Advent 2: December 5, 2021 (peace)
This week, we are still in exile. Last week, we read from a letter that the prophet Jeremiah wrote to Israelites who had been taken into exile in Babylon: “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (v. 7)
It is possible that the prophet Ezekiel, who we will hear from today, heard that letter from Jeremiah. The two prophets were roughly contemporary, but while Jeremiah was left behind, Ezekiel, who was both prophet and priest, was taken with other elite and powerful Israelites to Babylon. So these two prophets are writing in the same time period to the same people, but from drastically different settings.
Jeremiah is known as the “weeping prophet.” Apparently he cried a lot—which is understandable when your beloved city has been destroyed by an invading army and people you love have been slaughtered or dragged into foreign captivity. So I don’t mean to be harsh toward Jeremiah for all of his weeping.
But Ezekiel is just so much more fun. He sees crazy visions–heavenly beings with multiple faces, spinning wheels full of eyes. He does these weird “sign acts”—sort of public theater to make a point—like laying on his left side for 390 days and then his right side for 40 days; and cutting off all of his hair and dividing it in thirds before burning some, chopping some, and throwing some to the wind. And Ezekiel has bizarre, dream-like encounters with God, like one of Roger Martin’s favorites where God tells him to eat a scroll.
And this one that we will read this morning from Ezekiel 37: 1-14 (NRSV):
The hand of the Lord came upon me, and brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2 God led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3 God said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” 4 Then God said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5 Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6 I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”
7 So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8 I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. 9 Then God said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” 10 I prophesied as God commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
11 Then God said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ 12 Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: 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. 13 And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14 I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.”
I love this vision from Ezekiel. Honestly, if it were a movie I probably wouldn’t watch it because it would be too gruesome—even that video I linked to in this week’s newsletter was a bit much for me. But as a story on the page, it’s breathtaking.
It’s also not usually an Advent scripture. I’ve preached it before for Lent or Easter, with its themes of desolation and resurrection. But dry bones during Advent just seems . . . weird.
You know what does seem to fit with this season of Advent, though? Breath.
The divine breath of God’s Spirit. The breath of the earth’s blowing winds. The breath that moves through our bodies.
Ancient Hebrew writers used the same word for all of this: ruach. Ruach is translated “spirit” or “wind” or “breath.” It’s a matter of interpretation on the part of the translators which word gets used where:
- “The hand of the Lord came upon me, and brought me out by the spirit of the Lord.” By the wind of the Lord. By the breath of the Lord.
- I will cause breath, spirit, wind to enter you.
- Prophecy to the breath. Prophecy to the wind. Prophecy to the spirit.
- Come from the four winds. From the four spirits. From the four breaths.
Ruach. It is the life force that connects the divine, the natural world, and us. And what better time to consider this improbable yet essential connection than Advent? Because the birth of Jesus is the greatest witness—for us, as Christians—to the intimacy with which God is connected to the physicality of the world and to human bodies. The story of Mary and Joseph and the baby born in Bethlehem—it connects spirit and wind and breath in amazing ways.
And this story from Ezekiel, it also has a lot to teach us about how these things are connected—about what it means to truly breathe.
For one thing, you can’t dismiss the physicality of breath/spirit/wind. Those dry bones? God asks if they can live. Ezekiel is smart enough to not tell God a direct “no.” Yet also wise enough not to lie by exclaiming an enthusiastic yes.
“Can these bones live?” Turns out the answer is: not without some work. Not until they come together, bone on bone, in a very specific order. (“The leg bone’s connected to the / knee bone.) Not until the sinews and flesh and skin cover them. The bones themselves cannot hold breath, but they can become part of a structure that does.
In regular life, we don’t generally think much about breathing. It just happens. But if you’ve been sick . . . my mom was telling me this week that she needs to start her breathing exercises again. Have you ever done those, with the little ball in the tube?
Thomas and Tara, up in Canada, were so close to the wildfires awhile back that the air outside their house wasn’t safe to breathe.
And maybe we are all thinking about our breath a bit more in these COVID days.
Our breath is a very physical thing—a thing we need to live.
And also, there is a spiritual aspect to breath—to life. In Ezekiel’s vision, the bones come together, the sinews and the flesh form, the skin covers the bodies. And yet they do not live. It takes the breath of God summoned from the four winds to animate the bodies.
I don’t quite know what to make of that. But it is reminiscent of the Genesis 2 creation story where God forms the human from the dust of the ground and then breathes life into Adam.
Life is not ever only a matter of physicality. It is breath and spirit and wind.
There’s one more thing about breathing that this vision from Ezekiel suggests to me: sometimes it’s rough.
These very dry bones that fill the valley? The people they belong to are not just dead, they are slain. Violently killed. Probably in battle. And their bodies were not given the respect of burial. They were left on the battlefield.
To be pulled back together after a trauma like that . . . to come back to your body, to inhabit your skin again, to be told to breathe. Not in a new, better place. But this place where you were killed. This place where you have been so dry for so long. . . . Breathe.
Oh my friends. Sometimes breathing in this world is hard. It is also holy. Our connection to the winds of earth, the Spirit of God. To our own bodies.
Let this Advent be a time when you breathe deeply. When you make it just a little easier for others to breathe as well.
I would like to close with a poem that was shared by professor Anna Carter Florence in a preaching workshop I attended a few weeks ago. For those who may not remember, Eric Garner was a black man killed by police in the summer of 2014. As officers pinned him down, Garner repeated the phrase: “I can’t breathe.”