Once upon a time, there was a man named Ezekiel.
Ezekiel was born and grew up in Jerusalem, in the kingdom of Judah.
Ezekiel’s parents taught him the religion of their ancestors: the worship of the God of Israel.
From his parents and from his teachers, from the priests in the great temple and the prophets who stood in the market squares, Ezekiel learned that his people’s God especially cared about two things. This God, whom we may call the Lord, was concerned on the one hand that the people of Israel should follow him exclusively and take or make no other gods for themselves. And the Lord was concerned on the other hand that the people should act justly and with compassion: that they should care and provide both for fellow Israelites and for foreigners, and that they should structure their lives in such a way that everyone would be provided for–including and especially the most vulnerable. No one–not a widow, not an orphan, not a stranger–should be left destitute. No family should be deprived of its patrimony; all should have the means of providing for themselves, or be provided for by others. The Lord had given Israel laws to ensure that his will in these matters would be carried out.
Ezekiel saw these laws followed in many cases, but he also saw them broken. He saw heroic acts of compassion and charity, but he also saw how the rich would take advantage of the poor, and how many people were left destitute. He saw, as he trained to be a priest in the Lord’s temple, how many people served the Lord with devotion, but also how many people served Baal and Asherah. He saw that few people really trusted in the Lord alone, to the exclusion of anything else: most worshiped the Lord while putting their ultimate trust in their silver and gold, or in their social status, or in their citizenship in their nation. Over the years, many people pretended to serve the Lord and follow the laws they had been given; gradually, more and more people stopped even pretending.
Ezekiel saw that his society was sick, and that while some tried to sound a warning about it, for the most part people went on with their lives. What choice did they have? What could they do? A century and more ago, the Assyrian empire had invaded and conquered Judah’s neighbor to the north, their fellow Israelites and servants of the Lord, the kingdom of Israel. And now the Babylonians were on the rise, gobbling up territory and demanding tribute all around. But Ezekiel lived in the city of David and served in the temple of Solomon. For four centuries this city and this temple had stood, proud and grand. Could it ever really end? Surely things weren’t all that bad, the people thought to themselves.
And then the Babylonians invaded Judah and conquered Jerusalem. They deposed the king, installed a puppet, and took Ezekiel and many other Jerusalemites away to Babylon.
But still the city and the temple stood, proud and grand. Could they ever really end? Surely things weren’t all that bad, they thought to themselves as they began life in exile.
And it was then that the Lord God began to come to Ezekiel in visions. Ezekiel described his visions as best he could, but they were often difficult to interpret. And sometimes they were horrifying, even disgusting.
But however obscure the details, the basic meaning of the visions was perfectly clear: the city and the temple could end. Things really were that bad. Jerusalem and Judah would be no more.
Then the puppet king in Jerusalem rebelled; the Babylonians came back; they conquered Jerusalem, razed it, destroyed the temple, executed the king’s sons, and blinded the king, and carried more Jerusalemites into exile.
And when they heard this, Ezekiel’s people finally stopped pretending that things weren’t all that bad.
“Our bones are dried up,” they said. “Our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.”
This was the end. This was death. There was nothing left to build hope on, no excuse left to pretend that things would be all right, no reason to believe that things would ever get better.
And then Ezekiel had another vision.
It is a vision that we have already heard described very well, in Ezekiel’s own words, so I do not need to repeat it.
The Lord God showed Ezekiel a vision that pertained to the future. When would that future come? The Lord God did not say. How would that future come about? The Lord God did not say.
All the Lord God did say was “prophesy.”
Prophesy, Ben-Adam! Ben-Adam: son of man. “Mortal” is not wrong here, but perhaps it is too polite.
Prophesy, you son of a man!
Prophesy to the bones. Do not deny what they are: dead, dry bones. Do not pretend that things are better than they are. Do not pretend that this final disaster is anything other than the death of the people.
And prophesy to the breath. Prophesy to the ruach–the breath, the wind, the Spirit. Do not deny the power of the spirit of God, blowing into the lungs of the dead. Do not deny the power of the Lord God who made everything. Do not deny the power of God’s word, the word of God that can create from nothing, the word of God that can write out your sins in letters of fire and then blot them out completely, the word of God that can bring life from death.
Ezekiel prophesied as he had been commanded. He did not see how his words would be fulfilled. He did not say how his people would return from exile; that was left to other prophets. He did not say how, centuries later, Jews from all over the world would be gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the great festival of Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, and God’s ruach would come upon them there. He did not say how, thousands of years after that, God would be present in word and in spirit, in bread and wine, in this sanctuary. Yes, even here–in a nation that partially senses it is in a crisis but cannot seem to decide how severe that crisis might be; a nation that cannot decide whether it is worth caring for widows and orphans; a nation that fears foreign threats and demonizes immigrants; a nation that dulls its pain with money and materialism, with alcohol and opiates. Here in the shadow of that nation’s capital: God is here.
God told Ezekiel to prophesy. And so he did. That was all he could do. He could not see the future, except as the Lord God gave him the words for it. That’s all I can do, too, is repeat the words that have been given to us.
Now hear the word of the Lord: Thus says the Lord God–You shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 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.
Come, Holy Spirit!