Advent 2 (NL)
December 10, 2017
I got some positive feedback last week about offering you some context before the reading of the lesson, so that you have a sense of where it sits in the arch of the biblical narrative. So once again, I’d like to offer you some context for our reading.
Ezekiel was a prophet during the period of the Babylonian exile – similar time to Daniel, from whom we heard last week. The Babylonian exile happened in a couple waves: the first wave of deportations happened in 597 BC. This sent primarily leaders and educated elites out of Jerusalem and into Babylon. Ezekiel, who was a priest in Jerusalem, was among those first deported. He begins his career as a prophet during this time, prophesying a lot of doom and gloom, judgment against Israel and Judah, especially leaders in Southern Kingdom. But then about 10 years later, Ezekiel learns of the fall of Jerusalem. This is devastating news for him and for the other exiles, because Jerusalem was more than a beloved city. It was the very center of their worship life, the only place to properly worship the one true God. With the destruction of that city and the Temple, the people had some very serious religious and spiritual concerns. And so at that point, Ezekiel’s prophecies turn away from judgment, and more toward hope and restoration. Today’s reading, the Valley of Dry Bones, is probably his best-known prophecy, and it is one of immense hope.
Last week I also mentioned the literary style of our story from Daniel. This reading from Ezekiel, we should understand, is a vision, not a literal event. Many of Ezekiel’s prophesies are visions, allegories, or otherwise symbolic. That should be pretty obvious, but – just making sure!
Okay, here’s the story. [read story]
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
O Come, O Come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel.
One of my family’s many Advent traditions growing up was to light the Advent wreath at dinner, and sing this hauntingly beautiful Advent hymn before we prayed. I have been singing it since before I can remember, and those words came out of my mouth before I had any clue what they meant or the story behind them. I was a teenager or young adult before I really thought about what they meant. It suddenly occurred to me, “Why are we singing ‘Rejoice’? This sounds sad. I don’t know what all those words refer to, but I know mourning isn’t good, and lonely is definitely not good, and captive sounds pretty bad, too. Rejoice?”
Now I recognize this as a story very familiar to me – both because I know better the biblical story, and because it is a story I see in my own life, metaphorically speaking. That is, it is a story in which sadness and despair find their hope in looking toward the salvation that is to come.
The biblical story is a long narrative – the whole Bible, really – but is well captured in today’s reading. Here are a people, the Israelites, who are captive to strange rulers and a strange way of life, who are lonely in exile, and mourning the loss of their homes and all that they know and love. Without the Temple, and with Jerusalem destroyed, they were riddled with questions like, “Does God even care about us anymore? Can we reach God from all the way in Babylon, and can God reach us – and does God even want to?”
And so they cry out, “O God-with-us, Emmanuel, come! Come be God-with-us!” Do something to get us out of here! Or in the words of those dry bones, “Our bones are dried up. Our hope is lost, and we are cut off completely.” Come here and do something, O Emmanuel!
Of course, this carol wasn’t written yet in the 6th century Before Christ, but Ezekiel’s vision of the Valley of Dry Bones is in its own way an answer to that cry. It starts off like the verse of the hymn – lonely, captive, mourning. Those bones are dry, so dry. It is truly a dire situation, in which hope is completely lost. As Ezekiel takes us along for the ride, looking around and around that valley full of dry bones, our hearts, too, plead: O Come, Emmanuel! Do something to release Israel, captive to this death and hopelessness. They mourn in lonely exile here!
But then… the rattling. At God’s Word, those bones start to shake, and move. They come together, bone to bone. Sinews form, and skin – it is remarkable! Yet for all that, they are still a valley of cadavers – there is no life in them. That doesn’t come until… what? What brings life? Ahh, the breath! The very breath of God! Just as God once breathed into the nostrils of a mud-made Adam and brought him to life, so the Spirit of the Lord comes into the army of cadavers, once a valley of very dry bones, now rejuvenated, transformed, indeed, resurrected, into a vast multitude. Hope is restored and life is once again a possibility. With God, life is always on the horizon.
I said I see this story even in my own life. There are several ways, but this week, I’m thinking about my Isaac, who celebrated this week his first birthday. Isaac, I’ll confess, was not a part of my plan – at least not yet. I had a 6 month old and was not ready for another baby, I was tired, and I was not especially pleased to be pregnant again. It didn’t help that the time I was pregnant with him was an emotionally trying time for me for other reasons. Now, of course, I couldn’t be happier that he is ours! But then, I didn’t really know what to do with this reality.
Since his birthday was this week, I was thinking a lot about that night I spent laboring him into the world. I had just sung in two remarkable and demanding concerts with my choir, pieces so difficult that I had spent hours hammering them into my head. So it was no surprise, I guess, when I felt that first serious contraction in the darkness just before midnight, that a refrain from that concert popped into my head. It was in Latin, so I didn’t think much about the meaning, but the rhythm of the words was what echoed through my head as I rocked and breathed my way through the pain. That’s what you quickly figure out in labor – when the pain starts, breathe deeply. Pain must always be accompanied by breath, the deeper the better. Breath is what makes it possible to get through the pain.
Later, I looked up the Latin, and discovered that the refrain meant this: “Know ye that the Lord is God: he made us and not we ourselves.” And so it was on that refrain, and that breath, that my Isaac made his speedy appearance, just as the sun was rising, and took his own first breath of air before being placed in my arms. And there, with his first breath – a new life began, and my heart reached a new depth of love.
When the pain starts – start breathing deeply. That is one lesson we see in Ezekiel. When the hopelessness seems to overwhelm – breathe in deeply the breath of God. When your cry is only of lament – breathe deeply. When you mourn in lonely exile, waiting for release – breathe deeply. Then we shall know that the Lord is God, that God made us, and that God has the power to remake us, to enliven us again, to transform our dry old bones into newness of life.
Where does your story meet this biblical story? Perhaps you feel your bones are dead and dry far beyond life. Maybe the demands on you and your time and energy are so great that you fall into bed each night bone tired. Or you watch the news and feel the energy and hope drain from your heart. Maybe the clutter in your life – your home, your schedule, your thoughts – leave little room for self-care, or for prayer. Or you look at your finances and wonder how you can possibly crawl out from under this much debt? As the world around us rejoices with Christmas cheer, maybe you find yourself feeling sadder than ever, as you grieve the losses of your life, the people you wish were still here, the time of life now gone by. Are there so many demands pulling you this way and that, that you find it impossible to find the time to nourish your spiritual life?
Whatever place in your life feels dry and hopeless… what would it take to once again experience life there? In what area of your life do you need the breath of God to restore, renew, or resurrect you? Where do you crave a transformation from death and hopelessness, into life?
For me, I experience dryness in the search for peace – peace in my life, peace in the world, peace in my heart. And so the words of our presiding bishop Elizabeth Eaton, in the most recent issue of Living Lutheran, our ELCA publication, really resonated with me. She writes: “Here we are in Advent. This season doesn’t exist in secular culture, where everything is barreling toward Christmas. No time to wait, no time to notice, no time to be present. Not this. Not now. All of a sudden we will find ourselves on the day after Christmas not knowing how we got there. Advent is a holy season, a season that bids us to be present, to be still. So much is evoked in this season – hope, longing, the bittersweet awareness that the world is beautiful and broken. Consider all of these things. Sit with them. Pray with them. Be aware of this time of great promise that comes … when night is longest.”
What beautiful and timely advice. It is just what I need at this time to remind me to breathe in that life-renewing, restorative breath of God. It is just what I need to remember that although we wait in this season for the Prince of Peace to come, we also already have the gift of that Spirit of peace. It is a gift that has been given to God’s people from the beginning of time – first moving over the chaotic waters of creation, then blown into Adam’s nostrils, then continually active throughout time, even to enlivening a valley full of very dead, very dry bones.
And so let this be an Advent gift also to us today. In a moment, we will have an opportunity to breathe in the breath of God in whatever way best suits you. If you’re anything like me, time for quietly sitting and breathing deeply can be hard to come by. So, following the sermon, you are invited to breathe in the life-giving breathe of God by meditating on images, or quietly sitting and praying, or coloring this page. Maybe if your brain is as busy as mine, it would be useful for you to have a mantra. One of my favorites is simply to breathe in and think, “Breath of God,” and breathe out and pray, “Breathe in me.” Or the one Bishop Eaton suggested in the piece I just quoted is, “Just this. Just now.” Maybe you will consider offering a particular prayer you have for this day and this time – if so, write it and include it in this basket, and we will pray it during the prayers of intercession.
Now, I know, maybe this may feel silly to you. It is different than what we usually do, and maybe you feel embarrassed. But Advent is all about anticipating the greatest disruption to the “way we’ve always done things” that the world has ever known. Imagine – God becoming human! I’m sure that wasn’t comfortable, either. So I hope you will engage in this few minutes in whatever way you are able, and that you will find in it that God’s breath restores some of the dryness in your spirit, and/or that it will encourage you to bring that practice home. May we all experience the life-restoring breath of God.
Let us pray… Breath of God, as you breathed into those very dry bones and brought them to life, breathe into us today. As you restored the hope of a lonely, mourning people in exile, restore our hope today. As you promised to bring your peace to all the earth, bring your peace to us today. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Following meditative time (from Dag Hammarskjold):
Thou who art over us,
Thou who art one of us,
Thou who art, Also within us.
May all see Thee – in me also,
May I prepare the way for Thee.
May I thank Thee for all that shall to my lot,
May I also not forget the needs of others.
Keep me in Thy love
As Thou wouldst that all should be kept in mine.
May everything in this my being be directed to Thy glory
And may I never despair.
For I am under Thy hand, And in Thee is all power and goodness.
Give me a pure heart that I may see Thee,
A humble heart that I may hear Thee,
A heart of love that I may serve Thee,
A heart of faith that I may abide in Thee. Amen.