Sermon for Dec. 30, 2018 -- A Vision of the Future


-a sermon preached by Terry McGinley 12-30-2018 Pardeeville

(Ezekiel 37:1-14 and Psalm 138)


    We’ve had a healthy and generous dose of the prophet Isaiah during the month of December.  This morning, we hear from a contemporary of Isaiah’s.  Ezekiel really had his work cut out for him.  After the fall of Jerusalem, most of the influential, learned, or wealthy people in Israel were taken off to live in Babylon.  Ezekiel was a priest so he got an all-expense paid trip to Babylon too.  There he discovered that the chosen people were stunned by what happened to them.  The mere fact that Jerusalem had been attacked and the temple destroyed caused the people to question a number of things.  It didn’t seem to matter whether people remained in Israel or were carted off to live in Babylon, they were beginning to question most everything they believed about God.

          The attack, the destruction of the temple, and the time of exile had been brought about by the Israelite people themselves sorry to say.  Babylon had no intention of invading Israel and doing all that damage…at least at first.  Babylon was the most powerful country around but they came to Israel in the first place to demand extortion money.  If Israel paid them what they asked, the Babylonians wouldn’t bother them.  The deal was simple, “Give us the money we want and we’ll leave you alone.”  The Israelite leaders were quite arrogant about the whole thing though.  Their rationalization of the whole thing amounted to misunderstanding what it meant to be called the chosen people.  They thought it meant they were untouchable.  So they told the Babylonians, “Hey!  We’re the chosen people!  We don’t have to pay anybody anything!”  It was that reaction coupled with a small and ill-advised uprising from the people that forced the Babylonians to attack.  And attack they did…destroying the country and the temple in the process.  They didn’t just fight the Israelites…they crushed them!

          And when that happened, the Israelite people had a lot of questions.  Those who were removed to Babylon didn’t even know if they could worship God from a foreign country.  Truth is, they didn’t even know where God was anymore.  Both those who remained in Israel and those who went to Babylon kept asking themselves two questions:  “Why did God let this happen to us?” (As if it were unthinkable) and “Are we still the chosen people?”  They asked the questions but didn’t have answers.

          Into this mess, enter Ezekiel, called by God to deliver God’s message.  He found a couple of different attitudes among the people who had been removed to live in Babylon.  Some people refused to see what was right in front of them.  They were in denial about the whole thing.  Other people were unwilling to see anything but what was right in front of them.  They were in despair.  It was Ezekiel’s job to let everyone know that God was still with them…not an easy task.  Ezekiel’s job was tough enough but there were other things happening that only made his job more difficult.  For some of his time, God made it impossible for Ezekiel to speak.  He was forced to act out the messages that God asked him to deliver to the people.  (I’m sure you can imagine how effective this must have been!)  The people watching his performances did not understand a great deal of what Ezekiel was trying to get across using displays and pantomime.  He became a laughing stock.  In much the same way that you or I might ask, “What’s on television tonight?” the Israelite people would joke about Ezekiel and say to each other, “Why don’t we go downtown tonight and see what Ezekiel is up to?”  But, bless his heart, Ezekiel persevered and God eventually let him speak…but he still had a tough job.

          Another way Ezekiel communicated with the people was through visions.  These were vivid dreams.  Today’s passage about the valley of the dry bones is one of those visions.  He had six visons in all but picture this if you will:  the scene is an ancient battlefield.  The place is covered with bones.  And the bones have been there a long time.  They have been bleached by the sun and they’re just lying all over the ground.  God asks Ezekiel if the bones can live again.  We would look at all this and say there’s no way these bones could ever be vital again.  Ezekiel knows that too but Ezekiel also knows that all things are possible with God so his answer to God is, “Only you know whether they can live.”  And, as the vision plays out, the bones come together.  They gain muscle and skin.  And we have this image of these bodies standing there waiting for the next thing to happen.  They have been reassembled but, until God breathes life into them, they are not yet alive.

          The vision of the valley of the dry bones and its revival is less about individual revitalization and more about the restoration of an entire community, not one person but a group of people.  And Ezekiel’s vision involves more that physical reassembly.  Both for the Israelite people who heard Ezekiel explain his vision as well as for us today, this story is about being able to look past the here and now.  It’s about not being bogged down or discouraged by the way things are today.  If that sounds a great deal like what we’ve been hearing form Isaiah lately…well, it is!  The valley of the dry bones and what happened there helps us to understand that God can do some amazing things.  Unexpected things.  I think that makes this the ideal passage to read before any sort of strategic planning session, before any group gets together to understand its future direction—doesn’t matter whether it’s a congregation, a civic group, or a board of directors.

          When a group comes together for planning purposes, it’s important for them not to put too much weight on what’s going on right now.  Not that everything needs to go out the window just to find new things to do.  Each current mission of the group should be weighed not by what’s happening right now but by what sort of mission might be possible.  It’s important to try to understand where God is leading us.  But, by only seeing situations as they are right now, we limit our creativity and our ability to envision the future.

          Granted these are weighty questions.  Perhaps the most difficult thing for a congregation to do is to try to understand where God is leading them.  To figure out what God is asking them to do and where God is asking them to serve.  To get very specific and understand their unique situation and the gifts that their people have.  This will establish their context for ministry.  It’s best if people start to gather that information from where they have already been…to recall other times when they looked to the future.  To remember specific circumstances when God helped them through some tough situations.  That was the scope of our first discussion, way back in May…when the weather was much warmer!  Much of what we talked about in that first discussion had to do with things we already knew, at least on some level.  Things like the family feel of our congregation, our friendliness, the way we support each other in both joy and grief, and our strong desire to help others.  We spent some time looking at the split that occurred in 1991…not for the pain it caused although there was much…but for what good things came out of that experience.  Those who voted to stay stood up for what they believed.  There was a renewed interest in spiritual growth and more people stepped up to be involved in the work of the church.  All good things.  We identified some of our strengths:  hospitality, music, and mission.  That first discussion set us up to imagine our church in the ponder how are we called to serve God right here in Pardeeville and to understand where God wants us to be going next.  Key in all this is holding on to ministries that are working.  We’re not going to throw everything out just for the sake of change.  So we’re going to keep reaching out to the Pardeeville community through the work of our deacons and through the mission brunch.  By the way, if you ever get a chance to tell the Presbytery about the mission brunch, I hope you do so because it is pure genius and would help any other congregation in their mission work.  Many of the ideas suggested at our second meeting back in May had to do with children in the community and meeting their needs.  Since then, the deacons have helped by donating money to buy school supplies and to help with meals for children in the Pardeeville school system.  In these two discussions, we used the experiences of the past to help shape and focus the mission and ministry of our church in the days ahead.  Unlike the chosen people in Babylon, we never have to question the whereabouts of God.  God has been in our midst during the discernment process…inspiring us and leading us.  And God will be with us as we charge off into the future.

          The biggest thing, in my estimation, to come out of our two discussions last May was hope.  Hope was the sentiment expressed most often as we ended our second discussion with two words to describe our time together.  The one I can still remember, even months after the fact, is this:  “Hope exists.”  Hope is what the prophet Ezekiel was trying to stir up in his people while they were in exile in Babylon.  Hope is what lives here as we continue to seek our next pastor.  That’s the reason we heard Psalm 138 this morning.  This poem is a song of thanksgiving…recognizing God’s saving action in the writer’s life.  God is portrayed not only as loving but also responsive.  The writer called on God and God answered.  The entire psalm praises God for God’s steadfast love.  But the final line of this psalm is what means the most.  “Complete the work you have begun.”  God is not through with us.  We move on from here and, with God’s help, we will always understand where God’s wants our community of faith to go.  When we go there, when we help those whom God is calling us to help, that is our faithful response to God.  As one year ends and another is about to begin, it’s important to remember that God’s love is eternal, steadfast, and unwavering.  As we continue to serve God in the coming years, know that God will continue to inspire us…to encourage us…and to lead us to serve others.  Thanks be to God!