The strangeness of this new world continues to enfold us, causing discombobulation, confusion, uncertainty and a sense of unreality. We know it is real and some feel the fear or panic. Others are caught in the midst of illness and a life and death struggle. Most of us don’t really know what to think because everything seems to have happened so quickly. In this pandemic, we know there is an ‘enemy’ if you like, but we cannot see it. With flood, fire and other disaster experiences, we can see the danger coming. It is physical and there is warning as it approaches. With this pandemic, we cannot see where the virus is or how it might invade our body – or what its presence may mean to us. We cannot gather with other people in the midst of impending or actual emergency and danger, but are required to stay apart, distanced from each other, knowing only that the virus comes through people and the droplets in their breath.
We are driven into homes, isolated from others, with many businesses, organisations and other familiar activities shut down. It is preventative and hopefully will help break the escalating cycle of virus spread. This world is so different! So much has happened in just a short time and we have our churches and other organisations closed for the first time in living memory. ANAZAC Day will be so different for so many people, the gathering with friends and comrades of war to support, recount and remember together won’t happen. The Royal Easter Show is gone this year, along with the Olympics and many other sporting competitions and events. The world has changed in weeks.
Most of us are struggling to make sense of this fast-paced change in our lives and where it will lead. What businesses will remain at the end of this and in what form? What are the economic implications of the necessary shut down and how will we emerge from this? What are the changes that will become a permanent part of our lives? How will things look when this is all over and how will this experience change us?
This week Christians will gather in strange and exiled ways across the world and many will read an ancient story that is strangely prescient for our current time. It comes from an age so different from ours and in a place far away in terms of distance, culture and world view. Somewhere in the mid-6th century BC, a man living in exile along with many of his countrymen and women, spoke into their new world of despair and hopelessness. They were exiles from the Kingdom of Judah, after the Babylonian armies conquered their homeland and destroyed the walled city of Jerusalem and took many inhabitants (artisans, craftsmen/women and leading citizenry) into exile in Babylon. In this new land they were given relative freedom and had food, shelter and some work. In this new land, they were lost in a foreign culture, foreign language, different food, climate and world. They were grieving and lost. They felt deflated and defeated, and they despaired. The people felt that all life had been taken from them – how could they live? Psalms, like Psalm 137 reflect the grief and sense of lostness they felt:
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?
Into this despair, grief and sense of being lost, various prophets rose up; ‘voices of God’ who brought hope and renewed vision to the people. One of these was a man called Ezekiel and he was probably with the early exiles taken into Babylon. He had a message of hope and life from God. In the story this week, Ezekiel is taken in a vision back to Judah, to a large valley. As he looked across the valley in this vision he saw a vast number of bones, dried, lifeless human bones. These were probably the bones of his people following another of Babylon’s raids on Jerusalem and the bloody battle that ensued, leaving a valley of death. The bones had been picked clean by birds and wild animals, and left to dry under the hot sun. The image was barren, lifeless and desolate – just like his people! In this vision, the Spirit of God asks him: ‘Can these bones live?’
What a question! Can these bones live? Is this not the very question we ask of ourselves? Perhaps not in those precise words, but the sentiment is the same – how can I go on? What is going to happen? How can we exist? These thoughts and questions flow through situations of grief and loss, pain and struggle, illness and despair. Can these bones live? Can we continue on? If so, how?
Ezekiel can’t answer and puts it back onto the Spirit – ‘you know.’ He is then told to prophesy, to speak into the lifeless valley of dry bones and speak a work of hope – to tell the bones and bodies to reform. He does and there is a rattling sound throughout the valley. Bones move around reforming into skeletons and then sinews, muscles, flesh all form around the skeletons leaving lifeless but whole bodies. Then the Spirit tells Ezekiel to speak into the valley and tell the breath to come and reanimate these dead bodies with life. Ezekiel speaks and there is a sound like wind as the breath of God blows through bringing new life out of death and the bodies are alive!
‘This is your nation, your people,’ says the Spirit – they are dead and lifeless, but I will breathe life into them and restore them and give them their land back. It is a profound message for people who are in a strange place, feeling lost and exiled. Most, if not all of those who were taken into exile will not live to see the promise fulfilled but the very word of hope breathes life and hope into their being and they are encouraged to live with expectation and faith. In the midst of confusion anguish, fear and uncertainty about whether God is alive (was God killed by the Babylonian God whose army won the fight??) and present or even interested in them, this word comes to them. In the midst of change and brokenness, the word of God reaches them to lift them up, to breathe life and hope into their flagging bodies and spirits. They are not abandoned!
For these people, there is the reality that life is different and will not revert back to how it was – even when they or their children and children’s children return to their own land. Life will never go back to how it was! They will have to negotiate this new world and God is with the to give strength, hope, surround them with love and life if they will receive it and live into this hope and grace of God.
For us, there is much similarity as we look at the world through different eyes and try to figure out what is happening and make sense of where this will all lead. We are feeling the stress and confusion and a whole lot of other feelings. The word of God breaks into our lives in this time and place to restore life, hope and love within us. We are invited to live in this presence of God and find a place of joy, hope, peace and life.