Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Nothing Lost

Nothing Lost
Ezekiel 37:1-14[1]
  At some point in life, many of us will lose hope.  We will find that, whether due to our choices, or due to circumstances beyond our control, the ground has given way beneath our feet, and we have been swept away to a place where we feel completely and hopelessly lost. From the days of Homer’s Odyssey, this theme has been the subject of poetry, novels, plays, and even films.[2] The experience of being lost is part of life.  I think it can feel so hopeless because when you feel lost, really lost in life, it can seem like you will never find your way again.  It’s hard to hope when fear, sadness, and pain are your constant companions, and you wonder whether you’ll ever find joy, peace, and love again.
  It would seem that the people of Israel felt that way in exile. They were a whole world away from everything that was “home” to them.  I’m sure after spending not only years but decades in a place that was very foreign to them, it was difficult for them not to feel lost and hopeless. In fact, that was the whole reason for Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones.[3]  As the Lord speaks to the prophet, he says that the vision of new life was intended to address the fact that “the whole house of Israel” was saying “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely” (Ezek. 37:11).  We don’t really know how long they had been in exile when the prophet received this vision, but it’s likely that they had been there for perhaps 15 to 20 years![4]  They had felt lost for so long many of them had probably begun to forget what it was like to be “home.”  It’s no wonder they had given up hope!
  Into this despair, the message that the Lord had for Israel is that nothing and no one is ever beyond hope!  Think about the lesson for today: what could be more hopeless than dried-out bones. How can bones come back to life again? It would seem that there was nothing left to which God could give new life. And yet, before Ezekiel’s eyes, he sees new life come to those lifeless bones. And the message that God has for the people is that “ I will open your graves of exile and cause you to rise again.” (Ezek. 37:12, NLT). It was a dramatic demonstration that nothing and no one is beyond the hope of new life--not even those who have felt lost so long they’ve forgotten what it’s like to be home. [5]
  If there was ever anyone who deserved to feel lost, I think it was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Bonhoeffer immediately began to oppose their propaganda, even though he put himself at great risk to do so.  He took part in forming an underground community known as the Confessing Church, and illegally ran a seminary that was closed and relocated several times. Although he had two different opportunities to leave Germany, Bonhoeffer decided that he had to share the fate of the church in Germany if he were going to have a role in rebuilding it after the war.[6]  And as a result of his work with the German resistance movement, he was arrested on April 5, 1943, and was held in prison without trial until his execution on April 9, 1945.
  It’s hard for me to imagine how hard those two years must have been for him.  Yet, even in a Nazi prison, Bonhoeffer was able to maintain his hope.  In a letter in which he described the difficulty of waiting in prison without any prospect of release, he reflects on the words of a German Christmas hymn.  In one verse, the Christ child says to all those who suffer: “Let pass, dear brothers, every pain; what you have missed I’ll bring again.”[7] Bonhoeffer concludes from this “that nothing is lost, that everything is taken up in Christ, .... Christ restores all this as God originally intended for it to be.”[8]
  In a very real sense, many of us have experiences in life that can push our ability to hold onto hope past its limits. Our forms of “exile” can go on so long that we can begin to feel lost; lost to ourselves, lost to life, lost even to God. But one of my favorite themes of Scripture is that those who feel lost are never lost to God.[9] In story after story, somehow, God always finds a way to bring them home again. I believe that still holds true today.[10] There are all kinds of ways we can find ourselves lost in this world. And some of us have to endure that “exile” so long we may lose hope of ever feeling at home again. But the promise of scripture is that no one is ever beyond hope. No one is ever truly lost to God. Even when we may feel lost, we can trust that we are not lost to God. No matter what our circumstances may be, we can hold on to our hope that in his time, and in his way, God will bring new life to us all.[11]

[1] © 2014 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 4/6/2014 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] Among others, James Joyce patterned his Ulysses (the latinized version of the Greek name Odysseus) after The Odyssey; Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain bears some similarities and was called an “American Odyssey” by the New York Times; Daniel Wallace’s Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions draws on both Ulysses and The Odyssey; and the 2000 film by Joel and Ethan Coen, “O Brother Where Art Thou” is loosely based on The Odyssey.
[3] Cf. Katheryn Pfisterer Darr, “The Book of Ezekiel,” New Interpreters Bible VI:1503: “Their hope has perished; and without hope, they might as well be dead.  The future, ..., seems as barren as the past years and present experience of exile.” Cf. also Walther Eichrodt, Ezekiel, 310-11, “The despair of the exiles meets here with something much more than a mere superficial word of comfort. Ezekiel does not see any less sharply or realistically than the rest of his fellow countrymen the utter ruin to which Israel has been reduced.  He therefore demonstrates to them that under such conditions the sole basis of hope lies in the superhuman and miraculous power of his God, ... .  All that has been said about the way in which such a God will accomplish salvation must be seen against the background of well-justified desperation on the part of man.  That desperation can only admit itself to have been overcome when it meets with the Lord of life in all his mysterious power.” (emphasis added)
[4] On the dating of this oracle, cf. W. Zimmerli, F. M. Cross, F. M., & K. Baltzer, Ezekiel: A commentary on the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, 245-46, 258.
[5] Darr, “Ezekiel,” NIB VI:1504: “When we raise our vision to look beyond what our mundane eyes can see, we watch the impossible happen through God’s eyes.”
[6] Cf. Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography, 655.
[7] Cf. Peter Frick, Bonhoeffer’s Intellectual Formation: Theology and Philosophy in His Thought, 29. It is Paul Gerhardt’s hymn, “Frölich Soll Mein Herze Springen.”
[8] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, 169.  He also says that this is related to the idea expressed in Ephesians 1:10 of the restoration of all things.
[9] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.3:771: God’s “omnipotent mercy rules over all without exception, … no matter how lost they are they are not lost to him.” (emphasis added). Cf. also Barth, Church Dogmatics, 2.2:29: “God Himself in His freedom has decided that [man] shall stand, that he shall be saved and not lost, that he shall live and not die.”
[10] Cf. Darr, “Ezekiel,” NIB VI:1504 where she quotes Elie Wiesel to the effect that “every generation needs to hear in its own time that these bones can live again.”
[11] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 209: This is a new promise of life, for it is no longer attached to the condition of a possible repentance, but promises a creative act of Yahweh upon his people beyond the bounds of the temporal and the possible .  Cf. also Paul J. Achtemeier, Romans, 134: “Only when the power of sin, ..., has been overcome by the greater power of God’s Spirit, working through his Son, can people trapped in that life be free to pursue another kind of life. ... But once the Spirit, working through Christ, has broken that power, a new world is born and a new life is possible (vv. 9, 11a).”

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