Will there be a resurrection?
A sermon on Ezekiel 37:1-14; Acts 2:1-21 by Walter Wink (May 11, 1994) and Jill Friebel 4 June 2006
 
 
“In my 58 (56) years I have never know the gospel to be more relevant exciting and
urgently needed. And I have never known the churches and their clergy to have lower morale. Declining numbers, financial shortfalls, sexual abuse by clergy, the closing of churches, a growing sense of captivity to the regnant culture--Ezekiel's vision of the valley of the dry bones could be describing us, not Israel in Babylonian captivity.
 
This is, so far as I can tell, the first instance of the metaphor of resurrection in history. Ezekiel uses it not to depict an afterlife or a general resurrection of the dead, but as a metaphor for the renewal of the people Israel. Captivity had sapped their hope. They regarded their political and military defeat as an irrevocable historical judgment. Nothing would dislodge the Babylonian colossus from its hegemony over their world. Yahweh had been proven impotent. Marduk had prevailed. Why not assimilate? The ancient faith had proved inadequate; it was nothing but the tribal faith of a tiny population on the fringe of a great empire. Now the exiles were bereft of their land, their temple, their sacrifices--everything that made them a people with a unique identity and vocation. They were removed to the heart of empire. Here were gods of real power, gods of universal sovereignty, gods of irresistible might.
There was no end in sight for the empire, no conceivable vindication of Yahweh, no grounds for hope. The people lament, "Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely." When Yahweh addresses the prophet, "Mortal, can these bones live?," Ezekiel can scarcely answer yes. The only reasonable response is no. In a case like this his evasion is an act of superhuman optimism: "O Lord God, you know."
Yet Yahweh orders Ezekiel to prophesy to these dry bones--spiritually desiccated Israel--and to call them back to life. And though this miracle is one that only Yahweh can perform, it is the prophet who must, at each step of the way, speak to the dry bones. It is the prophetic task, in a time of unraveling hopes, to declare the unimaginable, to assert the rationality of the unthinkable, to call the people to new hope, grounded not on the past but on sheer faith that God is about to do the impossible.
It literally was impossible. No people could be expected to survive the Babylonian experience without assimilation. Yet God did literally resurrect this people and bring them back into their land. And God did it through nothing but vision. God promises, "I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel.... I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live."
Nor does the prophet's task end there. Many of the exiles had been born in Babylon. They had never seen the Holy Land or the temple. In order to give concreteness to the vision of the return, Ezekiel is given the dimensions of the future temple. Chapters 40 through 48 constitute a veritable blueprint for the temple's rebuilding.
With this prophecy a wonderful thing happened. People began debating the details. Some even disagreed with Ezekiel, suggesting alternatives. So involved was everyone in the specifications that they failed to notice the critical thing: they had all accepted as an established fact that it was going to happen. Vision had become expectation. Hope had become anticipation. The unimaginable had been imagined, and by that sovereign creative act it had entered into the course of history.
That is how history is made: by envisioning of new alternative possibilities and acting on them as if they were inevitable. That is how despair is overcome: by the declaration of unlikelihoods welling up from the center of reality, by prophesying a course of action God is conspiring to bring to pass.
Israel did go home. The temple was rebuilt. Babylon, that eternal empire, fell within 50 years. And more: God's promise to put divine spirit in them, though not immediately fulfilled, was reiterated by Joel in an even more unbelievable vision: "I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit
This unprecedented egalitarian dream was to wait 400 years before it received its first installment of fulfillment at Pentecost. Again, a group of people who had lost their moorings, who were uncertain of the way forward, lacking in all models and patterns and sure of only one thing: the resurrection that was mere metaphor in Ezekiel--a metaphor powerful enough to reconstitute a nation--had happened in their midst. Once again God was doing the impossible. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit was power and promise for their journey into the unknown. 1
 
God is again doing the impossible.  Seven years ago Nathan wrote an article entitled “Will there be a resurrection.”  The South Yarra Community was on the point of extinction - a valley of dried out bones.  In response to that question back in ‘98 he wrote “the jury’s still out, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we look back on that period in a few years as the necessary composting that enabled a real church to sprout and grow.  There are certainly some very healthy looking shoots popping up at the moment, but as Jesus said, not every seed that shoots up grows into a fruitful plant.”  
 
We are testimony to the fact tonight that a resurrection is taking place.  I was surprised when someone told me yesterday at the Baptist Assembly they had read in the handbook that South Yarra had the highest percentage rate of growth in the state – 46%.  I was more than surprised and wondered what we would look like if everyone came to church every week.  The Israelites were a hopelessly scattered community.  So are we - right across Melbourne.  Their bones were dried up and their hope was lost and they were cut off completely.  I doubt there is one person here who hasn’t experienced that in some way or form and some still feeling it acutely – it comes and goes.  Mostly it is experienced in silence and the next person doesn’t know the struggle going on in the other.  Some of us get to see it more and I want to tell you all tonight that God is putting bones together right here.  It’s been a long slow process and often painful, but the skeletons are starting to form and there are signs of sinews and flesh coming upon them.  The skin is beginning to cover the flesh and God’s breath is being breathed into bodies that were lifeless.  God is in this place and his spirit is once again bringing healing and restoration.
 
Out of the near death experience a new way of being the people of God is emerging and it is one of worship and spiritual formation and becoming a covenantal people of God.    Nathan has been the obedient prophetic voice for this community when he preached to the bones back in 1997 and gave somewhat of a blueprint for this new forming community.  It has not come without personal cost to him. Those back then and the rest of us who have come since have found a place where we can connect with God in our worship together, where our spiritual formation is taken seriously and where our theology is forever struggling dynamically with the situations and crises that we face personally and as a community.  Did you notice how the people began to disagree with Ezekiel and suggesting alternatives?  Boy does that resonate!  And can you see what a good thing this is?  The vision has become the expectation and the unimaginable is being imagined.  The body of Christ is forming in this place – where all members are invited to become participants not observers.  Where there is authentic participation of all members and not just lip service to a good idea.  Every member is invited to discover who they really are in Christ and to listen to their own heart and find their real voice and let it be heard.  We do not want a hierarchy of authority and power but a mutual love and submission to each other looking to Jesus Christ who is our head and our source.  
 
One of the critical factors that emerged back then was the decision to have a committed team at the heart of the church life  - a group of covenanters.  They met together to agree on the basic activities that would comprise their approach to worshipping God and forming Christian people and wrote those things up in the form of a covenant that the team members would commit themselves to for a fixed period of time.  Right now many of us are asking if this has been successful and will we covenant for the next year?  Is having a covenanting group dividing the community into those in and those out.  The answer to whether it has been successful has to be yes on the whole.  By that first group committing themselves in the four main areas outlined in the covenant may well be why the community is still here and from which we have all benefited.  So yes it has been successful.  The fact that many of us feel disappointed and disillusioned that we have failed to keep the covenant in all its aspects doesn’t necessarily mean it hasn’t been successful.  It could mean that covenant needs reviewing or we need to review what it means to us to keep it – or more likely some of both.  To have tried and failed is far better than not trying at all and failure need never be the last word.  If dead isn’t the last word on failure I don’t know what is and God starts with the bones.  
 
It is counter cultural to commit to God in a formal way and to each other.   We probably think that it’s part of the Pastor’s job description but not necessarily ‘mine’.  It is much more fashionable to “keep my options open, not commit to anything, and to come along to church at my own convenience, besides these are not the group of people that I would necessarily hang out with.”  This is not easy.  But it is truly Christian and it is becoming the body of Christ.  Committing to prayer and bible reading, meeting together and really sharing the journey is how we put our trust in God for our resurrection.  I hear again and again through my conversations with individuals that one of the greatest longings here is to be true community, yet it is what we struggle with the most.  There is a fear of committing to others who may either expect too much of me or who may not accept me at all.  We struggle communicating through our fears instead of naming them.  Unless we name our own individual fears we will end up defending them.  I keep asking the question as I connect with people’s situations – what does it mean to us to be community to this one, and this one and this one.  
 
We didn’t set out to top the charts of the percentage church growth this past year, but we did it! Can we renew our commitment to God and each other and spiritual growth this coming year and be known for our love?
 
Once again God will do the impossible. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit will be power and promise for our journey into the unknown and our voices will ring out in celebration and proclamation of our God.
 
 
 
1 Walter Wink These bones shall live – Living by the Word – Ezekiel 37:1-14; Acts 2:1-21 (May 11, 1994)