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Of Exile and Resurrection: A Lenten Homily

I know it’s customary for preachers to start with a joke or a cute story. But there’s simply no cute way to start a reflection on Ezekiel—it’s a sad story from the very beginning.

It Begins in Exile

In 597 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, laid siege to Jerusalem. The war lasted for over two years and, aside from the casualties of battle, it led to disease and famine on a massive scale. The result was utter despair. The Babylonian army tortured and killed many Judeans, and took the rest, Ezekiel included, into captivity in Babylon. It is a grim sight, indeed.  Ezekiel is a priest with no temple over which to preside. He and his people are estranged from the land given to their forefathers and cut off from the center of God’s activity in the world.

One of the bleakest scenes in Ezekiel comes right after the exiled people get word that the temple has been destroyed. Understand that in the Old Testament the temple is seen as the locus of God’s presences in the world. Ezekiel has a vision that before the Temple is destroyed, God’s presence departs from it. Even God himself, it seems, has abandoned Israel!

Life in exile, by the way, is one of the Bible’s primary metaphors for the human condition. So Ezekiel’s story is our story. Exile is a condition of alienation, of separation from our homeland. It’s marked yearning, grief, loneliness, anger and despair—by a sense of being cut off from the center of life and meaning and energy. What we need is make the long journey home to God, in whom we live and move and have our being—God, who, though we have been estranged, has been there all along.

It Doesn’t End There…

Ezekiel doesn’t end with exile, though. The second half of the book is a declaration of God’s promise that one day he will restore the people to their land, and that God himself will return to the Temple.

I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land.

I will cause the cities to be inhabited, and the waste places shall be rebuilt.

The land that was desolate shall be tilled, and you will say “this land that was desolate has become like the garden of Eden”

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean.

I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you.

I will remove the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh

I will put my Spirit within you and you shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers.

You shall be my people, and I will be your God.

The book ends with another vision: “just like the vision that [Ezekiel] had seen when they came to destroy the city,” except this time “the glory of the Lord entered the temple by the gate facing east…and behold, the glory of the Lord filled the temple.”

So we know where we’re headed, but before we get to the people restored to the land and the vision of God dwelling once again in Zion, we have to pass through what the Psalmist calls “the valley of the shadow of death.” That’s the Christian story—the story of Lent and Holy Week and Easter—that life comes to us by way of death, so that death never has the last word.

Ezekiel in the Valley of Dry bones

So in our Old Testament lesson today, Ezekiel is led by the spirit of God into a valley. Now, that word translated “spirit” will be important for our reflection, so let’s talk about it. In Hebrew the word is ruwach. Say it with me: ruwach. One more time: ruwach. Isn’t that beautiful? It means “spirit” as in “the Spirit of God” or “the spirit of a human.” But it can also mean “breath” and “wind” Okay last time, ready? Ruwach. Good! So, the Ruwach of God led Ezekiel into a valley fully of bones. And not just any bones—these are dry bones!

Bones, of course, become dry only after they have been exposed to the elements for a long time. Dry bones are evidence of battles fought many years ago. They are reminders of the long and weary exile and the lives that were lost at its beginning. Dry bones signify a complete loss of hope. The very last thing anyone could imagine when looking to dry bones is the potential life.

Nevertheless, God asks Ezekiel, “Mortal, can these bones live?” The question seems ridiculous and Ezekiel’s answer is appropriately ambiguous: “O, Lord, you know.”

But God’s not going to let his prophet off the hook with an evasion. “Prophesy to the bones,” God says. “Say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.” Now, if this is not the most absurd thing God ever called one of his prophets to do, it’s certainly in the top five. Preach a sermon to the bones! Really? But even as crazy as it sounds, Ezekiel begins preaching to the bones.

The result is nothing less than creepy. At first it’s just a noise—a rattling. But then bones began popping out of the ground and flying together. Then sinews crawled on them, followed by flesh and skin. But still these zombies had no breath in them—they’re just lying there, lifeless and silent. But then the Lord gives Ezekiel a second and equally absurd instruction. This time he says “prophesy to the breath.”

Wait, prophesy to the what?

…Right, to the ruwach.

“Prophesy to the ruwach, and say, ‘Thus says the Lord: Come from the four winds, O’ breath, (O’ ruwach) and breathe on these slain, that they may live.’”

Does this sound familiar?

It should. It’s an intentional echo of Genesis 2 where God breaths into the clay and creates humans in his own image.

Again Ezekiel preached as he was instructed, and the ruwach came into the bodies, and they lived!

Wow! What is scene that is, huh?

In the last four verses of our lesson, Ezekiel tells us what this bizarre image means. “These bones” he says, “are the whole house of Israel.” The story is thus an extended metaphor: the bones are dejected and defeated exiles, like the Jews in Babylon, like us. So Ezekiel’s message is good news for us exiles.

For a third time he is asked to prophesy, but this time the demand doesn’t seem so ridiculous. The hearers are not bones or wind but his people. He prophesies: “Thus says the Lord: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O’ my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. In other words, there is still hope! Even though we find ourselves far from home, defeated, landless, without a temple or a priest, God has not forgotten us. And then the final words of the prophesy: “I will put my Spirit within you…

My what?

…My Ruwach

I will put my Ruwach within you and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land.”

The Non-Return from Exile

But that’s where Ezekiel leaves us: with a promise not yet fulfilled. Through the rest of the book, the Jews remain in exile, their hopes dried up like the bones in that valley. In fact, some sixty years later, when they finally are able to return to their land, they rebuild the temple and have a big grand opening. Ezra tells us that at the ceremony, while the young men were singing and dancing for joy, the old men were weeping. Because, you see, the old men remembered the dedication of the previous temple, so they knew that this time the glory of the Lord had not returned.

The gospel writer Matthew makes the same point in his genealogy. You know, those lists that we always skip over. “Abraham begat Isaac, and Isaac begat Jacob, and hard-word begat hard-word hard-word, and on and on…” Matthew breaks his genealogy into three parts. There are fourteen generations from Abraham, Israel’s patriarch, to David, her greatest King. Then, fourteen generations from David to the exile in Babylon. And finally, fourteen generations from the exile to Christ. Notice what’s missing? There’s no return from exile. It’s one of the most important events in his people’s history and Matthew just leaves it out. The oversight is no mistake. Matthew is trying to make the point that, though they have physically returned to the land, spiritually the people are still in exile. We are still in Babylon. We’re still waiting for Ezekiel’s to be fulfilled.


Well, by the time we get to the New Testament, Ezekiel’s metaphor of resurrection has become a full-blown hope. Many Jews in the first century believed that when the long night of exile had finally come to an end dawn broke on the kingdom of God, that God would speak to the dry bones of Israel and all the dead would be raised to new life. Let’s be careful not to over-spiritualize this text or we’ll miss the point.  They actually believed this! Many first century Jews fully expected, when the kingdom of God had come, to bump into their once dead ancestors in the street or at the market. “Hey! Uncle John, haven’t seen you for years…smellin’ a little musty.” The fact that this kind of thing was not happening is one of the ways they knew that the exile was still not over, that spiritually they remained in Babylon.

So one afternoon Jesus goes down to Bethany to visit his friends, Mary and Martha. Their brother Lazarus has been dead for four days now. Death is a lot like exile. It’s about separation, about being cut off from the land of the living. Mary and Martha feel like they are so deeply entrenched in Babylonian captivity that has reached into their own lives and hearts. Have you ever felt like that? The captives in Ezekiel’s day sat down by the rivers of Babylon and wept. And all Mary can think to do is set down and weep. So Jesus weeps with her.

But Jesus knows that the time for weeping has come to an end. He gets up, looks into the tomb and says “Lazarus, come out!” And, get this, Lazarus does! Now, as Jesus discusses with Martha, Lazarus’ resurrection was not the real and final thing—he will die again. But it is a signpost pointing toward the great and final resurrection of which Jesus himself will be the first fruits. It is proof that the long, weary exile is finally coming to an end.

The Great and Final Resurrection

Okay, one more text as we close: John 20. It’s the end of John’s gospel. Jesus has been raised from the dead.

“On the evening of that day, the first day of the week…”

John points out that “it was the first day of the week.” This is a metaphor John uses to say, it is the first day of the new creation—the exile is finally over—the kingdom of God has come!

On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 20When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” 22And when he had said this, he breathed on them.

Remember? Ruwach. But this time we are the dry bones and God’s breath of life is being breathed on us! You, friend, have been drawn into Christ’s resurrection life. So that exile mentality you thought you had to live with—the sense that you have deep in your gut that you are out of place, that thing are just not quite the way they should be, the absence energy and meaning, the yearning to be connected to something bigger than yourself, the grief, the despair—all of it is just the last remnants of a kingdom long since overthrown. Good news, friends: the exile is over…the kingdom has come…and we are home!

So I leave you with the words of St Paul from this morning epistle: “He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit (Ruwach) who dwells in you.”




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And That Changes Everything

Acts 4:32-25

There a Billy Currington song that goes like this:

I said, “I know a shrimp boat captain out of Galveston”
I’ve been thinkin’ I’d go down and work for a spell
Oh, you never can tell it just might suit me fine
Spend some time out on the bay

But then there’s always cowboy work in Colorado
And I was thinkin’ that that just might be the thing
Make a little pocket change I figure what the heck
Ain’t nothin’ standin’ in my way

But then she smiled at me
Looked a while at me
And that changes everything
That’s a whole ‘nother deal
That puts a brand new spin
On this ole rollin’ wheel
That’s some powerful stuff
That’s a girl in love
And that’s one thing
That changes everything

Billy ends up staying in that dusty old town, he even buys a house.  He never gets to set by the bay, or see the Colorado sunset, he gives up on all his dreams of the footloose life.  But somehow it’s all okay, because she smiled at him and looked a while at him, and as anyone who’s ever fallen in love knows, that changes everything.

The disciples had an experience similar to Currington’s.  Sometime in the first century, they came to believe that Christ is risen.  The resurrection of Jesus is the most fundamental and elemental facet of Christian theology.  Without the sacraments we’d have no worship, without the teachings of Jesus we’d have no ethics, without the Bible we’d have no theology, but without the resurrection, there’d just be no Christianity.  That’s why the first thing we notice in today’s text describes the message of the early Church, it says simply “they testified to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.”  If you want to strip Christianity down to its bare bones, you’ll come up with the earliest sermon of the Church, Christ is risen. And for this ragtag bunch of Jewish fishermen and businessmen, everything changed. Let me tell you what I mean by that.

Christianity was from the outset a kingdom of God movement—they started to live, in other words, as though the Kingdom of God had come.  And for Jews in the first century, the kingdom of God had a very specific religious and political meaning.  We will sometimes talk, for instance, as though the kingdom of God is a place souls go to be with God when bodies die.  This could not be farther from what 1st century Jews meant by the kingdom of God.  The kingdom of God is not so much a place as it is a certain type of rule or governance.  The kingdom of God is also not a religious experience.  Oh, a 1st century Jew may have a spiritual experience, they may feel the presence of God in a special way, or come to see God more clearly, and that would have been nice, but they never would have described it as the kingdom of God having come.  And if they had described it that way, whomever they were talking to would have said, “That sounds like a very nice experience, I’m glad for you, but what does that have to do with the kingdom of God?”  Because, you see, to the 1st century Jew the world was, and had been for some time, situated in what they called “This Present This Present Evil Age.”  This Present Evil Age was characterized by war, injustice, sin, sickness, death, and the oppression of Israel by Rome, or whatever other power currently controlled her.  But they believed that at some future time, God would move in history in a dramatic way to free Israel from her oppressors and bring all runaway Israelites back to the land; to bring life, forgiveness, justice, and peace to the world—to bring about the kingdom of God.  And like I said Christianity was from the beginning a kingdom of God movement—they lived as though the kingdom of God was already at hand.  We’ll talk about what exactly that means in a moment, but first let’s consider: Why did they live this way?  If the kingdom of God has such a specific religious and political meaning, and the characteristics of the kingdom of God had obviously not come to fruition—Israel was still under the control of Rome until long after the New Testament was written, in fact Israel did not because a fully independent state until 1948.  And to this day the Jewish people are scattered all over the world, they are not living in the land of Israel.  Moreover, we still live in a word at war, and a world of injustice, a world where in America alone over thirteen thousand children live below the poverty line.  We live in a world of sin.  And despite all of our advances in medical technology, we still live in a world of sickness and death.  It does not take a very hard look at either a newspaper, or into our own heats to see that we are steeped in This Present Evil Age—then why did the disciples of Jesus begin living like the kingdom of God had come?  Why would they think and act in a way that was so obviously not in accordance with reality?  This would be like us deciding to walk around in our winter coats and earmuffs in the middle of August because another ice age is upon us.  So, why did they decide to live in a way that seemed so obviously wrong?

The answer lies in another quirky, little feature of the kingdom of God.  Many Jews believed that when the sun set on This Present Evil Age and dawn broke on the new age of God’s kingdom, God would speak to the dry bones of Israel and all the dead would be raised to new life.  Let’s be careful not to over spiritualize the text from Ezekiel that Jennifer read for us this morning, because we’ll miss the point.  They really believed this.  Many first century Jews fully expected, when the kingdom of God had come, to bump into their once dead ancestors in the street or at the market. “Hey! Uncle John, haven’t seen you for years.  You’re smellin’ a little musty.”  So here again we see just how weird the disciples must have seemed by insisting the kingdom of God had already come.  Anyone who heard them talking or saw them acting this way would say “Look, I was just at the cemetery yesterday and not an ounce of dirt was displaced.  You’re crazy!”  And yet, the disciples were convinced that the kingdom of God had in fact come.  They were convinced because on Easter morning they saw the stone rolled away.  They were convinced because they met with Jesus three days after they had watched him suffer a brutal death on a Roman cross, and broke bread with him in their homes.  They were convinced because they met with him on the road to Emmaus and listened to his teaching. They were convinced because they met with him on the sea shore and had flame broiled fish for breakfast.  They were convinced because Christ is risen.  And rising he was the first fruits of the great resurrection.  So the disciples came to believe that the kingdom of God had already come despite a lot of evidence—despite the fact that no dead-ancestor sightings had been reported, despite the fact that Israel was still held captive by her Roman oppressors, despite the fact the world was still plagued by war, injustice, sin sickness and death.  They came to believe that the kingdom of God had come because the great resurrection had already began in one man.  They believed the kingdom of God had come, because Christ is risen.

Which brings us to the second part of today’s text, because it’s all well and good to believe in the resurrection, to dress up in our Easter best once a year and sing “Up from the Grave He Arose,” but as Shane Claiborne says, “The whole world could believe in resurrection, but little would change until we begin to practice it.”  Well the disciples of Jesus practiced resurrection.  What does it mean to live as though the great resurrection has already begun, as though the kingdom of God is already at hand?  What does it mean to live as though Christ is risen?  Well, to the early church at least, it meant that they traded up a politics of This Present Evil Age, for Easter politics.  The text says, “All the believers were one in heart and mind.  No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had…There were no needy persons among them.  From time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostle’s feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.”

All around them, the world seemed to remain in This Present Evil Age.  And it lived a politics of This Present Evil Age.  They looked around and saw an Israel that continued to be held captive by the Roman regime, and who, as a result, practiced a politics of fear hiding every good pleasure they could from their oppressors.  But the disciples practiced an Easter politics of trust— from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and just laid it at the apostle’s feet, knowing that it would be used justly and wisely.  They saw a world that practiced a politics of violence through war and injustice, but the disciples practiced an Easter politics of peace—“they were one in heart and mind,” as the text says.  They saw a world plagued by sin that practiced a politics of greed and accumulation trying to surpass the Joneses, but the disciples practiced an Easter politics of love—they did not count any possession as their own, but shared everything they had.  They saw a world of sin and death that practiced a politics of hoarding and stockpiling knowing that they had to take care of themselves in case of an emergency, but the disciples practiced an Easter politics of giving—money was distributed as anyone had need.

Now let me make a very important point about Easter politics.  None of it was legislated.  The text says that “from time to time” people sold their homes and land and gave the money to the apostles, indicating that it was not a mandatory; they just did it as the Spirit led.  The fact that they even had homes to sell meant that they had personal possessions; they just did not view them as private possessions.  You see it is the politics of The Present Evil Age that tries to legislate kindness and sharing.  Easter politics is borne out of love.  It is borne out of the conviction that the world is fundamentally different than it seems.  The good news for us to day is that we get to live this way.  We get live with confidence.  We get to share.  We get  to believe that our sin if forgiven.  In a world that often seems so desperately evil, we get to live like Easter people.  We get to live as though Christ is risen!

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