Rev. Teri Peterson
Not Another Zombie Movie
8 December 2013, Advent 2, NL 4-14
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.’ Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 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.’
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. 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. 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.’ I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
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.” 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. 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.’
|a costume is one thing...|
I have to confess to you that I’m not much of a zombie fan. The craze of zombie apocalypse preparation, which has even reached the CDC, has me rolling my eyes. I mean, honestly, the science behind the whole zombie thing is a little ridiculous—just ask Neil deGrasse Tyson.
I’m much more of a vampire girl.
But I will admit that zombies and vampires share some similarities, at least in the classic forms (Twilight is a whole other thing completely outside the usual lore, so we’ll leave them out of it). Most obviously, of course: they’re both dead, or rather undead. They walk, talk, and have survival instincts, and in many ways act much like normal people, with feelings, thoughts, and even relationships.
But the undead are different from the living in one major way:
They don’t breathe.
That’s how we know that God didn’t take Ezekiel down and dump him in the middle of a zombie army: because the vision begins and ends with breath.
Ezekiel wrote to people in exile—people who had been taken from everything they knew, whose homes and Temple and lives had been destroyed, people who were certain that they were alone, abandoned, hopeless. These are the people who gave us the lament “how can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” The light had gone out from their eyes, the songs had fled from their lips, and they may as well have been dried up and dead. Ezekiel’s vision begins in a mass grave, the bones jumbled together and dried out, no possibility left.
Sometimes life feels like that. Hopefully not all the time, but at some point in most of our lives, the darkness seems impenetrable. Possibilities dry up. Grief clouds our vision. We long for the way things used to be. We miss family and friends who are no longer with us. We can’t understand what is happening in the world, in our nation, in our church. Nothing is turning out like we imagined. We look back at the good old days, not just to reminisce but also to grieve for our dreams, which may not have come true.
This happens in our individual lives, and our communal life. Sometimes it can feel like the church is in exile—somewhere along the way, we stepped off the path, or the path moved and we didn’t notice, and now we can’t see how to get back. We are tired, burning out, and wonder when it’s our turn to rest and someone else’s turn to do all the things church is supposed to do. All we can see is what was, and in comparison what is or what might be are just not worth singing about.
Into that dark nostalgia, the Spirit of God blows like wind. Last week I said that Advent may be the season when God is preparing us, rather than only a season when we are preparing for God. This vision of Ezekiel’s is exactly that: a story of God preparing the people. It takes several steps, though—like any good thing, it’s worth waiting for, but the waiting can be the hardest part.
The first step is that God pulls this jumbled mess of bones together, bone to its bone, in the right order so they can be whole. But just a complete skeleton is still not a body. Sure, we might have all the right pieces, but that doesn’t make us ready.
The second step is God putting flesh and sinews—holding together the bones with tendons and ligaments, muscles and fat, organs and tissues. Bones by themselves aren’t much use, really. They only stick together if they’re immobilized, like in a museum. This second step makes movement possible, so we’re not a museum piece, but still not a whole body either—though it’s starting to look familiar!
The third step is God covering the bodies with skin. The largest organ in the body, skin not only holds everything in, but protects too. We may want to get moving, but without skin the body is susceptible to injury, infection, and falling apart. This step in the preparation may be uncomfortable, because we don’t like boundaries. But without them, viruses multiply and pieces fall out.
At this point, stuck together with all the right pieces, we’re chomping at the bit, ready to go! This is the moment most of us as both individuals and churches get to, and then we’re off. We look like the body, feel like the body, and feel perfectly put together and prepared. Three steps is just right for our attention span and for our capacity for waiting for God to get to work already.
So we walk around, doing things, trying our best, and still can’t figure out why people aren’t flocking to churches or why there’s a budget deficit or where the families are going. We listened when God called us together, so how come things still aren’t the way they used to be, when pews and classrooms and offering plates overflowed? God promised to restore us, so why aren’t we reliving the good old days yet?
Because at just three steps, that valley is full of zombies. And zombies are, by definition, living in the past.
At this point in the process, we’re not jumbled up skeletons, but not full of life either. That’s still exile. Yes, we go about our daily lives, we do what we’ve always done, we get by…but there’s nothing transformative happening. It’s just day in and day out. We don’t experience life, we’re not touched or changed, we just…are. Just exist. The Israelites in exile seem to have swung between these two positions—dried up and hopeless, and just waiting out life without expectation.
But as scripture tells us over and over, God is a God of the living, not the dead, and not the undead. God’s promise is not just that we’ll walk through life, but that we’ll breathe life. God’s promise is not just that the bones will organize into skeletons and be covered with flesh and skin, but that they will be filled with breath, coming from the four winds, blowing into their bodies and hearts and minds and souls so that they can love God and love their neighbor with everything they’ve got. God’s promise is not that we’ll be undead, God’s promise is Everlasting Life Abundant, even when we can’t see how it’s possible.
And we know God keeps promises. Every time. Even impossible ones.
The Hebrew word for breath is ruach, the same word that’s translated as wind and as spirit. When the wind blows, that’s the breath of God. When we breathe, that’s the Spirit of God filling our bodies. The very air we breathe, in other words, is God’s presence, God’s promise, God’s hope, entering our lungs and our blood stream. When God tells Ezekiel to call the breath from the four winds, that’s the Spirit that comes rushing in, bringing life and hope and possibility and love.
In this season of Advent, we need to take the time to wait for the fourth step, to wait for God to do the most amazing thing, to prepare us not just by putting us together as the Body of Christ, but to breathe life into that body, to transform us from a walking corpse into a living, breathing, transforming, glorious body. The church is not meant to be zombies, but too often we human beings want to take things into our own hands rather than waiting for what the Spirit is doing in the church, or in the world, or in our own lives. Or worse, we don’t want to be transformed, because we like the way things are just fine, and change is hard, and we can’t imagine how it’ll work, and what if it’s not good for me?
Here’s what I know: God’s vision is always better than mine. God’s dream is always more glorious than mine. God’s work is always more meaningful than what I imagine on my own. And to breathe the Spirit is always going to be better than the anxiety and fear and frustration of not breathing at all. I dislike waiting as much as the next person. I hate not being in control. I don’t like the feelings brought on by change any more than you do. Letting God prepare me can be painful even as I see it’s for the best. And I also see in scripture and in history and even right here among us that God is way better at this than I am. And if my options are to go through the motions like a zombie or to feel the stretch and burn of God’s breath in my lungs, I’ll take the breath of life anytime.
The first sentence God gives to Ezekiel is “I will cause breath to enter you” and the last is “I will put my Spirit within you.” This is the good news, grace upon grace: from the four winds come the four steps of Advent preparation, if only we will wait, and listen, and open ourselves to the winds of the Spirit. No longer a jumble of bones, no longer zombies, but life in all its fullness, transforming into the Body of Christ so that the world can be transformed into the kingdom of God. May the wind blow. Amen.