Sunday, January 6, 2019

Sermon - Wheels and Bones

[You can listen to the audio of the sermon here.]

As I looked, behold, a stormy wind came out of the north, and a great cloud, with brightness around it, and fire flashing forth continually, and in the midst of the fire, as it were gleaming metal. And from the midst of it came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance: they had a human likeness, but each had four faces, and each of them had four wings. As for the likeness of their faces, each had a human face. The four had the face of a lion on the right side, the four had the face of an ox on the left side, and the four had the face of an eagle. Now as I looked at the living creatures, I saw a wheel on the earth beside the living creatures, one for each of the four of them. As for the appearance of the wheels and their construction: their appearance was like the gleaming of beryl. And the four had the same likeness, their appearance and construction being as it were a wheel within a wheel. When they went, they went in any of their four directions without turning as they went. And their rims were tall and awesome, and the rims of all four were full of eyes all around. And when the living creatures went, the wheels went beside them; and when the living creatures rose from the earth, the wheels rose. Wherever the spirit wanted to go, they went, and the wheels rose along with them, for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.... And the glory of the Lord went up from the cherub to the threshold of the house, and the house was filled with the cloud, and the court was filled with the brightness of the glory of the Lord. And the sound of the wings of the cherubim was heard as far as the outer court, like the voice of God Almighty when he speaks. And when he commanded the man clothed in linen, “Take fire from between the whirling wheels, from between the cherubim,” he went in and stood beside a wheel. And the cherubim mounted up. These were the living creatures that I saw by the Chebar canal. And when the cherubim went, the wheels went beside them. And when the cherubim lifted up their wings to mount up from the earth, the wheels did not turn from beside them. When they stood still, these stood still, and when they mounted up, these mounted up with them, for the spirit of the living creatures was in them. Then the glory of the Lord went out from the threshold of the house, and stood over the cherubim. And the cherubim lifted up their wings and mounted up from the earth before my eyes as they went out, with the wheels beside them. And they stood at the entrance of the east gate of the house of the Lord, and the glory of the God of Israel was over them.... The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. And he led me around among them, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold, they were very dry. 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. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord.” So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I prophesied, there was a sound, and behold, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. And I looked, and behold, there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them. But there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.” So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army. Then he said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the LordI have spoken, and I will do it, declares the Lord.” - Ezekiel 1:4-6, 10, 15-20, 26-28; 10:4-6, 15-19; 37:1-14 (the Chapter 37 verses are not on the audio - they were printed in the order of worship and read aloud responsively)

            Restoration is of course a theme of the New Testament. We have already heard the story of Jesus’s restoring the man with the withered hand. Whether it is returning Bartimaeus his sight, Peter his apostolic position, or Lazarus his life, Jesus is in the business of restoring what has been lost. That is terribly important for you and me. We are a people in need of restoration.
            Restoration is not something new in the gospels. God has been about restoration from the beginning. The repeated renewal of the covenant between God and His people exemplifies God’s willingness and ability to restore us to what we were before we wandered, before we chose to leave God’s path, before we embarked on a life of sin. There is something beneath and beyond what we can comprehend, something only God can see.
            The seminal picture of restoration is what follows the exile of the Jewish people. They lose their home, their country, their temple, and their hope when they are carried off as captives and slaves to the homes of their conquerors. This is not random and should not be unexpected – God’s prophets have repeatedly warned the people that exile is coming if they do not change their ways; indeed, it does come. This story begins in Kings and, in large part, is carried on through Malachi. It makes up the bulk of the Old Testament. It is worth our consideration.
            Unquestionably, exile is not the end of the story, any more than our personal wanderings are the end of our story. In God’s plan, and in God’s reality, exile is but a precursor to restoration. How can I keep from singing?
Ezekiel is a man of vision. Better put, a man of visions recorded in this strange, long, weird book. I am going to preach about the Valley of the Dry Bones today, which may be the only story you know from the Book of Ezekiel; but since that does not appear until Chapter 37, we need to take a couple of minutes to think about what has come before.
            As I just read, the book opens with Ezekiel’s vision of the Lord; this is no ordinary call. This vision of the four creatures with faces of a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle together with the wheel in a wheel, able to go in any direction without turning, carrying the throne on which sits the glory of the Lord, makes up a mysterious beginning to this prophecy. I must have read this chapter twenty-five times this week, and I still do not have a complete grasp on it. Many rabbinic and Biblical scholars have for centuries ignored it, even instructing young seminarians to skip it lest they be corrupted or drawn away by the oddity of it. The Revised Common Lectionary does not include this chapter at all, so many churches will never hear it read. On one end of the interpretive spectrum, Matthew Henry says that the wheels represent the providence of God; on the other extreme, some legitimate Biblical scholars say this is an extraterrestrial vessel carrying God to earth – literally a UFO on which God sits. Some draw the wheels as one inside another; some draw them as a sort of set of gears; others, as in the illustration on the front of our order of worship, show them as wheels at right angles with one another, creating a sphere that can go in any direction.
            I don’t think the point is to try to determine with specificity what each symbol in this chapter can mean. Ezekiel himself knew that his readers considered him a riddlemonger [at least according to some translations of Ezekiel 21:5]. I am not at all sure that Ezekiel completely grasped what he saw.
            So, I am not about to try to tell you what each part of the vision literally depicts. You can google it if you want to read all the theories about the leadership of the lion and the strength of the ox, about the various theories of motion that the wheels may represent, about how some see the wheels as representations of Israel’s understanding of the signs of the zodiac.
            I am far more concerned with the end of chapter one. This vision is meant as a vehicle for the glory of God. Ezekiel is confronted by God.
The Hebrews are God’s chosen people. God has established first the tabernacle and then the temple. He has placed them in the Promised Land. And they have squandered His gifts. Bad decision has followed bad decision. Rejection of God and decisions not to take advantage of God’s covenant have dovetailed with defeat and defilement. Bad king after bad king has built the high places and established idol worship. Prophets have been ignored. The occasional good king, like Josiah who reigns at the beginning of Ezekiel’s life, cannot reform enough to overcome the malaise and active disobedience that characterize God’s people; and then new bad kings inevitably follow. Put simply, Israel corporately lives a life of sin.
The wheel-in-a-wheel carries the glory of God. The prophecy begins with a call into the very presence of Yahweh. Ezekiel revels, if only for a moment, in the splendor of the Father.
            We want to jump to restoration, and we will indeed spend the bulk of today and all of the next two weeks there, but the road to Old Testament restoration, regrettably, runs through exile. Warning upon warning paper the books of the Old Testament, yet the people simply choose to look the other way.
            This is not just a corporate story, not only how nations work. Remember, you always have to read the Old Testament both as the history of God’s people and simultaneously as a clear explanation of how God deals with us individually and how we relate to God. We can find ourselves in exile in a number of ways. Sin exiles us. Disease, failure, financial ruin, job loss, abuse, hatred, unkindness, and depression all carry their own form of exile. We exile ourselves from each other. We exile ourselves from the church … sometimes even while we are physically here. In any of these and dozens of other ways, we find ourselves a long way from home.
            Too often, we exile ourselves from God. The poet writes:
All this is flashy rhetoric about loving you.
I never had a selfless thought since I was born.
I am mercenary and self-seeking through and through:
I want God, you, all friends, merely to serve my turn.
Peace, re-assurance, pleasure, are the goals I seek,
I cannot crawl one inch outside my proper skin:
I talk of love – a scholar's parrot may talk Greek –
But, self-imprisoned, always end where I begin.
Only that now you have taught me (but how late) my lack.
I see the chasm. And everything you are was making
My heart into a bridge by which I might get back
From exile….
And now the bridge is breaking.  [C.S. Lewis, “As the Ruin Falls”]

Ezekiel himself was taken into literal exile in 597. The temple was corrupted without the proper oversight of the priesthood.  Babylonians tortured the inhabitants of Jerusalem with siege warfare that lasted almost two years, leading to famine, disease, and despair. [2 Kings 25:3] The armies of Babylon forced the capitulation of Jerusalem and deported the Judean king and many Judean leaders to Babylon [2 Kings 24:10-16]. Ten years later, in 587/6, after Jerusalem had rebelled again, the Babylonians razed Jerusalem and its temple and deported a second wave of Judean leaders. Among the first wave of the deported was the young Ezekiel. Professor Rolf Jacobson says:
For those deportees forced to live in Babylon, the future seemed a black hole into which the people were destined to disappear. A century-and-a-half previously, many citizens of Judah's sister kingdom Israel had been similarly deported, had lost their identity, and had faded into the mists of history — the so-called lost tribes of Israel. The exile was more than just a crisis of physical suffering and communal identity. It also necessitated a crisis of faith. The key symbols of Judean faith--Jerusalem, its temple, its people, and the Davidic monarchy – had been destroyed…. [M]any exiled Judeans assumed that their deity had been defeated by a stronger deity from Babylon. The people wondered if the Lord was truly lord and truly faithful.”

            The most horrific part of exile is what we read from Chapter 10. The glory of God has left the temple. It has left Jerusalem. The glory of God – what came to Ezekiel at the beginning - gets on the cherubim’s wheel-in-a-wheel vehicle, whatever it is, and exits, stage left.
These verses are among the saddest passages of scripture. Exile predictably brings destruction. Exile means that the bulk of the people are forcibly taken away, with only a poor remnant left to stay in the Promised Land. Exile will mean burning buildings and scorched earth.
But now, exile means something much worse. God is leaving. The glory of the Lord, led by the cherubim and carried by the wheel-in-a-wheel, departs from the temple.
God is of course omnipresent: He will not – indeed He cannot – “leave” any place. Symbolically, however, when God withdraws His glory from the Jerusalem temple, He is finalizing the prologue to Israel’s exile. God is letting God’s people go.
God has been present in a ram on a mountain, in a pillar of fire and a cloud, in radiance shining from Moses’s face, and in a kinsman redeemer’s promise. The people have marched confidently behind the Ark of the Covenant. God has shown Himself repeatedly to His people through prophet, poet, psalmist, and proverb. The people have followed detailed instructions to build an extravagant temple solely to be the place where the presence of God may reside.
Israel and Judah have celebrated God’s being among them. They have counted on the abiding presence of the Lord.
Now they have turned their back on God, and the price for their choice is severe.
God has withdrawn.
Yes, it is symbolic. No, God will never leave us or forsake us. But we can choose to abandon God, when we wander into exile, His glory is left behind.
And then 27 chapters elapse. By the time we get to chapter 37, the people of Israel are represented by the valley of dry bones.
Let me take a break here. Are there dry bones in your life? In your health, in your relationships, in your job? Look around you – what about here at Trinity River Church? We have been meeting eleven months, saying that this time and this place are temporary. It has been seven months since we sent Jim out on a directed mission to find a new place, while I preached three sermons called the “Restaurant Miracle” series, all about how God can create wine from our water, a banquet from our few morsels, water from our rock. And yet, here we still are. We love each other and love our church, but there is no question that we need energy, breath, new life. Perhaps God’s plan is for us to stay ten people in this location for the duration; but we nevertheless look around and see the same eight or ten (or fifteen on a great day when family members are here), and the prospect that we will march as the army of God seems far from Trinity River Church as 2019 opens.
Professor David Garber remarks that we cannot fully comprehend the magnificent hope in the latter verses of Chapter 37, cannot watch the wind swirl the bones back together and marvel at the newly formed humans breathing the breath of life again, until we first ask a few questions. Why is the valley full of bones? What caused the visions of death that the community faced? What has brought Ezekiel to the point of near speechlessness and despair? [David Garber,]
            Is Trinity River Church where we should be, being what God wants us to be? What have you done to invigorate your church? Are you inviting? Are you praying? Are you giving? Are you helping us look for the place where God wants us? Have you thought about whom you know who would both benefit from and add to our church if they were just here?
The beauty of God’s word to us in Chapter 37 manifests itself with the possibility that even here and now, hope for renewal, for restoration remains. Yes, the people of God can leave and cause the glory of God to depart for a time, but the miracle of the prophecy is that God pursues even His fleeing people. The chosen remain the chosen. Ezekiel prophesies, and the bones resuscitate with newly formed sinews knitting them together as living flesh and skin enveloping them. In a scene that recalls the breath of God entering the first human in Genesis 2, the prophet commands the four winds, and the same breath of God enters the reanimated bodies that live once more. [Id.]
How do you picture this valley at the beginning of the chapter? I think of science fiction landscapes of scorched, arid landscape, the sun beating down with such a vengeance that a distortion of heat waves makes it hard to see clearly. These are not even skeletons. These people have been dead for a while; the bones have long since separated, dragged here and there by predator dogs and scavenging hyenas who have left nothing but shinbones and ribs and skulls to bleach in the endlessly roasting air.
But even this is no match for God.
Ezekiel has no clue why he has been brought to this valley, and when God asks him if the bones can live, he does not have the guts to say “no” or the faith to say “yes.” He gives as non-committal answer as possible: “O Lord, you know.”
Look at the verses of Chapter 37 in your Order of Worship that we read together. This story tells itself. God does not tell Ezekiel to pray for the bones. He tells him to prophesy over them, to say “O dry bones, hear the word the Lord.” And something starts to happen. The bones start rattling, and then they start hooking together. Soon, skeletons take form.
Without delay, they are no longer merely bones. Sinews begin connecting the bones, allowing movement, and soon, skin appears. All of a sudden, the remains look like people again.
But they are not yet people. They have no breath. Like the terra cotta warriors you can view in the Lintong District of China, resembling an emperor’s army at first glance but unable to be of any use because they are empty and inanimate, these bodies are nothing more than hints,  mere resemblances, almost-but-not-quite ready for prime time.
And then, amazingly enough, God tells Ezekiel to stop talking to the bones and to start talking to the breath. Ezekiel is commanded to prophesy to the breath, to tell it to come from the four winds so that the bones can live. He does, and it does, and they do. What once were disconnected, useless, desiccated bones have been remade by the creator and filled with the breath of God, and the people of David are God’s army once again.
And then God spells out the moral of the story. These bones stand in for the whole house of Israel, the exiled chosen people – today we would call them the church – whose strength is withered and whose hope is gone, whose breath has long ago left, following the departed glory of God. God tells Ezekiel that he will open up the graves, that He will put His spirit into His people, who will live.
And why? So that we will know that He is the Lord.
The miracle of this vision does not simply lie in its theatricality. The true miracle is that it occurs after the community has faced such devastating loss.
Now, we have to look beyond our local church. Trinity River has not suffered devastation. We are just slow getting rolling out of the batter’s box. My comparison of us to the valley of dry bones was hyperbole, preacher talk meant to help all of us dig deep to join together to build this church that God has called us to.
But we all know what devastation is. Look around you. My friend and his three boys under the age of ten face a devastating life without his wife and their mother. Our world is a mess. Whether you look at our communal morality, our institutional ethics, or our social life, you cannot recognize much of God’s plan in the behavior around you. As you know, I stay away from politics in the pulpit in the sense that you are not going to hear me suggest policy; but I have no problem in identification of some real issues that surround us. Race relations, which for a time in my life – and perhaps this was my own ignorance, willful or otherwise – I would have said were getting better, are clearly ebbing at a dangerous level. We are far beyond acceptance or respect for religious life in our country – many of our traditionally accepted roles and places in the world are no longer to be taken for granted. Wars roll along with no end in sight. Greed and self-aggrandizement and celebrated immorality are national – if not international – idols. The never-ending quest for wealth and short-term passion and position forestall any chance for depth for too many. The culture wars and our striving for expressions of freedom at any cost have left us desiccated, disconnected, withering away in the heat of a never-relenting fire. Our world is a spiritual valley of dry bones.
The wonder of the story of the restoration of the dry bones is not so much in the power of God. Oh yes, the story shows clearly that God has the ability to make something from nothing, to raise life from death, to take what is useless and make it rise up in triumph. But in truth, we know that message already, at least today. We are coming off of Christmas. We know about virgin conception, about a God who can send miraculous stars and call on legions of angels to deliver messages. We know what God can do.
No, the wonder of this story is not that God can, but that God will. This story is less about God’s power and more about God’s disposition, God’s inclination, God’s choice. When we have rejected him fully and completely, God retrieves us and calls on the four winds to breathe His spirit into us once again. When we are emaciated from our own inaction, our own preoccupation with the shiny things that distract us from what can nourish our souls, even then He comes and finds us. When we have so completely shut Him out that we have exiled ourselves from Him and banished His glory from our temples, God comes to us.
The one who travels on the wheel-in-a-wheel chooses to travel to us.
            The Psalmist says:
Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like streams in the Negeb! Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy! He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.” [Psalm 126:4-6]
And in Revelation, the ultimate restoration is proclaimed:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” [Revelation 21:1-5]
             The glory of this restoration – what God is willing to do for us – is described by the prophet Haggai in one of my favorite verses of scripture: “‘The latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former,’ says the Lord of hosts. ‘And in this place I will give peace, declares the Lord of hosts.’” [Haggai 2:9] Do you hear it? What is coming after exile is even better than what we gave up.
            The lesson of the wheels and the bones is this: the great God of glory chooses us, even when we have abandoned Him and lost every ounce of strength, every resemblance to God’s crowning creation in His image that we ever had.
            God chooses us, seeks us out, breathes into us the breath of new life.
            Behold! I tell you a mystery. What were once dry, disconnect bones shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye. The dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. [1 Corinthians 15:51-52]
            You can be restored, born again, changed, brought from death to life. The glory of the Lord has returned.
            In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

            Restoration. God’s choice. God is not just a powerful God; He is a loving God who seeks us out when we are no more than dry bones. The prophet Zephaniah says it this way:
Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away the judgments against you; He has cleared away your enemies. The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: “Fear not, O Zion; let not your hands grow weak. The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; He will rejoice over you with gladness; He will quiet you by his love; He will exult over you with loud singing…. Behold, at that time I will deal with all your oppressors. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you in, at the time when I gather you together; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes,” says the Lord.  [Zephaniah 3:14-20]
             Start 2019 by diving full on into God’s restoration. Open your heart. If you have done this for the first time, then you are ready tom come down front and share with us all the new life you have. If you have known Him for years but have found yourself arid and unconnected, then hear the word of the Lord, and be restored.

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