This sermon, given at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison Wisconsin on April 6, 2014, is based on the readings for the Fifth Sunday in Lent in year A of the Revised Common Lectionary.
You can find those readings here.
It was five weeks ago that we followed Jesus into the wilderness of Lent. As Jesus walked into the desert to be tested by Satan we began our annual sojourn here in a place where the predictable patterns and routines of home of home, the landmarks and road signs that help us to navigate our lives, and the things that we often turn to for security, comfort and solace are gone… The wilderness is a challenging place, one that has the power to disorient, to confuse, and to discourage us. It is a place where our reliance on God is tested and emphasized; a place where there is no where to run, nowhere to hide.
It would be very difficult for us to leave everything behind and follow Jesus into the desert for forty days so we have made some changes to this space and to our worship that are all intended to disorient us and to keep us from being too comfortable as we look for the wilderness in our lives. We have removed the flowers from the altar. We have stopped saying or singing “alleluia” for the season. We have changed the words of our liturgy so that we can’t say them by rote and so that their unfamiliarity might slow us down, trip us up, and cause us to pause and reflect at a deeper level.
I don’t know how effective those measures have been. It may be that for some of us who are more protestant in our leanings the appearance of the stations of the cross in our worship space this morning has finally created that desired sense of disorientation and discomfort. But I am willing to bet that for most of us none of these changes have been as effective at driving us into the wilderness as a three point shot in the waning minutes of last night’s basketball game… Actually even that heartbreaking loss in the Final Four isn’t enough to move us into the wilderness that we need to inhabit during this season. I think that the closest we can get to the king of wilderness we are seeking happens in those few moments of disorientation when we awake in the middle of a powerful and disturbing dream.
Awakening in the dark, unsure where we are, unsure whether the things we have just seen and experienced were real; before the glow from the clock radio and the nightlight in the bathroom help to orient us; so disoriented that for a moment or two we aren’t sure who we are… which character in that dream am I? Am I all of them, one of them, or none of them? There in our bed we wonder desperately how to get back to something familiar, something we recognize, something that will help us to locate ourselves in the world, in time, and in reality. There is the wilderness that we are seeking… There is the wilderness of Lent! And it is just that wilderness from which the Prophet Ezekiel addresses us this morning.
Our reading from Ezekiel starts out,
“The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord” (Ezekiel 37:1).
“The hand of the Lord came upon me” indicates to us that Ezekiel is in a trance or a dream like state. He has been removed from the confines of normal space and time and has moved into a world where the normal “rules” no longer apply, where the landmarks and road signs are either nonexistent or are written in a foreign language and script. Ezekiel is in the wilderness.
Here in the wilderness Ezekiel is set down in the middle of a horrifying landscape; bones as far as the eye can see; legs, arms, ribs, and skulls; drying under the hot desert sun; so old and dry that even the marrow has turned to dust. Ezekiel is set down in the middle of this wreckage and then is led by the Spirit of the Lord round and round the perimeter of the valley so that he can see the extent of the devastation and death that the bones represent.
This would be a pretty terrifying place to awaken. We might sit up in bid, sweating, shaken, our pulse racing and our breath ragged, unsure of who and where we are . But I think that Ezekiel, if he had awoken from his dream at this point in the narrative would have known exactly where he was and where he had been because up to this point Ezekiel’s dream mirrors his, and the people of Israel’s experience in Exile.
In the year 608 BC King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon defeated the Egyptians in the battle of Carchemish. He then turned his attention and his armies towards the people of Judah and their capitol city, Jerusalem. They arrived and were prepared to lay siege to the city when, in order to avoid the devastation that the neighboring nations had experienced at the hands of the Babylonian armies, the people of Judah, the Nation of Israel, agreed to become a vassal state to Babylon and promised to pay taxes and tributes to Nebuchadnezzar. In order to secure payment of this protection money Nebuchadnezzar took into exile, or ransom, many of the young nobles of the courts of Jerusalem.
This arrangement worked for a few years but in 599 BCE Israel revolted against Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar and his armies returned and in 597 the city fell to the Babylonian armies. This time The Babylonians took into exile the wealthy, the educated, the nobility and the leadership of the nation of Israel. It was here, in the second deportation that the Prophet Ezekiel was taken into captivity and sent into exile.
Exile was a true wilderness experience for the people of Israel. They had been separated from the land which God had given them as a symbol and a sign of their covenant and right relationship with God. They were in a foreign land among a foreign people. They were hearing stories that the folks who had been left at home were beginning to worship the gods of the land of Canaan and that they were beginning to occupy and claim the homes of the wealthy landed gentry who had been taken into captivity. Anyone at home who had any means, any method of supporting themselves that was at all portable was leaving, going into voluntary exile in Egypt. What was left at home was disintegrating rapidly.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, those who had been taken into Babylon were being tempted by the relative wealth and cosmopolitan world in which they now lived and they were beginning to adopt the dress, foods, customs… even the songs and stories of the people and nation that had taken them captive. It could hardly have gotten worse… and then it did…
While they were in Babylon the people looked back at Jerusalem and took comfort in the one thing that Nebuchadnezzar had not destroyed, the temple of Solomon still stood. It was there, in the temple, that God came to dwell among God’s people. It was there, in the temple, that the people of Israel offered sacrifice to the Lord. And it was the presence of the temple that proved that the Lord their God had not been overthrown and defeated by the gods of the Babylonians. The temples presence in Jerusalem meant that God was still there, still reigning from God’s footstool, still working God’s purposes out and waiting to restore the people to their rightful place in the world.
Then the unthinkable happened. Zedekiah, the king appointed by Babylon to rule over Jerusalem revolted against the Babylonians, Nebuchadnezzar returned, defeated the armies of Israel and this time not even the temple was left standing! The city was razed, most of the remaining citizens were deported, and the temple was burned to the ground. It seemed that The Lord, the God of Israel, had in fact been defeated by the Babylonians and their gods, that the people of Israel would die, exiles in a foreign land, unnamed, unremembered, and un mourned in the heavens.
So if Ezekiel had awoken in the middle of the field of bones he would have recognized them, even before God identified them to him, as the whole House of Israel, scattered, dry and desiccated, their identity lost to the dust of the desert. Ezekiel and the people of Israel were losing their land, their way of life, their religion, their identity. They were as good as dead, dry dusty unnamed bones bleaching in the scorching heat of the sun.
Fortunately for Ezekiel, and for us, this is not the point at which Ezekiel awakes. This is not where the dream ends. God directs Ezekiel to prophecy to the bones, to what is left of the House of Israel and those dry and forgotten bones, with a loud clatter begin to knit themselves back together. As Ezekiel watches they are wrapped and bound by sinew, covered by flesh and then finally by skin! Here in this vision or dream God shows Ezekiel a restored and revitalized Israel, brought back from the dead, her identity restored and her place in the world assured! This prophecy, delivered to the people of Israel while they were in captivity in Babylon might have seemed something beyond their reach, the promise of a great miracle that seemed, at this late date in their exile, to be an impossibility. They should have been paying more attention to Ezekiel.
Twenty six chapters earlier Ezekiel had shared another vision with the people. In that vision, which we may recall in the Sunday School song,
“Ezekiel saw the wheel, way up in the middle of the sky…”
Ezekiel described his vision of a great chariot with four wheels like gleaming jewels. A chariot carried by four winged cherubim. In this chariot God had ridden forth from the temple, stopping briefly at the east gate, and then proceeding to accompany God’s people into exile. Now I read several scholars reflections on this passage this week and they all used a similar line. “The prophet Ezekiel gave God a set of wheels.” Yeah. Not a great one liner but an important point. God was not confined to the temple in Jerusalem. God had not let God’s people go into the wilderness alone. God had accompanied them into the exile, into a foreign land, into the wilderness where they had sojourned for so long. Perhaps the people of Israel were so busy looking back to the temple for comfort, support and as a source of strength that they didn’t, or couldn’t see that God had been there with them the whole time!
This understanding of God as “portable,” as a companion in the wilderness, would become even more important to the People of Israel as their fortunes waxed and waned through the rebuilding and destruction of the second temple period. The sense and understanding that God is with us no matter where we are, that it is not the “house” or temple where we worship in which God lives but with and within us was instrumental in the recovery and reestablishment of the people of Israel’s identity and sense of place in the world. Knowing that the temple resides within the community no matter where it is gathered is a powerful and liberating truth about God’s ongoing presence among us, and this is an important story for us to hear no matter who or where we are.
This is also an important story for us to hear as we head into the last week of Lent. I was very intentional at the beginning of this sermon to describe our Lenten wilderness experience as something that we need, something that we enter with intention, something that we work to create. That is because we know, from our own experience and from other people’s stories, that we will at times me thrust into the wilderness against our will. Loss, grief, pain, illness, even other people’s losses and pain can all, through no fault of our own, and against our will, result in the disorientation, confusion, challenge and distress that mark time spent in the wilderness.
We also know that the way that we respond to those unbidden wilderness experiences can be shaped and formed by the time that we intentionally spend in the wilderness; measuring our own responses, examining our reactions, and developing our reliance on the one who can help us find our way to the other side. We have created our current wilderness to hone our attention and to focus our intention on God’s presence with us here even as we make our way from Ash Wednesday to Easter Day and the light and life that awaits us when that new day dawns. God is both our destination in the wilderness and our companion on the way!
If we are tempted to flee the wilderness here in these last days of our journey it may be that we have lost sight of the God who is walking this path with us. If we are tempted to run back to the things that we have given up this season; the flowers, the alleluias, the familiar words of the Book of Common Prayer; if we are ready to bail on our Lenten discipline, indulging in that chocolate bar or glass of wine, or giving up on the rule of prayer or study that we have adopted, it may be that we have turned our eyes once again to some fixed temple, some idol in which we have vested our own comfort, security and ease. It may be that we are so busy focusing on that temple or idol that we have failed to recognize that our true security has been right here with us the whole way.
For the people of Israel the joy of God’s presence in the wilderness couldn’t come until the last vestiges of the temple, the thing in which they had placed their hope and faith had gone. Only then did they lift their eyes and recognize the one who was walking beside them. As we work to find our way in this wilderness, exposing ourselves to its ability to disorient and confuse, we need to hear the story of Ezekiel’s powerful vision and hear God’s words spoken to us.
Can these bones live? Yes, we now that they can! Because we have learned through the stories of our scriptures and the stories of the countless others who have gone before us that God will be with us even in the darkest the wilderness. All we have to do is to lift our eyes and see.