This is the content of an online sermon that Rev Lofa delivered to students on 29 March 2020, relating to Ezekiel 37:1-14
Life giver, Breather of life, Restorer of all creation
Lead us gently, as we join in spirit to worship with the community of faith who are not physically present with us.
We give you thanks and praises for the life that you have breathed into us.
Out of the depths we cried to you, O Lord.
You, hear our voices!
And let Your ears be attentive
to the voice of our supplications!
We are thankful, for You, should mark iniquities,
And, who could stand?
But it is in You forgiveness is present,
For it is in you all may be revered.
We wait for You, O’ Lord, Our soul waits,
and in Your word our Hope rest and assured. Amen
(Extracts from Psalms 130)
“Where do we begin
with this great wall of fire
or that fire storm
or the hungry angry monster?
Where do we begin?”
How do we enfold them all
into our love, the dozens
of humans dead, the hundreds
of homes razed, the thousands
of folk displaced, the millions
of acres burned, the billions
of creatures dead - how can
our embrace include them all?”
What is the starting point
for our care, now, this task
now to rebuild: which lives
to prop up, which towns to
reconstruct, which roads to open,
what first? what next? what do we do ?"
“Choking” a poem written by Rev. Dr Sarah Agnew as a lament for Australia during the bushfire season of 2019-2020. What a year it has been for Australia and for the rest of the world. When the rains came in some of us will have imagery of the farmers taking off their hats for the rain, to touch their faces. Communities dancing on the streets, the fire fighters and volunteers who embraced the drops from the rain whilst still in their uniforms. What a moment it was that demonstrated an ending to months of fires storm that destroyed homes, billions of creatures, and displaced folks. For Australia it was a defining moment that will go down in History, some of us will be telling these stories to our grandchildren and the generations to come. A time of rebuilding and restoring lives and communities.
On the 11th March the World Health Organisation changed its designation of COVID-19, the illness caused by a coronavirus, from an epidemic to a pandemic. The differences in these two terms is when the disease spreads it only spreads over a wide area and many individuals are taken ill at the same time. If the spread escalates further, an epidemic can become a pandemic, which affects an even wider geographic area and a significant portion of the population becomes affected. (https://www.who.int/news-room/detail/24-03-2020-new-who-recommendations-to-prevent-tuberculosis-aim-to-save-millions-of-lives.)
So, here we are again, we are back at it again a pandemic that’s caused the whole world into changes. And in this time of drastic changes we are learning new terms such as “social distancing”, COVID-19, pandemics, and panic buying and the list goes on. Everyday seems like we are exploring new ways of doing things, staying and working from home. Shopping at a particular time so we can tick off all our shopping list done or not! My family, and I moved to Port Macquarie which is five hours away from Sydney and 90% of our connections with our family and friends are mostly online.
Most of the discussions, we’ve been having is the disengagement from the physical world. Some have expressed the longing for a sense of community interaction and engagement. The fear and anxiety generated by the panic buying. Most of us would agree that we humans are relational beings, and this lock down and social distancing is a sense of realisation as well as challenging. It appears to be bringing death to a different part of our lives, that is being present in community. In the last few weeks I have been hearing from people about the concerns of being in lock down, which is an important part of the COVID19 pandemic. Some of the expressions of emotions coming out of discussions, is the anxiety, worries, fear, and uncertainty.
The question that is repeated from most of these conversations: Where is the hope in all of this?
Which brings us to our scripture reading from the prophet Ezekiel.
A bit of context to the book of Ezekiel it is part of the prophetic literature.
It was written in the period of the Babylonian exiles, one of many multiple exilic experiences – the Judean King and other officials were taken in. Ezekiel was a young priest who happened to be one of a group of other leaders who were mainly professionals, teachers of the law, high rankings in status, priests were all part of the wave of exiles to Babylonians.
Those who were taken into exile, had lost their physical and communal identity, their identity as Israelites seemed to be fading into a mists of history. Some important facts about the national identity of the Israelites: (it was centred around worship, the temple, the Davidic monarchy) so this crisis wasn’t about physical imprisonment. But the removal of being connected to the homeland and symbols that embodied their sense of belonging. The deportees (Israel) were now living in a foreign place, their younger generations national identity and the connections to their ancestors’ land was fading away. Here is the young priest Ezekiel writing as a response to living in exile and continuously looking at his community and trying to make sense of what is happening. Some of the imagery’s that Ezekiel 37 brings into play is this vision from the valley of dry bones. Where it is Ezekiel and God who walks through the valley of dry bones and God continuously ask Ezekiel.
Mortal or Son of Man, will these dry bones live?
This scene is a conversation between God and Ezekiel about the valley of dry bones, a place of hopeless, death, humiliation and it seems to have no way out.
Women scholars from the Uniting Church commented that the dry bones are an aftermath of warfare. After the war we see bodies lying around. Since, the body is a temple of God and it is well cared for. When it is left in this state, in a valley of next nothing more than just dusty and darkness it’s a type humiliation to make known to their enemies.
For Ezekiel this valley represented the house of Israel, a people living with their spiritual and worship lives and identities all seem to be heading into a valley of dry bones one that is fading away.
Verse 4 to 6 is God speaking and promising Ezekiel, that He is the cause of restoration and the one who breathes Life to the valley of dead bones. Ezekiel is told to prophesy and although, it may seem to be his prophecy that moves the dead bones. We need to take not it is God, who commands and the functions of the body moves into motion. We can miss the saving act of God in this passage if we concentrate only on Ezekiel and his prophecy. In fact, the saving act of God takes us back to the two stories of creation in Genesis. Where it is the Creator who commands, breathes and acts creatively which brings the human from nothing, from dust to life. That is exactly what is happening here. Ezekiel prophecies but, it is Ruach which is the Hebrew word for wind, breath and spirit that brings valley of dry bones to Life. The flesh, sinews and all that functions the human body is comes together, but it is the breath of God that embodies and brings life and restoration to the valley of dry bones. The feeling we get from Ezekiel vision is despair, a valley filled with hopelessness.
Ruach breathes into these bodies that are laying around. This is an astounding vision and image of restoration which gives Ezekiel and his community a hope of what is to come. Although, the situation here seems to be impossible of seeing anything beyond hope. But Ruach, is a breath of life that brings a wholeness because it is the very source that gave life to the origin of life.
Some of us might have burning questions regarding prophetic literature. Could Ezekiel be a book about the rapture or the ending of days. When it comes to prophetic literature such as Revelations, Daniel and Esther and the writings of the prophets. We need to be very careful about the way we interpret those text as well as reconsidering them. Why and Who is writing the text, as well as its purpose and audience. Looking at its content can also mean we should examine where is the saving act of God in all of this, rather than saying we are “doomed”. It also means looking on the other side of certain crisis in the text. How does prophetic literature help our current community to come to terms with the crisis and to express what is happening to them.
This brings us back to: How is Ruach, spirit, breath and wind embodied and lived out? Let’s put it another way: How can we embody the life-giving spirit of God in the way we live. How can those things we embody be a sign of hope for our current situation which for some it appears to be a valley of dry bones? The last few weeks has been beautiful to see how some of the community in Italy singing through the streets and some even joining from their homes. At the university, before all our classes went online, we handed out cards to the students to keep in touch and to let us know what they need. We have a number of international students who have no choice but to live in student accommodation whilst some of our local students were able to go home. Someone left a note in our mailbox the other week saying if we needed some toilet paper they had spares in the house.
As we face another week with new things to learn, another challenging week I invite you to reflect on what can the living spirit of God breathe into your family, friends and community. For the spirit of God, gives and brings life to the what seems to be doomed and dry. God's promise to Ezekiel was relevant in the days of exile as it still is today.
“I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”