5th Sunday in Lent - 2023a
Old Testament - Ezekiel 37:1-14
New testament - Romans 8:6-11
That’ll Teach ‘Em a Lesson
INTRODUCTION: Ezekiel is one loony bird, isn’t he?
When he isn’t having visions of four headed-cherubim flitting about the skies being shadowed by giant twirling wheels-within-wheels covered with eyes, he is finding all kinds of strange ways to express God’s unhappiness with Israel for her fickle and wandering ways.
At one point during his bizarre antics, Ezekiel makes a clay brick, draws the city of Jerusalem on it, and then lays siege to it. Yep, like modern-day kids playing with Play-Do, Ezekiel builds his own little clay version of Jerusalem just so he could proceed to attack it with miniature battering rams and a tiny little army of stick soldiers.
Even stranger, while attacking Jerusalem he also lies on his left side for 390 days and then on his right for an additional 40. The 430 days in total are meant to represent the number of years God is going to punish Israel.
And then there is what Ezekiel does with his hair. Shaving himself bald he binds a third of it to burn on top of his model city of Jerusalem. Another third he throws up into the wind to be blown away, and the final third he chops at with a sword as he dances around his model city.
And last but not least, there is what Ezekiel does to his very own house. Punching a hole in the side of it, Ezekiel stuffs a backpack full of his belongings and then pulls it through the hole in his house. It was his way of informing the people that a day of exile was coming so they better get their own backpacks ready. “A time of exile is coming, folks” Ezekiel said through his dramatic action, “A time of exile is coming.”
So Ezekiel was an odd one to say the least. Sure, other prophets in the Bible often do some pretty crazy things, but few can rival Ezekiel for eccentricity and strangeness. No wonder many scholars have contemplated the possibility that Ezekiel might have just been plain old bonkers.
For when he wasn’t engaging in some pretty bizarre behavior, he was seeing all kinds of strange creatures and objects floating above him in the sky.
ONE: Of course, it’s worth noting that not all of Ezekiel’s visions and predictions are doom and gloom, right?
Sure, at the beginning of his book Ezekiel is all fire and brimstone, but then something kind of strange starts to happen. After a while, all the judgment and rough talk starts to give way to visions of God’s grace and forgiveness and restoration.
By the end of his book, after all, Ezekiel is being taken by God on a sightseeing tour of a restored and majestically rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem. Except the tour is like one of those home remodeling TV shows on steroids.
In that show “Love It, Or List It,” people have the choice of either keeping their home after it has been remodeled, or listing it for sale in order to move. Well, the choice for Ezekiel on his tour of the New Temple is easy. He is keeping it, because he is absolutely in love with God’s remodeling job!
And then, of course, there is that famous scene from chapter 37. Dropped into the middle of a valley in yet one more vision, Ezekiel initially finds himself staring at a junkyard of disconnected and strewn bones. Commanding Ezekiel to preach to the bones and skulls, they can soon be heard rattling and clunking as they begin to reconnect and take human form once again.
“Ezekiel connected dem dry bones,” goes that old African-American spiritual. “Ezekiel connected dem dry bones, Ezekiel in the Valley of Dry Bones, Now hear the word of the Lord.”
What’s more, after having sinew and flesh added, God’s spirit is soon on the move and that valley full of spiritless fully recreated bodies is eventually full of living breathing people. “These bones are the whole house of Israel” says God while gazing at his handy work. “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.”
Well, we hear about that valley of dry bones improbably springing to life, and it’s easy to see why one man likes to say Christianity is essentially “wishful thinking” and that at that the heart of our faith is, finally, hope.
Or as the man likes to put it, “For Christians, hope is ultimately in Christ. The hope that he really is what for centuries we have been claiming he is. The hope that despite the fact that sin and death still rule the world, he somehow has conquered them [nonetheless]. The hope that in him and through him all of us stand a chance of somehow conquering them too.”
TWO: And so it goes when it comes to the Bible and the story of God.
While a thick and often complicated book to weave one’s way through, truth be told, the Bible, in the end, is a kind of fantastic play of sorts with three basic acts.
In the first act, God creates. In the second act, God laments over fallen humans and our highly skilled habit of making a mess of God’s creation. And then in the final and third act, God promises to make all things right and new in spite of our bullheaded and cantankerous ways.
Oh, there are subplots and nuances to the story to be sure. But as far as I am concerned, that’s the story of the Bible in three basic acts: Creation, rebellion and lament, and finally restoration.
And so Ezekiel is just like the vast majority of the other prophets and portions of the Bible. While he depicts God lamenting and pining and even raging over a wandering and disloyal humanity, such despondency always occurs within the larger context of God’s promise to renew and restore.
A class of seminarians was once asked to summarize the Bible in a sentence or two. Someone in the class said, “The Bible is a road map.” Someone else said, “It’s a ‘How to Manual.’” Still another person resorted to that old line: “The Bible is the greatest story ever told.” But then someone else offered a remark that seemed to be an “Aha!” moment for the entire class: “The Bible is a story of unrequited love,” said a student quietly from the back of the room.
Well, that’s about right, isn’t it? For the Bible, in a nut-shell, is the story of a God who relentlessly loves humans, only to have us go chasing after the first shiny object that comes into our field of view. “Squirrel!”
Yep, reduce the Bible to its essence, and what we’re left with is a story about a God who simply refuses to give up on us, who can’t let go of us, and who refuses to abandon us. Why, God’s love for us is so deep and wide and abiding that God will even go so far as to dangle from a cross. God, at wits end, God, unable to think of any other good ways to get it through our thick skulls that we are loved, does the only thing left to do - God goes to that cross as the last, great, all encompassing expression of his love.
“These bones are the whole house of Israel,” says God after resurrecting that valley of dry bones. “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.”
THREE: So God’s judgment and anger with humans, while certainly real and heartfelt, is never the last word, right? For after all the lamentation and weeping and wailing, God can only think to do one thing - and that’s to love even then.
There’s a story about a very successful businessman. While highly respected, much of his success had come through a ruthless drive and a self-righteous attitude when it came to others. Once, after learning that a woman in his accounting department had been skimming money off the top, he declared, “Fire her, and turn her over to the cops! That’ll teach her a lesson.”
Still later, a young man stole the business man’s fancy Mercedes and took it for a joy ride. He really did a number on it. After tearing around town leaving tire marks everywhere, he smashed it into a fire hydrant. Said the business man: “Well, he's 19 years old. He’s old enough to have known better. Throw him in the slammer. That’ll teach him a lesson.”
And then there was the businessman's son. After a second stint in a posh treatment center didn’t work, and the kid had been expelled from an Ivy League college, the businessman was done: “Disinherit him. That’ll teach him a lesson.”
Well, in time, the business man died and soon found himself before his Maker. And as the man thought back on his life and how he had lived, how he had too often come down hard on others and maybe could have handled things differently, he started to tremble in fear.
And then he heard something that left him speechless and dumbfounded. Declared the man’s Maker, “Forgive him. That’ll teach him a lesson.” (Adapted from Stories by Will Willimon)
CONCLUSION: And so it goes when it comes to God.
Oh…don’t misunderstand. God laments, cries, simmers, even boils at times over our bullheaded and irascible ways. For we humans can be a cantankerous, quarrelsome, and fickle lot, right?
And yet, even when at wits end, God just can’t let go of us. Even in the face of all our wandering and waywardness, God can only think to do one thing - and that one thing is love.
“Forgive them,” says God while hanging from that cross. “Maybe that’ll teach ‘em a lesson.”
And now blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever. Amen.