I learned a new word this week. Ready for it? Nullity. It is a noun, and once I learned the definition I felt like I should have been able to figure it out on my own. Anyone want to take a guess on what it means or words its related to? A nullity is an act or thing that is legally void or a thing of no importance or worth. It’s like if something is “null and void” it no longer matters, or if something is “nullified” it no longer has any kind of legal status. My context clues should have kicked in. Nullity, something with no importance or worth, something with no standing or purpose or impact on what’s around it.
It reminded me of something that happened like a year and a half ago, I was on the way to Gardner-Webb for an evening class, it was like mid-October so not quite dark at 6 but getting there, and I hit a deer. But I literally hit it at like 10 miles an hour because I saw it, it saw me, it froze, I honked the horn, it stayed still, I hit the brakes and didn’t quite stop in time. Even still I barely nudged the thing, it got up and immediately ran off, no damage to the car, but it did cause me to run off the road, get stuck in the mud, and half to pulled out. Luckily this is North Carolina so literally the first person to see me was driving a truck and had a tow chain in the back. What connected my new-found word to this story is that I was on the phone with my mom when all this happened and so there was a moment when I realized that I was hitting this deer so I said to her, “hold on for a second, I’m about to hit a deer…bu bum bu phh…ok, I hit the deer, where were we?” There was this moment where I knew no matter what I did I was hitting the deer, there was no changing that, I was powerless to keep what was happening from happening.
Powerlessness is not a fun feeling. Having to watch things happen and knowing there’s no way to stop them, no one enjoys being in that situation. And that’s one of the frustrating things about the season of Lent, I think, because we’re reminded of two truths: sin is real and present in the world and in our lives, and as humans we are completely unable to do, in and of ourselves, anything about it. We cannot save ourselves from it, we cannot save our world from it, we are powerless bystanders, we can see the deer getting closer and closer and we’ve realized the brakes aren’t kicking in in time. We are, basically, stuck in the John Mayer song, “we see everything that’s going wrong with the world and those who lead it but we feel that we don’t have a voice to rise above and beat it. So we’re waiting, waiting on the world to change.”
Ezekiel finds himself in a position of powerlessness in our Old Testament reading this morning, he is a nullity. He’s writing after the defeat and exile of Judah, his people have been conquered and he is among the ones who are taken away in captivity, the temple, where God is supposed to live, has been destroyed, Jerusalem, which God is supposed to protect, has been conquered and its walls torn down, and the Lord brings him to a valley filled with bones. This kind of thing was probably a much more common than we’d think, valleys are the best terrain in Israel for a battle, and with all the battles that would have taken place recently people probably didn’t have a lot of time to bury their dead, you’d probably have been hard pressed not to find a valley in the country filled with bones. So Ezekiel is brought out and made to look at a reminder of the destruction of his people, a battlefield where they suffered defeat and could not even properly lay their fallen to rest so the bones are still there. And not just any bones, dry bones. Bones that have been there a while, bones that are long removed from any kind of life being in them. Bones that represent the loss of his nation, but bones that also represent the loss of his hope. The bones speak to two realities of hopelessness: the public and historical hopelessness of the nations of Israel and Judah, and the private, spiritual hopelessness of Ezekiel.
This can’t be overstated, this is a time of despair for Ezekiel and his people. God promised David that his family would always rule in Jerusalem, that’s no longer the case. God promised Abraham that through his descendants the world would be blessed, that’s not happening. But there’s even more that Ezekiel is facing, because he is said to be a descendant of priests, he’s part of the most religious group, he’s devoted his life to God’s service and he’s watched as God has seemingly abandoned him and his people.
Hopelessness is both a communal and individual reality. It impacts us in and of ourselves and hits us collectively as people. I think of the children in Syria who have never known what it means to live in peace. I think of the parents in Flint Michigan and other communities across our nation who live in the wealthiest country on earth but aren’t sure that the water their children bathe in isn’t going to kill them. Every Monday on my twitter feed I get an update from my hometown newspaper about how many people were arrested for offenses related to Crystal Meth and prescription drug abuse the week before and I think of all the towns that have been destroyed by opioid epidemic we face. Hopelessness is a reality in our communities.
But that doesn’t take away from the real presence of hopelessness in our lives as individuals. Ezekiel’s hopelessness doesn’t just come from what his community is facing, there is a hopelessness in the reality he faces as well. He is said to be a descendant of priests, he’s part of the most religious group, he’s devoted his life to God’s service and he’s watched as God has seemingly abandoned him and his people. We all have times when we enter into the valleys of dry bones in our lives. Valleys filled with the evidence of our mistakes and our shortcomings and failures. Like Ezekiel we have times when we come face to face with the hopelessness of life, the reality of our own nullity, and like Ezekiel we are faced with a question, can these bones live?
“Can these bones live?” Isn’t that the question? Isn’t that the the question hat ultimately, at the heart of all our lives and the lives of our communities? Can these bones still live? Is there rescue from hopelessness? Is there, paraphrasing the words of Jesus quoting Isaiah, sight for the blind, is there healing for the lame, is there freedom for captive, can the poor rejoice? Is there hope for those living under the power of sin and death. In communities that face famine and disease and war, in the communities that wonder about whether their children have access to clean water, is there hope? Can these bones live? In the face of disease and addiction and disappointment and disillusionment and bills piling up and marriages being pushed to the brink and the things that pull us in every direction and stretch us so thin we think we’ll come apart, is there hope? Can these bones live? In the church, which so many have come to see as a relic of a bygone age, in the Cathedrals of Europe that used to house thousands of worshippers and now serve as museums housing tourists, is there hope? Can these bones live?
Ezekiel turns the question right back to God, maybe with a little bit of attitude. “Lord you alone know.” Maybe hidden behind that is “you let this happen to them, you decide whether they can live again.” Whether that’s there or not God’s response is “you’re right, and they will. I will make breath come in, I will attach tendons and skin, I will put breath, and these bones will know that I am the Lord.”
The bones will live, and they will know that life comes from God. The bones will live, and they will know that life comes from God. There is hope for the dry bones yet. As they heard the words of God the bones came together, they were covered with tendons and skin and all those things, as they heard the word of God the bones came back together and became what they once were. As they heard the word of the Lord the bones were no longer hopeless, a future appeared in front of them. We can have hope for today in the knowledge of what God desires for our future. We can have hope through the power, not to get too far ahead of ourselves as we move toward Easter, of resurrection. Of the reality that God does not intend to leave death and destruction and despair and hopelessness and nullity with the last word. God speaks through Ezekiel and hope returns in this situation.
There was still something missing though, the bones had come together, they had formed bodies again, they hopelessness was gone, but there was still something missing. They are no longer dry bones but they are still empty vessels, the bodies are there but there’s still nothing to them. I think what they’re missing is purpose. The exist but they have no reason for being, they’ve been removed from the state of hopelessness but there’s no point to them. Hope in the future is important but we still need something to do today right? We still need something for the time we’re here. I think purpose is hope for the present. I think purpose is how we embrace and live out our hope in our day to day lives. Because sometimes, maybe a lot of the time, we aren’t truly hopeless but we’ve got no outlet for our hope. We go through the motions, we live day after day, falling into routine, doing nothing with the hope that is in us. So God speaks again. Ezekiel is called on to prophecy to the breath, and he does it the breath comes, life is breathed into the bodies, the Spirit of God, that Paul reminds us in Romans 8 is the source of life, enters into these empty vessels and makes them live bodies. God’s purpose, God’s desire for creation comes into the picture and overrides the threat of nothingness and nullity. God brings hope and purpose into the valley of dry bones and they come back to life.
Hope. Purpose. There is something there for dry bones. There is a way out of the valley. Hope. Purpose. Real life comes from finding both. And they both come from the same source. Our hope and our purpose both spring forth out of the grace of God. God’s grace is the source of our hope. It is how we know that the valley of dry bones is not our final resting place, it is what gives us our chance to leave what Paul calls the realm of the flesh, the life controlled by the values and standards and ideal of a world in rebellion against God, a life without any hope or purpose for the present and the future. A life that ends at and with death. God’s grace opens a new possibility, that there is more than just this. God’s grace is the source of our purpose. It gives us the ability to carry hope to the world that desperately needs it, both in our communities and in the lives of individuals all around us. And not only are we given the ability, we’re given the call to spread hope everywhere we go. Hope. Purpose. Without these things there is no life. Without these things we are just dry bones in a valley. What a great reminder it is that the word of God can still make these bones live again.