Good Shepherd - Morning Prayer 10/8/2008
By the rivers of Babylon,The words of Psalm 137. A song sung by people who had been exiled from their homes, driven out of Jerusalem (or Zion) by the Babylonians, driven to another country by an occupying force, forced to learn to adapt to life in a foreign land, knowing that they were outsiders, being made to feel like they were outsiders, wondering where the Lord was at this time of terrible change. Feeling that their exile was a punishment on them from a God who they had angered by their disobedience to him.
There we sat down and wept,
When we remembered Zion.
Upon the willows in the midst of it
We hung our harps.
For there our captors demanded of us songs,
And our tormentors mirth, saying,
"Sing us one of the songs of Zion."
How can we sing the Lord's song
In a foreign land?
Like the Africans enslaved in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America the people of Zion exiled in Babylon found their songs of praise and hope to their God dried up, and instead they began to sing songs of woe and lament and anger and confusion - their gospel music replaced by the blues:
By the rivers of Babylon,We might imagine that these words were sung in the living room of Ezekiel's house in Babylon, in the year 590BC. Because Ezekiel was an exile. A priest and the son of a priest from Jerusalem, Ezekiel was one of the Israelites deported to Babylon when the Babylonian powers took over their land in the year 597BC.
There we sat down and wept,
When we remembered Zion.
And being a man who had a clear, strong, powerful calling from God to be a prophet to the rebellious people of Israel, Ezekiel would host meetings in his house in which other elders and leaders of the exiled people would come to share their concerns and seek out guidance and advice.
We might perhaps imagine something similar happening today, in the living rooms of Somali people displaced to Liverpool because of the long-term terrible civil war in their home country. In the houses of Liverpool 8 this week, elders of the people meeting to ask, why us: exiled here in this strange unwelcoming land?
We might perhaps imagine something similar happening today, in the tents of the massive refugee camps of the Darfur region of western Sudan. Elders of the people meeting to ask, what next for us now, with our homeland torn apart by violence and disease; what might our god be saying?
The strife of Somalia and Darfur today is not unlike the strife of Israel in Ezekiel's time. Strife caused by battles over territory between different factions in the area.
Israel was a land both blessed and cursed by its position in the world. It sat on the major trade routes which connected the wealthy nations of Africa to the south-west and Asia to the north-east, and that meant that many people met in Israel to trade - a great blessing, a great source of income for the people of Israel. But the trade routes which passed through Israel were also the routes which the military forces of the great powers took when they were travelling to battle to occupy each other's territory.
And so Israel was very vulnerable to being taken over by occupying forces. And so like Assyria before them and Persia after them, and Egypt at other times, so also Babylon dominated the area and took control of Israel in Ezekiel's time.
In 597BC Babylon took Jerusalem and in so doing struck at the heart of Israel in three particular ways:
They took Israel's land - which was God's gift to them and a sign of their relationship with God;
They smashed Israel's temple - which was not only the place where they worshipped God but also the sign of God's presence with them; and
They exiled Israel's king, Zedekiah, and executed his sons - which brought an end to the monarchy which traced its line all the way back to David and the promise that there would always be a king of his line on Israel's throne.
The fall and destruction of Jerusalem was a catastrophe for Israel for, in that experience, they lost those things which were the basis of their religion and their existence as a people. They were like a people whose bones had dried up, whose hope was lost; they were like a people who felt that they were cut off completely.
Ezekiel's time was also Jeremiah's time. The difference between Ezekiel and Jeremiah was that Jeremiah stayed in Jerusalem after it fell while Ezekiel was sent to Babylon. But the similarity shared between these two great prophets of Israel was that both had to try to help the wayward and lamenting people of Israel to regain their sense of themselves before God.
Could they continue to believe they were God's people with the land, the temple and the king taken from them? Could their dry bones live? And if they were still God's people, had their relationship with God changed?
Which way was the wind blowing? The question which Ezekiel had to try to answer for Israel.
A problem which Ezekiel had was that the people weren't really listening. In the words he spoke to Ezekiel when he called him to his prophetic ministry, God said that of the people of Israel, 'they are a rebellious house'. God knew that Ezekiel might be anxious about speaking God's words to them, so he said,
And you, O mortal, do not be afraid of them, and do not be afraid of their words, though briers and thorns surround you and you live among scorpions; do not be afraid of their words, and do not be dismayed at their looks, for they are a rebellious house. You shall speak my words to them, whether they hear or refuse to hear; for they are a rebellious house. [Ezekiel 2.6-7]Now exiles may well be people divided by clans and tribes and ethnic groups, which means that even in exile they may be in conflict with each other. This can make it harder for them to settle in exile, to co-operate together in rebuilding their lives. So too the rebellious house of Israel in Ezekiel's time, likely to listen less to the pacifying, unifying voice of God than to the squabbles and conflicts between them as they carried on in their own disorderly and disagreeable ways.
Much of Ezekiel's message was to try to make the people hear God's voice again, to hear the words of judgement on their behaviour, to understand the exile as God' s punishment, to call for repentance and to proclaim words of hope. God was rightly judging them for their rebellion, but the judgement of God would lead to forgiveness and restoration if the people would repent.
Which way was the wind blowing? The question which Ezekiel had to try to answer for Israel. The astonishing passage which we heard read to us this morning told Israel that the wind was God's spirit and that the spirit was about to blow new life into their wracked, dry bones of their community.
The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all round them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, 'Mortal, can these bones live?' I answered, 'O Lord God, you know.' [37.1-3]God, of course, did know. And so he told Ezekiel in his vision to tell the people,
Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.' [37.11-14]Notice how these words of promise restored hope to Israel.
The Babylonians had taken Israel's land - which was God's gift to them and a sign of their relationship with God; but here, God was promising that they would have it back;
The Babylonians had smashed Israel's temple - which was not only the place where they worshipped God but also the sign of God's presence with them; but here, in the middle of a desert place, the arid land of exile, God was with the people, promising to breathe his spirit into them; and
The Babylonians had exiled Israel's king, Zedekiah, and executed his sons - which brought an end to the monarchy which traced its line all the way back to David and the promise that there would always be a king of his line on Israel's throne; but here, God was promising to restore the people to new life on their own soil.
Now it may be easier for us to locate the displaced, exiled, rebellious, troubled peoples of our world thousands of years away in the story of ancient Israel or hundreds of miles away in the Horn of Africa or even a few miles away in a distant other part of our city which we have little contact with. But of course we can find displaced, exiled, rebellious, troubled people in every community including our own. Maybe we count ourselves among them, if not now then at other times in our lives.
For the experience of exile is one we all might relate to. Being cut off from the people we know best, the place we know well, the way of life we have been used to for so long, now very altered or ended. I've had it myself in times, earlier in my life when I've been made redundant, unemployed, and when I've had to travel away to find work or study to try to help get work. You may have had this too, moving away, having others move away - the experience of a sort of exile.
The message which God gave to Ezekiel is a message which God must want to give to all displaced, exiled, rebellious, troubled peoples today: a message that turning to him in repentance and hope brings new life, restoration of community and the breath of the spirit. Ezekiel's God is one who puts flesh on dry bones and breathes new life into them. In the words of the singer-songwriter Mark Heard, God's spirit makes the 'dry bones dance'.
 Charles R. Biggs, Book of Ezekiel; Epworth Commentary, xii. Other commentary elements of this talk also reference this book.