Nehemiah 9:9-15 – Memory and Confession

“You saw the suffering of our ancestors in Egypt; you heard their cry at the Red Sea. You sent signs and wonders against Pharaoh, against all his officials and all the people of his land, for you knew how arrogantly the Egyptians treated them. You made a name for yourself, which remains to this day. You divided the sea before them, so that they passed through it on dry ground, but you hurled their pursuers into the depths, like a stone into mighty waters. By day you led them with a pillar of cloud, and by night with a pillar of fire to give them light on the way they were to take.

“You came down on Mount Sinai; you spoke to them from heaven. You gave them regulations and laws that are just and right, and decrees and commands that are good. You made known to them your holy Sabbath and gave them commands, decrees, and laws through your servant Moses. In their hunger you gave them bread from heaven and in their thirst you brought them water from the rock; you told them to go in and take possession of the land you had sworn with uplifted hand to give them. (NIV)

Memory is precious and valuable. Having once worked as a chaplain in a memory care unit, I can testify that Alzheimer’s and dementia are tragic. The residents and patients for whom I interacted with were wonderful people. They just did not remember much – even their own names, sometimes. It is especially hard for family members. Spouses, children, grandchildren, and friends still remember – and, at times, not being remembered by this person they love is a deep sadness.

I wonder if this is the same kind of sadness which God felt. Having delivered his people from Egyptian bondage and sending them to the Promised Land, over the generations the people of God eventually forgot. With their memories far from them, the people lapsed into living as if they no longer knew who they were anymore.

To make a long biblical story short, God’s people were taken from their homes and exiled to Babylon. Yet, God still remembered them even though many of them forgot him. God sent Ezra the teacher and Nehemiah the leader to remind the people and help make the memories stick.

In today’s Old Testament lesson, we pick up Ezra and Nehemiah’s teaching and leading of the people in a collective and prayerful confession of their sins. At the heart of it all was a failed memory of God’s deliverance. Unlike Alzheimer’s and dementia folks who do not choose their condition, and who experience memory issues through no fault of their own, God’s people allowed themselves to forget.

The people needed to come back to remembrance and recall the mighty acts of God on their behalf in history. Those memories were meant to serve the people well, to enable them to always live by faith and trust in a benevolent God’s all-seeing care.

The path to renewal always begins with awareness and memory.

So, then, that is why Jews remember the Sabbath and the Passover. That is why Christians memorialize the death of Jesus through Holy Communion. We are to always remember the redemptive events of God in bringing us from bondage to liberation.

We can only know where we are going if we are served with full cognitive abilities of memory and history. For the Christian, a failure to remember inevitably leads to a failure of faith. And an ignorance of history will only lead us to an exile of the soul, putting us at risk of listening to hucksters who claim knowledge, but who themselves suffer from major memory issues.

Memory and remembrance are beautiful things, that is, when we have wonderful things to remember. Even traumatic events need to be remembered – not for experiencing re-traumatization – but to unburden the spirit of its heavy weight, and to bring a loving God’s healing power to bear on those memories.

Confessional prayer helps us to do just that: Acknowledge the past, receive grace in the present, and have direction and hope for the future. God still desires to take us from cruel bondage and bring us to a land flowing with milk and honey.

Recollection brings awareness; and awareness allows us the power to make choices of faith, hope, and love.

Blessed heavenly Father, we come to you in remembrance that our Lord Jesus Christ was sent from you into the world to assume our flesh and blood and to fulfill for us all obedience to the divine law, even to the bitter and shameful death of the cross. By Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension he established a new and eternal covenant of grace and reconciliation that we might be accepted and never forsaken nor forgotten by you. Most righteous God, we remember the perfect sacrifice offered once on the cross by our Lord Jesus for the sin of the whole world. In the joy of his resurrection and in expectation of his coming again, we offer ourselves to you as holy and living sacrifices. Amen.

Ezekiel 37:1-14 – “Speaking to Dry Bones”

Welcome, friends!  May you discover fresh hope and encouragement today.  Click the video below as we meet virtually and in spirit with one another.

I pray that your experience of God will become full, sustained, and fresh through this dry season of Lent and of the world’s predicament.  Click “Come Alive” (Dry Bones) sung by Lauren Daigle and speak to the dry bones in your valley.  Grace to you now and always.  Amen.

Speaking to Dry Bones

I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry.  He [God] asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”  –Ezekiel 37:2-3

Ezekiel dry bones
Ezekiel and the Valley of Dry Bones by Richard McBee

Folks around the world are quickly developing a new common language, becoming familiar with and using terms like social distancing, quarantine, shelter at home, and abundance of caution.  Our collective situation may easily create anxiety, and, so, parch our souls and leave our spirits dry.

There is, however, a God who can breathe new life into us and move us to renewed ways of thought and emotion.  The Old Testament prophet Ezekiel’s vision is a promise and a hope of resurrection, of revival.  No matter what our situation or who we are, we are all a displaced people – cast out of Eden and in need of restoration.  We, along with the ancient Israelites for whom he addressed, are in exile and long to return to our true home with God.  Along with St. Augustine we declare:

St Augustine quote

There are dry bones lying around – parched places in need of being reinvigorated.  Maybe you are experiencing the dry bones of hopelessness and despondency.  Maybe you are in a dark night of the soul where all of life seems like one shadowy oblivious hole.  Maybe you are wondering if God is really listening or is there at all because of the dry bones around you.  One thing for sure: Everything is upside-down right now; it is different.  At the first of the year, we didn’t see these current circumstances happening to us.  And, yet, these difficult times have much to teach us.

Let me share with you a “dry bones” experience from my own life.  Fifteen years-ago me and my family were in a car accident.  I was traveling on a highway in rural Iowa, and a small car on a gravel road blew through the stop sign without even slowing down.  There was nothing I could do.  I plowed into the rear quarter panel of the oncoming car, and it literally spun like a top off the highway and came to a stop.  Both the driver and his passenger were not injured.

Two of my three daughters were in the very back seat of our minivan (which I had just bought only a month before) with my wife and dog as front seat passengers.  The minivan was totaled.  My girls were not harmed.  However, my wife tore her shoulder’s rotator cuff protecting the dog and had an agonizing surgery to repair it.  My lower back was injured, yet, not in a way which surgery could repair it.  To this day I live with a kind of constant low-level aggravation of my spine.  Most days it’s not bad, maybe one or two on the pain scale.  On a bad day, I can barely walk across the room and need a cane to get around.

I have played the scene of the accident in my mind hundreds of times.  I have thought time and again about what I could have done to prevent it.  Honestly, there was no way to avoid it.  I thought about the fact that if we just would have left a minute earlier or a minute later from my parents’ house from where we were visiting, all would be fine.  Yet, I know that kind of thinking is a fool’s errand.  I have pondered every possible scenario in my head and have gotten nowhere.

It also took me awhile to forgive the young man who was driving the other car.  He changed my life, and not in a good way.  Although his insurance took care of everything and he was sorrowful about the incident, I was understandably angry for a long time.  I did, over time, come to the point of forgiving him.

Through the years I have learned to live with the limitations imposed on me.  I have now accepted the low-level aggravation of my back as part of my life.  On occasion, I sometimes can’t help but think of how my life would be today if I hadn’t been in that stupid accident.

About five years ago I was doing my usual routine morning prayers.  And God brought the accident to my mind.  I said to God, “Lord, we’ve been through this accident hundreds of times together.  I don’t want to think about it anymore.  Why are you bringing this up now?”

I’m not sure I really wanted an answer, but God brought it up because he knew I was finally ready to get his perspective on the accident.  Out of the hundreds of times I went over that accident in my mind, the one perspective I never took was that of the young man – the other driver.  God invited me to take a distinct viewpoint from the other driver.  So, I did.  I know that intersection like the back of my hand, so it wasn’t a hard exercise.

I imagined putting myself in the driver’s seat of his car.  I’m driving down the gravel road not paying attention to the fact that a stop sign is coming up.  I blow through the sign onto the highway and right in front of a minivan who slams on the brakes just enough to crush the rear quarter panel.  I spin out like a top and come to rest only a few feet from a huge Iowa grain elevator….

grain elevator

For the first time in my life I finally understood from a very different perspective.  God had a divine appointment for me that day.  You see, if I had not come along just when I did, that young man and his girlfriend would have blown through the stop sign and struck the grain elevator.  The impact would have killed them both instantly.

Suddenly, my attitude changed 180 degrees.  Previously, I had always thought about myself and my family.  I always considered my hardship and my change of life.  Now, I saw that God sent his servant to save two lives that day.  Had I not struck the young man’s car, causing him to spin and come to a rest unharmed, two people would have died.

From that time forward, every time my back acts up and effects how my life is lived, I’m reminded that it is a very small price to pay for the lives of two human beings.  God had me speak to the dry bones; and, the result was a revival of new thoughts and emotions.  This was such a dramatic change of thought and heart for me that it felt like a resurrection.

The biblical meaning of “repentance” is literally to have a change of mind – to see a different perspective.  The Bible invites us to view our lives with new lenses.  Our hurts and our pains, our sorrows and our sufferings, our changes and our limitations, are all part of something much bigger that God is doing in the world.  We are not always privy to his plans and purposes.  And, yet, God’s Word challenges us to take a perspective of the world, of humanity, and of ourselves that is counter to how we often think and feel.

It is a very small thing, right now in the admonitions to stay at home, to remain where we are.  Taking a mere one-sided view from my own perspective will bring frustration.  To see it from another angle as a temporary inconvenience, even with some permanent effects, which will save lives is a divine viewpoint.  To put it another way: We are speaking to dry bones.

Stay Home Save Lives

We might think and feel that we will be able to pursue God better without danger or hardship – that somehow difficulty is not to be part of the Christian life.  The dry bones exist, however, as an opportunity for God to give life.  That’s why Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s reaction to his exile in a Soviet labor camp in Siberia was to bless it, because it was there that, he said:

“I discovered that the meaning of earthly existence lies not, as we have grown used to thinking, in prospering, but in the development of the soul.”

God not only gives life; he restores life.  And this is an important truth to know and remember in the inevitable dry times of our lives.  God is not only a helper; he reanimates us from spiritual rigor mortis to lively resurrection through breathing on us.  And he does this for a reason.  Jesus came to his disciples after his resurrection and said, ‘“Peace be with you!  As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’  And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (John 20:20-21).  In other words, God resuscitates us for a purpose, so that we might be a blessing to the world.  Faith is not only a possession to keep, but a gift to give.  We glorify God in loving one another and loving the world as Jesus did.  God could have resurrected the bones without Ezekiel’s being a part of it.  Instead, the LORD used Ezekiel and had him participate in the revival by speaking to the bones.

Such a challenge to speak to the dry bones may seem overwhelming to us.  What do you do when your life is upended, even shattered – when such a profound change comes to you that it is impossible for your life to be as it was?  The questions and commands of God seemed totally absurd to Ezekiel, speaking to dead dry bones.  Maybe we ought to operate more in the realm of the absurd than in the realm of the safe routine.  Maybe we ought to expect our faith to be exercised and look for God to breathe new life into the dead and decaying.  To believe that something, someone, or even myself can change is to have internalized this amazing story of dry bones living again.

Our self-imposed graves cannot hold us because God is among us.  What we need more than anything in this world and in the church is a genuine heaven-sent, Spirit-breathed, glorious reanimation in which God sends his grace and raises the dead.

Isaiah 49:5-15

            Restoration is a major theme in the prophetic books of the Old Testament.  In this passage of Isaiah, God speaks of bringing Israel back to her original calling and purpose.  This would be accomplished through not just one nation but in the Messiah.  The scope and vision of what the Savior would do is enunciated by God:  “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
 
            In other words, Messiah is not just for Israel – Christ is given to reach the entire planet.  Jesus did not come to earth only to gather the Jewish nation back together like some sort of Bill Gaither Homecoming tour.  Instead, Messiah’s place and power is so significant that it is to be shared with everyone in the world.  Although Israel was to be a holy entity and separate from the surrounding culture, they were always to be a light to the nations.
 
            This has great import for the church and every individual believer in Jesus.  The church is not just to be like a country club that caters to club functions and members.  Instead, a missional understanding of church is to be at the forefront of Christian theology and practice because it has always been God’s vision to reach the nations.  The Lord is not satisfied with only catering to a specific people; God wants everyone.  And until believers grasp this heart of God for all persons the church will not be what it is designed to be:  a missionary enterprise that is to put all its resources into shining the light of Christ to every nook and cranny of creation.
 
            It behooves each of us, then, to be taught, trained, and led into God’s missionary heart for all.  Let us build caring relationships and extend loving actions not just to those within the church but toward those outside our fellowship so that God’s intentions are carried out and his prophecy fulfilled in Jesus’ name.
            Restoring God, you bring us back to close relation and fellowship so that we might extend your gracious purposes throughout the world.  Revive us again, God, so that we can hear your call to the nations through our Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.