Category: Lectionary Yr A

Sermon: 5 Lessons for a Pandemic

Here’s the text of the sermon I preached this morning in our first GoToMeeting.com worship experience. We had some technical issues, but a good first effort. 

Ezekiel 37:1-14

37 The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”

I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath[a] enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’”

So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.

11 Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’”

The Story of Ezekiel and the Valley of Dry Bones

The book of Ezekiel is a strange and wonderful book of prophecy and stories. Years ago I had a book titled, The Bible and Flying Saucers. I bought it at a markdown from its original price, so I’m pretty sure it was not a best-seller. But, the book’s thesis was that the Bible talked about flying saucers, and it cited the vision Ezekiel had of the “wheel-in-the-wheel, way up in the middle of the air” as evidence of an flying saucer powered by a gyroscope.

Needless to say, I discarded that book several years ago.

But, this passage is probably the most popular passage in the book of Ezekiel. The valley of dry bones gives us that famous spiritual, “Dem Bones,” by James Weldon Johnson.

Intro 1

Ezekiel connected dem dry bones,

Ezekiel connected dem dry bones,

Ezekiel in the Valley of Dry Bones,

Now hear the word of the Lord.

Verse 1

Toe bone connected to the foot bone

Foot bone connected to the heel bone

Heel bone connected to the ankle bone

Ankle bone connected to the shin bone

Shin bone connected to the knee bone

Knee bone connected to the thigh bone

Thigh bone connected to the hip bone

Hip bone connected to the back bone

Back bone connected to the shoulder bone

Shoulder bone connected to the neck bone

Neck bone connected to the head bone

Now hear the word of the Lord.

Finale

Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones.

Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones.

Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones.

Now hear the word of the Lord.

If we were all together today, we’d sing a couple of rounds of ‘Dem Bones just to put us in the mood for dealing with this passage.

But as jaunty and fun as ‘Dem Bones is, the context of this passage is anything but fun. The backstory for this passage goes like this:

Ezekiel was preparing for the priesthood in Jerusalem about 597 BC. But then, out of nowhere, the Babylonian empire invaded Judah and the city of Jerusalem. In the ancient world when a powerful empire invaded a smaller country, the purpose wasn’t to destroy the invaded country. The purpose was to turn it into a vassal kingdom, paying tribute and contributing goods and people to the service of the empire.

So, Ezekiel finds his plans disrupted. And when his wife dies, God tells Ezekiel not to mourn for her, as an example for the nation of Judah not to mourn for the destruction of the Temple.

For 10 years Babylon carries off the king of Judah, and seeks to subjugate the Jews under its rule. But they resist. Finally, Babylon tires of the resistance of the Jews, and lays siege to Jerusalem. The siege goes on for 2 years. People starve, they get sick, they die. And yet they resist.

Finally, in 587-586 BC, Babylon’s patience is exhausted and the Babylonian army overruns the city of Jerusalem, destroys it, and in the process destroys Solomon’s Temple – the dwelling place of God in the eyes of the Jews of that day.

About 150 years before, in 722-721 BC, the Assyrians had invaded the northern kingdom of Israel and carried the tribes of Israel off, dispersing them throughout the Assyrian empire.

So, Ezekiel begins to prophesy in about 592 BC, and prophesies through the destruction of Jerusalem. And then, in 586 BC, more Jews are carried off to Babylon in what is known as the Babylonian captivity. It had only been about 800 years or so since the Jews escaped bondage in Egypt, and now they were captive again.

Five Lessons from the Valley of Dry Bones:

  1. There are questions we cannot answer. V. 1-3

The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”

I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”

Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones is like no other vision in the Bible. The dry bones, of course, refer to the lifeless state of God’s people. They have been defeated, their culture destroyed, their sacred Temple torn down with impunity, their lives disrupted, their families torn apart, and many have died in the process.

So, God asks Ezekiel, “Can these bones live?”

Of course, bones don’t live by themselves. And, these aren’t the fresh carcasses of Israel’s devastation. They are dry bones, with no life left in them. They are scattered, disjointed, incapable of pulling themselves together into a living thing.

So, when God asks Ezekiel, “Can these bones live?” Ezekiel shrugs, and gives an answer that comes from despair and hopelessness.

Ezekiel might as well have said, “I have no idea if these bones can live or not.”

But what he does say is, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”

Today, there are questions we cannot answer about the coronavirus and its effects on our lives. Just three Sundays ago we met for worship. We were joking about hand sanitizers, bumping elbows, and not holding hands after communion. The virus seemed like a distant threat that surely would not get here to little Chatham.

But then we heard that one of our own, Landon Spradlin, had collapsed on his way home from ministering in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. And for days we prayed for Landon, Jean, Caroline and Landon’s children.

And then the unthinkable – early Wednesday morning we awoke to the news on Facebook that Landon had succumbed to the effects of the coronavirus. And suddenly, all the answers we had to the questions about the virus, how long it would last, what our government should do, what we should do, how we were going to live – all of those questions suddenly had no answers.

Like Ezekiel, we were shocked, discouraged, disoriented, and confused.

But while we and Ezekiel did not know the answer, God does. Which brings us to our second point:

  1. There is a future we cannot guarantee – but God can. Vs. 4-6

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath[a] enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’”

God says to Ezekiel, preach to these bones. Now Ezekiel had one up on me, because I can’t see anything (except Debbie sitting here). So, at least Ezekiel had an audience of sorts.

“Preach to the bones and tell them what I’m going to do,” God commands.

And God promises to make “breath” enter the bones, and to connect them again. And to put sinews and muscles and skin back over them. And to stand them up and bring them to life again.

Obviously, Ezekiel wasn’t able to do that. Only God could. And God’s promise was to his people who could see no way forward, whose leaders had been rendered ineffective, and who had no one to turn to for help – except God.

And even before they turn to God, God turns to them with a promise for a future they cannot guarantee alone. But God can.

And, if that sounds familiar it is because that is where we are globally and as a nation. Our emergency plans have failed us, our scientists aren’t sure about all the characteristics of this disease, and within one week the world’s richest and most powerful economy came crashing down.

No one can predict what will happen next – with the virus, with the economy, with school with work, with our regular routines. And, so we find ourselves cast upon the mercy of God.

  1. All we can do isn’t enough. V. 7-8

Now that’s discouraging. So, Ezekiel preaches to the bones, and things start to happen. The bones come together, the tendons and flesh cover them, and the skin appears again.

But, there was no breath in them.

Now the word that is translated breath, is the Hebrew word, ruach. Which can be translated breath, wind or spirit.

  • At creation, after God formed Adam from the dust of the earth, Adam was alive only after God breathed into him the breath of life.
  • When Jesus talked to Nicodemus, he spoke of the Spirit that blew where the Spirit wanted to blow, like a wind in the tree tops.
  • At Pentecost, the Spirit comes as a mighty, rushing wind, filling the place and the apostles with the presence and power of God.

After Ezekiel has done all he can, it’s not enough. The bones come together, but the Spirit, the breath, the life-force of God, is not present to animate them.

  1. While all we can do isn’t enough, what God does makes the difference. V. 9-10

God commands Ezekiel to prophesy to the breath. He commands the breath to come from the four winds and breathe into these who have been killed, so that they may live.

Ezekiel does so, and before him a miracle happens – into the lifeless, inanimate bodies of the dead, the breath – the spirit – the breath enters.

The transformation is instantaneous and remarkable. The came to life, they stood up and they were a vast and mighty army!

  1. Finally, God explains it all to Ezekiel. V. 11-14

11 Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’”

And, here’s the point of the explanation –

Resurrection, which is what the valley of dry bones symbolizes –

Resurrection isn’t just about opening graves and standing up corpses.

Resurrection is the work of God…

Undoing the destruction of death…

Through the new life of the Spirit.

And that is our hope today. That is our confidence. None us of knows what will happen tomorrow, or in two weeks, or in two months. We want things to be different. We want people to be healthy and not sick. We want life to return to normal.

But right now, in the midst of confusion and uncertainty, we look to God. And this the same God who promised his people, who also could not see the future, that he was with them, that he cared for them, and that his spirit would sustain them, and resurrect them to new vitality.

And that is our prayer today, in Jesus’ name.

 

 

Podcast: Inheriting the Kingdom

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Last Sunday I preached from Matthew 25:31-46, the story of the separation of the sheep and the goats. After Jesus places the sheep on his right and the goats on his left, he turns to the sheep and delivers this message —

‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

Of course, that sounds like all we have to do is feed, give water, take in strangers, clothe people, visit the sick and those in prison and we get to go to heaven. But, who were those in the first century who were hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick, and imprisoned. Because knowing who they were gives us insight into why this is Kingdom work. Here’s the audio —

 

Podcast: Thanksgiving and Faith

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Yesterday I preached from Luke 17:11-19, on the healing of the 10 lepers. You remember the story: Jesus healed 10 lepers, but only 1 of them returned to thank him. But, there is certainly more to this lesson in thanksgiving. Here’s the audio which runs about 16 minutes. I hope you and yours have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

Podcast: Connected to the Past, Facing the Future

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From Joshua passing the river Jordan with the Ark of the Covenant, 1800, by Benjamin West. Wikipedia.

Last Sunday, November 5, 2017, I preached from Joshua 3:7-17, the account of Joshua leading the Israelites across the Jordan River. Joshua was connected to the past because he and Caleb were the only ones of their generation to endure and reach the promised land. But, Joshua was also a new leader for a new day in a new place. God’s promise to Joshua was “I will be with you as I was with Moses.” Here’s the audio of “Connected to the Past, Facing the Future,” which has insight for our churches today. I hope you find it helpful.

Podcast: I am your brother, Joseph

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Today I preached from Genesis 45:1-15. It’s the story of Joseph revealing himself to his brothers who do not recognize him. Of course, there’s a lot to this story, and it’s one of the great stories of the Hebrew Bible.

It is also a timely story for the circumstances we in the United States are facing today. Where Joseph could have demanded retribution and revenge because his brothers sold him to passing merchants, he instead offers grace, mercy, and peace. Joseph is able to do this because he realized that God was at work in the life of his family and the nation. By offering forgiveness and reconciliation Joseph turns the brothers’ guilt and his father’s grief into joy and unity. I also ran across a great story that I think you’ll enjoy. Here’s the audio podcast:

 

After Charlottesville

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Photo credit: ABC News

Yesterday I preached on the story of Joseph and his brothers from Genesis 37. Arrogant Joseph with his multicolored coat, and his brothers who plotted to kill him when they saw him coming. This story resonates in light of the violence and hatred and death in Charlottesville, Virginia, just 110-miles north of where I live.

Joseph and his brothers illustrate the worst in our society today — division, hate, racism, and violence. Often, our first knee-jerk response to those with whom we disagree is to violent, vengeful thoughts. This Joseph story — with its division, hatred, and violence — is as old as humanity, and sadly often repeated.

Here’s the audio of my sermon yesterday. It’s only 18-minutes, but I think you’ll find it helpful. This is not about confederate monuments or free speech or political parties — its about violence, hatred, and vengefulness. These are never morally right, whether the cause is repugnant or righteous. Jesus has called his followers to respond in a totally different way from our society’s default to violence. Listen and tell me what you think. And pray for Charlottesville…and our nation.

Sermon: God is here and I didn’t know it!

Here’s the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow. It’s about Jacob and that famous ladder of his, but there’s much more to it than that. The format is a little different from my usual style, but each verse is so rich and significant, I decided to breakdown the text one or two verses at a time. I hope you find it helpful and that your Sunday worship is wonderful.

Genesis 28:10-19 NIV

10. Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Harran.
Okay, let’s stop right here because we need to remember the backstory behind this brief verse. Jacob doesn’t just leave Beersheba. He has to leave because his brother Esau is planning to kill him.

And why is that? you ask. Because these are brothers who don’t get along. These are brothers — even though they are twins – who are as different as night and day. When Isaac’s wife Rebekah gives birth, Esau is born first. But his brother Jacob emerges gripping Esau’s heel, as if he – Jacob – is trying to pull Esau back so he can be first.

But Jacob is not the first born, which galls him to no end later in life. To top it off, his mother, Rebekah, likes Jacob best because Jacob stays home. But Isaac likes Esau best because Esau is a hunter and an outdoors kind of guy. Plus Esau is ruddy and hairy, and a real macho dude.

And, it gets worse. One day Esau returns from hunting and he is famished. Jacob just happens to be cooking some stew, and Esau begs him for a bowl of it before he dies. (Did I say Esau is a bit dramatic?) So, anyway, Jacob says, “Okay, but give me your birthright.” Now the birthright is the right of the firstborn. It conveys the firstborn’s right of inheritance and blessing.

Have you ever been really, really hungry? Well, imagine that time when you were really, really hungry and multiply that by, oh, maybe a zillion and you get how starved Esau thought he was. So Esau says, “Why not? What good will my birthright do me if I’m dead?” Again, a little dramatic, but he was really, really hungry.

But it gets even worse.

Isaac is really old and blind by now. So, Isaac asks Esau to go hunting, and then make Esau’s famous stew (apparently all the guys in this story know how to cook stew) and bring him some. Then, Isaac says, I’ll give you a blessing.

Rebekah, the mother, overhears this conversation. She wants Jacob to get the blessing from Isaac, so she calls Jacob, fills him in, and cooks a goat for him – as quickly as you can cook a goat.

She puts goat skin on Jacob’s rather dainty, hairless arms to fool Isaac. By the way, nobody ever accused families in the Bible of being perfect.

So, Jacob goes into Isaac’s room with his stew. Isaac, who is blind, says, “Well, that didn’t take long. Are you sure you are Esau?” To which Jacob replies, “Yes, father, I’m Esau!”

Isaac is skeptical, to say the least, and he tells Jacob to come closer so he can touch him and confirm he is indeed Esau. Jacob does so, and Isaac says, “The voice is Jacob’s, but the skin is Esau’s.” So he pronounces his blessing on Jacob.

Now not to excuse what Jacob and Rebekah are doing to deceive old, blind Isaac, but I’m sure Jacob rationalizes that the blessing of the firstborn is rightfully his because Esau sold it to him for a bowl of stew.

In the meantime, Esau returns, brings Isaac the meal he has prepared, and asks for his blessing. Realizing he’s been tricked, Isaac tells Esau that he can’t give him the blessing of the firstborn because Jacob already has it. (No one seems to know why Isaac cannot correct this injustice, but he can’t.)

Esau is hopping mad and says, “After my father is dead, I’m going to kill Jacob.” Rebekah hears about this. Realizing that Jacob had better leave home quickly, Rebekah tricks poor old Isaac into sending Jacob away to get a wife.

Which is why Jacob leaves Beersheba and sets out for Harran. Wow.

11. When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep.

Okay, so back to our story. Jacob travels about a day’s journey and reaches “a certain place.” Well, of course he reaches a certain place, but why doesn’t the writer tell us the name of this place? Be patient, because the name will be very important. But to Jacob, this is just any old place, and he stops for no better reason than it’s nighttime. We’ll come back to this in a minute.

Debbie has been having neck problems, and we have tried every possible remedy. Finally, she saw a physical therapist, and is now getting regular neck massages from Gayle Wright. I’m sure you wanted to know that.

But, before she did that, we bought several different pillows. We’ve tried buckwheat pillows, down pillows, latex pillows, fiberfill pillows, and so on. We have a lot of pillows. But we finally found a memory foam pillow with a cooling gel top that she really liked. So we bought one. Then I bought one because I was jealous of her having the good pillow. I will not tell you how much they cost because I am embarrassed to tell you how much they cost. But they are really comfortable. Really.

But Jacob was apparently not as picky as Debbie and I are because he selects a nice firm rock for a pillow. No wonder he dreams strange things.

12. He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.

Okay, this is pretty straightforward. This is where we get Jacob’s ladder and the song by the same name. But, of course those spoilsport biblical scholars now tell us it was probably a stairway or ramp that curled around and up, like the stairways on the ziggurats of ancient Mesopotamia. Like the Tower of Babel. So, instead of singing the spiritual, Jacob’s Ladder, it might more likely be Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven!

Not the same, I know, but that’s what they tell us. In any event, the stairway or ladder connects heaven and earth. And God’s messengers (because that’s what angels are) are going up and down from heaven to earth and back. This idea of heaven meeting earth will be formalized in the Tabernacle and then permanently in the Temple. But this is our first glimpse of the heaven and earth connection.

But here’s the important part in verse 13:

13. There above it stood the Lord, and he said: “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying.

In the ancient world, at the top of the ziggurat God was to be found. Which is why the earth’s early inhabitants tried to build the Tower of Babel. And so the biblical writer uses a familiar image of the stairway, and God is at the top looking down.

God identifies himself to Jacob with a familiar Old Testament formula: “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac.”

Of course, Isaac is Jacob’s father, but the idea here is that Father Abraham is the first and key figure. That phrase, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob will be repeated often.

Let’s read the next verses to see what God promises to Jacob.

14. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring.

15. I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

God promises Jacob five things.
I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. (v.13)
Your descendants will be numberless, ubiquitous, and a blessing to all peoples. (v. 14)
I am with you and will watch over you…(v. 15)
I will bring you back to this land…(v. 15)
I will not leave you until I have done what I promised you. (v.15)
These are the same promises God has made to Abraham and Isaac, and now Jacob.

16. When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.”

Finally, the crafty, cunning and not too likable Jacob meets God! Jacob thought he was running away from his brother, but he was really running right into the plans and purposes of God.

Jacob found out that no matter where you wind up, or why you got there, God is there, too.

I visited my Dad from last Sunday to Wednesday. Dad is 97, or closer to 98, as he told a couple of folks in Douglas while I was there. He was a pilot in World War II, and he flew C-47s, dropping paratroopers, and delivering cargo. He flew in England and North Africa from 1941 until he had to come back to the US in 1943. He had to come back because he was malnourished and developed foot drop. Apparently his group flew at night and other odd hours, and the mess hall was often closed when they returned from a mission.

He flew into some dangerous situations in both Europe and Northern Africa,
and was the first plane to land in Algiers after it was liberated.

But when he developed foot drop, he couldn’t operate the plane’s controls, and came back to the US to recover. After he recovered, he was sent to Missouri where he became a flight instructor until the war was over.

But the day after he was sent for medical treatment, his group of C47s came under heavy fire. The plane that he had piloted was shot down and the entire crew was killed.

Dad told me that story, and then he said, “I didn’t know it at the time I got sick, but God was with me and preserved my life.”

Just like Jacob, it is often in looking back on our lives that we realize, God was there and we didn’t even know it!

But Jacob also realizes that God was still with him. Jacob uses the present tense, God is here, not just was here. “God is still here and I didn’t even know it.” Here’s what happens:

17. He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.”

18. Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it. He called that place Bethel, though the city used to be called Luz.

Jacob recognizes that he is in the presence of God, and that the place he so casually picked to camp for the night was a sacred place, the gateway to heaven, the house of God.

And so Jacob names that “certain place” Bethel, which is made up of two words, beth which means house, and el which means God. Bethel, the house of God.

And then he takes his pillow, the rock on which he had his dream, erects it as an altar, pours oil on it as both a gift and symbol, and marks the spot as the place where he met God.

Jacob would go on to marry, have twelves sons, have his name changed to Israel, and have the tribes of Israel bear the names of his sons. But that story is for another time. –