The hand of the LORD came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones.Ezekiel 37:1
I love this passage. Perhaps I read the Lord of the Rings and watched too much science fiction at an impressionable age. It’s so visual: I imagine Ezekiel being bodily picked up and, flashing through the air, faster than the fastest man could run, faster than the best horse, faster than a falcon striking, and then suddenly finding himself standing in a valley, amidst absolute stillness. And then the real drama begins.
What could be more desolate than standing in the valley where your nation’s army was completely exterminated, and the hope of your nation absolutely crushed? What on earth could God do with this disaster? Surely it was game over for the Children of Israel?
Even before the Coronavirus pandemic, those of us in the church knew what Ezekiel felt. These huge, ancient buildings – so empty! The Sunday school and youth groups long gone.
Apparently the Anglo-Saxons used to look at the gigantic ruins left by the Roman Empire and theorised that they must have been built by a race of giants. We look around these walls and we have cause to wonder at the race of spiritual giants who came before us.
And now, of course, the Coronavirus pandemic has made everything worse. Churches actually shut down, along with anywhere else people gather. The gym around the corner, the café where I always have a ham and cheese croissant on a Monday morning, the pub where Cafechurch gathers. Even our national religions of AFL, NRL and ANZAC are affected.
We fear for ourselves, and for those we love. What if I get sick? What if I am already sick and have already passed the virus on? There are so many vulnerable people in our community, and the capacity to look after them is always limited. What if we run out of ICU beds right when I, or someone I love, needs one?
We look out at a sea of chaos. No-one knows what is going to happen. How long will it last? No-one knows. Six months? A year? Longer? No-one knows what it will mean for the economy, which is a large-scale way of asking how our friends and family will go. That Belgian barmaid at the Union Club. My friend who owns a hospitality business. Anyone who wanted to retire and has seen their superannuation fund evaporate. What is going to happen to them, in their different situations?
It is all too easy to find ourselves stuck in panicky, obsessive imaginings and wonderings about all the many, many things that could happen to us and our friends. And being stuck indoors, without our usual occupations, and without the sort of social contact we didn’t realise we needed until it was suddenly gone, makes it so much worse.
This is all bad enough, but I wonder whether what has changed is that the mask which we so carefully try to hold up to the world has slipped. We had a fantasy of control: that the ancient human dream of complete safety was within our grasp. Just a little more, and we could banish disease, and with it death, completely.
The Coronavirus pandemic has shown how unreal that fantasy always was. The dream of modernity, that we could all stand on our own two feet as proud, independent, rational people has been exposed, and we’ve woken up to how radically interdependent and deeply fragile we are – and have always been.
We stand, as a society, in a place that really does start to resemble a valley of dry bones.
Let’s just explore the image for a moment. “A valley of dry bones.” What is Ezekiel talking about? Why are there dry bones left lying around in a valley? Whose? And how did they come to be there? And who is this Ezekiel guy anyway?
Let’s begin at the beginning. Ezekiel a priest in Jerusalem. In 597 BC, the nation of Israel lost a disastrous revolt against the Babylonian empire, and many of the people were exiled to Babylon. This happened a couple of times within the next few decades. Ezekiel seems to have been taken into exile in the first wave of deportations.
I can’t emphasize enough how important the experience of exile was for the Israelites, and how they understood God and the world. I hope to come back to it often over the course of the year.
In Babylon, Ezekiel came to realise that God was God everywhere. Not just in the temple at Jerusalem, but in Babylon as well. This might not seem like an especially surprising insight today, but in ancient times, gods were associated with particular places and tribes. If a tribe was destroyed, if the temple was razed to the ground, then that god effectively ceased to exist.
That’s the situation with the valley of dry bones. It is the place where the Israelite army was crushed by the Babylonians. In ancient warfare, as in our own times, what happens to the bodies of those killed in battle was significant. They would be treated with honour, and buried, or burned, with appropriate rites. To leave the corpses of the enemy lying around in the open, prey for scavenging dogs and birds, was to heap humiliation upon defeat.
The valley of dry bones is the place where the hopes of Israel came crashing down to complete destruction.
The Israelites were utterly cast down, and longed to know what God was up to. What of the promises that the Lord made to Abraham and Isaac? Where was God in this catastrophe? Why had he abandoned his people? What could God possibly do to redeem this utterly hopeless situation?
God said to Ezekiel: Can these bones live? And Ezekiel said: you know, God. Meaning, perhaps, you know the answer to this God: of course they can’t. They are just a jumble of dry bones, rustling slightly in the dry desert wind.
Our own situation is not quite as bad as the conquest of Israel and the destruction of the temple. But, in terms of its impact, it’s as though a nuclear bomb has gone off. We don’t know how things are going to pan out – but they aren’t looking good right now. A lot of people are going to die. A lot of people are going to lose their jobs and the businesses they have put their hearts into. A lot of people are being forced to spend a lot more time in homes where they live in fear at the best of times. An all of us are going to struggle with the restrictions of our locked down life.
We’re not quite in the valley of dry bones yet – but I feel like we’re looking at one of those big green highway signs pointing down into a worryingly barren looking desert. These are dry, uncertain times, where a pitiless sun feels like it is beating down on us. And who knows when the rain might come again?
Fast forward about five hundred years from Ezekiel’s vision. The children of Israel had returned from exile a few centuries previously. But instead of the longed for reign of God, things weren’t much better. Herodian and Roman rule was better than Babylonian, but it was still foreign occupation, and the promise of everyone under their own fig tree seemed as distant as ever. God had brought them back from exile – but the redemptive work was far from complete.
The drought of the absence of God’s presence wore on relentlessly. A merciless sun glared down from the cobalt blue vault of a pitiless heaven, and, like us, the people cried out to God.
What do you think you’re doing Lord?
Right in the middle of this unpromising situation, a young woman, engaged but not yet married, from a poor family of no particular renown, a very young woman, barely more than a girl in to our eyes, is… what? Praying? Weaving? Avoiding her mother with her list of chores? Daydreaming about Joseph?
And then, suddenly, an angel appears. A messenger of God, who says, like all messengers of God: do not be afraid.
Do not be afraid.
God is going to do something good. Something unprecedented.
But there is a…. catch. It isn’t going to be cost free, a deus ex machina in the third act. It is going to cost you something.
To put it another way, God is inviting you, Mary, to collaborate in the redemption of the world.
And Mary said: Yes.
Mary’s yes made all sorts of things possible. The salvation of the world: God’s work from Creation and Abraham and Isaac and King David and the prophets and exile and return. All of God’s immeasurable purpose in the whole universe focused down like a laser beam onto one choice.
Mary said yes, not knowing how it would end up. What would Joseph say? Was she saying “yes” to a life of disgrace? What on earth would it mean to bear a child from being “overshadowed by the power of the Most High”?
But, nonetheless, she said yes.
God speaks to us today. As the Wesleyan Quadrilateral puts it, God speaks through Scripture, reason, experience, and tradition. And I would add one more: God speaks to us through what is happening in our lives, and in the world as a whole.
Through the world, God is asking us a question. Do you trust me?
Mary said yes.
The Lord said to Ezekiel: Prophesy.
And Ezekiel did, and a great multitude stood up.
The Lord said to the children of Israel: “I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel.”
The Lord said to Mary: “nothing will be impossible for God.”
The Lord says to us: Trust me. I will be with you, even to the end of times.
As the apostle Paul said:
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.Romans 8:38-39
These are very difficult times. The challenge for us is to drink deep from the well of faith. To ground and root ourselves in God’s unchanging love for us, in God’s complete commitment to us, which we see made visible flesh in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
That, at minimum, seems to be our task just now. Perhaps there is an opportunity here, amidst the stress and anxiety, to treat this as a sort of compulsory spiritual retreat? To develop a daily discipline of prayer, work, and recreation? I know that I have experienced significant spiritual deepening in difficult times, when I was really forced back into what is most profound. Perhaps this might be all of our experience through these difficult days ahead?
My prayer for us all tonight, and through the difficult days ahead, is that we will be able to trust in God’s love, like Ezekiel and Mary and Paul and so many others before us. That we will be able to say “yes” to God, and be swept up in his astonishing work of reconciliation and healing in this world, which looks so broken and full of suffering tonight.