Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Final Fight: Sermon on Ezekiel 38-39

What's the world coming to? Have you been watching the news, reading the newspaper? There must be dozens of wars going on right now in the world. This year so far, I don't think a day has gone by without at least two “terrorist incidents” somewhere – just last night, a man in Brussels tried to ram a car into the police, and earlier this morning, another car bomb claimed more lives in Syria. There's been so much violence and mayhem – stealing parents from children, children from parents, spouse from spouse, friend from friend.... We've watched in horror as kids wash up on beaches, as people get burned by bombs or chemical weapons. And the guilty so often walk free. Even in Lancaster County, people may well 'settle' arguments, not with a better argument, but with a bullet. And I read in the paper just this morning about an assault here in our own township. It seems like theft, violence, and injustice always win the day. It seems like pain, sorrow, and death always have the upper hand. It seems like greed, exploitation, and media frenzy always follow in their wake. It seems like that's just the way the world is – hopeless and cruel. It seems like we still aren't so far from the way Thomas Hobbes described the 'state of nature,' wherein human life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

So in light of that, what we read here in the prophecies of Ezekiel maybe doesn't sound so unfamiliar, so out of place. All this talk of a vast army, their heavy equipment, and their talk of an evil scheme to attack the innocent and carry away plunder; this portrait of fire and blood. It's not a pretty picture. But it is a meaningful one. And it starts like this: “Son of man, set your face toward Gog, of the land of Magog, the chief prince of Meshech and Tubal, and prophesy against him” (Ezekiel 38:2). Oh boy... Gog and Magog... They play a pretty prominent role in eschatology – that's a fancy word for the study of the end times, the study of the last things. If you've ever listened closely to an “end-times prophecy expert,” you've heard about them plenty, since they show up in Revelation again. That's one of the big questions they're often so sure about – “Who exactly is Gog? Where exactly is Magog? What will all this look like?”

And throughout the years, they've been very sure. Some Christians in the third century were sure that, when Ezekiel (and, later, John) said 'Gog' and 'Magog,' they meant the Roman Empire that was dead-set on persecuting them. But then, in the fourth century, the Roman emperors started believing in Jesus – so maybe they weren't Gog and Magog after all. But there were these heretic barbarians called Goths, so a bishop named Ambrose suggested they were Gog and Magog. Fast-forward a few centuries, and now the empire is being challenged by a sweeping tide of Arabs, propelled by a new religion called Islam; and you start to get a few people suggesting that they're Gog and Magog. Then, in the thirteenth century, barbarians from northeast Asia start invading everything, sweeping across the world, and a missionary says these Mongols are the people of Magog – even Marco Polo gets on board!

Fast-forward a few more centuries, and there are a few ideas. Joseph Mede suggests that the 'Gog' and 'Magog' might be the American colonies! But more popular was Martin Luther's idea that 'Gog' and 'Magog' refer to the Ottoman Empire, the great Muslim world-power in Turkey that then ruled over the Holy Land. Up through the Revolutionary War, that was the most popular notion. A few decades later, after the bloody and godless French Revolution, there's a pastor in New England who makes a case that the French Empire under Napoleon is what's meant by 'Gog' and 'Magog.'

A few decades pass, and the Crimean War in the 1850s pits Russia against Britain, France, and the Turks – and now that Russia looks like the bad guys for a moment, somebody says that they're 'Gog' and 'Magog.' But that passes, and during the Civil War, one Methodist pastor thinks that Europe as a whole might be 'Gog,' and that after the Union wins, they'll attack America. Then World War I comes around, and someone suggests that 'Gog' and 'Magog' might be Germany. But in the wake of a pair of world wars, and as the Cold War begins, a lot of people set their sights on Russia again, on the Soviet Union, as 'Gog' and 'Magog' – Hal Lindsey spread that idea in The Late Great Planet Earth, and even Ronald Reagan believed it.

Then the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union fell, and most of the “prophecy experts” – (by the way, any time you hear somebody call himself a 'prophecy expert,' change the channel) – but most of them were still fixated on former Soviet powers, so they just downgraded Gog's importance. Tim LaHaye, John Hagee – in the nineties, they still insisted Ezekiel was speaking of a “Russian-Muslim alliance” against Israel. Joel Rosenberg says the same thing now, focusing on Russia joining forces with Iran (a Shi'a power, rather than the mainly Sunni antagonists in other scenarios). And in the past couple years, you've started to see a new idea come out of the woodwork: Ron Cantor proposed that ISIS is actually 'Gog' and 'Magog.'  And I won't dare prophesy to you what theory will take hold next.

That brings us up to today, so... what are we supposed to do with all that? And I'd like to suggest that they're all missing the point of what Ezekiel is saying here. Earlier in his book, he has a set of seven judgment messages against nearby nations. And now, at the climax of a sequence of prophecies about God's people being restored, he has one last judgment oracle... and it's against a mysterious “chief prince” from a people-group who haven't really been mentioned since the Table of Nations in Genesis 10! What's more, if you count, he's got seven military allies, all from Israel's distant north and south – but none of them are the same as the earlier seven countries. But a lot of the language comes from those earlier messages. So it starts to look like 'Gog, of the land of Magog' is actually a symbol – a symbol for something mysterious and vicious – a symbol that sums up what was wrong with all those evil empires Ezekiel had called out earlier.

And that's what 'Gog' is – he's a really vivid image for evil's last effort. He's a summary of evil powers, with a complete set of seven military allies and a complete set of seven merchant powers trying to cash in on his spoils and plunder. In our world now, we see all sorts of different countries, different gangs, different terror groups, different factions using violence and robbery to prey on the weak, to exert their power, to augment their prestige and privilege. 'Gog' is that, but projected on the big screen of creation. 'Gog' is what they all aspire to be. 'Gog' is the summary of human evil, the summary of oppression and injustice, the summary of what it means for a nation to be given over to sin. It doesn't matter what mask he wears – whether it's the mask of red tape, or the mask of terrorism, or the mask of gang warfare, or the mask of identity politics, or the mask of nationalism or internationalism or any other mask – Ezekiel is unmasking him, the 'him' to which all history's violence points.

One day, Ezekiel says, that full fury gets unleashed in the direction of God's people – by God's permission. But when we look at Gog and Magog and all their host, when we eavesdrop on their plans, we aren't seeing just one nation or another nation – we aren't seeing and hearing just the Romans, the Goths, the Arabs, the Mongols, the Turks, the Germans, the Russians, the terrorists – we're seeing the exposure of something that's everywhere, even here. Because this is how evil operates, even now. The strong, greedy, and envious use death and pain as a weapon to silence anyone who resists them; to take what isn't theirs; to gain more power, more wealth; to impose their vision on an unwilling world.

You saw it in Castro's Cuba. You saw it in Stalin's Russia. You saw it in the Third Reich, and in Mussolini's Italy. You saw it in the killing fields of Cambodia, the forced marches of the Armenian genocide, the ethnic warfare of Rwanda and elsewhere. You see it in the streets of Chicago. You see it in the Middle East. You see it all around you. The past few months in our own county have seen multiple murders – people using death as a weapon to 'settle' an argument, to 'settle' a score. Families from our own church have been plundered of their belongings. Families from our own church have been exposed to the powerful pain of death. And all that – that leads up to Gog. So many powers in our world use the pain of death and the fear of loss as a way to control, and they wish that they could be like Gog. One day, they may just get their wish.

If that were all there were to the story, it would not be a pretty story. It would not be a happy one. If all human history leads to Gog, and Gog stands triumphant over his enemies, just like violence seems to stand triumphant over the world today... well, where would that leave us? If that's all there is to the story, then for the most part, death and violence work. People can be silenced. People can be crushed and destroyed by it. Millions upon millions have lost their lives, their dignity, at the hands of Gog's precursors. Millions upon millions have been turned into mere statistics, covered up by the sands of time. And if Gog is where it's all headed, what's the point of anything else? History would be nothing but a revolving door of oppressors, tyrants, and revolutions. The violence of the world would go unchecked, because the violence of the world is the real winner on the world stage. Beneath all the civilized veneer we try to use like a mask over Gog's face, it really is the law of the jungle out there, nothing but nature red in tooth and claw, nothing but might making right – or, at least, might making right irrelevant. Gog is on the right side of history, as they say, the side toward which power and influence and popularity gravitate, the side toward which history's arc seems fated to bend. At least, if that's all there is to the story.

And yet the story continues further! Because Jesus Christ is risen! Amen? And because Jesus Christ is risen, 'Gog' can never have the last word. 'Gog' can never finally destroy. Death and violence may be the strongest weapon in Gog's arsenal, but Jesus has the veto power over the death penalty – even after it's been carried out. And so for all those whom Gog or his precursors execute, for all those whom they gun down in the streets, all those whom they blow up, all those they burn away, all those whose property or heritage they steal and violate... their story is not over. Their story may just continue long after Gog's has reached its conclusion. For those who follow Jesus, that's not just a possibility; that's a guarantee.

And so the Prophet Ezekiel makes a few things very clear. First, God and Gog do not see eye-to-eye. In fact, when Gog manifests himself once and for all, so does God's wrath against our wrathful lives. God's judgment on human violence and greed is laid bare here in terms few other prophets equaled: “My wrath will be roused in my anger,” he says, “for in my zeal and in my blazing wrath I declare: … I will summon a sword against Gog on all mountains … Every man's sword will be against his brother. With pestilence and bloodshed I will enter into judgment with him, and I will rain upon him and his hordes and the many peoples who are with him torrential rains and hailstones, fire and sulfur. So I will show my greatness and my holiness and make myself known in the eyes of many nations; then they will know that I am the LORD (Ezekiel 38:18-23).

And Revelation makes it just as clear: “I saw the beast and the kings of the earth with their armies gathered to make war against [Christ] who was sitting on the horse and against his army. And the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who in its presence had done the signs by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshipped its image. These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur. And the rest were slain by the sword that came from the mouth of him who was sitting on the horse” (Revelation 19:19-21). And when the devil “comes out to deceive the nations at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them for battle, … they marched up over the broad plain of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city, but fire came down from heaven and consumed them, and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (Revelation 20:8-10).

It's a really graphic description, but what it shows is this: Gog does not have the last word. Gog does not have the final victory. Gog and his precursors may stride the world-stage for a time, playing their role, imagining that they write the script. But they don't. When we suffer at their hands – when we are oppressed, when we are opposed by governments, when we are threatened by terrorists, when we fear for safety in our own streets, when we don't know what to do or where to turn – God is not watching this with indifference. God is not ignoring us. God is allowing this for his purposes, but he will turn our sufferings into glory, and Gog's glory into destruction. When people imagine that violence will get them anywhere, it's because they're short-sighted. When people imagine that the battle goes to the strong, it's because they're short-sighted. When people imagine that violence and theft are forever, that's short-sighted. When people imagine that it doesn't matter what you believe or how you live, that's short-sighted, because “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18).

Ezekiel wants us to know, very clearly: Gog does not win; violence does not win; injustice does not win. The killers and thieves of the world, or the bureaucrats and thugs who aid and abet them, or the spiritual darkness that empowers them, or the political and economic powers who use them to their own advantage – they don't win, not a one of them wins, winning is not even on the table for them. In the end, they will lose. They will lose. They will lose when they find that, in preying on the peaceful, they were picking a fight with fire from heaven. (If you prey on peacemakers, beware when the peacemakers pray!) And we just need to decide, in how we live, whether we're on Gog's side, the “right side of history” (trendily so called), or on God's side, the right side of eschatology!

But Ezekiel has more. If Ezekiel 38 is about the defeat of Gog, Ezekiel 39 is about the disposal of Gog. And there are three major themes there. Gog doesn't get preserved in a fancy mausoleum like Vladimir Lenin, on display to be oohed and aahed at by adoring generations in perpetuity. No, Ezekiel says, “all the people of the land will bury them” (Ezekiel 39:13). But God also tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the birds and the beasts, calling them to come to the dinner God has set out for them, to “eat the flesh of the mighty and drink the blood of the princes of the earth” (Ezekiel 39:18). John records the same thing: “I saw an angel standing in the sun, and with a loud voice he called to all the birds that fly directly overhead, 'Come, gather for the great supper of God, to eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of mighty men, the flesh of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all men..., both small and great.' … And all the birds were gorged with their flesh” (Revelation 19:17-18, 21). That is not exactly an honorable burial. All the strength of Gog, all the force of evil, all the power of violence – not only does it die away, but it dies in disgrace. Evil doesn't get to make a name for itself. Violence doesn't accomplish glory; it throws it away. Such is in itself the guarantee of and admission of ignominious defeat.

And then, Ezekiel says, “those who dwell in the cities of Israel will go out and make fires out of the weapons and burn them – shields and bucklers, bow and arrows, clubs and spears – and they will make fires out of them for seven years, so that they will not need to take wood out of the field or cut down any of the forests, for they will make their fires of the weapons. They will seize the spoil of those who despoiled them, and plunder those who plundered them” (Ezekiel 39:9-10). In other words, evil can do its worst to us – it can steal from us, it can hurt us, even kill our bodies (for a short while) – but when everything is said and done, God “works all things together for good to those who love him, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). What they mean for evil against us, God means as good for us (Genesis 50:20). If you've been stolen from, if you've been injured, if you've been betrayed, if you've lost loved ones – well, let all that be true, but if you belong to Jesus, he's going to turn that to your benefit. He'll give you the plunder from those who plundered you; and every weapon that was meant to hurt you will instead end up fueling your life in the world to come. The meek shall inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5). Gog inherits an unmarked grave.

And finally, Ezekiel says, the land will be cleansed after the battle. “For seven months the house of Israel will be burying them, in order to cleanse the land. … They will set men apart to travel through the land regularly and bury those travelers remaining on the face of the land, so as to cleanse it. At the end of seven months they will make their search. And when these travel through the land and anyone sees a human bone, then he shall set up a sign by it until the buriers have buried it in the Valley of Hamon-Gog. … Thus shall they cleanse the land” (Ezekiel 39:11-16). I think that's what Isaiah meant when God told him, “Behold, I create a new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind” (Isaiah 65:17). I think that's what John means when he writes, “The first heaven and the first earth had passed away,” and God “will wipe away every tear from [his people's] eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:1-4). In other words, not only is Gog defeated, not only is Gog disgraced, not only does Gog's evil turn into benefit for God's people, but in the very end, Gog won't even be a memory. Nobody will still be haunted or traumatized by him, or by his precursors. There will just be no need to remember Gog, to remember violence, to remember the days of evil. All traces, all effects – they'll all be buried.

Brothers and sisters, we look at the world around us, we watch or read the news, and we see plenty of violence. We see plenty of evil. Sometimes it comes near – steals from us, hurts us, does injustice to us, taints our lives with death. And we cry out, “How long, O LORD, will you look on? Rescue me from their destruction” (Psalm 35:17). We wonder if it will ever end. We wonder if all this could ever be made right, could ever be fixed. We wonder if Gog, and the aspiring mini-Gogs all over the earth, will always have the upper hand, if we'll always be caught in the middle or under their thumb. And the answer is no. Because Christ is risen, Gog's days are numbered. Violence has an expiration date. Evil will be vanquished. You will see a day with only good news.

So no matter how things look, no matter how terrible Gog's precursors and minions, no matter the harm they leave in their wake, no matter how bad or dark things seem to get, Gog is not forever. Tragedy is not forever. Injustice is not forever. Violence is not forever. Terror is not forever. Pain is not forever. Death is not forever. These things are not eternal. They will be destroyed, they will be disgraced, they will be discarded from life and from mind. Even if Gog can kill your body or take your freedom or property or dignity, that's only temporary. You will outlive Gog, if you follow the Rider who is Faithful and True, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords (Revelation 19:11,16), the Prince of Peace who died and is alive forevermore (Revelation 1:18). So take heart! Hallelujah – the ways and days of Gog are numbered, but we're with Jesus, with Jesus on the right side of God's story, and Jesus is forever!

Sunday, June 18, 2017

A Father's Love and Sacrifice: Sermon for Father's Day 2017

Maybe you've heard this quote before – versions have been attributed to Benjamin Disraeli and James Edward McCulloch, among others – but one version goes like this: “No other success can compensate for failure in the home.” Have you heard that? I've heard that before. If that's true, though, I can think of a fair number of folks in the Old Testament who are in pretty deep trouble!

I mean, let's be honest. The lively characters we find there – and I mean the ones portrayed mainly as heroes of faith, as bold servants of God – have their flaws and foibles. And one key area where those are put on display is in the home, as fathers. Let's take a look at the record. Adam failed to disciple his firstborn son in how to handle disappointment, frustration, and sin. Abraham, at his wife's urging, sent his eldest son out into the desert, effectively ending their relationship (Genesis 21:14). Isaac showed clear and explicit favoritism toward his son Esau, to the relative neglect of his son Jacob (Genesis 25:58). Jacob learned that lesson and magnified it when he became a father: he showed even more obvious favoritism toward his son Joseph, and later to Joseph's little brother Benjamin; he valued his sons according to his unequal esteem for their mothers, and it spurred plenty of family conflict (Genesis 37:3). Generations later, we don't know much about Moses as a father, but he neglected having his little son included in Abraham's covenant family – it had to be his wife who performed the circumcision when divine wrath was descending upon Moses' head (Exodus 4:25). Sounds like a bit of weakness in the home to me.

Not that things improved in the promised land. We don't get much insight into the private lives of most of the judges, but Jephthah – who grew up in a rough situation himself, expelled by his half-brothers from their father's house (Judges 11:1-3) – went on to be totally careless with the life and future of his only daughter, vowing to sacrifice whatever came out of his house first to greet him (Judges 11:34-40). Toward the end of the era of the judges, there's Eli, the priest at Shiloh, who raised his sons to be “worthless men,” the Bible editorializes; they officiated like priests but had no real relationship with the LORD (1 Samuel 2:12-17). Eli's discipline was just too lax (1 Samuel 2:22-25). And the same could be said for his successor Samuel, whose sons traveled the same sorry track (1 Samuel 8:2-5).

So we switch to the monarchy, where the tribes are somewhat united under Saul. Saul starts well, but amid his downfall, he harshly insults his eldest son Jonathan and then literally tries to murder him – if that doesn't spell “failure in the home,” I don't know what does (1 Samuel 20:30-33). But we all know Saul ends up as a bad role model. How about his successor, David, the man after God's own heart? For all his credit, David's sin with Bathsheba leads to the death of their infant child (2 Samuel 12:18). And what's more, the ramifications just keep spiraling out of control, and David's family falls apart in horrific ways, as his one son does unspeakable things to his own half-sister, then gets murdered for it by another son, who proceeds to be the first of two sons of David to wage war against their own father (2 Samuel 13f.). And when all was said and done, David's final advice to his son Solomon was to murder David's surviving enemies (1 Kings 2:5-6). In light of all that, it seems at least a little fair to question David's grasp on fatherhood. And as for Solomon, his reign started well, but as he continued to disobey God's Law and accumulate wives and wealth and war machines, he started looking more and more like a pharaoh – and he set a bad example that his son Rehoboam followed, to the ruin of self and country (1 Kings 12:13-14).

So really, what information we do have about fathers in the Bible is mostly not inspiring stuff. Maybe for some of us, that's sort of encouraging – it might be more relatable to our own experience with or as fathers, sad to say. More on that later. But if we do want a positive example of godly fatherhood in the Old Testament, where should we turn? Which of these ancient worthies doesn't let us down in that department?

If you were paying attention to the scripture reading this morning, you already know what I'm going to say. I submit to you that Job may be the best father in the Old Testament. Usually, that's not the reason we read his book. Usually, when we think of Job, we think about a story of deep suffering. We think about an intense dialogue with his three so-called friends. We think about the lesson in patience that it models for us. We think about the end message: that we don't have the capacity to understand the way the universe works; we can't comprehend even the mysteries of the physical world (at least, not yet, not in our immaturity and weakness), much less the ones of the moral world; and so even if God tried to sit us down and explain our suffering in words, it wouldn't do us much good, and so he just invites us to trust him.

But none of that is what we're talking about today. I'd like to take a look at Job's family life, his life as a father. In some ways, it's difficult to quite get a handle on. His story opens by saying that “a man was in the land of Uz,” but nobody can quite agree on where that was – some think it was a region northeast of Galilee, while other scholars suggest a well-watered part of what today is northern Saudi Arabia. Nor do we know exactly when this story is supposed to be set, although the style of living would seem to put it in the era of the patriarchs like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Some later Jewish authors actually made Job into Jacob's son-in-law, and suggested he was an Edomite king. Scholars can't even totally agree on whether Job is a literary character or is meant to be understood as a real guy. But we do know that the name 'Job' was a real one – it shows up in old Canaanite and Egyptians texts.

So there's a lot we don't quite know about where to situate this story. But we do know what the text tells us, including at the start of the story that he has “seven sons and three daughters” (Job 1:2), and that when everything ends, he has another set of “seven sons and three daughters” (Job 42:13) – both numbers that to the Hebrew mind suggested something complete and perfect. So it's fitting that, by my count, the text also says seven clear and definite things about Job as a father. And that's what I invite us to focus on for the next few minutes.

First, as a father, Job is a provider. Job became very rich somehow – maybe he inherited some of it, but surely his industriousness had plenty to do with it, and as a result he came to possess a very vast estate. He had livestock numbered in the thousands, as well as servants in his employ, and the text says that he was “the greatest of the sons of the east” (Job 1:3). As a very wealthy man, Job was able to give his children something enjoyed only by the sons of kings or the super-rich: their own separate residences scattered around the family estate, even before they were married. The text tells us that each son had his very own house, which he'd live in and invite all the brothers and sisters over for a feast – more on that later (Job 1:4). Whatever else you say about Job, that's one thing that's true: he provided for his family. And after he'd lost everything, had his resources destroyed and his life shattered, God blessed him to build it all back again, twice what it had been before (Job 42:10). He was not lazy or selfish. As a father, Job is a provider.

Second, as a father, Job is fair. Job isn't like Isaac or Jacob, who pick and choose among their sons – 'I like this one best; no, I like that one better.' Job isn't like that at all. There's no hint that he favors his eldest, or his youngest, or any of them more than the others. What's more, Job is one of the very first egalitarians in the Bible. The text says, toward the end, that Job gave his three beautiful daughters each “an inheritance among their brothers” (Job 42:15) – and we're meant to assume that's an equal share. To us, that may not sound unusual. But in his world, it was highly irregular. In every country in that part of the world in those days, daughters usually didn't inherit. There was an exception sometimes if the father didn't have any living sons when he died; then daughters might inherit. And sometimes there could be an exception created through a bit of legal trickery: we know of cases where fathers adopted their own daughters as sons to give them a share in the inheritance! But here, Job just... does it. Job treats his daughters equally, giving each a tenth of the immense bounty of land and property and riches that was his. Job doesn't play favorites – not even favoring his boys above his girls, which was totally normal in his culture. As a father, Job is fair.

Third, as a father, Job is a role model. The text is pretty clear on that. I mean, look at how it describes Job: he was “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1). He was a devout and respectable man, someone who had a very healthy consciousness of who God is; and that trait shapes the way he lives his life. He's rich, but he's far from arrogant. Nor does he oppress or exploit his neighbors. Nor does he lie and cheat and steal to hoard more riches.

The text is very clear: he lives a lifestyle of honesty, integrity, generosity, purity, and faithfulness. In no area of his character has he set a bad example for his children to follow. The text doesn't tell us how he got that way – doesn't portray Job's childhood or young adult life, doesn't indulge our curiosity about any past mistakes or character flaws he might have had to triumph over. But triumph he did. And now he's a good role model for his children. If they imitate him as they grow, they'll be on the right track. And all his lessons come from a place of credibility, a place of authenticity – when he sits his kids down to teach them something, they know it's the best. As a father, Job is a role model.

Fourth, as a father, Job is a spiritual leader. The text tells us that Job's sons “used to go and hold a feast in the house of each one on his day, and they would send and invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them” (Job 1:4). And there are two ways to read that. One is that, seven times a year, each boy had an appointed time to celebrate a multi-day feast at his house. But the other way to read it, and one I personally like even if I don't know if it's a truer way to read it, is that each son has a designated day of the week to host, and so every week is a week of feasting as they cycle between each house!

But whichever it is, here's the point. Job is very concerned for the spiritual lives of his children. So much so, he's attentive to the possibility that, during the course of their celebration, when the wine is flowing and it's easy to get carried away and lack perspective, well, there's at least a chance that one of the kids might've sinned secretly, deep down in his or her heart, and not even be aware of it. And Job refuses to let that possibility go unaddressed. Notice how he is with his kids: he doesn't put them on a pedestal – he knows they're sinners, knows they stand in need of God's grace – but neither does he ever write them off or leave them to fend for themselves.

And so, at the end of every feast cycle (however exactly it worked), Job sends servants over to their house to have them purify themselves; and then, in a morning ceremony, just like the priests of Israel did for the nation each sabbath day, Job offers up whole-burnt offerings on behalf of each of his children (Job 1:5). He prays for them, he intercedes for them, even at a cost. The smoke of his sacrifices rises up to the LORD, an ascension offering, to make peace and satisfy any debt incurred by their sin. He sacrifices so that they can stand before God and know that God holds nothing against them. Job is their intercessor. Job is their prayer warrior. Job is their spiritual leader, not just the father of their bodies. Job provides for them spiritually every bit as much as he does for them physically and financially. And clearly, Job has taught and discipled them through their whole childhood, and is continuing to do it even as they live their own lives in their own homes. As a father, Job is a spiritual leader.

Fifth, as a father, Job loves his children deeply. You might think that's a strange item to place fifth in the list! But it's a point that becomes most clear when calamity strikes. The text gives us the backstory about Satan accusing Job in heaven, saying that he's only God's fair-weather friend (Job 1:9-11). But Job doesn't know any of that. All he knows is that, while his children are off having their feast, news comes to him about the destruction of his flocks (Job 1:13-17). And then another messenger comes and says, “Your sons and your daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother's house, and behold, a great wind came across the wilderness and struck the four corners of the house, and it fell upon the young people, and they are dead, and I alone have escaped to tell you” (Job 1:18-19).

And Job grieves a grief deeper than I can understand, deeper than just about any of us can understand. No one should have to receive news of the death of a child on the verge of the prime of life. And yet there are some members in our church family who have had to bury sons or daughters. There are some members of our church family who have felt a pain more painful than any other in the world, a pain that to this day has not really gone away. That pain is a pain reserved only for a mother or father's love. So I'd say imagine – but most of us really can't imagine – Job's pain when he hears that all ten of his beloved children have been killed in one and the same event – that all ten bodies are trapped in the dreadful rubble of the same house.

Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshipped” (Job 1:20). Job never took them for granted while they were alive. And at their death, he is completely and utterly broken, as much so as it's possible to be – or at least, until Satan compounds it by making him repulsively ill and stripping away his support network, too. Make no mistake: Job is in radical grief for the remainder of the story. He has a lot of questions, a lot of objections, and a lot of internalized rage as well as sorrow – that all comes to the fore in the debate poems throughout the book. There is no platitude that will satisfy Job. No “They're in a better place.” No “God must have needed another angel.” No “Everything happens for a reason.” Trite answers and explanations are, in fact, what got Job's so-called friends in mortal danger by the last chapter. Job is reduced to grief, and there really is no explanation that will satisfy him, no words that will make it all better – only time and the presence of God can soothe a wound like this.

But notice what Job does. I mean, first, Job grieves – that much is clear. He grieves and doesn't let any misplaced sense of social propriety stand in his way. He doesn't put on a happy face, he doesn't try to be strong, he doesn't limit his tears; no, he rips up his clothes and shaves his head and throws himself in the dirt. But second, he worships. He doesn't turn his back on God, even if he has a lot of mixed feelings about God. Even when he can't see any justice, even when he doesn't trace any love, even when he isn't sure what's going on, Job worships: “In all this, Job did not sin or charge God with wrong” (Job 1:22). And then, at the end of the story, Job finds new life on the other side of tragedy. Nothing can replace his ten children – not even the next ten children. But Job learns how to experience joy and happiness again, even under the far-reaching shadow of past grief and loss. Job finds it in his heart to welcome more children, to love them on equal terms with those who came before. Job refuses to be incomplete or to remain a hostage to past tragedy, even while his love for his lost children remains strong as ever. As a father, Job loves all his children deeply.

Sixth, as a father, Job extended his fatherhood beyond the family. He says it himself: “When I went out to the gate of the city, when I prepared my seat in the square..., I delivered the poor who cried for help, and the fatherless who had none to help him. … I was a father to the needy” (Job 29:8-16). Job acted in a fatherly role to people outside his family, especially those who had no father figure, no mentor, no provider. And Job stepped into that role for so many people. Never failing in his devotion and commitment to his own household, Job offered his fatherly mentorship to others who had a need for provision, protection, and guidance – Job took under his wing those whose lives were most unlike his.

And seventh, as a father, Job learned fatherhood from God. This is something that only becomes truly apparent when you start to get into the deep theology of the Book of Job, but it's very interesting. A few things tie the book together. First, Job is portrayed almost as an Adam figure. Job lives in “the east,” that mystical land in Hebrew consciousness where God planted his garden in the beginning. Job lives an idyllic life, almost like he dwells in the garden; and just like Adam, Job has every blessing of material wealth he could possibly want. And yet that's not quite enough to satisfy God. At the opening of the text, Job is a “son of the east.” But he stands in contrast to those who meet in heaven: the “sons of God.”

And so what Job does for his sons – sanctifying them by sacrifice – God does for Job. Through fire and the mighty Spirit coming against the four corners of the house like an altar, Job's household ascends to God as a sacrifice. Job himself is described at the beginning as 'blameless,' unblemished, like an animal fit for sacrifice (Job 1:1). And so through his trials and through his questions, Job becomes a living sacrifice fit to be treated as one among the sons of God, whom God addresses from the heart of the storm. Job, perfected through suffering, comes to experience God as a Father. And so when Job goes on to raise his second batch of sons and daughters, and when Job lives on as a patriarch into the lives of his grandsons to the fourth generation (Job 42:16-17), he does it as a father learning from the Father. It's fitting, because as it turns out, scholars' best idea of what the name 'Job' means, judging from how it's spelled in Canaanite writings, is as a question: “Where is my father?” And through these experiences, Job found the answer to his life's big question.

As a father, Job is a provider for his family. As a father, Job is fair to his sons and daughters. As a father, Job is a role model of a wise and godly life. As a father, Job is a spiritual leader and intercedes for his children's spiritual health. As a father, Job loves his children deeply. As a father, Job is a mentor and protector to others who need a father figure. And as a father, Job becomes a son of God and learns to imitate God's fatherhood. And that, you could say, is Job's strategy of surprising success.

So what's the practical take-away? Today, after all, is Father's Day – a day when we honor our fathers for their fatherhood, and when the fathers among us receive that recognition. For those of us here who have had a father like Job – a fair provider, a role model, a spiritual leader who loved you, and so on – if that's been your experience, be glad and rejoice in that! It's something to celebrate.

But there are others here whose fathers may have been very unlike Job. Maybe your father didn't provide for your family, and you grew up in needless poverty. Maybe your father wasn't fair-minded and didn't treat you and your siblings equally. Maybe your father set a poor example, and you're still trying to untangle it. Maybe your father wasn't a believer or otherwise didn't give you spiritual nurture in your upbringing. Maybe your father didn't show you much love. Maybe your experience with your father on earth makes it hard not to bring that negative baggage with you when you hear about “our Father which art in heaven.” Maybe they were all-around bad examples, or maybe they were like other saints in the Old Testament: they loved God but just weren't so strong in that one crucial area of life all the time. Whichever it was, if that's been your experience, still there are Jobs out there, and the one God who can revive and restore us where our pasts are dead and broken.

Or maybe you are a father. And maybe you're a father on the same track as Job. Or maybe you haven't had much success in the home, and you're not very much like Job. Or maybe you're somewhere in between. But if you're a father, whatever kind of father you've been, you can be like Job in fatherhood. And you can be like Job because you have available to you the power and presence of Jesus, the Last Adam, the One Greater Than Job. Jesus, as the Son of God, was offered up as a sacrifice – on that old rugged cross, he suffered sufferings that even Job could never understand. And yet, on the other side of it: behold, our Redeemer lives! And through his mighty rushing Spirit, he re-creates us as children of his Father, the Teacher of All True Fatherhood. And as living sacrifices and children of God, we can be all we need to be – including, if it's our lot in life, a good father. Thanks be to our Father for his unfailing love, through his Son and Spirit, who live and reign with him: one God, world without end. Amen.

[Credit for many insights in the seventh point is due to Toby J. Sumpter's essay "Father Storm: A Theology of Sons in the Book of Job," in The Glory of Kings: A Festschrift in Honor of James B. Jordan.]

Sunday, June 11, 2017

One New People Under One Eternal God: Sermon for Trinity Sunday 2017

The weary denizens of the Til Abubi refugee camp thought they'd seen everything. They thought they were familiar with all his antics. But they were wrong. And they had learned by now that it never paid to ignore him. So when they saw him standing there, theatrically lofting something in each hand, they stopped to watch, as they meandered home from a back-breaking day's labor hauling silt out of the irrigation canal. He was just standing there, and it was mighty trying to the patience, some of them surely thought, but they were curious and didn't want to miss this if it turned out to be important. Only once he felt enough of them had gathered did the prophet begin his performance. In each hand, he had a... well, our English Bibles usually say 'stick,' and maybe it was just a stick or a branch, but the Hebrew is vague, and there's a decent chance they were improvised wooden tablets, maybe made from driftwood or discarded planks, I imagine.

And Ezekiel had painstakingly etched writing onto them. The heading on one read, “For Judah and for the children of Israel, his companions.” And on the other, the heading read, “For Joseph, the stick of Ephraim, and for all the house of Israel, his companions.” If they were tablets, and if those were the headings, in smaller print he might have filled the tablets with a register of where refugees had been settled – on the one, where the Babylonians had dispersed the children of the southern kingdom in living memory; on the other, the little clusters where the Assyrians had dispersed the children of the northern kingdom, the so-called “lost tribes,” a century and a half before.

But the crowd couldn't see that. They could maybe make out the headings – the ones who could read, at least, and who were close enough to the elevated clump of silt where Ezekiel was standing. Before their eyes, as they fidgeted, the prophet slowly, methodically took a hinge or a piece of cloth and tied the tablets together into a diptych – like the icon of the Lord sitting here on the altar. And when he was finished, he held the finished product up over his head for all to see. But he was as silent as a mime, and so it wasn't long before someone in the crowd called out for an explanation. And that, you see, was exactly the request Ezekiel was waiting for (Ezekiel 37:15-18).

He explained to them that he was acting on God's behalf, and that the two tablets represented a problem centuries in the making: that God's one holy nation had been ripped in two, subjected to a lousy string of kings who, in the end, had gotten both nations broken up until they were nations no longer. There shouldn't even have been two of them in the first place, but their bickering, their division, their pride, their disagreements, their lovelessness, had ruptured God's plan for them and torn asunder what God had so gracefully joined. And now they were scattered to the winds, dispersed and functionally dead, neither a nation at all any longer, only stubborn pockets of local communities far from home.

But, the prophet said, God was not content with that kind of situation. He was going to reverse it – to reverse it all. And not just for them, the exiles of Judah, but even for their long-lost brothers and sisters from the north whom even their grandparents had never met. Just as Ezekiel put the tablets or sticks together and made a single item out of them in his hand, so God would take the two former nations in his hand and work the same kind of craftsmanship – he would take the remnants of the north and the remnants of the south, and make a single thing out of them in his hand (Ezekiel 37:19). “This is what the Lord Yahweh says,” Ezekiel announced, “Behold: I will take the people of Israel from the nations among which they have gone, and will gather them from all around, and bring them to their own land. And I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel. And one king shall be king over them all, and they shall no longer be two nations, and no longer divided into two kingdoms” (Ezekiel 37:21-22).

The prophet went on to explain, as we've heard here this morning, that this promise would come true along with their cleansing from idolatry, and the establishment of a new David as their king and shepherd, and the gift of the new heart that would let them do God's will, and the presence of God with his people, and the new and everlasting covenant of peace between him and them – all these prophecies we've been studying would fit together as one (Ezekiel 37:23-28). That's what life in the everlasting covenant would look like – it wasn't just for the Judean exiles, the refugees of this camp and all their friends and relatives. It wasn't just a revival of the Judah they'd known for the past four hundred years. It was something bigger, something grander, something that would include the northerners on equal terms, as one people again, with all their history of division, all their civil war and all their strife, put behind them.

It's a bold and daring promise – bolder even than if you heard that North and South Korea were going to reunite and revive the Korean Empire of old, and the centuries of division would be forgotten and give way to love and harmony between the people, without difference between what once was north and what once was south. Or imagine, if you will, that the Confederates had won the Civil War. And imagine that the nations had existed, side by side, for hundreds of years, each generation in each nation raised with distrust and suspicion and even hatred of the other. And imagine both nations had been broken up and scattered, over a hundred years apart, with most of the people of the Confederate States and the United States dispersed in labor camps throughout South America, not even knowing, barely even caring where the others are, but still each nursed on their own history, barely even recalling to mind that history so long ago before the secession. Can you imagine the shock of a prophecy that, not only would we go back home, but the exiled Confederates and exiled Unionists, after hundreds of years, would be one nation again, like in the days of Washington, and would be more united than ever, with all the old disputes and divisions forgotten and overcome? That's how Ezekiel must have sounded.

And it almost makes you wonder... why? Why is it so important that they be one nation? Why was it ever a problem that they were divided in two? What did it matter if they were split in three, or four, or twelve, or a thousand little principalities, so long as they were safe and happy and holy? I mean, in this refugee camp where he preaches, probably not one of Ezekiel's neighbors has ever given the fate of the northerners, the Ephraimites and their kin, much thought – other than as an ironic parallel to their own plight, maybe. And certainly, whenever they've imagined returning from their exile in Babylon, none of them have ever thought of the northerners coming back, too. And even if they did, wouldn't that be an awkward reunion – bringing their very different histories, their very different experiences, their very different selves, practically strangers, even if in some sense they're long-lost brothers and sisters? Who cares? Why bother?

So really... why bother? Why does it seem to matter so much to Ezekiel? Why does it seem to matter so much to God? What's the point of all this fuss? It seems pointless, awkward, inconvenient. But look at it through another angle. Later Jewish writers made the logic more explicit. See, in later Jewish thought, their teaching of only one true God had a lot of important implications. If there's only one God, you see, there should only be one temple where his presence lives and where his centralized worship takes place. And that's why they didn't go around building replicas of the Jerusalem temple everywhere – although a few groups did try, later on. But if there were two or three valid temples, it would send the message that the LORD our God, the LORD isn't one after all – that maybe the Israelites have multiple gods, and that's why they need the extra temples. And so one Jewish writer writes, “Let there be neither an altar nor a temple in any other city, because God is one.” He said there “ought to be only one temple for one God.”

Or here's another implication they saw: If there's only one God, there should only be one Law, one Torah, one constitution. That's why they didn't go around inventing more of them – one set of laws for the tribe of Judah, another set of laws for the tribe of Manasseh, another set of laws specifically to govern life in Jerusalem. No, they all lived under the same constitution, the Torah, the Law of Moses. If they invented more of them, if they could have all sorts of different laws and different torahs all functioning side-by-side for different cities or tribes or regions, it would send the message that the LORD our God, the LORD is not one. And so one Jewish writer writes, “We received one Torah from one Lord.” Another one writes that the best relationship for the nation was “one constitution, one law, one God whose chosen nation is a peculiar people.”

And there's one other big implication they saw: If there's only one God, there should only be one chosen people, one holy nation. If there's one God, there ought to be one people of God, without division. And that's why they looked back on the era of the divided monarchy as being such a problem. That's why the prophets often treated it with a sense of awkwardness, like when Ezekiel himself, using the age-old image of Israel as the Bride of the LORD, had to picture God as having married a pair of sisters – check out Ezekiel 23 sometime.

See, divided nationhood and the truth of God don't fit together well. They point in totally opposite directions. That's the problem. Later Jewish writers projected back into their early history this sense that the people always belonged to one nation, one community, because they belonged to one God. One writes, “God is only one, and the nation of the Hebrews is only one.” Another writer imagined the Midianites in the days of Moses saying that the Hebrews were so invincible because of their “unanimity and agreement; and the greatest and most powerful cause of this unanimity is the idea which they entertain of the one God, from which, as from a fountain, they derive a united and indissoluble affection for one another.” And that's exactly what the nation of Israel was meant to portray: their oneness was a living parable of God's oneness. Those two things go together.

But in actual history, the nation, through sin, fell apart – first into two divided and sometimes even warring nations, and then into bunches of far-flung enclaves with no relation to each other besides conflicting histories. And in the eyes of the nations, everything about that legacy suggested that the LORD their God, the LORD was not one. With their lips, they recited the orthodoxy of the Shema, that “the LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). But with their lives, with their national existence, they preached a pagan heresy instead. Their whole history of division preached a lie about God. And that's why God wasn't content with anything less than reunion, anything less than one Israel restored from what once was north and what once was south.

Maybe you're sitting here, though, and you're asking, “What does that have to do with us? What does that have to do with today?” And I'll answer that question. See, for the past couple months, we've been looking at these prophecies of Ezekiel, piecing together why it matters that Jesus Christ is risen, what difference it makes in our lives today. We've talked about a new Shepherd for God's flock, about the gift of a new heart that obeys God's will, about the risen and ascended Jesus' prayer ministry at God's throne, about the descent of the Holy Spirit that brings our dry bones back to life again and guarantees we will never be a hopeless case. And all of these things, if you were here on Easter, we introduced under one heading: the new covenant, what Ezekiel in today's passage calls “the covenant of peace..., an everlasting covenant” (Ezekiel 37:26).

And when we turn to the writings of the New Covenant, the New Testament, we get to encounter the oneness of God all over again – but we see it in a radically new light. Jesus addresses his Father as “the only true God” – there's the oneness (John 17:3) – but he expands on that truth so that we catch glimpses that the oneness of God means the oneness he and his Father share, and the Spirit who flows from their love. The oneness of God turns out to mean the love and life shared eternally between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, who all belong to one another, who relate to each other, interact with each other – but that interaction is all internal to the life of the one true God. That interaction, that life, that love, is what it means for God to be one. And that paradox is what Christians have taken to summing up in one word: 'Trinity.' It's not just some abstract teaching for nerds and bookworms. It's also not some bizarre idea the church got that's foreign to the New Testament or irrelevant to Christian life. It's actually the heart of everything, because it's what identifies the shared life and love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit with the oneness of God.

And so Jesus prays for us, his new Israel, “that they may be one, even as we are one” (John 17:11). Where any other Jewish teacher would always have said, “As God is one,” Jesus turns to his Father and says, “As we are one” – that's Trinity talk. But look how Jesus uses it. He prays “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21). Around the one eternal God, Jesus is forming one new people. And if God is one, the people have to be one. And when God's oneness means the shared life and love of Father and Son and Spirit who all find their source of identity in each other, the people's oneness means a shared life and love where we all find our source of identity in the God who is Father and Son and Spirit.

That sounds complicated, I know, but it's how Ezekiel's promise gets fulfilled. And it's way bigger than Ezekiel said. Because not only are the stick of Judah and stick of Joseph being tied together in Jesus, but so are many nations who never belonged before. Because, as Paul saw, if there's only one God, then there can't be one church of Jews and another church of Gentiles, or one path of salvation for Jews and another path of salvation for Gentiles – no, because one and the same God is the God “of Gentiles also, since God is one, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith” (Romans 3:29-30). Jesus' prayer expands the circle of Ezekiel's prophecy to all who would believe his disciples' testimony, creating “in himself one new humanity in place of the two, [to] reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross … He himself is our peace, who has made us both one” (Ephesians 2:14-16). The life of love that believers share in God, when they come from many backgrounds, many divided histories, and set those aside and live as one people under God, is a witness to all nations that God is one, which we see on display in the Trinity.

Here, though, is the problem. To look at the church today, 'one' is not the first word that comes to mind. In the creed, we proclaim as an article of faith that “we believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.” That's the essence of the church we believe in. And yet in practice, the church often fails to be apostolic – fails to act like we've been sent to reach out and touch the world with the gospel. In practice, the church often fails to be catholic – fails to proclaim the whole truth, the whole faith, and not just some limited or jumbled version of it. In practice, the church often fails to be holy – fails to live according to the character formed by God's Spirit, who sets us apart from our past worldly ways for a new way of navigating life. And in practice, the church often fails to be one – fails to be a fitting mirror of the united life and love we see on display in the Trinity.

Instead, we divide, we splinter, we bicker. We've fractured the church along confessional and denominational lines, of course – pitting Lutherans against Methodists, Mennonites against Presbyterians, Roman Catholics against Baptists, Amish against Pentecostals, Orthodox against Evangelicals. We no longer live as one body from many tribes. We've been invited to the promised land, but we're unsure we're ready to live alongside these professing brothers and sisters who live different, look different, speak different, narrate history different.

It's not just confessional and denominational lines. It's the generation gap of the worship wars. It's gathering under this or that preferred teacher. It's speaking different languages, coming from different countries or ethnicities or political tribes. It's personal feuds and disputes within the church. And sometimes, it's the fact that, even when we aren't fighting, we're still so dispersed in our day-to-day life, still so individualistic in how we approach life, that 'church' looks an awful lot like a weekly social club where we touch base and then go our separate ways. Maybe it looks like that because that's how we tend to treat it. But one thing a Sunday morning social club can't do is testify to the world that God is one. And neither can our feuding, our segregation, our division, of any sort or stripe.

See, whenever we fail to live as one people – whenever the church fails to be indivisible, one church under God – whenever we fall short of trinitarian love as God's one new people of love, then no matter what our mouths say, our lives are preaching heresy that may well lead the world straight to hell. Only when we do live like the Trinity – only when we live as one people of love under one God of love – do we preach the truth with our lives and give the world a real window into the life of a God who bears a name like “the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,” one “God in three persons,” the blessed Trinity.

Look around you in your pews this morning. The only identity you have in Christ is one that the people near you have, too – it's the same source, it's the same one God. Think of our friends at Mt. Airy, our friends at Pequea Presbyterian and Limeville United Methodist. Think of your believing Amish and Mennonite neighbors and of Christians far and wide, in the heart of New York City or on the savannah in Kenya or meeting secretly in Iran. The only identity you have in Christ is the same one they have; you are what they are, they are what you are, and the other details are irrelevant.

Any division of them from you or you from them is an offense against the one God in whom we have life and love, and our lying lives will deceive the world. But they will know we are one God's one people by our love. That's the message of Trinity Sunday. Jesus prayed for us to be one. He will get what he prayed for. But we could stand to put up less resistance. It would do us, and our witness, a great deal of good to give in now and live it out. May we live it out indeed – starting right here and right now. Amen.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

New Breath on the Bones: Sermon for Pentecost 2017

What a ghastly, ghoulish scene he saw all around him, this refugee prophet. Not minutes earlier, he'd felt that now familiar sensation come over him – dizzying, overpowering – as Yahweh, the God of Israel, seized him in his grip. And as the vision washed over him, he found himself surveying a scene unlike any he'd ever beheld. Ezekiel looked around, and the contours were familiar. He'd seen this valley before, years before, back home – home in the mountain peaks and winding valleys of Judea. It was familiar. But it was unfamiliar. Then, you could see the temple's peak in the distance. Now, nothing was left of God's house but scorched rubble, and all the holy city in ruins with it. Then, this land, this valley, had been a lively place. Now, there wasn't a sound – not even the distant chirp of a bird or cricket, not the blowing of a breeze or the stirring of a creature. Everything was perfectly still.

Most noticeable, though – Ezekiel wasn't alone. He had the dead for company. The valley, up to his shins, was filled with... other shins. Or what used to be shins – tibiae and fibulae – and, what's more, femurs, pelvises, ribs, vertebrae, scapulae, humeri, radiae, ulnae, carpals and metacarpals and phalanges, skulls and mandibles, scattered hither and yon – all bleached, picked-clean, desiccated. They gleamed white under the warm sun – blindingly white, so that he could hardly bare to keep his eyes open. And dry and dusty – they looked old, these barren skeletal remains of men, women, and children – and all left unburied, like the scene of an ancient slaughter, like a forgotten battlefield from a total defeat (Ezekiel 37:1).

Ezekiel was hopelessly confused – could this really be the valley he'd visited in his youth? Could these really be his people? This spine wrapped around his calf – was that his cousin, his mother, his father? Could this even be the present at all? Or was this the distant future? Is this the final fate of God's so-called people – left to rot beneath the sun for all eternity, picked clean by vultures and ravens, and forgotten to the sands of time? What Ezekiel surveyed around him was well nigh a portrait of hell.

But as the tears streamed from his eyes, he felt a tug, an irresistible tug. God still had him in his grasp. And so this LORD pulled him through the bones – Ezekiel didn't want to move, didn't want to come into contact with death, didn't want to be defiled with every step, and what's more, feared that the slightest touch would make the bones crumble to dust – but the LORD kept pulling and pushing and prodding, leading him through the valley (Ezekiel 37:2).

And as he went, Ezekiel remembered the chant that some of the more melancholy Hebrew refugees sang in the camps at night: “Dried up are our bones, gone is our hope, cut off are we” (Ezekiel 37:11)! And, thought the prophet, that's how this looked: everything he saw with his eyes, felt with his legs, epitomized the very word “Hopeless,” as he trod down the sum total of what was left of the dishonored dead. What was he to answer when the still silence was split by a sound, the voice of the LORD: “Can life be found here, with these forlorn bones? Can these bones live? Is there any hope at all here?” (Ezekiel 37:3).

Ezekiel felt alone in the valley. But he's not. And not simply because the Spirit of the LORD took him there. No, Ezekiel isn't alone in the valley because we've seen it, too. We've surveyed scenes that look like this – that afford no hope in themselves, no prospect of life, no vitality, no future, nothing but the accomplished fact of decomposition and destruction. We've seen things that look hopeless. And really, left to our own devices, we are a scene like this! Circumstantially, we get ourselves in hopeless situations, find ourselves somewhere we feel as good as dead.

Physically, we know this is where we'll end up – death is inevitable, with nothing in us to suggest an alternative to its finality: excavate the grave of any king, any president, any celebrity, and beneath the fancy monument, you'll find nothing that wouldn't blend in at Ezekiel's feet that day. Dig up your loved ones, leave them in the sun for a little, and they'll be every bit so bleached and every bit so dry. No exceptions. Charlemagne is no less dead than every forgotten peasant who farmed his food. Nor is there one whit more life in our great-grandparents' bones. And the hour is fast approaching when the same can be said of us. The clock is ticking with unrelenting inevitability – we all end up as dust and bones, hopelessly lifeless.

And spiritually, left to our own devices, we are “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). Not merely handicapped, not merely disadvantaged, not merely needing to put a little more effort in, but dead, dead as dry bones, devoid of the capacity to fix ourselves or even make ourselves better, empty of life and hope. Left to our own devices, we are a resident of the Valley of Dry Bones. And that is not a cheery thought! It's enough to make you want to say that the whole world is meaningless, that nothing matters, that life is a tragic joke that falls flat, that hope is a lie and everything is lost.

And yet, we read, that God would “not let his Holy One see decay” (Psalm 16:10; cf. Acts 2:27-32). God did not allow the Valley of Dry Bones to be all-consuming. Dissolution and disintegration and decomposition and destruction and death do not have the final ruling! And Ezekiel saw that firsthand for himself. Faced with the divine question, Ezekiel submits. He dare not presume by saying yes, but he dare not preclude the prospect by saying no. And so the prophet says, “Lord Yahweh, you know” – God alone can discern the hope for life when all is hopelessly dead (Ezekiel 37:3). And so the LORD bids Ezekiel to introduce these 'hopeless' bones to the word of God, to bring the silent grasp of death and decay into confrontation with the noisy language of heaven (Ezekiel 37:4-6).

Ezekiel must have felt profoundly silly. It's an awkward thing to preach a sermon to a totally still audience, one that doesn't react, doesn't offer any cues as to how it's received – that's why pastors love to see people nod, see people murmur, hear them call out 'Amen!' or at least something, any sign of acknowledgment and recognition and engagement, any sign of life at all out in the land of the pews. So Ezekiel must have felt profoundly silly, trying to prophesy, trying to preach, to the long-dead bones all around him, all over the valley. But he shouts it out all the same, the message that God has given him today.

He prophesies to the bones, he prophesies to the stirring wind, and just as in the beginning, when matter meets form, and when matter plus form meets the Spirit of God, the breath of life, that equals something that lives and moves and has its being! The quaking gives way to bones reconnecting, regaining their tendons and muscles and skin (Ezekiel 37:7-8); and when the Spirit hits them, this wind, this breath – it's all the same word in Hebrew – when this wind or breath or Spirit gets in them, their lungs fill up, and energy throws their eyes open, and they stand up, and you can almost see the lightning flash in the distance and Ezekiel call out, “It's alive! It's alive!” But look, look! This is no lumbering monster cobbled together in a lab; this is a countless army, vigorous and strong, girded for battle! When the word of God is proclaimed, and when God's Spirit rushes uncontrollably and untameably in like a “mighty rushing wind” (Acts 2:2), it breathes a lively fight back into what once was a long-dead scene of uncontestable defeat (Ezekiel 37:9-10).

The message for Ezekiel himself, his lesson to take away from all this, is that no matter how final things may look for the demoralized exiles living under Babylon's thumb, no matter how irreversible their loss, no matter how hopeless it may seem, the Spirit of the LORD turns distance into nearness, deportation into homecoming, defeat into victory, dryness into freshness, death into life. The exiles may feel like saying, “My life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my iniquity, and my bones waste away” (Psalm 31:10). But that is not the last word – no matter how extreme the loss, things can change the instant God blows his Spirit on the situation. No matter how far gone they are, the Spirit can carry them home. They don't have to stay in Babylon like a grave – and neither, one day, will the slaughtered whose bones got left behind (Ezekiel 37:11-13).

The Lord GOD, as it turns out, is something of an expert on getting out of the grave alive. See, that's exactly what he did with his Son, Jesus, the long-awaited Messiah, the Spirit-bringer. After the crucifixion, everything seemed lost, far gone, hopelessly dead. The disciples went around saying, “we had hoped,” in the past tense (Luke 24:21). But then came “the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the grave, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we are all witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from his Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing” (Acts 2:31-33).

Those were the words of Peter fifty days after the resurrection – on the sixth day of Sivan, the Feast of Weeks, traditionally identified as commemorating when God gave his Law to the people and constituted them as “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). The Feast of Weeks was a time for recalling how they became God's treasured possession, and how they were given his Law to guide them through life. But that year, on the Feast of Weeks – which we call Pentecost – an even greater gift came to raise up for God a fresh people out of the walking dead as dry as deserted bones.

All because Jesus Christ is risen, all because Jesus Christ ascended, the same Spirit that revived the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel's vision came to do the same for his church. The same Spirit who, in the Old Testament, came to gift visionaries, artists, preachers, and warriors – that same Spirit was breathed out upon those disciples that day (Acts 2:3-4), equipping them, too, with life and power and startling gifts from above. The Spirit was never under their control, never subject to their bidding – “the Spirit blows where it wishes” (John 3:8). They can't command the Spirit, can't control the Spirit; all they can do is receive the Spirit through faith (Galatians 3:14) and avoid quenching the Spirit once he arrives (1 Thessalonians 5:19).

And what we find on that day is that the Spirit isn't just for speakers of Hebrew and Aramaic. God had promised to pour out his Spirit on all flesh,” man and woman, young and old, dignified and lowly (Joel 2:28-29; cf. Acts 2:16-21) – and as the disciples saw at a later time, “the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles” (Acts 10:45). When Ezekiel glimpsed the Spirit restoring life to “the whole house of Israel” (Ezekiel 37:10), that meant branches grafted in from many other trees as well (cf. Romans 11:17-24). We who once were not his people are now claimed as his people (Romans 9:25-26) – we belong to the house of Israel made alive by God's Spirit, if we receive him through faith.

That was true for the multilingual Jews at Pentecost, it was true for early Gentile converts in the first-century church, and it's just as true today. And that's a game-changer! The word has been proclaimed to us, the Spirit has rushed down upon us – 'dry bones' is not our destiny. If you could find a Christian online dictionary, type in the word “hopeless,” and hit 'search,' you know what comes up? “No Results Found!” For people who know the Spirit, it's just not in our vocabulary! See, because Christ is risen, because he pours out his Spirit of Life, dry bones can live! God promised by Ezekiel, “I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live” (Ezekiel 37:14) – and so he did, and so we do! “Even when we were dead in our trespasses, [God] made us alive together with Christ … and raised us up with him” (Ephesians 2:5-6).

We were not left to rot! We are not forgotten! We will not crumble to dust – at least, not irreversibly, not for long. When the Spirit would come, we would “receive power” and life again (Acts 1:8). The Spirit has come – so our suffering, however it feels, is not hopeless. The Spirit has come – so our situation, however it looks, is not hopeless. The Spirit has come – so our setbacks are not hopeless. The Spirit has come – so our sin is not hopeless. The Spirit has come – so death itself is not hopeless!

It's not hopeless spiritually – we are made alive in Christ and given a Spirit “of power and love and self-control” (2 Timothy 1:7). And it's not hopeless physically – because “if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Romans 8:11). One day, in that cemetery behind me, the bones will literally come back together, they will literally be covered in tendons and muscles and skin, they will literally live and breathe again, glorified beyond death's reach forever – and so will you: “[Jesus is] the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in [Jesus], though he die, yet shall he live” (John 11:25). “What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable … raised in glory … raised in power” (1 Corinthians 15:42-43).

Through the Holy Spirit, you are not dry bones. Even though you die, yet shall you live. Through the Holy Spirit, you are brought back to life. Through the Holy Spirit, you are a new creation, every bit as fresh as the first. Through the Holy Spirit, you will live to fight again, with the vibrant vitality of God himself – because his Spirit is in you, whatever you may feel, and can turn things around in an instant when he comes rushing in. And through the Holy Spirit, you will never be a 'hopeless case,' not on any day, not on any night, not when the mountains fall and the tempest rages, not even when you're six feet under – because Jesus Christ is risen and his Spirit is here!

These bones, once dry, are dead and dry no longer – they've got new breath in them! The Spirit of God turns defeat into victory, dryness into freshness, and death into life! “Having been buried with [Jesus] in baptism,” Paul writes, “in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses” (Colossians 2:12-13). We are alive to fight on, another day, and another day, and onward into the Last Day that has no end! Life has come, and life has the last word! So since we live by the Spirit, “let us also keep in step with the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25; cf. Ezekiel 36:27), and march onward as the army of life, breathing life upon a world of dry bones. Amen.