Sunday, April 10, 2011

Ezekiel 37:1-14

"Dry Bones"
MasterPiece Church
10 April 2011

Just as you are about to drop down the tube into the world of the Pirates of the Caribbean the animated skull and crossbones on the wall in front of you warns -- “And mark well me words, matey... ‘dead men tell no tales.’"

People who are no longer living cannot give evidence. You are about to enter a zone of murder and horror. Which of course you aren’t really -- because it is Disneyland. But it is a part of the story.

Once you’re dead and gone -- that’s the end of it. There is no more... unless...

I have wondered what Disney would do with Ezekiel 37 -- that is, if they ever tried to turn it into an animated ride.
Suddenly as I spoke, there was a rattling noise all across the valley. The bones of each body came together and attached themselves as complete skeletons. 8 Then as I watched, muscles and flesh formed over the bones. Then skin formed to cover their bodies, but they still had no breath in them. 
9 Then he said to me, “Speak a prophetic message to the winds, son of man. Speak a prophetic message and say, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, O breath, from the four winds! Breathe into these dead bodies so they may live again.’” 
10 So I spoke the message as he commanded me, and breath came into their bodies. They all came to life and stood up on their feet—a great army.
Wouldn't that be a great Disney ride? You’re moving through a valley of piled bones -- obviously a defeated army -- slaughtered and left -- not even buried.

Silent, eerie, creepy, troubling.

Then, suddenly they all start to move, making clacking sounds as they reassemble themselves -- howling winds blow across the plain from all directions and a great army of formerly dead stand to their feet.

It’s the vision given to the prophet Ezekiel -- a prophecy of nationalist resurrection for the nation of Judah -- defeated and exiled in mass to Babylon in 586 BC.

Hopelessly stewing in defeat for 50 or 70 years. Their nation and future disassembled -- scattered across the fields.

What about the promises of God? Is there any future?
Therefore, prophesy to them and say, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: O my people, I will open your graves of exile and cause you to rise again. Then I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 When this happens, O my people, you will know that I am the Lord. 14 I will put my Spirit in you, and you will live again and return home to your own land. Then you will know that I, the Lord, have spoken, and I have done what I said. Yes, the Lord has spoken!’
And, of course, the Judeans do start to return to the promised land about 538 BC. That’s where the story of Ezra and Nehemiah kicks in and the temple is rebuilt.

But you know, the post-exilic temple was puny and not very grandiose compared to the one built by Solomon and experienced during the glory days of Israel. That to which they returned was not as exciting as what they had before. And every time they looked at it the temple reminded them that they were a “has been” people with more past than future.

But they did have the prophecies of Ezekiel -- which they considered to be only partially fulfilled. The Jews were looking forward to a political resurrection -- where they would once again become a mighty force -- a reborn army -- people to be reckoned with not subservient to every army marching across the fertile crescent.

Now, many modern day Christians and Zionists see the emergence of a modern Israel as the political resurrection of the dry bones in Ezekiel 37.

Perhaps. It’s hard to say.

Although it is probably important to see the prophecy in context. For example, the related prophecy in Ezekiel 36 talks about a similar restoration in which the returning Israelites will know the Lord -- a picturesque farmland -- a renewed garden of Eden. And the people are holy -- sorrowful over the sins of their past -- the injustices and the idolatry. The Spirit of the Lord is present. It’s not exactly a powerful political image.

Yet, that did not stop ancient Jews from thinking of the resurrection of Ezekiel 37 in nationalistic and political terms. And even into the first century, resurrection was primarily about a restored Israel.

Now, this does not mean that the idea of a personal bodily resurrection didn’t exist. It’s just that it was secondary -- related but not as significant in their thinking.

So along comes agenda-changing Jesus. His friend Lazarus has died.

John 11:17 --
“When Jesus arrived at Bethany, he was told that Lazarus had already been in his grave for four days. 18 Bethany was only a few miles down the road from Jerusalem, 19 and many of the people had come to console Martha and Mary in their loss. 20 When Martha got word that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him. But Mary stayed in the house. 21 Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask.’ 
“23 Jesus told her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’” 
“24 ‘Yes,’ Martha said, ‘he will rise when everyone else rises, at the last day.’” 
“ 25 Jesus told her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. 26 Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die.”
In saying this, I would suggest that Jesus is identifying himself as the fulfillment of Ezekiel 36 and 37. I am the new life spoken of by the prophets. I am the new Israel -- the faithful and holy Israel.
Yes, I know that you’ve been thinking of the kingdom of God in political and nationalistic terms -- looking for a political resurrection. And that’s understandable -- but your reading of the prophets is a degree or two off. You don’t have your radios fully tuned in to what God has been saying.
One of the traits that I inherited from my father is the love of radios. This is my current short-wave. It can be charged through hand crank and it was a part of our typhoon/earthquake readiness kit on Guam.

I’d also take it with me when I’d travel to the more remote islands. When I’d go to Chuuk in the Federated States of Micronesia there was only one rarely functioning radio station in the whole state -- only one radio station for hundreds and hundreds of miles operating off Weno, the main island on the Truk lagoon. We’d fly into there and then take a motor boat for several hours across the lagoon. It is literally the middle of nowhere in terms of communication.

And if you want to know what is happening in the rest of the world shortwave radio is the way to go. Now, the thing about shortwave -- especially compared to medium wave (AM) or FM radio -- you’ve got to have a touch.

It’s not always easy to tune in. It has two tuning knobs. One gets you into the general vicinity so that you’re getting a signal -- albeit with considerable static. Then you use the little knob to fine tune. And then in two minutes you have to go through the whole tuning process all over because the shortwave signal tends to drift. It’s not very precise.

When Jesus claims to be the resurrection and the life he is working the fine tuning knob. The people, reading the OT prophets, had gotten the signal into the general vicinity -- but there was a lot of static and while they had caught the part about a resurrection in their understanding -- or misunderstanding through the static -- it was primarily a political resurrection.

Jesus, however, is fine tuning their understanding of the prophets, and is saying -- “Close, but not quite. -- I am the resurrection.”

Jesus is saying, you were expecting a political resurrection and a political messiah -- but I am the resurrection. I am the messiah and I’m here to tell you to fine tune your idea of resurrection. It’s more radical than you thought.

We’re not just talking a new nation or army. We're talking new life itself.

Now, of course, this is not a totally new idea. It’s buried in the Old Testament. And the Pharisees believed in a bodily resurrection of some sort. But it wasn’t center stage. It wasn’t fully tuned in.

In John 11 even Martha understands the idea of a resurrection on the final day. Her tuning is a little better than most. But she still doesn’t quite get the point that Jesus himself is the resurrection -- that he is the embodiment of the expectation -- the hope -- the new life.

Jesus is thus fine tuning the idea of resurrection -- and what he is saying is even more significant than what they had been imagining -- better than promised. They saw resurrection as primarily something for the restoration of Israel. But Jesus sees it as a remaking of life itself -- and it is not just for Israel but he is thinking a universal restoration. “For God so loved the world...”

And on Easter Jesus tunes in the shortwave signal in ways never before experienced -- the introduction of digital reception.

Now, this is obviously complex and layered -- a bit heady to think about. But remember, Jesus not only lived thousands of miles away nautically -- but also culturally and historically. Sometimes you have to unpack the background to get at what the Bible is really saying to us.

And I find the message to us primarily in the WHY? That is, why does God bother with resurrection at all -- whether it is political or physical in nature?

If he is the creator he could just keep on making new -- and tossing the old and broken into the dump. I mean, that’s what we do with most everything that breaks in our lives -- whether it is an old radio or TV or a marriage. We live in a disposable culture.

But God isn’t so shallow. By nature he is committed to his creation and its restoration. It is a part of his loving nature. When he starts loving he doesn’t stop. Even when there is death -- which he hates. But the possibility of which is necessary if there is going to be freely chosen life.

The point is (and this is my key point this morning) that God is committed and therefore death doesn’t have the final word. This is the hope that drives our lives as Christians.

1 Peter 1:3 says:
“May the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ be blessed! On account of his vast mercy, he has given us new birth. You have been born anew into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” (CEB)
The other night at our Bible study on 1 Peter Jack Johnson made an interesting comment, talking about how it is that “hope” may not be a good translation for the idea presented here in 1 Peter. He was saying that in modern English, hope is kind of wishful thinking -- not necessarily based in reality.

For example, I might say,
I hope I win the lottery.
Or I hope that can find a cheap reliable car.
I hope that somebody gives me a million dollars.

All wishful thinking. But in the Bible hope is really a contrast to that. It is an expectation of certainty.

And the Christian hope of resurrection falls into this category. We live out -- we practice resurrection living now because we are so confident that God doesn’t throw people on the trash pile at the end -- that this resurrection hope reshapes our whole orientation to life.

Death does not get the final word -- whether we’re talking about the political entity of Israel or the reality of life as a whole.

Dead men DO tell tales -- because death is temporary. Life as it is received from God is eternal. And the tales that we tell involve a rattling noise all across the valley... bones coming together... reattaching themselves to form skeletons... upon which muscles and flesh form.. and then skin... and the Spirit of God -- the wind of God breathes new life into them.

Where, Oh death, is your sting? Where, oh death, is your victory?

Resurrection, not death, is the final word from God.

Now, the fact is that we face off with death everyday. Sometimes it is literal. You’ve been hospitalized or you have a disease which brings you closer to dying. You’ve been hit on the head or been in a car crash -- and it was touch and go for awhile.

Or maybe you are living with the death of a dream -- the life or the wife you thought you had. You’ve lost the house or the car or the job. And those losses do take their toll -- drying the bones and wearing the heart.

But Jesus is the resurrection and the life. He is the hope -- the certain expectation that death does not have the final word. And I would challenge you to embrace that expectation and make that hope your own. Let it rule your life and change your life.

Frankly, I’m not terribly concerned about whether the prophecy of Ezekiel 37 is literally fulfilled in a nationalistic sense. Will those bones be reassembled into a living and vital Israel. I don’t know -- nor am I concerned because I know that the prophecy is fulfilled in Jesus in a way that dwarfs any other fulfillments.

I know that the resurrection, not death, is the final word. And that is the good news.

I said earlier that I wanted to take a moment at the end to let people ask questions or comment on this passage or what I’ve said. I certainly don’t expect everyone to agree with me on all the details. But we do all end up with the same place in seeing resurrection as the final word.


Prayer -- Lord, we are grateful for your word and your message of hope. We confess that we spend way too much time living out hopelessness. We’re too often fatalistic and accepting of the discouragement. But we renew -- or even begin -- to follow Jesus -- to the cross -- without worry for we know that death does not have the final word. I give you my life today. Come live in me and transform me into a resurrection person -- breath into me a new life. Amen.

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