Toorak Uniting Church

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Dead wood

Ezekiel 37: 1 – 14   Psalm 104: 24 – 35b   Romans 8: 22 – 27
Rev. Anneke Oppewal
31May 2009

It’s a bit of a nightmare, Ezekiel finds himself in, isn’t it? Imagine finding yourself in a valley full of dry bones, very dry bones even, and being led all around them at leisure? Not a very happy or relaxing position to find yourself in, surely. Deadness everywhere and not a green leaf of hope anywhere in sight. A valley of dry bones. Who could find a glimmer of hope there? Nobody! Can you imagine the heaviness, the despair, and the hopelessness that will come weighing in if one finds oneself in a nightmare like that?

Some of you will know the feelings and emotions that go with the imagery in the passage we read from Ezekiel today from experience. Not only from waking up in the middle of the night with a sad and heavy feeling only to realise that, thank God!, this was a dream. Some of you will have actually lived through a nightmare like this in real life or are living through it right at the moment. According to Beyond Blue, the Australian organisation that is working to address depression and issues associated with it, right now one million Australian Adults and one hundred thousand young people live with depression each year. On average, one in five of us will experience depression in their lifetime, with your chance of having to face the condition slightly higher if you are a male than a female. Whatever kind of depression these people will be suffering from, all of them will probably at some stage feel something like what is portrayed in that Ezekiel passage: dead, hopeless, with no future, life just one big arid wilderness beyond repair.

I don’t know if you’ve been there. But if you have it may be a comfort not only to know there are many others like you but also that depression is as old as the world, is well attested in scripture, especially in the psalms and the prophets, but also in other parts of the Old and the New Testament. Even Jesus seems to have suffered feelings of depression from it just before he went to the cross and while he was dying, feeling alone, abandoned, and full of questions. "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me" is a cry from the heart, but also a cry from hell. A hell that will be all too familiar to sufferers of depression.

So here is Ezekiel. Wandering around a valley of bones. And then there is this inner voice, and I imagine he may have felt at that stage that here was his depression trying to get him even further down: "Do you think those bones can live?" Do you think there is hope that this mountain of deadness can be brought to life again?

The answer of course being: "No, of course not, don’t be ridiculous! Mass graves are a place of death, not life! Arid wilderness is a place where life is generally not found and this sure looks like one where many have discovered this and perished.....Of course I don’t think these bones can live!

In what happens next, we as Christians, will of course hear the echo of the founding story of our faith: The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

Similar nightmare, similar depressive state of mind, similar total lack of hope or future and a similar, surprising, turn to life from death.

And hopefully, from the heart of our faith we’ll then be able to say: Of course God can bring life, and he can even bring it where there seems to be nothing than death. God can bring life to the deadest deadness and turn it around. This is our faith, this is what we know, because of Easter, because it didn’t end on the cross with that cry "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me" but continued with the joyful excitement of the exclamation "We have seen the Lord!" after that.
A faith not only based on that central and founding story of our Christian faith, but on many stories that came to us from scriptuer before that. Ezekiel knew it and other prophets testify to it: That our God can bring life and hope back into the bleakest, toughest, saddest, most impossible situations and turn them around. Slavery in Egypt, hardship in the desert, exile in Babylon, to name but a few, our God has a whole history of renewal, recreation and regeneration of people in pretty desperate situations.

That is our faith, that’s what is at the heart of what we believe in, that’s what, in the end, should get us through, no matter how desperate our experiences may be. What we are doing when we bring those stories and especially Jesus’ story to mind is I guess, what in counseling terms would be called positive thinking: countering negative feelings of despair and hopelessness about the state of the world or the state of our own lives with positive thoughts about how others got through and how we have this whole book full of stories about people in the most dire situations finding their way to resurrection and life. Some will put bible verses reminding them of that on their fridge, or underline them in their bible, or repeat them to themselves before they go to sleep at night when they say their prayers. All good, solid positive input that has been practiced by Christians for the last two thousand years to counteract the pull of depressive feelings, of feelings of hopelessness and sadness about life, about the state of the world, about all sorts of other things that may be around at bay, and often with very positive effects.

It is not enough however. The faith that we have, the words that we repeat to ourselves, the stories of hope we read, are not enough. We can prophesy what we want, shout from the rooftops that God is our help and our rock, but for it to actually work something more is needed.

And this is where it becomes very difficult to find words.

It is fairly easy to describe deadness and depression. We all know how it feels, even if only one in five of us are actually at some stage in our lives diagnosed with the condition because those feelings linger longer and go deeper than what most of us will experience anyway. We all know what it looks like: Just open the paper and valleys full of dead bones will be staring you in the face on every page. War, hungry children, and many, many other situations full of sadness and despair.

And even resurrection is something we can find words for, even where it is beyond our comprehension and we may struggle with what exactly those stories about Jesus’ resurrection might mean for our faith today. Anybody who has seen photo’s of regenerating bush land after a fire knows what resurrection is, everybody who has found hope after a period of sadness will know what it feels like, everybody who has been ill and recovered even, will know what being renewed, recreated, regeneration feels and looks like.

But this breath. What is it that makes the change? How do we get from death to life? From deadness to renewal and recreation? What mysterious power is it that lifts our spirits so we can see over the edge of the pit we might find ourselves in? Where in the groaning of Creation comes this breath of joy bubbling through to put sinew and flesh on that little glimmer of hope we had left? Where does resurrection become a real, moving stream of living water?

When the disciples meet the Holy Spirit in a room in Jerusalem their hope has been rekindled by their sightings of Jesus. They know death will not have the last word, they know everything is not lost, they have found a glimmer of hope in the darkness, but they are still waiting, frozen on the spot, unable to move.

What comes blows them away. Literally. It cleans them out, takes them over, brings them to life in a new and unimagined way. It is only then they are able to unlock the doors of the place they were hiding in, come out and travel the world with their story of salvation. We were dead they’ll say, like those bones in the valley, first we saw it happen in Jesus and then it happened to us: sinew and flesh put upon something that was really very dead. We were filled with new life, new hope, a new future, we became part of the Spirit and the Spirit became part of us, as close as our breath, moving through us like the wind through the leaves of a tree, warming us like the flames of a fire. We were changed, in an instant, from dead wood into living green and fruit bearing trees! Can you believe it?

Every now and again something will happen that fills us with hope and releases forces that open the possibility of a different future for us. The coming down of the Iron Curtain opening doors to peace between East and West, the release of Mandela opening up new horizons for South Africa, and more recently the first afro american president of the United States coming into power. These events may not have changed the world completely, but they each, in their own way, were a watershed between one order of being and another. A hope generating watershed where a significant move was made towards a different and better future for humanity.

In a smaller way I see it happening here in the grounds.
About four years ago we had a dream. A wonderful dream. We dreamed of a house full of life in these grounds. People were walking in and out, lots of people. We dreamed of happiness and warmth and of the Spirit moving through the leaves in the car park.
The Council was crazy enough to put some money towards that dream. Since then there have been a couple of times where I’ve thought the whole thing was about to turn into a nightmare. But a couple of weeks ago, when many gathered there to celebrate mother’s day, walking past the Church with their arms full of flowers I felt the touch of a feather tickling somewhere deep inside me, and was suddenly feeling sure: The Spirit is at work in this place and will take us from resurrection to renewal and recreation. In our individual lives, in our congregation and in our community.

There are other signs of regeneration and renewal. The group that visits our ecumenical prayers for Christian Unity is growing (Unfortunately I haven’t been able to make it to any of the meetings at the new time on Thursday morning yet to see it). This congregation is rising to the challenge of continuing its life with one minister in placement and not two. And I could go on......

Are we heading for revival as some are whispering hopefully? Or are we beyond repair and these just the last convulsions of a dying Church? I don’t know. Perhaps that is not the most important question. A more important one is if we are open to feeling the Spirit tickle our spines I believe. What we are looking for is for the doors of our community to open and for people to go out and testify in the world around them what we have to offer. Because we do!

We do have something to offer to a world where one in five people feel dead inside and where loneliness and feelings of abandonment are rampant. We are a community that not only believes but knows that the impossible is possible where God comes into the equation and the Spirit starts to groan and sigh and breathe within us. It is happening everywhere around us if only we are prepared to open our eyes to it and see the life bursting through in the most unexpected and unimagined places. It won’t be as it was, the old life has to die for it to make room for new. And even resurrecting the old life is not enough, because that would only hold us back. Something else needs to take over, and feather and bubble its way straight through our well laid out plans and thoughts and take us to where we never imagined we would go. Something is brooding over creation, breathing new life where death seems to reign, groaning and sighing and whispering and pushing us into life.

There is no dead wood. There is only wood that seems dead and is waiting to come to life.
Amen.

© Rev. Anneke Oppewal, 2009


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