Sunday Stretch: Vol. 27
Start off your week with a grounded take on Bible, prayer, the world, and your life ...
Happy First Full week of Spring here in the Northern Hemisphere — and happy final few weeks of Lent. Happy Lent? Maybe that’s an oxymoron. But what I do want to do here, in the midst of Lent, is give us all, myself included, a bit of a pep talk. The Lectionary in this year doesn’t necessarily do us any favors, with kind of an overload of lengthy and meaningful Bible passages that frankly deserve more time and space to digest than we have right here. And I know all of those feelings of promise with Ash Wednesday, of a deeper spiritual connection this Lent - and promises to attend more worship, or get more out of worship - or if you’re a church leader, to be more consistent in your own devotional practice, to preach and exegete Scripture more faithfully, to not find yourself feeling consistently overwhelmed and occasionally unprepared for the week at-hand.
Lent in itself offers a respite and a healing for all of these feelings. Because we don’t stop needing to repent and to confess on Ash Wednesday. It’s an ongoing practice all of our lives, and I would say especially in this season of Lent. So in this mid/end-point, I invite you this morning to confess with me today. Not everything has gone according to plan. I’ve lost focus. I worshiped at the altar of March Madness (just me?)
God’s consistent word to us throughout the season of Lent is one of invitation. God invites us back. Invites us back to sing and to worship. Invites us back to repent and receive forgiveness. Invites us back to the table: to share in communion with our siblings in Christ, and to receive a love that we can’t help but share with the world.
Let’s get to the texts.
The Vision of the Valley of Dry Bones, Ezekiel 37:1-2, illustration from Dore's 'The Holy Bible', engraved by C. Laplante (d.1903) 1866 - by Gustave Dore
Ezek. 37:1 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. 2 He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3 He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord GOD, you know.” 4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. 5 Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6 I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the LORD.”
Ezek. 37:7 So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8 I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. 9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” 10 I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
Ezek. 37:11 Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ 12 Therefore prophesy, and say to them, 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. 13 And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14 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.
Prophesy, Mortal! Prophesy to these bones!
Rise up! Jesus is coming!
I can’t read this passage without catching my breath; without leaning into that pentecostal feeling of Holy Spirit Revival. My Northern European, Lutheran ancestors were not always as good at this sort of thing. Still, we all need these words. Let these dry bones live! God’s breath makes us alive. What a reading of hope. Of promise. Of Good News. Of acknowledgment of sorrow, death, and pain and loss of hope. What a reminder that the God we worship dwells with us even in the Valley of Dry Bones.
Questions to Ponder
Have you ever experienced a vision like Ezekiel does? Where God is showing you something not only through words or Scripture but images? Why is this vision more important than just words of promise?
This Scripture passage inspired a spiritual song, with a melody written by early Black Civil Rights leader James Weldon Johnson and his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson. Read more here. Why do you think this text holds special meaning for Black Americans and Civil Rights leaders?
I’m thinking of how many popular TV shows (think Game of Thrones, Walking Dead, The Last of Us) feature a sort of reversal of this story, where dead people take on flesh and live - but live only as an army of zombies seeking to kill human life. Why is that version of this story more popular than Ezekiel’s vision, do you think?
Rom. 8:6 To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7 For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, 8 and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
Rom. 8:9 But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.
If you read these passage a few times fast, it’s one of those passages that can almost become a tongue twister. It sounds so simple: set your mind on the Spirit - not the flesh!
Have you ever tried to “set your mind” on something for a prolonged period of time, when you actually want to think of something else? It’s kind of like having a craving for a cookie. You can eat as many carrots and berries and drink as much water as you want - ultimately, you probably won’t be satisfied until you eat that cookie you wanted originally!
I was curious, so I looked at the Greek New Testament version of this text. The Greek word that is translated to “To set the mind on” is φρόνημα which translates roughly to a noun meaning: the faculty of fixing one’s mind on something, a way of thinking of a mindset, according to BDAG lexicon. I think Paul’s actual meaning is a bit more fixed and less of an active verb than the NRSV renders it here. He’s speaking not of particular thoughts as much as a general mindset: approaching the world with a hope for resurrection, new life, and forgiveness, rather than the world’s promise of death and despair. I think I heard a sermon once preached in this vein that spoke of seeing with “resurrection eyes.”
Again, I think it’s helpful to think of the season of Lent as not one of command but one of invitation. God invites us to see through the lens of the Spirit. Not only the world or others, but ourselves (note how v. 11 reminds us that this Holy Spirit dwells also in us). It’s not as much about “setting your mind” as it is about considering a new way to see, with the intervention of grace.
Phrases like “set your mind” have strengthened a Western/Enlightenment era tendency to think about faith in Jesus as a kind of mental assent: a trick of the mind or belief to enable salvation. What alternative do the Gospels offer that leads to salvation?
What does the term “the flesh” mean here in Paul’s theology? Is it related to sex/sexuality? Why or why not?
How does the term “the body” differ from the term “the flesh” for the Apostle Paul? Why is this so important?
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