Fifth Sunday in Lent
By Carmen Retzlaff
The hand of the Lord came upon Ezekiel, who was in exile from his homeland. “The prophet very rarely speaks of God’s face: he feels his hand,” says Abraham Heschel in The Prophets (Harper, 1962). In his vision, Ezekiel feels the hand of the Lord upon him, bringing him out and setting him in the middle of a dry valley, filled with bones.
After weeks of water stories in the Gospel of John this Lent, we find ourselves in a desert so dry it seems devoid of life. Desiccated. I pastor an outdoor church in the Texas Hill Country. We are northeast of the great Chihuahuan Desert of North America, but not into the fertile coastal plains of East Texas. The Hill Country is sparsely forested in some areas by great live oaks and ash juniper. Many native grasses once grew around them, along with dry-climate plants like prickly pear cactus and agarita. We’re high enough above the Trinity aquifer to be decidedly arid, though subject to the climate of Texas famously referred to by meteorologists as “drought with periods of flooding.”
The green-but-arid climate of Babylon, the city of exile from which Ezekiel prophesied, and of Jerusalem, the longed-for home, both resemble the Texas Hill Country. Dry but not desolate. Between those places – the new home of the people of God, and the one they missed, was one of the driest places on earth, the Arabian desert. 900,000 square miles of desert, which did and does dictate travel and population patterns in the Middle East. As the crow flies, Jerusalem was about 500 miles from Babylon, but travelers followed the arc of the Euphrates River, and the Fertile Crescent, making the distance about 900 miles.
Between two arid but fertile cities, a vast and dangerous desert. Between the emotional and cultural desert experience of forced exile and home, a physical desert of sand. They could not cross the emotional distance nor the physical one.
Into this dryness and longing, God sends a vision to Ezekiel, a fiery, dramatic prophet. A vision of a prophesy. God says to the prophet, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord,” and Ezekiel calls out to the bones, and the bones rattle, become covered with flesh and then skin, one of the most famous literary images of all time.
In nature, Ezekiel’s vision is regularly reenacted after desert rains. Deserts that seem almost lifeless burst with plants, birds and insects appear. Animals that have lain dormant in the earth, like desert toads, emerge. Seeds wait for years for the right amount of moisture to begin the cycle of rebirth. It is a miracle, each time, not unlike flesh coming onto desiccated bones. An account of this in North America (“Life in the Desert: Songs of the Sonoran,“ Chadwich, Douglas H., National Geographic Magazine, September 2006) includes this line: “A desert can fool the eye. A sun-blasted plain of death turns suddenly into a landscape of sound, water and life.”
This pericope comes in response to the people’s complaint: “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost.” Note that twice (vv. 12, 13) God utters an endearing “O my people.” (Studies on Old Testament texts from Series B, Ralph W. Klein, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago)
And that is God’s message to the people: a message of hope and rebirth. “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…I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil.” Flourishing, abundant, with the soil of home beneath their feet, Israel shall live again.
Carmen Retzlaff, pastor, ELCA, New Life Lutheran Church of Dripping Springs, settled in Central Texas, territory of people of plains cultures, including Tonkawa, Apache, Kiowa, and Comanche. Carmen is a member of the Wild Church Network.
Photo caption: dry summer flora, New Life church land