and the Word was God, we can say that this Word is also set apart … more … beyond … wholly and holy “other.”
      • Clearly Gr. “Word” is more than just a couple of simple letters strung together → Gr. “Word” (logos) = word that carries an idea or expresses a thought[6] → This is word with a purpose. This is word laden with meaning and motive. This is word that has its own way of being in this world.
        • Rev. Dr. Sharon Betsworth (ordained UMC minister, NT scholar, director of Wimberly School of Religion in OKC): Logos is commonly translated as “word,” but it has a broader semantic range including “that by which the inward thought is expressed.”… The Christ is not just a “word” from God, but an expression of God’s own being. By the end of the Prologue this will be fleshed out as Christ being the beloved child of God.[7]
    • Encounter the mystery and majesty of this sacred otherness in the last verse, too: No one has ever seen God. God the only Son, who is at the Father’s side, has made God known.[8] → No one has ever seen God … but through this Word – this sacred expression of God’s own being – God has been made known to us.
  • But then, in the midst of extoling this mystical awesomeness of God, we encounter God doing a whole new thing! – text: The true light that shines on all people was coming into the world. The light was in the world, and the world came into being through the light, but the world didn’t recognize the light. The light came to his own people, and his own people didn’t welcome him. But those who did welcome him, those who believed in his name, he authorized to become God’s children, born not from blood nor from human desire or passion, but born from God. The Word became flesh and made his home among us. We have seen his glory, glory like that of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.[9] → “The Word became flesh and made his home among us!” Or, as the Message translation puts it, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” Suddenly, it’s not the overwhelming divinity of God that we’re talking about but the flesh-and-blood humanity of God! In one night – in one night fraught with overfull inns and drafty stables and the blood, sweat, and tears of human birth – in one night, God went from an either/or God to a both/and God … both divine and
    • Not the first time in ancient story that a deity interacted with a human to bring about another being or even the first time that a deity took on human form → lots of that scattered throughout the pages of Greek mythology
      • Plenty of instances of Greek gods taking the shape of humans BUT those are always instances of those gods taking human form for their own personal gain as opposed to for the good of humankind
        • For revenge
        • For love
        • For sex
        • For the purpose of manipulation or blackmail
      • Also plenty of demigods in Greek mythology: Greek beings who were part mortal, part god → But for demigods like Hercules and Perseus, they were always considered less than the Olympus gods – considered less specifically because of their humanity.
    • But in this incarnation – in the tiny, vulnerable, divinely-conceived and human-born baby for whom we wait – our God Almighty did, indeed, do a whole new thing. A “both/and” thing.
      • Foretold by God through the prophet Is: Look! I’m doing a new thing; now it sprouts up; don’t you recognize it? I’m making a way in the desert, paths in the wilderness.[10]
      • New thing in that this was not about the possessive love of Greek mythology (not about God’s selfish, self-serving love for one specific human) but about the salvific love of God for all of God’s own children (for humanity, broken and striving as we are) – text: From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace; as the Law was given to Moses, so grace and truth came into being through Jesus Christ.[11]
        • Late Rev. Dr. Gail R. O’Day (ordained UCC minister, college and seminary educator, and prominent/prolific NT scholar): “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God” and “the Word became flesh and lived among us.” These two claims are the foundation on which the rest of [John’s] gospel is built: Jesus is the incarnate word of God. … It is as the Word made flesh that Jesus brings God fully to the world. Jesus’ revelation of God is thus not simply that Jesus speaks God’s words and does God’s works, although that is part of it. It is, rather, that Jesus is God’s Word. No line can be drawn between what Jesus says and what he does, between his identity and mission in the world. Jesus’ words and works, his life and death, form an indissoluble whole that provides full and fresh access to God.[12] → “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood!” Our human neighborhood, imperfect and messy and beautiful and ragged as it may be. Our human neighborhood, full of love and laughter, hope and hesitancy, worry and warring, pleasure and pain. Our human neighborhood … all because God so loved the world. Alleluia! Amen.

[1] Gail R. O’Day. “The Gospel of John: Introduction” from The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 9. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 493-511.

[2] Is 55:8-9.

[3] Ps 139:4-6.

[4] 1 Cor 1:20, 25.

[5] Jn 1:1-5.

[6] Exegesis by Rev. Elana Keppel Levy: https://somuchbible.com/word-studies/annotated-scripture/john-11-18-a/.

[7] Sharon Betsworth. “Commentary on John 1:1-18” from Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/word-made-flesh-2/commentary-on-john-11-18-3.

[8] Jn 1:18.

[9] Jn 1:9-14.

[10] Is 43:19.

[11] Jn 1:16-17.

[12] O’Day, 495.

Sunday’s sermon: Salvation Comes in Abundance

Text used – Isaiah 55:1-13

  • Julia has been asking about snow and dying to make a snow angel since before Halloween.
    • Not really sure where the idea came from or who reminded her about snow angels
    • Been practicing on various floors and patches of ground (grass … cement … gravel … doesn’t really matter what) for weeks
    • And then, on Tuesday, it finally snowed. By the time I left my office on Tues. afternoon, there were at least 3 inches on the ground, and the conditions were perfect for snow angels.
      • Snow wasn’t so deep that she’d have trouble getting up or moving her arms (not like the snow we got on Friday!)
      • Snow was fluffy and soft → easy to sweep aside as she moved her arms and legs back and forth
    • But you know what? She didn’t even wait for the afternoon. Because our daycare was sick this week, Julia was at home with Peter on Tuesday, and not even an hour after the snow started, Peter texted me picture: Julia all dressed up in her snow gear (boots, hat, coat, mittens, snow pants) making a snow angel on the driveway → There was barely an inch of snow on the ground, but for that little girl who had been dreaming of making a snow angel for so many weeks, it was enough. The saying goes that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” but I think we can make a slight adjustment to that. I think we could say that “abundance is in the eye of the beholder” as well, and for Julia, just that little bit of snow was enough – enough for her creativity, enough for her joy.
  • Need to seek out abundance – to find that “enough” = situations Isaiah’s hearers were well accustomed to
    • Background we’ve already discussed: Is was written during the time of the Babylonian exile → Isaiah himself was part of the contingent of Jews who were captured and transported from Jerusalem to live in Babylon
    • Other background for this particular passage from Is
      • (commentary from RevGalBlogPals) Rev. Julia Seymour, pastor at Big Timber Lutheran Church in Big Timber, MT: In Isaiah 55, the people of Israel have been exiled a little over two generations. Since the prophecies Second Isaiah are generally considered to be contemporaneous with Ezekiel, these words are likely coming after the fall of Jerusalem, the destruction of the temple, and the death of many who believed God no longer favored God’s first people.[1]
      • Dr. Stephanie Mitchem, professor and chair of the Dept. of Religious Studies at the Univ. of South Carolina give further insight into the theme of this portion of Isaiah: Chapters 40-55 of Isaiah are grouped together as the Book of Consolation. This Book of Consolation had a significant place in the life of the Israelite community because it developed during the exilic period, speaking words of hope and consolation to people cut off from their homes and caught in political situations. This consolation defies the oppressive situation of their lives.[2] → Remember, the general role of prophets like Isaiah was to deliver God’s word to the people, and nearly every prophet (with the exception of Jonah) was called by God to deliver that word during a time of difficulty in the lives and history of the people of Israel.
        • Usually delivered during a time of “falling away” – a time when the people of Israel had turned to other deities and cultic practices from other cultures to satisfy their spiritual needs instead of to God → words of the prophets were a call to return to following and worshiping God
        • Usually delivered as part rebuke and part promise → There were the kind of words that we would probably try to spin as “constructive criticism” today, but let’s face it: no one likes to be corrected, especially when they don’t really think they’re doing anything wrong in the first place right? So the job of a prophet was often a difficult, thankless, and unpopular job.
          • Certainly is plenty of that rebuke – that “constructive criticism” – throughout the book of Is → But today’s passage is the other side of the coin – the promise and the reassurance from God that balances out the rebuke.
            • Promise of God’s provision for the people
            • Promise of God’s presence among the people
            • Promise of good to come in the midst of the bad
    • And through Isaiah, God frames that promise in the celebration and community of a meal – text: All of you who are thirsty, come to the water! Whoever has no money, come, buy food and eat! Without money, at no cost, buy wine and milk! Why spend money for what isn’t food, and your earnings for what doesn’t satisfy? Listen carefully to me and eat what is good; enjoy the richest of feasts.[3]
    • From there, God moves into the language of true promise and covenant – a promise of relationship and God’s own steadfastness to the people in return for the people’s devotion to God and God alone. → powerful section full of redemption, forgiveness, and hope
      • Recalls the grandness and righteousness of the people’s past by referencing King David – their greatest king, the king who brought them together as the united kingdoms, the whole people of Israel – text: Listen and come to me; listen, and you will live. I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my faithful loyalty to David. Look, I made him a witness to the peoples, a prince and commander of peoples.[4]
        • All those times that God implores the people to “listen” – Heb. = listening with attentiveness, with discernment, with intelligence, with obedience → God is asking the people to listen with their whole hearts and their whole minds, their whole lives and their whole being. This is active listening at its most truly active – listening that changes who you are and how you go about being in this world.
        • God is also reminding the people of the abundant, saving, eternal nature of God’s own promise
          • Heb. “everlasting” = particular word for time that is cyclical and unmeasurable → This is a word for time that is more drawn out and boundless – a word for time that has no beginning and no ending. And God uses this word in relation to God’s own covenant with the people, promising them a relationship that is immense and boundless and wholly inexhaustible.
          • Heb. “faithful loyalty” = two very special words combined into one phrase
            • First part = word with no true English equivalent but most often gets translated as “steadfast love” or “loving kindness” or “mercy” → word almost exclusively applied to the relationship that God has with God’s people – scholar: God’s loving-kindness is that sure love which will not let Israel go. Not all Israel’s persistent waywardness could ever destroy it. Though Israel be faithless, yet God remains faithful still. This steady, persistent refusal of God to wash his hands of wayward Israel is the essential meaning of the Hebrew word which is translated loving-kindness.[5]
            • Second part: amen = word that we’re probably actually too familiar with – Rev. Dr. Matt Schlimm (from 70 Hebrew Words Every Christian Should Know): We say [“amen”] at the end of almost every prayer. Functionally, it means, “The prayer is over. We can all open our eyes now.” The Hebrew has several shades of meaning. “Amen” comes from a cluster of words that refers to what’s true, trustworthy, reliable, and faithful. … Truth implies a commitment to reality, and faithfulness implies a commitment to others. … When we say this word at the end of prayers, we’re signaling not only that we agree with the prayer but also that we’ll do what’s needed on our part for the prayer to come true. We commit to living in a way that helps see the prayer reach fruition.[6]
            • These two words combined together put a powerful, wholehearted, authentic, desperately loving emphasis to the promise that God is extending to the people in this passage. God is offering never-ending love. God is offering God’s own presence and provision.
    • God goes on to make it clear that this is a two-way relationship. In fact, despite having been rebuffed and ignored time and time again by the people, God invites them into this blessed relationship of sacred abundance. – text: Seek the Lord when he can still be found; call him while he is yet near. Let the wicked abandon their ways and the sinful their schemes. Let them return to the Lord so that he may have mercy on them, to our God, because he is generous with forgiveness.[7] → passage rich with promise[8]
      • Heb. “found” = word that implies togetherness → promises the people that finding God means being in relationship with God
      • Heb. “near” = all-encompassing – physically near, near in time, and near in connection/allied → promises the people that God will be near to them in every way possible
      • Promise contingent on one thing: repentance – text: Let them return to the Lord so that [God] may have mercy on them. → Heb. “return” = same word as “repent”
        • Dr. Schlimm fleshes this idea out for us (again, 70 Hebrew Words Every Christian Should Know): [The Hebrew] gives people concrete images that teach them about the dangers of sin and how to get back into a right relationship with God. Instead of making religion something abstract, it’s about getting in “the zone” of a covenant with God. When we pass through God’s covenant and find ourselves in sin, we need to turn from wickedness and return to our Creator.[9]
    • Passage today ends with God’s reminder that while that promise and provision may not always take the form that we want it to take, God is with us, working and loving and healing and teaching and saving among us and through us – text: My plans aren’t your plans, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. Just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my plans than your plans. Just as the rain and the snow come down from the sky and don’t return there without watering the earth, making it conceive and yield plants and providing seed to the sower and food to the eater, so is my word that comes from my mouth; it does not return to me empty. Instead, it does what I want, and accomplishes what I intend. Yes, you will go out with celebration, and you will be brought back in peace. Even the mountains and the hills will burst into song before you; all the trees of the field will clap their hands. In place of the thorn the cypress will grow; in place of the nettle the myrtle will grow. This will attest to the LORD’s stature, an enduring reminder that won’t be removed.[10]
      • Rev. Julia Seymour: Poised in this liminal and hopeful state, between exile and homecoming, God is clear. The people are in a safe space to perceive the possibilities of God’s blessings and promises. Leaning into God’s faithfulness will help them to step out in trust, to return to their land, but to that their strength is in the Lord. … The space that is here and now, the life we have, is the arena in which we learn, truly, that God’s ways are not ours. God’s words and deeds bring life, light, and love. Advent is the season, the time, when we are prepared (before being distracted) to re-focus our minds and hearts on God, especial God in Christ. … If the message of Ezekiel 37 was that nothing is too dead for God, surely the message of Isaiah 55 is that when God brings life, it will be (is) beyond anything for which we would dare to hope, much less ask.[11] → Salvation has come … is coming … will come again, friends. As we wait and wonder, question and worry, ponder and hope this Advent season, may God open our eyes to the abundance of the salvation – the “enough-ness” of that salvation – in all the circumstances we face. Amen.

[1] Julia Seymour, https://revgalblogpals.org/2013/12/09/narrative-lectionary-what-ho-edition-isaiah-55/.

[2] Stephanie Y. Mitchem. “Proper 13 (Sunday between July 31 and August 6 inclusive) – Isaiah 55:1-5, Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year A, vol. 3. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 290.

[3] Is 55:1-2.

[4] Is 55:3-4.

[5] Norman H. Snaith, http://www.bible-researcher.com/chesed.html.

[6] Matthew Richard Schlimm. 70 Hebrew Words Every Christian Should Know. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2018), 16, 17.

[7] Is 55:6-7.

[8] Exegesis by Rev. Elana Keppel Levy: https://somuchbible.com/word-studies/annotated-scripture/isaiah-551-13/.

[9] Schlimm, 69.

[10] Is 55:8-13.

[11] Seymour.

Sunday’s sermon: Salvation Comes in the Breath

Text used – Ezekiel 37:1-14

  • When I was a kid, we used to listen to a particular cassette tape in the car all the time: Anne Murray’s “There’s a Hippo in my Tub.” (If you have kids or grandkids and haven’t tried out Anne Murray’s music, I highly encourage it. You can find them all on YouTube.) On that album, there’s a particular song I’ve been thinking about this week. It’s a song called “Why Oh Why.”
    • Premise: adult trying to get a child to go to sleep → child is full of questions
    • Starts off innocently enough:
      • Q: Why does a camel drink water? → A: Because a camel gets thirsty just like you and me and everybody else does.
    • Devolves from there:
      • Q: Why can’t a mouse eat a streetcar? → A: Because a mouse’s stomach isn’t big enough to hold a streetcar.
      • Q: Why can’t a cow have kittens? → A: Because … well, uhhh … because cows have little calves and cats have little kittens, and besides, dear, it’s easier that way.
    • Unanswerable questions, right? They certainly come from more than just kids.
      • Silly ones
        • Which came first – the chicken or the egg?
        • Why is the objective of golf to play the least amount of golf?
        • Why can’t a mouse eat a streetcar?
        • Mom, kids, and I came up with a really fun car game for this while we were up north last summer: What’s the opposite of _____________? (something that doesn’t have an opposite) → What’s the opposite of cloud? What’s the opposite of train? What’s the opposite of purple?
      • Serious ones
        • How big is the universe?
        • What is heaven like?
        • What’s my purpose here?
        • How long, O Lord?
    • The question posed in our Scripture reading this morning seems to be just such a question: “Human one, can these bones live again?”[1] Can these bones live again? [PAUSE] A seemingly-unanswerable question, right?
      • Hear the unanswerable nature of that question in the response given in Scripture: I said, “Lord God, only you know.” → The Biblical version of “God only knows,” right?
        • Said with exasperation?
        • Said with confusion?
        • Said with resignation?
        • Said with hope?
        • Said with faith?
        • Another unanswerable question. But how does God’s seemingly-unanswerable question continue to impart answers about God’s hope for us today?
  • To move that particular questions into the “answerable” category, we need to first understand a little bit more about Ezekiel, both the prophet and the book.
    • Greatest context comes from the beginning of Ezekiel – text: In the thirteenth year, on the fifth day of the fourth month, I was with the exiles at the Chebar River when the heavens opened and I saw visions of God.[2] → You may have caught that word “exiles,” and if you did, you might have also guessed that Ezekiel is yet another one of those prophets who spoke God’s word to the people during the Babylonian exile. So Ezekiel is a contemporary of both Isaiah and Jeremiah (though we have to remember that the Babylonian exile spanned an entire lifetime, so being contemporaries doesn’t mean that Ezekiel actually knew either Isaiah or Jeremiah). → a few differences
      • Ezekiel’s role in society (from the intro to Ezek in The CEB Study Bible): Though known to readers as a prophet, Ezekiel was first and foremost a priest in the Lord’s temple in Jerusalem. As a temple priest, he belonged to a select, privileged, educated class in Judah’s ancient society.[3]
      • Tone of Ezekiel → Ezekiel is unwaveringly blunt and even harsh in his words of judgment for the people and the nation of Judah. The God portrayed in the book of Ezekiel is not a kind and compassionate God at all.
        • Rev. Dr. Katheryn Pfisterer Darr (author and Prof. of Hebrew Scripture at Boston University’s School of Theology): Ezekiel’s oracles of judgment are filled with passion and utterly devoid of sentimentality. The God we witness through Ezekiel’s words is consumed by wrath, bent on violence, and hungry for vengeance.[4]
      • Form of Ezekiel: As we’ve seen over the past few Sunday, Isaiah and Jeremiah are more accounts of conversations between the prophets and God while Ezekiel’s prophecies come more from visions and oracles. → scholars break these into 3 general section[5]
        • chs. 1-24: sign acts and oracles of doom against Judah and Jerusalem
        • chs. 25-32: oracles against foreign nations and rulers
        • chs. 33-48: oracles concerning Israel’s future restoration → And it’s in this final section that we find our Scripture reading for today – Ezekiel’s infamous vision of the valley full of dry bones.
  • So let’s dig into that vision a little more.
    • Significant that in his vision, God places Ezekiel “in the middle of a certain valley”
      • Makes it fairly clear that Ezekiel himself is right there in the midst of the strain and brokenness, the lostness and sinfulness of the rest of the people → God didn’t set Ezekiel on the rim of the valley so he could look down on all those dry bones. God didn’t hover Ezekiel over the whole scene. God placed Ezekiel smack dab in the middle of the valley in and amongst all the rest of the dry bones, including even God’s own prophet in the deficiency and parchedness.
      • Being placed in the center of the valley also ensures that Ezekiel will be able to see it all – that Ezekiel will be able to witness and attest to the full extent of all that lies in the valley → From the center of the valley, Ezekiel cannot miss a single bone or dust cloud. He will be fully exposed – physically and visually – to the arid nature of the valley and the desiccated state of the bones. No matter where he looks, Ezekiel cannot help but see. He cannot help but witness.
        • Element of longevity/endurance to this placement – Heb. “set me down” = settle, remain, camp, wait[6] → implies that this is more than a brief visit – that God is doing more than breezing Ezekiel through this scene → There is purpose to Ezekiel’s visit to this valley of dry bones, and here he will remain until God’s message is delivered in full.
        • Just to be sure of this, God takes Ezekiel on a little tour through the valley – text: While I was in the Lord’s spirit, [God] led me out and set me down in the middle of a certain valley. It was full of bones. [The Lord] led me through them all around, and I saw that there were a great many of them on the valley floor, and they were very dry.[7]
          • Again, we see in the Hebrew just how important it is that Ezekiel fully witness the nature and state of his surroundings. → Heb. “hinneh” (that little, attention-grabbing word) = untranslated before both the phrase “there were a great many of them on the valley floor” and the phrase “they were very dry”[8]
    • Come to our seemingly-unanswerable question – text: [The Lord] asked me, “Human one, can these bones live again?” I said, “Lord God, only you know.”[9] → But instead of giving Ezekiel a simple answer that he could take back to the people, God chose to enact an answer instead.
      • Answer that comes in three phases, each set in motion by God
  • First phase = reassembly
    • Ezekiel prophecies to the bones as God commanded → bones come together → sinews cover the bones → flesh covers the sinew → skin covers the flesh
    • But at the completion of this first phase, there’s still something missing – text: There was still no breath in them.[10]
  • Second phase = BREATH
    • God to Ezekiel: [The Lord] said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, human one! Say to the breath, The Lord God proclaims: Come from the four winds, breath! Breathe into these dead bodies and let them live.”[11]
    • Ezekiel does as God commands → breath enters the throng of bodies before him → text: When they breath entered them, they came to life and stood on their feet, an extraordinarily large company.[12] → need to take a step back for a minute and talk about this breath because this is The Key
      • Heb. “breath” = ruach – word for wind, air, breath, and spirit → So those dry, lifeless bodies that populated the valley all around Ezekiel were devoid of God’s spirit. The spirit of God was not in them. Hold onto that nugget for a while in your mind.
  • Final phase = rising up – text: [The Lord] said to me, “Human one, these bones are the entire house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope has perished. We are completely finished.’ So now, prophesy and say to them, The Lord God proclaims: I’m opening your graves! I will raise you up from your graves, my people, and I will bring you to Israel’s fertile land. You will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and raise you up from your graves, my people.”[13] → concludes with God’s promise and reassurance that God will, indeed, do this
    • But none of this could happen without the breath … without the spirit. Without the spirit of God, these bones would remain lifeless. Dry. Scattered, broken, and incomplete. But with God’s breath … God’s spirit … within them, it’s a whole different story.
      • Rev. Dr. Lisa Thompson (author, ordained Baptist minister, and Assoc. Prof. of Black Homiletics and Liturgics at the Vanderbilt University’s Divinity School): The restoration will not stop with breath; it will attend to the fleshiest matters of this situated reality from muscles to skin tissues. These bones are to become upright, Spirit-filled flesh once again. And the Holy One is the acting agent who offers the word that life can come again, precipitates the reassembly of the bones, brings forth the breath from the winds, and restores muscles and flesh.[14]
  • So what do we do with this idea of God’s spirit?
    • More often read this oracle from Ezek on Pentecost – the day when we celebrate the Holy Spirit – God’s Spirit – alighting on the disciples after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension back into heaven → We say that’s what we celebrate … we say that’s what we believe … and yet in the mainline Protestant church in particular, we seem to have forgotten about the Holy Spirit or, worse yet, intentionally neglected the person and work of the Holy Spirit altogether.
      • From Becoming a Blessed Church: Forming a Church of Spiritual Purpose, Presence, and Power by N. Graham Standish: Many of today’s mainline members fear the Holy Spirit because of what they see in the Pentecostal movement, which tends to focus mostly on the Holy Spirit. … Unfortunately, too many of our churches, by ignoring and remaining closed to the Holy Spirit, have developed respiratory failure. Since we no longer breathe with the breath of the Holy Spirit, we neither aspire to become open to the Spirit nor allow ourselves to be inspired by the Holy Spirit. As a result, our churches eventually expire. We suffer such chronic respiratory failure – the failure to breathe in the Spirit and life – that our churches eventually take their last breath and die.[15] → Friends, especially in this time in which we find ourselves feeling dry and depleted, utterly spent and discarded on the valley floor, it is essential – literally, the essence … the very intrinsic nature of our faith – that we remember the power of God’s Holy Spirit with us and among us.
    • In our churches and in our lives today, we find ourselves in this time of Advent – this time of waiting.
      • Waiting for the birth of the Savior – the birth of Salvation … waiting for Salvation to come … and to come again
      • Waiting so often involves waiting in the midst of unanswered questions … questions that feel scattered around us as prominent and devastated as those dry bones
        • Rev. Dr. Thompson: As we end this calendar year, we may survey the places in our world that lay waiting for an infusion from the holy-life-force. We are living in a global pandemic. We’ve had continual racial unrest, migration crises and border struggles, wildfires, and oil spills. Ongoing social and personal upheaval are not foreign conditions in our immediate neighborhoods or across the globe. The vibrancy of life sustained eludes us daily. And yet, the mysterium tremendum of the passage is: the presence of death, loss, and grief do not thwart the uncertain but emboldened participation in the tangible possibilities of life renewed. This may be an invitation to imagine these places of participation in very concrete ways for our contemporary contexts, even as we hope against hope in a full forward-facing recovery to come.
          • Spirit that raises dry bones to new life and purpose
          • Spirit that is aching to bring about the birth of the Christ-child in our midst and in our hearts
          • Spirit that can breathe new life and new hope into even the most desolate waiting … Amen.

[1] Ezek 37:3.

[2] Ezek 1:1.

[3] John T. Strong. “Ezekiel: Introduction” from The CEB Study Bible. (Nashville: Common English Bible, 2013), OT 1315.

[4] Katheryn Pfisterer Darr. “The Book of Ezekiel: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 6. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001), 1085.

[5] Ibid, 1089.

[6] Exegesis by Rev. Elana Keppel Levy: https://somuchbible.com/word-studies/annotated-scripture/ezekiel-371-14d/.

[7] Ezek 37:1-2.

[8] Levy.

[9] Ezek 37:3.

[10] Ezek 37:8.

[11] Ezek 37:9.

[12] Ezek 37:10b.

[13] Ezek 37:11-13.

[14] Lisa Thompson. “Commentary on Ezekiel 37:1-14” from Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/ezekiel-valley-of-dry-bones/commentary-on-ezekiel-371-14-10.

[15] N. Graham Standish. Becoming a Blessed Church: Forming a Church of Spiritual Purpose, Presence, and Power, 2nd ed. (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2016), 33.