Back In The Day

Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | March 26, 2023

Ezekiel 37: 1-14

We have an item for show and tell today: A Westinghouse table-top radio, circa early 1940’s. This radio was made in America, with American labor and materials. Brand new, it cost around $35. That would be $716 in today’s money. It was state of the art for its time. It was the golden age of radio.

No one in 1942 would buy this thinking that in a short while, the next latest and greatest model would appear and this one would be obsolete. Radios like this one were “built to last.” I would listen to this radio when I visited my grandparents in the 1950’s and 60’s. At night it could tune into stations from far and wide. There’s nothing quite like the sound of late-night talk radio on a unit like this; or a baseball game. Sometimes, when the mood strikes or one of the grandchildren asks if it still works, I’ll turn it on.

The sound of it evokes a sense of nostalgia, I think; nostalgia for a time long since gone, one in which our memory is colored in the sepia tones of a life that seemed far more simple than life today. Sure, nothing stays the same and we have all manner of modern conveniences now and improvements in so many areas of life. But if I could predict one thing about the future with certainty, it would be this – the latest iPhone or smart TV you may have recently purchased will not be in operation 80 years from now.

Our story for today takes place over five hundred years before the time of Jesus. The land of Israel was under the control of the Babylonian empire. Babylon was an ancient city located around 60 miles south of modern-day Bagdad. The empire at the time of the stories we read in the Bible, encompassed an area around the size of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan.

When the Babylonians conquered another country, they would relocate people from the conquered land to Babylon. That’s what happened to Israel five hundred and some years before the time of Jesus. Over a period of about 10 years, the Babylonians came and enacted a policy of forced resettlement.  It came to be known as the Babylonian exile.

At first, they removed the leaders of the nation and the obvious signs of wealth. The kings and royal families and all their holdings were moved off to Babylon. They kept coming back for more and more and after a few years they had stripped the land of just about everything and everyone of value.

The only ones to escape were those who had nothing to offer Babylonian society. The dregs and the drifters. For all intents and purposes the land of Israel and the kingdom that had once been the glory of David and Solomon was now a place of memories; the old country.

Some of the people made the best of life in Babylon. Life wasn’t all bad there. They weren’t slaves like they had been in Egypt. They were strangers in a strange land, yes, but the Babylonians wanted to assimilate them. They wanted them to fit it. They would take the best of the tribes and peoples they had captured and train them in the ways of Babylonian life. They gave them positions of responsibility and power. They wanted to take in the best and the brightest of other cultures. Why not assimilate?

But for many people no matter how good it was in Babylon, it was not home. Home is where the heart is and the hearts of many were back in the land of Abraham and Sarah.

In Babylon they began collecting the stories of the people and writing them down. One of the most prominent stories to emerge from that time was the story of the Exodus. A time when the people had been held captive against their will in a rich and powerful, but foreign land.

In Babylon the synagogue emerged as a place of worship. The belief evolved that God was everywhere and so could be worshipped on foreign soil. People said, “It’s not so bad this new life.” But it was not the old life. It was not home.

One of the prophets of that time was Ezekiel. He was a young priest in the Temple in Jerusalem when the Babylonians took everyone to Babylon. When he had been in Babylon for about five years, Ezekiel began to experience visions. He saw things that were impossible to describe. He discovered that a spiritual truth can take language to its breaking point.

Strange creatures, wheels within wheels, fiery chariots. God would tell him amazing things and he did his best to describe what he heard and what he saw. He lived during a time when such things did not make people think you were going insane. You were not put through a brain scan to find the tumor responsible for your madness. He lived in a time when people saw things differently and heard things differently and the barrier between God’s realm and the physical universe was often thin to the point of transparency.

Ezekiel described one of his visions by saying, “The hand of the Lord came upon me and I was taken in spirit and set down in the middle of a valley. The valley was filled with bones, bleached white in the sun. They were very dry and ancient.”

No life, no breath, no hope. A place of endings, not beginnings; the only signs were of what had once been. And then the prophet heard a voice, the voice of God, asking him a question, “Can these bones live?”

There’s a question to ponder. It’s not an easy question to answer. God was not asking whether the glass was half empty or half full. There was no glass and there was no water to fill it from either perspective.

If it were a rhetorical question then the answer would be, “It really doesn’t matter whether these bones can live or not. What difference does it make?”

But the question God is asking is really a faith question. The answer depends upon what one believes God makes possible. The prophet realized this and answered, “You know the answer to that question, Lord.”

As the vision continued God said, “Tell these bones to live. Tell these bones to take on flesh and blood. Tell them I will breathe life into them, and they will live.”

At that, there was a great rush of sound and activity as bones started flying together and forming into bodies and taking of the shape and form of flesh and blood human beings. Yet after this, the valley was as still as it had been before. Before Ezekiel laid countless bodies; body upon body, as still and lifeless as the bones had been before.

Then God said, “Tell the breath of life to come and fill these bodies that they may have life and breath.” And the prophet cried out to the four winds and there came a rushing wind from all directions and the bodies rose up one after another, living and breathing beings. And now the valley was filled with a great host of people, filled with the vitality of life and wellness.

Then God said to the prophet, “Listen man, these bones that now stand before you as flesh and blood realities are the house of Israel. I hear them crying, ‘our bones are dried up; our hope is lost; we are completely cut off.’ Tell them this from me, the Lord your God – I am going to open your graves; I am going to bring you up from your graves; I am going to bring you back to the land of Israel. You will know I am the Lord your God when I open your graves and bring you up from your graves. I am going to put my Spirit within you. You are going to live. You are going to know that as I have spoken, so shall I act.”

The world always changes. Life does not remain the same, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. What does not change is the fact that we always live with what God makes possible. In the situations of change and loss and even death, God will always inquire of us, “Can these bones live?” The outcome does not depend on how accurately we predict what God will do. The outcome rests on accepting God’s offer of partnership in making it happen.

God could have said to Ezekiel, “Stand back, I have work to do.” God enlisted the prophet to work through the prophet. God enlists us to work God’s possibilities through us.

One fact of life is that the longer we live, the more we experience loss. We mourn the losses of life, knowing that as we go forward, it’s never going to be like it was. That was then. Even back in the glory days of yore, pick your own yore, people probably said, “Ah now, the church of the 1920’s, now that was a time to remember. Those people really knew what church was about.”

And back in the 1920’s they were probably saying the same thing about church in the 1880’s and so with each generation all the way back to the time of exile in Babylon. It’s as if God was telling the prophet, “Some things are better left in the grave. But you, I will raise you up.”

We carry on the story of faith today, here in this place. Ours is a story of change; and through all the changes, ours is the story of resurrection and life. Amen.

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