How many times will we read the same story? Israel gets a new king, the new king falls away from God and makes altars to idols, God punishes them, God has compassion on them, God redeems them. Every new king seems to get a little worse; there was a respite for the thirty one years that Josiah reigned, found the book of law and followed it zealously. But then the pattern repeats itself. God knows how the people are. When he calls Ezekiel he tells it as it is, “The people to whom I am sending you are obstinate and stubborn.” Later in his call to Ezekiel God calls the people “rebellious.”
The two recurring themes are 1) the lure of idols and 2) believing there is no need for God. Are we not still suffering from the same stubbornness? There is a concreteness in idols of Baal. Baal is not one specific god, but a more generic term for the many false gods. The people looked for power in any god that came along, that looked pretty, that made sense, that was containable in some way or another. Idols were seen, they were known, they were visible, they were prestigious, they were able to be created and owned.
Our chapter begins with the tale of Manasseh. This king was looking for power in any and all places except in a relationship with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
He rebuilt the high places his father Hezekiah had deserted; he also erected alters to Baal and made an Asherah pole … In the two courts of the temple of the LORD, he built altars to all the starry hosts. He sacrificed is own son in the fire, practiced divination, sought omens, and consulted mediums and spiritists.
We are no different. While we may not worship golden statues in our living rooms, we do have a host of idols … money, job, family, beauty, success, prestige, medicine, working out, science, nationalism, capitalism, consumerism, knowledge, self-help, etc. Each of us has our own “pick and choose” selection of idols that we own, use, manipulate, and put our hope in. They each have their own particular promise and lure. They each let us know that we are in control of our own lives, that they will serve us in some way. They each give us something, but none of them are the source of life itself. And they all take us further from the compassionate, steadfast love and relationship with our creator. The idols give us the false notion that we can be equal to God.
Each time we attempt to “do it on our own” without submitting to the Covenant … we fail. Our world crumbles. Our homes are destroyed. Our institutions fall. We lose … those we love, a piece of ourselves. We need God. That’s all God tries to tell us, over and over and over again. And God is always there for us, giving us life … over and over and over again.
My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bing you back to the land of Israel … I will put my Spirit in you and you will live …
Up this week is one of the stranger of the Old Testament prophets. Or, at least the one with some of the strangest visions. The chapter has two visions of Ezechiel as “bookends.” It opens with the vision of the living creatures. I have yet to make heads or tails of that one. We end with the valley of dry bones. The imagery of that latter vision is even more macabre, but at least the text explains what it means. The dry bones represent the people of Israel, who feel dried up and dead, but God is promising to restore them again to new life.
That’s the vision that I want to focus on today.
I think that a lot of us, when we hear this story, can sympathize with those Israelites. Many of us feel old and dried out. I know that I certainly do at times. And, sometimes, when you look at many of our congregations, you get the sense that we’re already halfway there. APC doesn’t really fit that mold, but, for far too many congregations in this and other denominations, the average age is getting higher and higher at an alarming rate. And we’re tired. We want somebody else take over.
While all of that is true, I think it’s important to go beyond that overt symbolism. I think we need to think about how the Israelites would have reacted to that imagery.
When we think of bones, we tend to think of things like Halloween. Maybe a little scary, but nothing really beyond that. Not so in Israel at that time. Human remains weren’t just something used to scare kids. Rather, they were a source of ritual uncleanness. According to Mosaic law, a person who touched a dead body, even the bones, was ritually unclean and unable to participate in the life of the community for 7 days. King Josiah, who is part of this week’s lesson, wanted to completely desecrate the idols worshiped by those before him, so, according to 2 Kings 32:6,
(Josiah) brought out the image of Asherah from the house of the Lord, outside Jerualem, to the Wadi Kidron, burned it at the Wadi Kidron, beat it to dust and threw the dust of it upon the graves of the common people (emphasis mine)
So these bones weren’t just dead and dry. They were dirty; filthy; contaminated; unclean. And THIS is what represented Israel. Just like it represents US. Yes, despite all of that, God is still able to make it all “good” again. Like at the beginning.
Interestingly, God didn’t just make all of this happen. God instructed Ezechiel to prophesy to the bones, and to the wind, got get things going. God was doing the work, of course, but God wants the prophet to speak the word. Even though Ezechiel probably felt as old, and dead, and unclean as those bones, he still had to follow God’s urging to speak to those bones, so that they could live. Just like we are called, not just to live ourselves, but to speak God’s word to the dry bones around us.
This week we’ll be reading the story of Jeremiah and Ezekiel. That’s Chapter 17: The Kingdom’s Fall. For those reading along in your own Bible, the reference is:2 Kings 21; 23-25; 2 Chronicles 33; 36; Jeremiah 1-2; 4-5; 13; 21; Lamentations 1-3; 5; Ezekiel 1-2; 6-7; 36-37. Look for this week’s reflection/s on Monday Morning. In the meantime, make comments or ask questions here. Or on the facebook group page, or on Twitter using the hashtag #apcthestory