The scene in Ezekiel is like something from the bleakest Cormac McCarthy novel. Or maybe from the film A Nightmare on Elm Street, in which the worst dream one can imagine comes to life. Ezekiel, who is the odd prophet who is also a priest, today finds himself confronted by a mystical vision of a valley stretching forth in all directions. Lying on the valley floor are scattered innumerable human bones of some people who have met their destruction. There is no flesh or sinew left on these bones. There is no remnant of life to work with. The bones are bleached and dry. They are as dead as a thing can be.
With a rising sense of foreboding, Ezekiel knows whose bones he sees. They are his own and the bones of all his countrymen. And Ezekiel knows that this vision is not a prophecy of something yet to come, but rather the visionary confirmation that the life he and all the people of Israel have lived is, even now, over. See, Ezekiel is experiencing is neither story nor movie. It is unfortunately very real. The prophet came of age in Judah in an almost golden era during the reign of King Josiah. His country felt good about its place in the world, and that sense of well-being filtered down to each of its people. Judah had its problems to be sure, but generally things were good, or at least passable, for most people.
And then in with what must have seemed like whiplash speed, everything fell apart. In the prime of Ezekiel’s life, the king was killed in battle, and the sons who succeeded him were vacillating and weak. Quickly, the Babylonian Empire moved in, conquered Judah, and disrupting everything. The economy imploded. The people were swept apart in a program of exile that separated family from family and virtually everyone from the life they’d known. What had seemed like bedrock under everyone’s feet suddenly turned to quicksand.
And so, from exile, Ezekiel’s vision from God is exactly accurate. Ezekiel’s vision shows him dried and scattered bones. Ezekiel’s reality is much the same thing. His world has ended.
A few days ago, my daughter Eliza came to me and said a couple of her friends’ parents were talking about signs of the apocalypse and how what we are currently experiencing might just be the beginning of the end. She asked me what I thought of that. I told Eliza that in the fourteenth century, as the Black Plague swept over Europe, killing one third of Europe’s population and grinding the economy to a halt, many people thought the apocalypse had arrived. I shared that when the Great Fire of London destroyed most of that city in 1666, many thought it was a sign that the world was ending. I told Eliza that with the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930s and with the outbreak of the Second World War, many claimed that history was near its end. And I related to her how, in my own recent memory, apocalyptic predictions surrounding September 11, 2001 came from many quarters.
Many thought the Great Fire of London was a sign that the world was ending.
In each of these cases and in dozens of others, just as in Ezekiel’s own case, the world seemed to be ending. In fact, practically every generation experiences some upending event of such magnitude that it is virtually impossible to imagine life on the other side.
Surely, the coronavirus crisis is the most upending event in my lifetime. I was born during the Vietnam War. I was a young father on 9/11. I was building a career when the Great Recession hit. None of those had the potential impact of what we’re enduring now, either communally or individually. It is deeply worrisome. If, in the middle of the night, you have a vision of a valley of dried and bleached bones, you come by it honestly. It feels really dicey out there.
But lest we forget, Ezekiel’s vision is not a Cormac McCarthy novel, and it’s not a horror movie. It starts with a bleak scene, but that is only the beginning. As Ezekiel looks upon the bones in horror, knowing that they are his own and those of his community, God asks him, “Mortal, can these bones live?” And Ezekiel replies in despairing truth, “Only you know that, God.”
And then God breathes, as God does, and with a rattling noise the bones move together; and where there was no sinew, there is sinew; and where there was no muscle, there is muscle; and where there was no breath, there is breath; and the whole valley springs to life.
God says to Ezekiel, “You and your people say to me, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely’…[but] I will put my spirit within you and you shall live.”
And so it happens. God redeems them. God brings them back to life. The disaster of Ezekiel’s life is not the final word. His people will live, and flourish, and fall again into disaster, and live, and flourish again.
The reason each generation, then and now, believes the world is ending is because, ironically, God’s redemption is so complete. After the Black Plague, the economy boomed and workers gained rights they’d never before had in history.[i] After the Great Fire of London, London was rebuilt and became the modern world city we know today. After the Second World War, the United States became a land of unprecedented plenty. God’s redemption is so great that it gives us short memories. God restores us so completely that we quickly forget the world-threatening challenges of the past and so come to believe that the immediate challenge must be the dawn of the apocalypse.
But friends, though our memory is short, God’s memory is long, and there are no bones so bleached and broken that God cannot knit bone upon bone and breathe new life. That’s what God does! It is what God will do. It is the promise on which we stake our faith and our lives.
Ezekiel receives this vision, and he believes it, but the new life built on the wreckage of the old does not happen overnight. There will still be many days of difficulty before his people are strong and whole again. And so, Ezekiel lives on. He looks out for his compatriots. He speaks the truth to them. He supports them. He lives realistically in the present, but he keeps his eyes peering ahead in hope, knowing that what God has shown him is true.
There is a modern, contemporary term for how Ezekiel responds. It is also instructive for how we should live in these days. It is called the “Stockdale Paradox,”[ii] coined by author Jim Collins in his book Good to Great and named for Navy flier James Stockdale, who was a prisoner of war for more than seven years in Vietnam. Stockdale made it through his nightmare, and after he came home he rose to’ the rank of Vice-Admiral and became president of the Naval War College. The posture of heart and mind that saw him through—the paradox—was that he 1.) retained faith that he would prevail in the end, regardless of the mammoth challenges, 2.) while at the same time confronting, and not pretending away, the hard reality of the present. For us, another name for the Stockdale Paradox is Christian hope.
The challenges of today, and tomorrow, and next week, and next month are real. They are serious. They are not minor, and they surely are not pretend. But the world is not ending. Or better yet, if this world ends as we have known it, then God will breathe life into a new world. God will strengthen us to stand and walk and thrive, individually and as a community, and we will again flourish. That is the vision. That is the hope. That is God’s promise, and God’s promises are true. Blessings to you this day.