This is one of the few passages from Ezekiel that most of us have ever heard. It’s the story of the prophet being taken in a vision to a valley filled with dry, long-dead bones. It’s a story of God’s promised hope of resurrection, of Israel being restored, and the inspiration for the hit classic “Dem Bones.” But like any time we hear only one part of a book as big as Ezekiel, it’s always helpful to know what’s going on around it.
Ezekiel got this vision after a huge disaster—actually the biggest disaster imaginable—had happened in Judah. Jerusalem had fallen to the Babylonians, the Temple was burned to the ground, and the whole population was deported to Babylon, where Ezekiel was living. Four hundred fifty years of the Davidic monarchy came crashing to an end. The people’s whole world had been turned upside down. The way they were used to living was upended, undone, caput in an instant. Suddenly they had to adapt to a completely new way of living in a completely unfamiliar place.
This has been a pretty insane week. We started, last Sunday, with Daylight Savings Time, which threw us all off of our sleep patterns. Then, as we needed the week to recover from losing an hour, it turns out there was a full moon, which does no favors for anyone who works in the medical field or with children. And as if that wasn’t enough to ratchet up the crazy, this past Friday was the thirteenth. It’s a week that seems to have been designed for the full brunt of the coronavirus arriving in our area and all that that means.
With it, so many of us are experiencing significant changes to how we organize our lives. Jobs that can be done remotely are mostly opting to have people work from home. The normal routine of meeting up with colleagues during the day is disrupted. Schools are canceled for the next several weeks, forcing parents to figure out childcare. Colleges are going to remote learning for the rest of the semester. And then we make the difficult decision not to meet in person for worship today. If you didn’t have anxiety already, this week certainly hasn’t helped.
When we were growing up, my parents bought a brand-new Apple computer. It was a big blocky thing, with that hard plastic that always makes me think of early 90’s computers, the monitor a big cube, and really, really tall keys on the keyboard that clacked when you typed. My mom did a lot of work on the computer—she was just starting to take my grandmother’s genealogy work under her wing, so she was typing up all my grandma’s handwritten notes.
Somewhere along the way, my mom got really good at typing. Like, between her and my brother, they are really, really fast typists. But with this early-90’s Apple computer, the processing speed…well, it wasn’t quite up to snuff. So my mom found it very entertaining to rapidly type out sentence after sentence, then stop and watch as the cursor raced across the screen, catching up to her already-typed letters.
We live in an age of fast things. We get our food fast—I remember the big flashing clock making sure our drive-thru time stayed under three minutes a car when I worked at Hardee’s. We get all kinds of services done in the click of a button—everything from bank transfers to whole mortgage applications can be done in an instant. We even expect our deliveries to be completed in two business days thanks to Amazon. And, in a way, I think we’ve come to expect that everything will more or less catch up to this instantaneous fulfillment.
A couple years ago, there was this video that spread through the internet like wildfire—and y’all have probably seen it. It was this mom in her minivan wearing a Chewbacca mask, the kind that would make the sound every time she opened her mouth. And she was absolutely tickled to death by it, and could not stop laughing as she was trying to explain how she was got this mask on a whim. People loved it. She even ended up on the Ellen Degeneres Show.
Going viral is something that can happen in the age of the internet. And there are some people who work really hard to actually do that—go viral. They want people to see their post and share it widely. They want to be seen and known. They want the exposure that will help them make their mark on the world. But despite the editorials and talking heads complaining about how “this generation” is so vain to do that, let’s not forget that wanting to be remembered, and doing crazy things to do it, has been part of our human story forever.
What was the best day in your whole life? Think back to a time when you had just the best day, where the feeling you got was so incredibly good that you would go back to that day in a heartbeat just to experience it again. We occasionally get those really awesome moments, when we feel like the whole world is lined up exactly as it should be, and we’re truly, completely happy.
I got that feeling the first time Hazel ever fell asleep on me. It was at the hospital; she was barely a day old yet. We’d read that early skin-to-skin contact with both parents promotes some kind of good development in babies, so I was giving it a try while Annie took a much-deserved rest. And Hazel’s warm little body was so sweetly pressed up against me, and she had a stuffy nose from all the birth fluids, so she snored like a tiny old man. The nurse came in to give us some kind of instructions, but I definitely have no recollection of what she said because I was completely lost in that moment.
Last week, people across the country were shocked to hear the news about the death of Kobe Bryant. It was one of those moments where people from all different stripes were united in shock and grief. He was extremely widely known—even I knew who Kobe was, and I don’t keep up with sports. There was an outpouring of mourning, people naming how he’d captured imaginations, people lifting up prayers for his family.
And then there was another reaction that came about. I started seeing it on Facebook that many people were taking the opportunity to name people who weren’t recognized by the news who had experienced tragedy. Names of people who weren’t famous but were no less tragic of losses. Now, we should never shame people for who they grieve. But the very widespread and unified grief around Kobe has shown up in other famous people as well—David Bowie, Carrie Fisher, Robin Williams, Prince, and others. Society has a way of showing who is considered important.
You’ve got to love some of Paul’s words. In the midst of arguing that the Corinthians should remember that they are Christ’s and not part of some faction, he points them to the fact that the gospel—the good news of God’s salvation!—is foolishness to the world. When he first brought the gospel to this community, Paul was insistent that he didn’t use the flowery, incisive, over-the-top rhetoric of the day to convince them, but instead let the gospel speak for itself. And to most people, this message that Paul was giving sounded like foolishness. The community around the Corinthian church saw what they were doing and saw it through the eyes of people who don’t understand. What he said then is just as true now.
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It’s said that the best form of advertising is word of mouth, and I think we all know why. After all, how did you find your mechanic? And how often do you try a new restaurant that none of your friends recommend? When someone we trust points us in a direction, we trust they’re looking out for us. I tend to trust that people around me are more experienced in basically everything, so I really value the recommendations of others. And you can’t get a much more forceful recommendation than John the Baptist made for his disciples to look to Jesus.
The other weekend, Annie and I went to see the new Star Wars movie. It’s the last of the series of movies that have been grouped into three trilogies, and this final trilogy follows the main character, Rey, in her discovery of her force powers, her calling as a Jedi, and how she saves the galaxy from evil—more or less. But a huge part of this otherwise massively heroic plotline is Rey’s search for her parents.
Now, I’ll skip over the specifics in case anyone hasn’t seen it yet and doesn’t want any spoilers, but the discovery of her identity—her lineage, her parents, who she is—has a major impact on her. Being able to name who she is, being able to define that identity, also helps shape who she’ll become, what her destiny will look like, how her actions are shaped. Identity, being able to name who we are, matters. And it matters more than just what you call yourself.
There’s something about this time of year that makes us want to hold on to Christmas just a little bit longer. At exactly the stroke of midnight on December 26th, all the radio stations that had been playing Christmas carols non-stop since November suddenly go back to their regular programming. The decorations come down. The glittering lights disappear, and it feels like the magic just up and disappears.
But in the church, we keep it up just a little while longer. We celebrate Christmas as a whole twelve-day thing, continuing our carols and the joy and the hope of the season. We linger just a little bit longer at the manger. We hope for just a little more time with the innocence and wonder of the Christ child. So this reading from Matthew is quite an unwelcome contrast, I suspect.