OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Lent 5/Passion Sunday – Ezekiel 37:1-14

There are some things which, once you have seen them, in the famous phrase, you can’t unsee. Try as we might (and this blog constantly aims to encourage us to try) to focus on the original meaning of OT passages, once we have seen Jesus, we can’t unsee him. The whole of the OT becomes a very different animal. Indeed, much of the writing of NT authors like Matthew and Paul is a wrestling with how we understand the Scriptures differently now that we have encountered the Word of God in Jesus. So today’s famous passage is often read in that light (and of course in the light of our culture of Enlightenment individualism) to speak of our individual resurrection on the last day. The question ‘Can these dry bones live?’ is answered with faith-filled enthusiasm ‘Of course!’ After all, don’t we proclaim that truth every week in our Creeds?

But to read this passage as a promise of individual resurrection is to miss its impact on the original hearers. They had watched as the Babylonian armies under Nebuchadnezzar had systematically taken away their three greatest theological foundations: The monarchy had been deposed as they came under foreign rule, the Temple had been torn down in front of their eyes, and the land had been overrun and conquered. They must have feared for the fourth foundation, the people of God. Indeed the unknown prophet we call Deutero-Isaiah was to wrestle with the question of whether or not they were still God’s chosen people in Isaiah chapter 40. So with all these institutions being torn down, what was there left to be certain about? And was there any hope at all of resurrection?

Just over 20 years ago a landmark book explored ‘Churchless Faith’, the growing phenomenon of people who had given up on church without having given up on God[1]. I am hearing that this trend is continuing, that there is an increasingly large group of people who no longer attend church, but are seeking to live out their Christian discipleship nevertheless. Indeed I was shocked to hear of a few famous people whom I would have regarded as among my heroes of faith who are now in this position. I can also see, if I’m honest, that in retirement I could so easily go down the same path. It’s really hard to belong to someone else’s church when you have previously led your own! And, of course, Covid has done nothing to help with this, since we managed for a couple of years to avoid meeting together pretty successfully. It seems on a bad day that Church has had its day, is increasingly irrelevant, and is busy tearing itself apart over battles which it lost 50 years ago. So what keeps me going? Why do I dutifully turn up each Sunday? And why do I hear so many people who do still go around moaning that it does them no good at all, and even leaves them more angry and frustrated?

The answer, I suppose, is that I do still somehow hang on to the belief that these dry bones can live. Ezekiel is at pains to tell us that the skeletons are ‘the whole house of Israel’ (v.11) This is not about individual reward at the end of time: it is about the institution of God’s people and all that fed and nurtured their faith. It is a central part of the spirit of our age that life, and therefore Church, is about me as an individual: it is there to satisfy me and make me feel good. Like a good consumer I can shop around if I don’t happen to like what is on offer at my current church, and I can even choose to stop shopping at all and grow my own. I think we have to see the current disenchantment with organised faith in this light. We are no longer happy to do anything out of a sense of duty if it doesn’t feel good doing it, but the Bible urges us to steadfastness and faithfulness, of the kind which Jesus displayed in Gethsemane and on the way to the cross. It certainly wasn’t going to feel good, but it was the right thing to do. I also can see that to cut myself off from God’s people, from the public reading of Scripture and the singing of his praises could well be for me (not of course for everyone, but certainly for me) the start of a slippery slope to giving up on my faith altogether. I am reminded of 1 Timothy 1 and the possibility of coming so far but ending up with a shipwrecked faith. So, without wishing to condemn anyone else, this is where I am at the moment, holding on but praying for sinews, flesh and above all the breath of the Holy Spirit to turn us once again into a mighty army. Maybe our discontent is God’s call to fervent intercession.

Sorry this is not a detailed exegesis of the passage (you can find previous attempts to do that here and here) but I think this is becoming an increasingly big issue, and is certainly live for me at the moment. Maybe it is for you too.

[1] Jamieson, Alan (2002) A Churchless Faith: Faith journeys beyond the churches. London: SPCK.

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