Audio recording of this sermon delivered in Meinder's Chapel at Phillips Theological Seminary, April 7, 2011.
Is there a more vivid image of utter hopelessness than a valley full of dry bones? The lifeless structure of what has been, left behind, bleached and brittle, nothing more than a reminder of what has been lost. It is not just a scene of death. It’s a scene of annihilation, perhaps a battlefield or the scene of a horrible disaster. The explanation for the bones’ presence in the valley is unimportant. The vision of the dry bones is given for its impact on our psyche, for the feelings of hopelessness that it evokes. Unlike Lazarus, in the gospel text for this week, who has been dead a mere four days and, in the words of the beloved King James English, stinketh, the life that inhabited those left behind in this scene of destruction in Ezekiel is long gone. With Lazarus, we’re tempted to think like the wise Miracle Max from the movie The Princess Bride, “He’s not dead….he’s MOSTLY dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive. With all dead there’s only one thing you can do. Go through his clothes and look for loose change.” Lazarus still had flesh and muscle and sinew, signs that blood flowed through his veins and breath through his nostrils, an indication that maybe life could return, a ridiculous prospect, true, but perhaps more believable than seeing the potential for life in dry bones.
Have you ever known hopelessness? The kind that sucks the life out of you, sapping you of any energy, leaving you wondering if you can go on. Perhaps you’ve seen it in others when tragedy strikes or when years of suffering and struggle catch up with them and begin to turn their vision away from the future and back to the past. Hope, in the words of pastoral theologian Andrew Lester, is “the configuration of cognitive and affective responses to life that believes the future is filled with possibilities and offers a blessing.” He explains that theologically speaking, it “describes a person’s trusting anticipation of the future based on an understanding of a God who is trustworthy and who calls us into an open-ended future.” There are times when that sense of God is lost and when the future seems overwhelming, for it,in our mind,promises nothing more than what we’re already experiencing, more suffering.
Ezekiel explains to us in this passage that he is speaking of Israel. We understand that Ezekiel’s vision came at the period in the history of the Hebrew people when their nation had been destroyed and they’d been sent into exile. All that they had hoped for as a people was lost. The future no longer held for them any possibilities. Their trust in God’s goodness and justice was lost.
How does it feel when you’re confronted with hopelessness? What goes through your mind on your way to sit with a family who’s suddenly lost a loved one? Or when someone talks to you about their experience of being without work for months? What about when you see children and youth caught up in cycles of violence and abuse?
What must it have been like for the prophets, like Ezekiel, looking at the destruction and hopelessness of the people of Israel? When I stop to consider the times when I’ve looked hopelessness in the eye, Ezekiel’s vision takes on a distinct quality of ridiculousness! Speaking to dry bones of life? Saying words of hope to the hopeless? Sometimes ministry is ridiculous. It calls us to trust in a transfinite hope, to use a concept from Andy Lester again, one that defies reasoning, a hope and trust in a God we are sure keeps promises of deliverance, liberation, and salvation. It assures us that what is now will not always be. That trust compels us to stay present with those who are suffering, to offer the smallest dose of hope that can be tolerated.
The process of bringing the dry bones to life in the Ezekiel text mirrors that of the creation stories in Genesis. First the body is created, then God breathes into the form the breath of life. The measured way in which the dry bones are returned to life reminds us that the process of returning to hope is one of recreation, enlivened by the spirit of God, and the minister’s task sometimes is simply to speak the ridiculous words of life in the midst of lifelessness, to be a non-anxious presence, sites fixed on the future promised by a God who does liberate and save.
Now, before we get too excited about participating in this work of restoring hope, I want to ask us to slow down and make an observation about this passage’s presence in our Lenten journey. There’s some introspective work required here, I believe. If we have any expectation whatsoever about staying with the hopeless in their efforts to regain hope, we must first face whatever hopelessness exists within us. There is a risk in life that we get so preoccupied with the tasks facing us in the present that we bury our own hopelessness, paying no attention to it, ignoring it because to look at it carefully is to feel our very breath being sucked out of us. What makes you hopeless? What steals your confidence in the possibilities for the future? Where do you need to experience the breath of God blowing through you like a strong Oklahoma spring wind, fueling fires that burn up all that’s dead, making room for newness and life? Are you willing to uncover it and face it?
Lester, Andrew D. Hope in Pastoral Care and Counseling. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1995.