Saturday, June 14, 2014

Only the Prophetic Word

Ezekiel 37:1-27 and Acts 2:1-12, 13-24 “Strange Stories and Partying” 6.8.14 ACOB Pentecost

This story of Ezekiel’s experience or vision fits right into our previous discussion of uncomfortable situations. Remember in the Acts story, the disciples were accused of being drunk they were so wild with the spirit?
Even giving these wild stories a little context may not help but here is, a reminder of Hebrew history during Ezekiel’s time.
Ezekiel’s Vision of the Valley of Dry Bones (Ez. 37:1-14)

“Ezekiel was a captive with the rest of his people in Babylon. Israel and Judah (once 2 kingdoms) have both been completely destroyed” by this time. 
“The northern Israelite kingdom, which had been called Israel, was destroyed by the Assyrians in 722 BC (you can find that story in 2 Kings 17). The southern Israelite kingdom, called Judah, was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC (the famous dates associated with the destruction of the temple) including the elaborate, beautiful temple that Solomon built.
At this historic date of 586 BC, many of Judah’s leaders and people were exiled (also in 2 Kings ch.25). It is not until the Persians conquer the Babylonians that the exiles are allowed to return.” Ezekiel writes from captivity/exile.

It is this period of exile that inspires so many of the OT writings. It was a spiritual, social, cultural crisis for the whole Hebrew nation. Basic questions of faith permeated every thought.
  • If God’s house, the Temple is gone, where is God?
  • Can and Does God still exist?
  • If so, how do we worship without a place, a home for God?
  • If God’s vision to Moses’ was a homeland, (Israel) what does that mean for God’s people now? 
It’s a complex time of crisis, fear, and uncertainty. 
Into this mess, God send messages of hope. These messages, usually in the form of visions to prophets like Ezekiel, or thru dreams, promise that God will once again purify Israel and return God’s people to the land. (In this time, God and the land of Israel are intimately tied together.) If you are an OT scholar I am mutilating the history with these brief explanations and I apologize.

Ezekiel’s vision contains difficult images. We may find it hard to imagine bones coming together seemingly by themselves, forming skeletons, then watching as they are covered in flesh, muscle by muscle and limb by limb. But in a time when death, dead bodies, bones were the ultimate impurity, the horror of a holy message with dead bones was even more striking. 

I stop here to say that we can’t jump too quickly to the promise and the hope of this vision. Sure there is good news here - this vision is a promise of life. It refers to the future of Israel when God’s people will be returned to their land and ‘given life’ again.
Yet the truth is most of the people who hear Ezekiel’s ‘wild story’ won’t live to see the rescue
In other words, The good news is for the future, but not MY future. Can we find hope in a future we won’t see? 
How do we hear such a strange story?

Before I tell you what I think. You’ve been sitting with the somewhat strange experience of last week and of the Pentecost story we heard earlier, What do you think? How DO we hear such stories?

We might look at these wild stories and consider CONTEXT, what had happened to life in Israel and Judah?  That kind of historic consideration will take far longer than the brief minutes we have today. Read the Old Testament and you’ll get the general prophetic take on their history...

Instead, let us look at the source of Our discomfort with these wild stories. 
I think we tend to discount them, sometimes by racing forward to the good news which leaves us with a happier ending. 
Or we just ignore them in search of a more ‘practical application’ of the Bible.

Walter Brueggmann is A or maybe THE great Old Testament scholar. He wrote a book entitled the Prophetic Imagination in which he speaks to this discomfort.

He explains how Israel got to a place where an ending was necessary. But rather than tell you about all of history, I want you to listen to a few of his comments. I’ll let you decide to what era they refer.
He begins his scholarly look by describing a society that is uncomfortable with wild stories and spirit-filled visions. Perhaps because the people no longer see the radical vision of God that was their foundation.
Listen carefully, I want to know what comes to your mind.
He writes, This is a people who 
  • “have a fascination with wisdom which . . [tries] to rationalize reality, or to package it in manageable portions.” (p.31)
The culture of such a people is characterized by
  • Incredible well-being and affluence
  • An oppressive social policy that allows some to live well of the efforts of others and
  • That has the ‘theological sanction’ of an established (or well controlled) religion.” (35) [As if ‘God is on OUR side’] . . .
These people are “fed by a management mentality which believes there are no mysteries to honor, and only problems to be solved.”
The real religion of these people is “an official religion of optimism, which believes ‘God has no business other than to maintain our standard of living.’”
And all this allows for the “annulment,” he says, “of the neighbor as a life-giver, because the people believe they can live OUTSIDE of history as self-made men and women.” (43)

Do you hear the ancient people of King Solomon’s day? Or a time more recent?

He concludes the description by saying, “ONLY the prophetic word is mobilized against this compelling reality.”(43)

. . . (a difficult task for prophets, wouldn’t you say?)
Bruggemann writes that “God’s prophets didn’t ask if God’s message (which usually promises a new freedom) was realistic, politically practicable or economically viable.”
They embrace God’s call and their own fear - and they act.

On June 7 in 1893, the twentieth century’s most famous non-violent revolutionary, Mohandas Gandhi, committed his first act of civil disobedience when the then 24-year-old Indian lawyer was forcibly ejected from a train in a Railway Station in South Africa’s (Pietermaritzburg). He Refused to move to a third-class carriage while holding a valid ticket for the whites-only first-class compartment, so the great future leader was pushed off the train in the middle of the night, in the middle of winter, his luggage hastily thrown after him. The incident would change the course of his life – and that of millions of others. Gandhi later recalled:
I was afraid for my very life. I entered the dark waiting-room. There was a white man in the room. I was afraid of him. What was my duty? I asked myself. Should I go back to India, or should I go forward with God as my helper, and face whatever was in store for me? I decided to stay and suffer. My active non-violence began from that date.
“ONLY the prophetic word is mobilized against the compelling reality.”(43)
And what miraculous and WILD things can happen when one person embraces the prophetic call!

It’s up to you to finish today’s message in the week ahead. 
Because I want Brueggmann’s words to sit with us. I ask that we all re-read these two stories this week.
They are both wild stories of great wind (another word for SPIRIT) and even flames. These are events more uncomfortable than loud praying in church. 

Think about how you feel as you read these stories and why.
I keep asking myself, With WHAT am I uncomfortable when I read the WILD Stories of the Bible?

Might we take the step of embracing our discomfort? Of going into places that scare us? And doing things that are NOT approved of by the ‘powers that be’?

Dare we speak (& act) the prophetic word of God’s justice? Even when it’s wildness isn’t practical?   . . .

I’m convicted by these words of Brueggmann that I’ll leave with you.

He says, “We need to ask not whether [God’s work] is realistic or practical or viable but whether it is imaginable. !

We need to ask if our consciousness and imagination have been so assaulted and co-opted . . That we have been robbed of the courage or power to think an alternative thought.” (44) “or propose an alternative future.” (45)

Can we imagine an alternative world that is impossible? . .
Are we ready for God’s Spirit to BLOW new life into our bones?
1 Jon W. Quinn Oh ‘Dem Bones!’ Expository Files 2.9, Sept. 1996 
2 Brief History of the Holy Land
 Walter Brueggmann The Prophetic Imagination (Nashville:Fortress,1978)

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