There is an African proverb that says when two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. I often think of this proverb when parents fight because often it is the kids that get caught in the middle, and I think of this proverb when I read the newspapers about leaders fighting for power and it is the ordinary citizens who suffer. When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. I was thinking of this proverb when I was reading the history surrounding the prophet Ezekiel. I took out the map and looked at little old Judea caught in the middle of two giants, to the north, Babylon, to the south, Egypt, and little Judea sits right in the middle of the warpath of two giants. Whichever of the two giants won, Judea was part of the spoils, Judea was part of the loot. When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.
Story goes that King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon won first immigration of the who is who of Judea to Babylon. Among that crowd of refugees in Babylon's refugee camps was Ezekiel, son of Buzi, a priest. No doubt the whole exile thing was tragic, but I imagine more so for a priest, a priest having to leave the Holy Land, a priest having to leave the Holy City of Jerusalem, a priest having to leave the temple. Truth be known, I do not envy Ezekiel any priests during those times when the bottom falls out, during those times when words of comfort and words of hope can sound so hollow and shallow. I do not envy a priest during those times when life is loaded with more questions than answers and words, words, words just make it worst. These are the times when the psalmist sings that by the rivers of Babylon, there we sat and there we wept. How can we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?
I can relate to Ezekiel. As a priest, I am often blinded by my tears, for, you see, how can a priest in the 21st century not weep living in a world where 80 percent of the world's resources are consumed only by 20 percent of the world's population? How can a priest not weep living in a world where 20 percent of the world's population survives on $1 a day while another 20 percent of the world's population spends 15 billion dollars a year on losing weight and an extra 22 billion on beauty improvement?
Sitting by a river of tears praying for my world's system where the rich get richer and the poor grow invisible and yet I find incredible encouragement from Ezekiel, son of Buzi. Ezekiel tells me that let it be known that at such times when you experience exile in your personal life, exile in your spiritual life, or in your community, Ezekiel tells me when there is a theological crisis, guess who shows up? God! Oh, it's neither here nor there who causes life to fall apart, cause simple fact is it does. But listen for the Word of God. Take heart because God can turn the hostility of exile into precious space to hear God loud and clear. Louder and clearer than you have ever heard God before. God can turn the despondency of heartbreak in exile into sacred space which God mends and God fills. God can turn the apathetic territory of exile into fresh ground for plowing over by God. You see, exile, personal or community, emotional or spiritual, exile is no time for superficial Pollyanna cliché answers. Shelve those, they won't cut it. Exile is time to go back to the drawing board, back to the essential, back to asking basic questions, hard questions, even embarrassing questions, questions that can no longer wait on the back burner. Thank God for exile! Thank God it is season for brutal eyeball-to-eyeball honesty. Thank God for exile. Thank God it is the season to be purged and purified.
Guess what happens to Ezekiel in exile? Priest turns prophet. Priest turns prophet. His eyes are opened to see an alternative reality from exile's reality. He glimpses that the kingdom of God is at hand. His tongue is loosened in exile so he can speak courageously of a new day acoming. His life is liberated to act and live out as a child of God regardless of all the mean-spirited, negative messages of exile.
Priest turned prophet, carried by the spirit to a valley, the valley of bones. Now we don't know exactly where this place is. Some say it is the Jezreel Valley, others say it's Megiddo Plains, still others say it's the Valley of Armageddon. Wherever this place is, one thing is sure. This place is too familiar for comfort. You see, this bone-valley place might be symbolic of relationship. Is it not tragic that these bones could represent family relationships that seemed beyond mending. Sisters and brothers no longer talk. Children and parents are estranged beyond repair. Hearts are shattered into a thousand pieces without even a blink of an eye. Too much water passed under the proverbial bridge.
It might be that this bone-valley place represents relationships between peoples and races and nations. So much brokenness and bitterness in our history. It is difficult to see any forgiving, any trusting, any reconciliation in the near future. Or this bone-valley place might be symbolic of the community of faith called our church, so divided theologically, politically, economically, and our gatherings are often battlefields. When you know too much and God asks, "Mortal, can these bones live?" "Well, Lord," I said, "that's a no-brainer question, Lord. Lord, it's too late for these bones. It's past, way past, a resurrection."
When God asks Ezekiel--"Mortal, can these bones live?"--Ezekiel, wiser than I, answered, "Lord, God, you know." What a response--"Lord God, you know!" A response that shifts attention from what I know to what God knows. "Lord God, you know." A response that says, "Lord God, let's not work from what I know; let's work from what you know. Lord God, you know. Lord God, you know and I want to walk by faith in what you know and not by my sight. Lord God, you know, you lead. I'll follow. So whether these bones can live, Lord God, you know."
The Spirit of God was upon Ezekiel, Ezekiel the medicine for dry bones is prophesying. Ezekiel, the medicine for dry bones is the proclamation of the Word of God. Ezekiel, prophesy to these bones. Preach to these dry bones the Word of God. Dare to see a new possibility, Ezekiel. Get excited about what can be before it is. Dare to preach the impossible, Ezekiel. Preach that dry bones can come together, muscles, flesh, skin, breath, life, faith. Preach, Ezekiel. Oh, Ezekiel began preaching to the dry bones. Oh, you should have seen him moving from one side of the valley to the other, preaching life to dry bones, preaching a future to a dead-end situation. Some might say wasting his breath. Prophesying to dry bones. Oh, we're not told how long he prophesied, minutes: hours, days, weeks, months, years. It does not matter. You see, when you believe in God's presence, you continue to believe regardless of what is around you. You continue to be faithful. Being faithful is for the long haul. Faith is not easy. Faith is not something you can pick up at the fast food takeaway. Believing is not for wimps, it takes endurance and perseverance. But then as he preached, shhhhhhh, movement, rattling in the valley, bones moving. Toe bone connecting to the foot bone, foot bone connecting to the leg bone, leg bone connecting to the hip bone, the neck bone, the head bone, prophesying. And now turn to the wind and prophesy to the wind. And breath came into them and they lived and they stood on their feet a mighty army.
What a story! What an incredible story! A story that has been repeated in history over and over again. Oh, this is no strange and unusual story. Over and over again in our history, God has opened somebody's eye and loosened a tongue of a warrior who in dire circumstances of exile, that person saw an alternative kingdom called the kingdom of God.
Remember Martin Luther King, Jr., preaching to a dry-bone situation about a dream. When he preached his dream, it seemed absolutely impossible that sons of former slaves and former slave owners would ever sit down together at the table of brotherhood. King's dream is still unraveling and, indeed, a day is coming when any child will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. Is that an impossible Ezekiel vision?
Dare to believe the impossible and live as if though it has already come. Live on earth as a citizen of God's kingdom. Oh, that is the way Jesus began his ministry. That was the first thing Jesus did was to unroll the scroll and proclaim that the Spirit of God was on him, saying the Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.
I do not know which side of the valley you are on in this season of your life. Whichever side you're own, be encouraged. If you are a bone in the valley of dry bones, God has not forgotten you. There is hope. If you are called to minister and tired in a dead-end situation, the word comes "hang in there and live a citizen of the kingdom of God." And may we together one day declare, "Behold, we have seen a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth have passed away."
Let us pray.
In my valley, O God, bring your life-giving Word that I might have hope and when I am a messenger, O God, pour your Holy Spirit in me that I might not grow weary or give up. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.