Saturday, March 28, 2020

Lent 5A

Ezekiel 37:1-14

1The 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. 2He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3He said to me, "Mortal, can these bones live?" I answered, "O Lord God, you know." 4Then he said to me, "Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord."

7So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. 9Then he said to me, "Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live." 10I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

11Then he said to me, "Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, "Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.' 12Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: 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. 13And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord."

Prayer

From all the corners of the earth, come to us, Spirit of God! Breathing Life of the Divine, descend upon your people and on your land and let us live again! In the Name of the One Spirit-sent to carry new life to the entire world, Christ Jesus, your Son and our Lord, Amen!

The Fifth Sunday in Lent

This has become a strange Lent (understatement). Lent comes from an Old English word for spring, and conveys a similar sense as the music tempo Lento. During this season of lengthening days, we've journeyed to the fifth Sunday in – but not of Lent – because every Sunday celebrates Easter. Next Sunday in church we would have been having(!) a dual observance of Jesus' Triumphant Entry (surrounded by palms and cheering crowds) into Jerusalem, followed by a reading of the Passion Narrative. Los Angeles County originally banned public gatherings through Sunday 19th April, so we definitely won't be together in person for Easter Sunday or for the second Sunday of Easter. However, every moment is Easter and the season of Jesus' resurrection is fifty days long, so hopefully we'll be back on the church campus during the Great Fifty Days.

Prophet / Seer

Sometimes we casually refer to foretelling future happenings as prophecy, but the OT differentiates between seer or visionary (roeh), who peers into the future, and prophet (nabi), who speaks truth to power.

Hebrew scripture uses at least three Hebrew words that translate into the Greek-derived English "prophet" that implies challenging the religious, political, or any establishment. Hospitals? Denominational headquarters? Libraries? County and city administrations? Nabi may be rooted in a word that means to pour down, or spring forth, so imagine the prophetic word as a stream that flows everywhere it goes. Besides roeh and nabi, Hebrew also has hozeh, with a similar feel to nabi.

Like Jeremiah and the 66 chapters of Isaiah, Ezekiel is very much within the classical tradition of Hebrew/Israelite prophecy that brings Spirit-breathed Words from heaven to earth. All three books belong to the writing prophets whose actual words got inscribed on scrolls—contrasted with former prophets whose actions we find in books like Joshua, Kings, Chronicles...

Ezekiel

Like 1st Isaiah (1-39) and like Jeremiah we've heard so much from, Ezekiel prophesied during the last days of Jerusalem before the Babylonian exile; along with Jeremiah and with the prophet we identity as 2nd Isaiah (40-55), Ezekiel also proclaimed the word of God into the exile.

Babylonian invasion of Jerusalem resulted in starvation, disease, and despair. A priest in the holiness tradition of the Jerusalem Temple, Ezekiel probably began his ministry in 592 BCE; he went to Babylon in 597 BCE in the first wave of exiles. For the next decade, Ezekiel preached sorrow and desperation to the Judeans (Ezekiel 1-24), and to the surrounding nations (Ezekiel 25-32). Ten years later, in 587/6 BCE after Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and the temple, they deported a second round of Judeans (including the king) to Babylon, and the monarchy ended. For the exiles, being cut off from the J-Temple meant being as good as dead. After news of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple reached Babylon, Ezekiel began to prophesy hope, revitalization, and restoration (Ezekiel 33-48).

Their world had come to an end. Not too different from our current situation. They wondered if the Babylonian gods had defeated their God. Or had God deserted them? [Consider the theology that literally located God's presence in a special way in the J-Temple.] How about us? Have illness, disease, climate warning, various inept administrations defeated God? Did God abandon us?

With its vivid imagery of new life, today's Ezekiel reading for Lent 5 comes from the time Ezekiel's proclamation shifted from sorrow to hope. Just as we do every year, we're moving toward Jerusalem and toward Jesus' trial, conviction, crucifixion, death—and resurrection! Unlike any year we've known, on this Sunday two weeks before Easter, Ezekiel brings words of hope for our current situation with this global pandemic.

Resurrection

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) that provides our scripture readings pairs this famous Ezekiel dry bones passage with Jesus reviving dead Lazarus from John 11:1-45. Throughout the bible, we find countless hints or "types" of resurrection from death that foreshadow Jesus' own resurrection.

All of us everywhere have been exiled from our conventional lives; not yet having an acceptable "new normal," we particularly need resurrection for each of us as individuals, for our communities, and for our structures and institutions. We need to trust the reality of new life despite the reality of death! During this worldwide pandemic, we need to hear, we need to speak God's proclamation that assures us of resurrection from the dead, the word that brings a future.

Only God can perform resurrection; people and organizations will rise up out of their deaths when the Spirit of God restores them. However, in this passage we see how actions of the "Mortal" Ezekiel, (human one in many versions) help God's promise happen.

Divine initiative and human response interweave throughout this text. God leads Ezekiel to the valley, directs his attention and inspires his words. Ezekiel obeys and speaks God's word. As a result (with no help from the bones themselves—what could the dead do?), God gathers them together and breathes life into them. God loves digging up graves and calling forth new life!

Verses 11-14 place this passage in historical context of Israeli land and Israelite people. However, this text is renowned for applying to almost everyone everywhere in a multitude of circumstances. How about us, "mortal human ones" obeying God's command so God's promise of new life out of death's dry bones will come true?

The Word of God with the Spirit of God results in new life! This passage says prophesy/nabi 6 times; spirit/ruach 9 times. In verses 4 and 14, dabar is the word for God's word-action. In your studies you may have learned dabar is simultaneously both speech and action, just as in Hebrew, listen is both hearing and obeying.

We're in an unusual overall, literally deadly situation as we move closer to Easter; how does the story of Ezekiel in the valley of dead bones begin preparing us for the surprise of resurrection?

Cornel West: "We are people of hope. Why do we party on Friday night? Why do we go to church on Sunday?"

This Story Continues

You know the next chapter of the story of Judah and Benjamin: after the seventy-year long exile in Babylon (at the end of which Persia defeated Babylon), the Persian king gave the scribe Ezra permission to return to Palestine to re-establish Yahweh worship, and also to find officers to administer the land. After he arrived back in the land that included the city of Jerusalem, Ezra began that process.

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