Back to (Bible) School: Prophecy
This week is the last week in our series studying the kinds of literature we find in the Hebrew Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament. We’ve looked at the Law, the history books of the Bible, and poetry or wisdom literature in the Bible. And today, we turn our attention to large chunk of the Hebrew Scriptures that make up the writings of the prophets. I think prophecy as a biblical genre is probably the most misunderstood, because we use the word prophecy to mean many different things.
What first comes to mind when you hear the word “prophecy”? Often, people think immediately of predicting the future, a kind of fortune-telling. We seem to have a fascination with anything that suggests we could accurately predict the future. I saw some posts going around on facebook in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, I think, linking the dates of the storm and certain verses from the gospel of Luke. Some folks might be avid readers of their daily horoscope, astrology, the thought that the position of the planets and the time of our birth shapes the events of our daily lives. I used to read mine pretty regularly when I was a teenager, waiting for predictions of true love to come my way! Taurus is my astrological sign, and here’s my horoscope from yesterday (from one website at least!): “A couple, perhaps friends, could visit today. Perhaps you've moved into a new home or redecorated and want to show them around. They'll be impressed and you'll enjoy the company.” I’m sorry to report I had no visitors yesterday, and I haven’t moved or redecorated, unless you think of cleaning diligently before the Trustees walk-though of the parsonage as redecorating!
What’s the appeal of trying to predict the future? Why are we fascinated by anything that appears to be a prediction of future events? I can only imagine that it is our general anxiety over things unknown, and our general dislike of things that we can’t control that makes us want to believe that something, someone, somewhere can predict the future with accuracy. Otherwise, we have to live with the unsettling reality that things outside of our control, like disaster and illness, can just come on by and bring upheaval to our lives with there being nothing we can do to stop it. The idea of predicting the future, I think, is about control and security.
That’s not, however, what the prophets in the Bible were all about. Prophets are truth-tellers. Prophets are truth-tellers, particularly when no one else wants to say how things really are. You know what I mean: Everyone knows what’s really going on, but no one wants to speak unwelcome truths out loud. A prophet is the child who tells the emperor he has no clothes, when no one else is brave enough to say so. A prophet tells it like it is, says how bad things really are, talks about where the path we are on will lead if things don’t change. But a prophet doesn’t necessarily want what he or she speculates about to come true. Instead, a prophet wants people to stop and repent, wants them to get back on God’s path before things go too far the wrong way. In its simplest version, you might think of prophecy like this: a parent tells a child that if they don’t get their grades up, they will flunk out of college, live at home for all of their days, and never get a real job. The parent isn’t predicting the future, even though this might be exactly what happens. Instead, they’re truth-telling. If you don’t change, this is the probable future consequences of your current actions. Prophets are visionaries too – they don’t only tell the bad things that might happen if we don’t get our acts together, they also try to hold before us the truth of the potential good that might come if we do change our ways. Think of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” King was a prophet: a truth-teller, calling us to account for our racism, and holding before us a vision of what could be, a world where his children no longer faced discrimination and prejudice. He certainly was not predicting the future. He was offering up a vision of the possible paths we might take as a nation. A prophet.
In the Bible, there are what we call “major” prophets and “minor” prophets. These aren’t more or less important prophets. Rather, the designation refers to the length of the book in the Bible. We have long writings from prophets like Isaiah and Ezekiel, and just tiny entries from those like Obadiah and Nahum, books you might not even have heard of! The books of prophecy in our Bibles are Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.
Today we’re looking at a passage from the prophet Ezekiel, a passage known as The Valley of Dry bones. Ezekiel was a priest living in exile in Babylon, with other Israelites. I think it is hard for most of us to imagine our whole community being conquered and living in exile in a foreign land, but the time of exile, in the sixth century BC, was Israel’s most devastating experience since their slavery under Egyptian rule. They were a people whose religious roots were deeply tied to their land – the Promised Land – and living in exile represented a great turning away from faithfulness to God.
Ezekiel describes in this passage an image God brings to him that represents what the exiled people of Israel look like emotionally – like a valley dry bones – skeletons. “The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. [The Lord] led me all round them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry,” we read. Then God asks Ezekiel, “Mortal, can these bones live?” Ezekiel is smart, and says, “You know, God.” God tells Ezekiel to prophesy that God will breathe into the bones and cause them to be covered with flesh and come to life again. Ezekiel does as he’s told, and it happens just as God describes, and the bones live again, given flesh and breath. These newly living beings say that their bones are dried up and their hope is lost. But God responds to them: “I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord … I will put my spirit within you and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil.” Ezekiel knows that God is faithful, even when we are not, and so Ezekiel knows that Israelites are not abandoned. Eventually, Israel does come home from exile, and slowly, they come back to life, and reclaim their identity.
Some of you may have seen that I asked some questions on facebook in a couple places; I asked three questions about this text. First, I asked 1) When have you felt like "dry bones?" 2) When/how/did you experience some way of God breathing new life into you? And 3) What does that phrase “in your own soil” bring to mind - what's your soil? People seemed to know exactly what it means to feel like dry bones – not in body, but in spirit. Folks shared that there were “too many” dry bones times in life “to count,” or talked about years of struggle trying to have a baby, or how it felt like dry bones to be inundated with hateful words and messages online. One pastor, retired in the last few years, said trying to find a new identity after years of ministry sometimes felt like dry bones. Some felt like they were “dry bones” right now, and it was hard to imagine an end to it. What about you? When have you felt like you could fit right in to that Valley of the Dry Bones? Have we ever been “dry bones” as a congregation? Community? Nation? World?
Many folks have experienced new life, finding direction, finding a calling, a purpose. I asked Dede Scozzafava if I could share her response in particular. She wrote, “Sometimes I feel like "dry bones" when I am just going through the daily motions of living. Almost like functioning on auto pilot...going from point A to point B and not really taking the time to think about the what and the why of the action. But sometimes God reminds me that I need to take a deeper dive than wading through the superficial surface waters. God directs me to see through different eyes and listen through different ears ... sometimes that interface changes my course and makes me evaluate the purpose of my actions. My soil is my faith ... sometimes growing...sometimes thirsting...sometimes looking to be nourished...sometimes nourishing others...sometimes balanced...other times unsteady...” We know what it is like to be dry bones, don’t we? I hope, too, that we also know what it is like to have God put flesh on our dry bones and breath into us God’s Holy Breath, Holy Spirit, Holy Wind. But I hope for us it is more than just a passive thing. I hope we aren’t just dry bones laying around, waiting for a breath from God, a word of hope from a prophet, when we already know that we serve the God of Resurrection and Life.
What do we do when we’re feeling like dry bones – as an individual, a community, a people? This is a question we can we can work on answering together. But here’s what struck me. Ezekiel kept his trust in God, listened for God’s voice, and did whatever God asked, even though he, too, was in exile, just like all those souls in the valley. Ezekiel seemed to have no doubt in the power of God to make dry bones live again. In The United Methodist Church, we still have in our Book of Discipline something called “The General Rules.” They were the rules that guided the early Methodists, when they met together with John Wesley, founder of the movement. Look them up this week, and read them in full. But here’s the gist: First, do no harm. Second, do good. And third, “attend upon the ordinances of God.” These ordinances are practices or disciplines that help us stay connected to God. Wesley lists being part of the worshiping community, sharing in communion, praying alone and together, studying the Bible, and fasting as ordinance we ought to practice to ground ourselves in life with God. Even when we feel like dry bones, these practices help us stay ready, stay faithful, stay listening for God’s voice, ready to let new life and God’s breath fill our hearts again. It’s watering and tending the soil in which God seeks to plant us, digging deep. And eventually, in God’s right time, they’re the practices that make us ready for new life. Can these bones live? God knows. And with God, the answer to the question of new life is always yes. Amen.