Hope in Exile – Sermon – 29 March 2020

HOPE IN EXILE

Welcome & Introduction

I hope that you are now settling in well to this temporary enforced Sabbath season most of us are experiencing.  For some it means that you have much more valuable time on your hands to spend with family; others have experienced an increased workload while they adjust to do all their familiar tasks in a different way; and still others are spending far more time alone than ever in their lives.  For all of us, things are different – we have been forced to give up doing the things we want to do, the way we want to.  If we can let ourselves, perhaps this could be the very first year we really enter into the season of Lent.  Perhaps we could spend time pondering how we live our lives, and seek the opportunity of a fresh start with God and each other that this season of reflection may be giving us.

One thing I have done is download a free application called “Lectio 365” that has served as an anchor with God for me as I start my day.  Ideally, each morning I take part in the 10 minute exercise before I turn to the latest news, but I still have some work to do in that department! If you have a morning routine that includes scripture and prayer, then keep it up – but if you are looking for something different, consider Lectio 365.

Prayer of Approach and Confession

Let’s once again use this poem by Ted Loder as a prayer to God to prepare our hearts for worship.

Empty Me

by Ted Loder (from Guerrillas of Grace)

Gracious and Holy One,
  Creator of all things
    and of emptiness,
I come to you
  full of much that clutters and distracts,
    stifles and burdens me,
      and makes me a burden to others.
Empty me now
  of gnawing dissatisfactions,
    of anxious imaginings,
      of fretful preoccupations,
  of nagging prejudices,
    of old scores to settle,
      and of the arrogance of being right.
Empty me
  of the ways I unthinkingly think of myself as powerless,
    as a victim,
      as determined by sex, age, race,
        as being less than I am,
          or as other than Yours.
Empty me
  of the disguises and lies
    in which I hide myself from other people
      and from my responsibility
        for my neighbours and for the world.
Hollow out in me a space
  in which I will find myself,
    find peace and a whole heart,
      a forgiving spirit and holiness,
        the spring of laughter,
    and the will to reach boldly
      for abundant life for myself
        and the whole human family.

Hope in Exile

The experience of feeling captive in our own homes is an unsettling one, but we are not the first people in history to experience this.  Life in Canada has insulated us from the effects of occupation and war for most of the last two centuries, however in other places around the world, people know very well what it is like to be confined to looking out their windows as the enemy roams outside.  If you or someone in your family are old enough to have lived in Europe during the war years of the 20th century, you know exactly what I am talking about.  Some of your own ancestors may even have been displaced from their homes and experienced exile.

Our own experience is a bit unique.  The occupying army is an unseen virus, and while the duration of our experience is unknown to us, we do expect it to be temporary.  But occupation is occupation; and exile is exile.

Today we will turn to the passage set during the Judean experience of exile in Babylon.  In doing this, we will find that we have a model for how we can express our fears and frustrations, while at the same time being reminded that God remains with us, and is our source of deliverance and hope.

Ezekiel 37:1-14

Read this passage in the Old Testament book of Ezekiel slowly – slow enough to picture the wild images he is presenting in his writing.  As you pause for silence after your first reading, let those images form fully in your mind.  The style of writing here is “Apocalyptic,” and is intended to communicate God’s truth by evoking the imagination.  If you find this exercise to be difficult, ask the Holy Spirit to help you.

(read and then ponder the passage for 1 to 5 minutes, then read it again.  Consider reading it aloud, even if you are alone)

Ezekiel 37:1-14 New International Version (NIV)

The Valley of Dry Bones
37 The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones.  2 He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry.  3 He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”
I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”
4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! 5 This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life.  6 I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life.  Then you will know that I am the Lord.’”
7 So I prophesied as I was commanded.  And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone.  8 I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.
9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.
11 Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel.  They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel.  13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them.  14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land.  Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’”

Exile

The prophet Ezekiel is writing this in Babylon as a Jewish prophet in exile.  Their captivity was by no means a harsh one; by all historical and biblical accounts they were treated more as immigrants than as slaves.  They were allowed to freely move and work and become prosperous.  They just weren’t allowed to go home – and they never forgot it.

This captivity was proceeded by 20 years of military conflict and political uncertainty.  Over and over, the Southern Kingdom of Judah (the Northern Kingdom of Israel had long been defeated by Assyria) had chosen to side with Egypt against the powerful King of Babylon.  Judah was a small kingdom caught in the middle of the two super powers of the 6th century BC.  Unfortunately, this pact with the Pharaoh turned out to be a poor choice, as Egypt was defeated consistently by Babylon, who steadily increased their control over Judah every time.  First Judah was a vassal state (politically intact but subordinate to Babylon), but eventually the defeat was final and most of the citizens were either taken back to Babylon, or killed.  Those left were far too weak to give any more opposition.

Reflection

How are you doing in our struggle against our viral oppressor? Some are still trying to defy its’ power over them and trying to act as if nothing has changed.  Others are paralysed in fear.  Chances are you are somewhere between those two extremes.  Spend a few moments talking to God about how you really feel about all of this.  Don’t tell Him what you think you should be feeling, or what you think you are being told to feel – but trust God enough to give Him your honest feelings.  Don’t feel bad if you have a hard time capturing your feelings in words – tell them to God the best way you can.
(spend as much time in prayer with this as you need to)

Dry Bones

There is no way to candy coat the images Ezekiel uses in this chapter –bones rattling together and then taking on flesh! These dry bones represent a total and complete loss of hope from the Jewish exiles.  They longed to be back home, but there is nothing to suggest that they believed those hopes would ever materialize to anything.  In fact, the very idea of hope in the valley of dry bones is absurd.  Hope had left the station a long time ago!

For most of us here in South Western Ontario, we are not even close to the place of hopelessness.  Most us are in the valley of “trying to figure it out,” or perhaps the valley of “trying to not think too much about it.” For most of us, the virus and disease are something “out there,” while we are still adjusting.  But as the days progress, the end of all of this seems like it is getting further and further away.  We hear from the experts that for most of us, “the worst is yet to come.”

The question I have for us today is this: What are we expecting God to do?

Are we expecting God to miraculously stop this in its’ tracks? Is our expectation that He will revive all those dry bones and put all things right again? We do believe that option isn’t beyond God’s capabilities.  Is that what our prayers are focusing on?

Or are we expecting God to protect us and those we know and love? Even while the disease inflicts damage and death on those around us?

Just what is it we are actually praying for?

Reflection

Spend a few minutes pondering your own prayers, and then ask God the question – “How should I pray in this moment in time?”

New Life and Hope

In Ezekiel’s vision, God acted after all seemed lost – after it looked like it was far too late.  He put flesh on those dry bones and breathed into them His life.  He brought hope when all seemed to be hopeless.
Are we desperate enough to actually receive God’s deliverance? Many of us have the resources to solve most of the problems we face.  Doctors and insurance take care of our health and mishaps; financial planners put us on a path to self-sufficiency; we have the ability to buy the things we want, and not just always settle for the things we need.  We may believe God is real and even make a public profession of our faith, but in reality, our faith is in ourselves.

At least until we find ourselves in the Valley of Dry Bones – and we will all find ourselves there one day.  One day our money won’t be able to buy what we really need; one day we will lose our treasured independence; one day our health will be in crisis.  These are just facts.

But on that day, when we have reached the end of ourselves – God will raise us up!

It is during times like these that we have a tremendous opportunity to catch a glimpse of our future – much like Ebenezer Scrooge in the Dickens novel.  We have the rare chance to search our hearts and ask: “What have I really placed my faith in? Have I really given my whole life to God? Or have I treated God more like an insurance policy, to be redeemed in case my plans don’t work out?”

For me, I don’t feel very “in control” of my life right know.  There are new pronouncements every day, and the ominous news reports are getting ever closer to us. 

And yet, the Apostle Paul tells us in Romans 8:28,
“We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose.”

Do we really believe that today? Do we really believe God can bring good even out of this mess? Do I believe – even if it doesn’t all stop in an instant – that God wants to bless me through even this?

Reflection

Take a few minutes now and ponder this question before God: “Do I believe God has a blessing for me through all of this?” “Do I believe that God will once again raise up dry bones and breathe His life into even me?”

Many are asking, “Who can show us any good?”
     Let the light of your face shine upon us, O Lord.
You have filled my heart with greater joy
     than when the grain and new wine abound.
I will lie down and sleep in peace,
     for You alone, O Lord,
     make me dwell in safety.
Psalm 4:6-8

Reflecting on “Hope in Exile”

“Revival Anthem” by Rend Collective (video follows)

As we conclude our time together, hear the words of the Rend Collective song, “Revival Anthem.” Notice that it is a song of hope in the face of immense difficulties – and specifically refers to the resurrection of dead bones in the Ezekiel 37 passage we reflected on today

Benediction

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in Him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Amen

Pastor Jim Bagley
28 March 2020