Friday, July 10, 2015

Hope in death valley

Ezekiel 37 is one of my favorite Old Testament texts. The valley of the bones. Scattered bones. Not just skeletons but bones and more bones strewn every which way. Which makes the miracle seen in the vision Ezekiel was given all the more startling. God asks: Ezekiel, can these bones live? Ezekiel is wondering, perhaps, is this a trick question. He would likely say, No! Of course these bones cannot live. They are dry, dead bones. And he did not have a clue which bone went with which. So, he takes the safe way out and answers, O LORD God, you know. I love the response. God knows, of course, he does. There is a lot we would like to know. How was the world created? How many days? Where do the dinosaurs fit in? And that's just the first few verses of the Bible.

God says, Son of man, say to bones, Hear the word of the LORD, and I will put my breath into them and they will be given life.

These bones are not even the skeletons of the lives they once were. They are not even corpses. They are dried out bones, as dead as one can be. Speak to the dead, God says. Some preachers know something about that. Some sermons seem more like funeral orations in a cemetery full of dead people. Nothing happens. There is no hope.

Israel in exile was like that. They were saying, We have no hope. God has abandoned us. We are cut off which means as good as dead. They had no hope, no faith and no love. To quibble with Paul, the greatest of these is hope.

So God's word to Israel at this moment in their history is really three words combined.

First, is the promise that it will get better. Not by their logic or according to their schedules and not with their help by the way, either. God's hope may not look like what they expected God's hope to look like. We should take note. When we are hopeless, God is not. He has hope for us. Hang in there.

Second, God's hope has many layers. Haiti is often pictured as a hopeless place. Its people are poor with little hope for improvement. Their government is corrupt and has ripped the people off for years. The country seems to be in the path of hurricanes and earthquakes. The people live on much less than we think we could survive on. They survive and there are pockets of real joy, and faith fuels love and hope. God has His ways of breathing life into His people where all we see is death.

The source of perseverance, writes John Mogabgab, like the Christian undertaking itself, is not of human origin. To persevere, he writes, means to cling to God's plan and promise in realistic expectation that what a faithful and just God intends cannot be overthrown by human schemes.

From the human side things looked bleak in the valley of dry bones. Even after this word of the LORD, Rabbi Eliezer comments in the Babylonian Talmud: The dead that Ezekiel revived, got up on their feet, sang a hymn and died! Not a lot of hope there.

But God says through Ezekiel that His people should not be defined by their hopeless looking situation. Rather, they must align themselves with the Living God (ruach the Hebrew word for breath is used several times here, and in the Septuagint it is the word translated by Holy Spirit). The Spirit of God breathes life into us. So we can let ourselves be defined by our hopeless looking situations or we can choose to align ourselves with God's Spirit which is Life no matter what. On PBS the other night a journalist reported that over 12,000 Greeks have committed suicide in the past 5 years of financial crisis. For good reasons, they concluded there was no hope, no reason to live. This, too, in a largely Christian nation. It's not easy to sustain hope and hope is necessary for life.

Still, as the good Rabbi pointed out, the revival pictured in this vision was short-lived. Cyrus of Persia allowed the Israelites to return home. But, their return did not turn the land of Israel into a Garden of Eden. Nor was there any large scale outpouring of God's Spirit - at least until Pentecost. And no mass resurrections, only one we know about and that was hundreds of years later. (see Jenson, Ezekiel, 284)

It seems in our world of unrelenting calamity and misery, injustice and war, that hope is a hard commodity to come by. Some times the markers of hope are not very visible. You have to persevere, hopefully, with a generous community full of faith and love.