“The hand of the LORD came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.”
A few years ago now an American university newspaper offered a prize for the best definition of life. Here’s a few of the entries that received honourable mentions:
- Life is a joke which isn’t funny
- Life is a gaol sentence that we get for the crime of being born.
- Life is a disease for which the only cure is death.
- Life’s a bitch, and then you die.
That last one’s not really one of theirs. I think it’s one of ours, but it’s of much the same ilk.
Now I don’t know how many of those one-liners ever made it onto bumper stickers, but apart from all being composed by young people, each of those sayings also has something else in common – they are all cynical.
And it’s interesting, isn’t it, that even amongst wealthy educated people in the wealthiest and most educated part of the world, from amongst the most wealthy and educated generation in human history, there is a great feeling of dissatisfaction with life – not just a dissatisfaction with certain aspects of life, but a dissatisfaction with life itself?
Some of you will remember those mighty words of Johnny Rotten, lead singer of the Sex Pistols, concluding their final concert in the USA, where they played for about 15 minutes and then walked off, with Johnny’s parting words being ‘did you ever get the feeling that you’ve been cheated?’
That’s it I think. Many of us, young and old, wealthy and less wealthy, educated and less educated, look out on life and feel that we’ve been cheated.
Ted Turner, the American TV newsman, put it beautifully: “Life is a B-grade movie. You don’t want to leave in the middle of it, but you don’t want to see it again either.”
Hey, we thought we were getting something more than this when we bought our tickets! What do you mean there’s no refund?
Or to quote John Cleese (dialoguing with himself):
“What was that?
That was your life mate.
Oh, do I get another one?
Sorry, only one per customer.”
And Ezekiel sat in the valley of the dry bones, and God said to him “Son of man, can these bones live?” And Ezekiel paused and looked up and shrugged his shoulders and said, “You know, Lord. You tell me.”
And we’ve been there, haven’t we? We have spent time in the valley of dry bones, have we not? As we walk around with Ezekiel, the terrain looks familiar, doesn’t it?
It is a valley of death. This is where the soldiers of the army of the people of God fell. This is where the cream of Israel’s youth were cut down by the men of the Babylon. This is where the resistance movement of little Israel, fighting for survival against her much more powerful enemies, ended.
And yet the stench of death is no longer in the air. This is not the grizzly sight of piles of bloodied and mutilated human bodies, such as greeted Napoleon’s eye’s when he made his famous comment that ‘the field of glory is never a pretty sight’. These are not freshly killed warriors. These are the long dead. They are just bones now, and indeed, those bones are now very dry, so that we have no idea now to whom these bones ever actually once belonged.
These are the bones of the dead and gone – the long-gone. The fighting men of Israel are long dead, and the army is long gone. When the army died, the city fell and now the nation is long gone. And when the nation died, our hope fell, and we lost our homes, our families, our dreams and our identity. They are now all long gone.
And now we, the survivors, wander around Babylon, existing rather than living, remembering with increasing haziness the lives we once had, not daring to dream that things could ever be different from what they are now – recognising that all our hopes and dreams and joys in life were inextricably tied to that world that no longer exists, and accepting that there is absolutely nothing that we can do that will ever bring that world back again!
Every morning I read the headlines that are wired onto my computer desktop, hoping for positive news from the Middle East. And every day I am greeted with further tales of terrible violence and bloodshed. More civilians have been attacked. More children have been killed.
Oh, there was a time when it appeared that things were going to get better, and I remember shortly before the election of the current Prime Minister of Israel feeling full of hope for the whole region. But that was a long time ago. People have been killed since then – lots of people. Those people have families who cannot sleep at nights any more because of their pain at loosing their loved ones. Those people in pain cannot let go of what has happened, and so the whole thing inevitably continues, and develops momentum, and hopes for peace seem very dry.
And I read about what’s happening to the church worldwide, particularly to the Catholic church in the USA at the moment, where one sex scandal seems to give way to the next, in a seemingly endless line of child abuse cases being brought against priests and against bishops across the country. And it’s a terrible crisis for all the persons involved, and for the church everywhere.
And I wonder how the church bureaucracy is handling their priests and their victims, because I know how church bureaucracies tend to handle these things. It tends to involve people high up sending pieces of paper to the people down below that make formal statements about what’s right and what’s wrong and about whose to blame.
And nobody up high usually ever goes to see any of the people at the bottom – clergy or victims – to be with them or to talk with them or to weep with them. Because the name of the game is making sure that you keep your butt covered. So it’s all done very carefully and calculatingly, and the people up on high keep themselves covered. And it’s got nothing of Christ in it.
And it wasn’t always like this. If you look at the early church in the New Testament, they certainly didn’t behave like that, but that seems like a very long time ago, and the bones of the apostles of that church are indeed very dry.
And now I see my friend Ray Williams being chewed up by our legal system.
We were with him for most of the day on Thursday, and in the afternoon he heard the ruling that was handed down – that he was being judged guilty of some breach of some corporation act, which he believes with sincerity that he was not guilty of.
And I know I don’t know a lot about the intricacies of Australian law, but having been to court at least a hundred times, I have seen through the whole sham by now – that behind all the impressive gowns and the clever language that there’s just flawed human beings using the legal system to build up and destroy people for all the most flawed and human of reasons.
I hate our legal system, just like I hate church bureaucracies, just as I hate world politics, because in each of these contexts people talk about truth and justice and even compassion, and yet in each case it’s absolute crap. Our court room system most clearly of all – it’s just a legalistic ring fight, where well-paid lawyers go blow for blow with clever arguments and witty repartee, rather than use their fists, which would be less expensive and far more honest, and far less damaging.
Q: What’s the difference between a lawyer and a catfish?
A: One’s a slimy, scum-sucking bottom dweller, and the other one’s a fish!
And so we’re back to cynicism! That’s where this all leads us, isn’t it?
- Life is a disease for which the only cure is death.
- Life’s a bitch, and then you die.
We find ourselves cynical because:
We recognise that this world is not what it should be.
Our relationships are not working out as well as we had hoped.
Life sucks a lot of the time
And most especially because we realise that for a lot of the time there is not a damn thing that we can do about it!
This is cynicism that is born out of our own feelings of helplessness in the face of our unfulfilled expectations. And it’s the cynicism that leads us ultimately to despair, which, as Kierkegaard recognised is the ‘Sickness unto Death’.
And God said to Ezekiel, “Son of man, can these bones live?” And Ezekiel gives an answer that is not brimming with hope, but is one that is not cynical either. He says “You know, Lord. You tell me.”
Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: 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.”
And Ezekiel speaks to the bones. He preaches to those bones. He says ‘hear the word of the Lord you dry bones’, and he speaks a word of life and hope to those old dry bones – a word of life that comes to them directly from God.
And then Ezekiel hears a rattle, and then he notices that the bones are beginning to shift and move about. And then he watches (as the old song says) as the foot bone connects to the ankle bone, and the ankle bone connects to the shin bone, and the shin bone connects to the knee bone (now hear the word of the Lord).
And in his vision Ezekiel watches this wondrous and rather ghastly sight, as gradually the assembling skeletons start to grow flesh and muscle and sinew over those dry bones. And as God continues to work and as Ezekiel continues to preach we see the Spirit of God re-enter those reinvigorated bodies, and an entire generation of long-dead Israelite men rises to its feet – a mighty host!
I’ll never forget, on the day of my marriage separation, I spoke to Ange’s mum on the phone. She said to me ‘how’s it going?’ and I said ‘I don’t think it could get any worse.’ She said ‘has anyone died?’ I said ‘no’. She said ‘it could be worse’.
That was good wisdom for me at the time. ‘While there’s life there’s hope’ we say, and until someone has died, there is always hope. Yet today’s reading takes us one step further than this again – that even when there is no more life, there is still hope.
Ezekiel speaks a word of LIFE. And he speaks it not to those whose lives are already quite abundant, and not even to those who are feeling a little bit poorly, but to those who feel that their life has come to and end, to those living in cynicism and despair – whose dreams have died, whose hope is gone, and whose bones are all dried up.
Many years later St Paul would write “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”(Romans 8:38-39).
There is no corner of creation where we can find ourselves where His love will not be able to reach us. There is no depth of despair that we can reach where his resurrection power is not able to take hold of us and lift us up into new realms of glory.
God knows that this world is not what it should be. It is evidence of the Spirit of God within us that we groan as we experience the corruption of the created order around about us, just as when we lament the many failings within our own hearts and minds.
And yet the word today is LIFE, and LIFE in abundance. ‘Hear the word of the Lord’ you cynical ones. ‘Hear the word of the Lord’ you that are in despair. ‘Hear the word of the Lord’ you dry bones.‘I have come that you might have LIFE, and have it in abundance.
First Preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, March 2002.