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Faithful in Exile (3): Grateful Dead

. 8 min read


Thanks to Joel for sharing the message while our family was out of town!

Ezekiel 37, with Psalm 16.5-11
20 July 2014

I.
Appearances
indicated that the end had come, and it was decidedly not a happy ending. Israel’s long slide into dissolution, begun
more than 200 years earlier with her division into northern and southern
kingdoms, looked to be complete. In spite of the repeated warnings of the
prophets to turn away from their idolatry and their exploitation of the poor,
the Israelites had continued their disobedience by deciding, after the fashion
of humans before and since, to do things their own way. The northern kingdom of
Israel, also called Ephraim, had long since fallen to the Assyrians, who killed
thousands and scattered the remnant to the four winds. More recently Babylon
had invaded the southern kingdom of Judah, laid siege to Jerusalem, and
destroyed the city, tearing down its walls and razing its temple. Thousands,
taken mostly from among the upper classes and skilled artisans, had been
forcibly transported back to exile in Babylon, thousands more had been killed,
and the remnant left without hope, aimlessly wandering the desolate, devastated
landscape that had once been their home and the principal theater of God’s work
in the world.

God’s
covenant with Abraham, which promised to make of his descendants a great people
through whom the whole of creation would be restored to its original shalom, was but a faint memory. And the covenantal
promise of God to King David, to raise up from among his descendants a chosen
one whose reign would have no end, looked to be little more than a cruel joke.
No wonder the best the exiles could do was, in the words of the Psalmist (Ps
137:1), dejectedly sit by the rivers of Babylon and weep as they remembered
Zion. Israel was, as one commentator says, “well and truly dead…. The word of
Genesis 2:17 – [the warning that the eventual cost of alienating themselves
from God would be death] – has finally been fulfilled: the clash between God’s
will for his human creatures, by which alone they live, and their refusal to
follow that will, has been worked out in the history of Israel and has come to
its inevitable conclusion” (Jenson, 281).
Into
that moment of ultimate despair, the eccentric priest and prophet Ezekiel,
himself among the exiles, was – perhaps unwillingly – thrust. In one
translation of the text, the prophet says “God grabbed me. God’s Spirit took me up and set me down.” Shown a vast,
open valley strewn with thousands of dry, bleached, and disjointed bones
representing the long since (literally and figuratively) dead people of God,
Ezekiel is confronted directly by God, who demands of the prophet (v. 3),
“Mortal, can these bones live?” At first blush it is an absurd, even cruel
question. Of course these bones cannot live, for they are “no longer even
skeletal, so definitely of the past that the bones have separated and preserve
no personal identities—no one can even point and say, ‘Alas, poor [so-and-so] …
I knew him well’” (Jenson 281). In response to such absurdity, Ezekiel could only
respond, probably a bit unconvincingly, “God only knows.”

And
yet in spite of the abject nature of the circumstances, God had a radically different
view, an altogether distinct perspective on the future – the future of Israel
and all creation – for with God, as we often need to be reminded, all things are possible. Just so, God
commanded Ezekiel to do what Ezekiel was accustomed to doing, to prophesy; to speak
to the bones, reminding them, effectively, of this very thing; that God is
sovereign, even over death, dismemberment, and decay. So Ezekiel prophesied. And
lo and behold, even as the prophet spoke, the bones began to rattle as they
came to life: first bone reoriented to bone, then joined together with sinew,
then covered by flesh and skin, and finally, in a clear echo of Genesis 2:7,
filled by God with the very same breath of life that transformed the
earth-creature, Adam, from an amorphous pile of soil into a living human
person, made in the image and likeness of God.
Ezekiel’s
visionary prophecy to Israel is gospel – that is, good news – all the way down,
for it not only foretells the improbable restoration of God’s chosen people,
but also proclaims the power of God to bring about the salvation of every
member of creation by way of a love that is more powerful than the worst of
Israel’s (and our) disobedience, and stronger even than death itself. Graves
will be opened; the dead will be raised; and the people of God will be
restored, to be led by the promised eternal heir to the throne of David. God’s
people will once again flourish, and they will once again be holy, their life
together bearing witness to all creation of the steadfast love and endless
mercy of the God whose ultimate aim is to bless all that he has made.
II.
Appearances
have for some time been indicating that the end is coming, and that it will decidedly
not be a happy ending. One need not
be any kind of expert to see that the world and its human inhabitants today are
in a tight spot, and that things are soon likely to become a good deal worse
than they now are. The enmity between Israel and the Palestinians grows as the fighting
between them escalates, with this being but one instance among many of worsening
violence in a world that seems increasingly “red in tooth and claw.”
Self-interest has supplanted cooperation and hate speech now substitutes for civil
discourse in an ever-more divided society, in which the notion of the common
good, for centuries central to Christian social teaching, is at best ignored as
obscure and at worst regarded as an artifact of a dangerous ideology that serves
only to threaten individual liberty. The global exploitation of children – by
the worldwide sex trade, by would-be dictators and ersatz freedom fighters in
the global south, by violent gangs in the cities of Central and South America,
by a neglected and decaying public educational system – has become not just
tragic, but nearly unspeakable.
Even
as the stock market reaches record levels, the disparity in both wealth and
income between rich and poor widens as the middle and working classes fade slowly
into oblivion and the growing underclass falls through gaping holes in an
increasingly tattered safety net. In spite of some admittedly imperfect recent
efforts to improve things, millions still go without adequate health care. Diseases
of the poor, like childhood asthma, type II diabetes, and in some places even
tuberculosis approach epidemic levels, and life expectancy among the poor and
certain minority groups is actually decreasing.
And
perhaps most alarmingly, many of the earth’s large ecological systems, its
biomes, systems of which we are members and upon which we and all other
creatures depend for our very lives, stand on the verge of collapse, due in
large part to the voracious habits of consumption that are the very foundation
of our way of life. The fossil fuels we depend upon, not only for heat, light,
and transportation, but also for things like pharmaceuticals, plastics, and
fertilizers, are in ever-shorter supply and increasingly hard to access without
hazarding even more serious damage than has already been done to the earth
beneath which they lay. Breathable air is in many cities a luxury, and potable
water is in ever shorter supply, such that many experts predict that the nastiest
wars of the twenty-first century will be fought over access to clean water.
Chronic drought and annual wildfires ravage parts of the world while regular flooding
causes nearly irreparable damage to others. Large-scale tropical deforestation
robs us of precious oxygen-producing trees and contributes to the extinction of
species at the highest rate in recorded history. Every year tons of agricultural
topsoil washes into our watersheds, carrying with it the residues of dangerous
agricultural chemicals and expanding a huge “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico,
an area where there exists literally no marine life.
I
could go on, for there is plenty more bad news, and we ignore it at our peril.
But I have hopefully made my point. Unlike Israel, we are not yet dead. But our
trajectory is unmistakable, and perhaps, some say, irreversible. Just so, a
version of God’s question to Ezekiel becomes God’s question to us: “Mortals,”
he demands of us, “can this creation live?”
Where
Ezekiel initially replied hesitantly, unconvincingly, and perhaps even a bit
cynically, we stand at something of a different place. Though things look from
many perspectives to be terribly bleak, we are blessed with the gift of
knowing, at least provisionally, the answer to God’s query. For in spite of our
manifold weakness and our complicity in the sin that has brought us and the
rest of the creation to this point, we stand on the backside of the signal event
that changed the direction of history and initiated the fulfillment of the
promise God made through Ezekiel, a promise made to Israel and to us. That
event, of course, is the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth from among the dead.
III.
In
his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul insists that for all those who are
in Christ, those united to him in baptism, there is a new creation. Death is
defeated and history has taken on a new trajectory, such that we look forward,
anticipating neither the steady growth of a technological progress that will
eventually deliver us from the mess we’re in nor an ecological cataclysm marked
by rising oceans, disappearing coastlines, a lack of arable land, and
inadequate supplies of clean water. Rather, our expectation is that all things
will be redeemed, and that the earth’s original shalom will be restored. The new creation begun in Jesus’
declaration, that God’s reign had commenced, will be consummated by the descent
of the garden city of the New Jerusalem, the place of God’s dwelling with his
creatures. That is one account of the end game, the ultimate future toward
which we may look.
Yet,
although from the perspective of faith the outcome of history and the
restoration of creation is in some sense assured, we are absolutely not excused
from proclaiming and especially from embodying God’s gospel truth, for having
been united to Jesus in his death and resurrection, we are bound to live as
citizens of the kingdom he proclaimed and embodied, living peaceably with and
loving our neighbors, our enemies, and the creation of which we are members.
Having been made part of God’s people, grafted by baptism into the Israel of
God, how can we do otherwise?
From
the time Israel was given the shemah,
in the book of Deuteronomy, God’s people have been called to love; first God,
then each other, then the stranger among them. Love, as my good friend Keith
Wasserman frequently reminds me, is a verb. It entails action, doing concrete
good for the benefit of the beloved, be they family, friend, neighbor, enemy,
or even the particular place on earth one finds his or her beloved occupying. The
great command to love God and neighbor therefore entails loving the creation, for
creation is in some sense, as the church father Athanasius said, “God’s [very]
body,” given to us, like our own lives, as a gift and a loan. It is placed in
our possession as a gratuitous expression of God’s love, an extraordinary
blessing from which we, like every generation preceding us and every one
following us, draw life.
The
great questions that confronted Israel from the time of Abraham to the time of
Ezekiel and beyond are the same questions that confront us today. Having been
made heirs of God’s promised blessing, will we live in such a way that that
blessing is extended to our near and distant neighbors, such that they, too,
may be blessed and enter into worship of the one God who makes, sustains, and
redeems all things? Or will we hoard it, fighting with those same neighbors and
even among ourselves without regard for God or neighbor until we, like Israel,
are “well and truly dead?” Will we take advantage of the freedom God offers,
trusting God to care for us through the righteous, modest use of the good gift
of his creation, or will we continue to demand for ourselves more than we need,
plundering God’s gift without regard for the giver or those others with whom we
are called generously and peaceably to share it? For us, as for Israel, one way
separates us from God and leads ultimately to death, while the other draws us
into the blessing of God’s provision and leads to life. Signs indicate that
much of humanity has in recent history chosen the former option, and now faces
a time of reckoning. Yet even as that reckoning comes, even as we confront the
consequences of generations of unhappy choices, even as we face the specter of
the possible destruction of the earth that sustains us, we may hear the voice
of God, coming to us in the form of a question, but one which is also an
invitation, an invitation to repent, putting aside the way that leads to death,
and taking up the way of God. In doing so, we just may witness God doing the
miraculous, giving new life to dead bones. Thanks be to God.