Sermon for Sunday, April 6, 2014
In addition to having a lot to offer us, I think Ezekiel is a fan of Sarah McLachlan. Ezekiel has a lot to offer us because, as can happen to us, Ezekiel loved something – LOVED it – and had it taken away from him, and his story reminds us of how God works new life even in the midst of loss. What Ezekiel loved – and what was taken away from him – was the Temple. Ezekiel was a priest who loved the temple – I mean, LOVED the temple. Ezekiel loved it’s buildings, its rituals, its priestly class, its place in Hebrew society, the order and meaning it brought to life. Ezekiel LOVED the temple… and then God took it away from him. When the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem in the 6th-century BC, Ezekiel was carried away into exile into Babylon and not long thereafter the Temple was destroyed.
The loss of the Temple completely undid Ezekiel; he “lost it.” From what we can tell in scripture, Ezekiel disappeared into his house, did not speak, and went through long periods of simply lying prone on the ground. In modern-day terms, Ezekiel isolated himself and appears to have been severely depressed.
When I read Ezekiel, I hear a man in full-blown grief. I see isolation and apparent depression. I hear profound, aching sadness over the loss of the Temple, and I hear bitter anger, much of it directed at his fellow Israelites whose unfaithfulness, he believed, had led to the Temple’s destruction.
And what did Ezekiel do during those days when he didn’t speak or leave his house, when he spent all day in bed? I wonder if he listened to Sarah McLachlan? Songs such as “Fallen:”
It’s the bitter taste of losing everything
That I’ve held so dear…
Or maybe “Adia:”
Adia I’m empty since you left me
trying to find a way to carry on
I search myself and everyone
to see where we went wrong…
At some point in his grief – maybe as a result of listening to / praying with Sarah McLachlan’s music? – something shifted inside Ezekiel. If we look back on our owntimes of grief, we know how our grief moves through seasons: now we’re sad, now we’re angry; now we’re depressed, now we’re in denial; until – bit by bit, over time – we gradually come to an acceptance of our loss. A few chapters after Ezekiel’s depression, we see glimpses of Ezekiel’s acceptance of the loss of the Temple. In a famous vision of a flying chariots with spinning wheels, Ezekiel sees the glory of the Lord leave the Temple toward the east toward Babylon. Though the Temple is destroyed, here is a breath of hope. God is not dead; indeed, maybe God is not so connected to the Temple as Ezekiel thought, but is actually mobile and can be taken elsewhere. This is huge for Ezekiel! He’s beginning to imagine that maybe, even though his beloved Temple is destroyed, God is still there, and it might be possible for him to carry on.
And here, I wonder if Ezekiel – in wondering about what mysterious thing God might be working in allowing the Temple to be destroyed – might have been inspired by McLachlan’s song, “Building a Mystery:”
… ’cause you’re working
building a mystery
holding on and holding it in
yeah you’re working
building a mystery
and choosing so carefully.
James Alison, one of my favorite Christian theologians, speaks to the mystery God might have been building in Ezekiel’s love for the Temple, and its subsequent collapse. Here I paraphrase from Alisons’ essay, Ecclesiology and Indifference:
Judaism and Christianity are both religions of the collapsing Temple. I mean this in the obvious sense that it was the collapse of the Temple in 587 which led to the creation of [Judaism as we know it, and the collapse of the Temple in AD 70 which led to the creation of Christianity as we know it.] But also in a less obvious sense, which is that in both cases the collapse was seen not merely as a fact of history to be dealt with regretfully, but actually as part of the way in which God tries to get through to us, as part of God’s plan to get us beyond something unworthy of us.
Let me say that last line again: “[The collapse of the Temple is] part of the way in which God tries to get through to us, [it’s] part of God’s plan to get us beyond something unworthy of us.” I wonder if God used the collapse of the Temple to get through to Ezekiel and to get Ezekiel beyond something unworthy of him
At some point before today’s lesson of the Valley of Dry Bones, God must have gotten through to Ezekiel, because in today’s lesson are signs of acceptance and hope: acceptance of the Temple’s annihilation – nothing but bones remain – and hope for new life. At some point Ezekiel must have realized that his memories of the Temple, of wanting things to be the way they used to be, were holding him back; they were unworthy of him. If Ezekiel were to find new life, he would need to stop living in the past, trust in God and move forward.
Here, as he came to a place of accepting the Temple’s loss and realizing that God was still with him, I wonder if Ezekiel surrendered. I wonder if he sang along to McLachlan’s song, “Sweet Surrender:”
it doesn’t mean much
it doesn’t mean anything at all
the life I’ve left behind me
is a cold room
I’ve crossed the last line
from where I can’t return…
is all that I have to give
At some point before today’s hope-filled vision of the Valley of Dry Bones, I think Ezekiel said something like: “OK, God, I surrender. You win. I can’t make things be the way I want them to be. I can’t bring back the Temple. I surrender. I’m yours.” And once Ezekiel is able to surrender and turn things over to God, a space is opened for God to do something new.
I have a hunch that a lot of us – maybe all of us – can relate to Ezekiel. I have a hunch that a good number of us – maybe all of us – have been through, or are going through, the loss of something we loved dearly, and we have been sad and angry, depressed and in denial, and maybe – bit by bit, over time – came to acceptance (or, we would really like to come to acceptance). I bet we can relate to the Valley of Dry Bones. Here is Ezekiel, completely spent, having been through the entire cycle of grief – isolation, sadness, anger, depression – finally surrendering: “Lord, there is not an ounce of muscle left on these bones to resist you. I am completely dry.” And then God says, to Ezekiel: “Mortal, can these bones live?” Ezekiel responds, sounding weary: “O Lord God, you know.”
There is good news here. The good news is that bones can hear. “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: ‘O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.’” And as Ezekiel prophesied, the bones heard the word of the Lord, and “suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone.” And when Ezekiel prophesied to the bones again, they heard, and the breath entered them, they stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
“Bones” can hear; God can do a lot of work with “bones.” Once we have surrendered, once we have removed every ounce of muscle that would twitch these bones only in the way that we want to twitch them, once we have left behind our inordinate love of the “Temple,” whatever our “Temple” may be, then can the Spirit of the Lord enter in and breath new life into us.
I wonder, what is the “Temple” that you hold dear and that maybe was or is being taken away from you? I wonder, what in you might be called to surrender, to remove every muscle that would twitch in only the way that you would have them twitch? I wonder, is there enough space in your life to let God enter and to breathe new life into you?