Reflections on Pentecost Sunday, May 31, 2009
“Faith has to do with marrying Invisible and Visible. When we engage in an act of faith we give up control, we give up sensory (sight, hearing, etc.) confirmation of reality; we give up insisting on head knowledge as our primary means of orientation in life. The positive way to say this is that when we engage in an act of faith we choose to deal with a living God whom we trust to know what he is doing, we choose a way of life in which bodily senses and physical matter are understood as inseparable and organic to vast interiorities (soul) and immense beyonds (heaven), and we choose to no longer operate strictly on the basis of hard-earned knowledge, glorious as it is, but over a lifetime to embrace the mystery that ‘must dazzle gradually/Or every man go blind.’ (Eugene Peterson, The Jesus Way, 44; the quote at the end is from Emily Dickenson, The Complete Poems.)
I preached from Ezekiel 37 this morning but only the first 14 verses. The Lord takes Ezekiel for a walk through a valley, a plain—maybe the plain of Meggido—and shows him the remains of what had probably been a battle. The dead, likely of the losing army, had been left on the battle field. Their bodies over time had decayed and been picked clean by the animals and birds. All that was left was bones. A valley of dry, very dry bones. And as Ezekiel retells the events of that day, he recalled that the Lord had showed him all around the valley that day after setting him down in the very middle of that pile of bones. Listen to Ezekiel recall the day’s events.
The hand of the LORD was upon 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. 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. He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” I said, “O Sovereign LORD, you alone know.”
Ezekiel was shown a valley of desolation, a plain of hopelessness, the valley of the shadow of death. There was nothing there but death, dead, dry bones and that is all that Ezekiel saw. Ezekiel was far too literal; he hadn’t yet developed the eyes of faith, eyes that see what eyes cannot see. The Lord showed Ezekiel everything there was to see: A vast, endless, sea of dead, dry, very dry bones. From a purely human point of view, the question the Lord asked Ezekiel was unfair and I believe that Ezekiel’s answer betrays that: “Lord, you alone know.”
This was, I believe, Ezekiel’s way of giving a perfectly orthodox theological answer without being committed to faith: “You alone know Lord.” Yes. The Lord knows. I think it was Ezekiel’s way of saying something like, “Lord, you can do anything, but I seriously doubt that this valley of dry, very dry bones can or will live. You alone know, Lord; yes, I agree. But this is a valley of dry bones. That’s all I see. There’s no hope for this valley of dry bones. And yet, Lord, I will obey; I will speak.”
The thing is, that’s not what the Lord saw. Later we learn what the Lord saw. Listen to what the Lord told the prophet.
Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, `Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off. Therefore prophesy and say to them: `This is what the Sovereign LORD says: O 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. Then you, my people, will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 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.’ “
That’s the difference between God’s view of things and our view of things. God sees the things that we do not, or cannot. God sees life where there is death; hope where there is hopelessness; the House of Israel where there is only a valley of dry bones. God sees things that we cannot. You might say that God has a sort of faith that we do not. I might say I want that sort of faith.
Maybe Ezekiel wasn’t quite ready to give up control; maybe I’m not. He knew what he saw: A valley of dry, very dry bones. Maybe he wasn’t ready to give up sensory control or his insistence upon a purely intellectual, visual, orientation to life. It’s not easy to live in that sort of, from a human point of view, randomness. We like control. We like knowing, seeing, hearing. We do not like things being out of the ordinary; we like routine. Faith is a way of living that says, if I may, ‘to hell with routine; to hell with what I know, see, hear; to hell with control.’ I know that sounds almost like anarchy, but I assure you it is actually the sort of life (the only sort of life) that can say, “Yes Lord I will take my son, my only son, whom I love, and sacrifice him on a distant mountain even though I don’t see the sense of it;” or “Yes Lord I will prophesy to a valley of dead, dry bones even though I don’t think anything will happen when I do;” or “Yes, Lord, continue believing in you even though there are people who want to kill me for doing so;” or, “Yes, Lord, I will dance and become even more undignified even though people will mock me, people from within my own family; or, “Yes, Lord, I will go to the world with your hope even though they will reject me and crucify me.”
That kind of faith is the kind of faith that defines the people of Christ. And it is also the kind of faith that we are asked to exercise in every situation. The hardest times to exercise such faith are the times when we happen to think that such faith isn’t actually necessary. “Oh, it’s a small decision. I can make it on my own. God doesn’t care what sort of toaster I buy. All I need here is common sense and Sunday’s ads.” But that is not faith. Faith is that extraordinary trust, small and often indiscernible, even when things seem simple and uncomplicated. It might be easy to display a herculean sort of faith during times of great stress and pressure and attack, but I think it is most important to practice such faith when things are at their easiest and least complicated. It shows that we don’t trust ourselves at all; that we need guidance in all ways.
If we don’t practice such faith then, do you think we will practice such faith when life is up in arms and the enemy is crowding us, desiring more space in our lives, when things are really, really hard? If I won’t have the faith required to preach faithfully to a captive audience (let’s face it, a valley of dry bones is a rather captive audience; they’re not going anywhere; they can’t do anything but ‘listen’), then how will I faithfully preach to a living body of Christ? (Maybe it says something about Ezekiel that the Lord entrusted him to preach to a valley of dry bones first before he asked him to preach to the ‘whole house of Israel’.) It’s a small thing to preach to dry bones; it’s quite another thing to preach to the Living Body of Christ. I notice Ezekiel did preach to the bones; we are not told that he preached this particular message to the ‘whole house of Israel’ (See vss 7, 10, 12-14.)
I know I am mixing up all these words: Faith, faithfulness, God’s ‘faith’, my faith. What I’m getting at though is that perhaps faith is the letting go of what we know and see and hear and the living of life that comes from knowing, seeing and hearing and instead living a life that is oriented around what God sees, hears, and knows. I mean think about it, what’s better? Preaching to what we see, that is, a valley of dry bones or preaching to what God sees, the whole house of Israel? But until we have the sort of eyes that see what God sees, the whole house of Israel, our efforts, our preaching, our faith—indeed, our very lives–will be full of frustration and futility.
We live by faith, not sight. But it’s that kind of faith; God’s kind of faith. So Ezekiel prophesied.
And there was a noise, a rattling sound.