April 3, 2017

Hateful Zombies and the Greatest German

Ezekiel’s vision of a valley covered in dry and lifeless human remains is the image of his community’s complete devastation. This was a vision of war’s aftermath, a war that left Ezekiel’s community, the ancient Kingdom of Judah, in ruin and made of its people, including Ezekiel, exiles—strangers in a strange land called Babylon.

Ezekiel came into his own around the year 600BC, during Judah’s last days. Judah was the southern remnant of a much larger kingdom once governed by King David, he of Goliath slaying fame. By 600, however, centuries of domestic problems and international follies had reduced the kingdom to a shell of its former self.

Vestiges of David’s reign were few and far between during Ezekiel’s youth. These included David’s capital city—Jerusalem, the Temple David’s son Solomon built there, and his descendants who—although they lacked their ancestor’s skill and devotion to God—still sat on the throne.

Ezekiel would live to see all of these—the capital, temple, and royal house—reduced to ruin.

Like historians who debate the events surrounding the Fall of Rome, it’s difficult for us to pinpoint the moment when Judah reached the point of no return. Prophets had been calling for a change of heart and a change of policy for decades prior to Ezekiel’s emergence on the scene. One king, Josiah—who happened to be the ruler when Ezekiel was born—even gave those prophets a fair hearing and tried to put their wisdom into action.

But the nation’s hopes seemed to die with Josiah. His heirs shunned their father’s plans and put all their hopes in a military alliance with Egypt, one of the region’s two super-powers.

Unfortunately, in the race for regional supremacy among those super-powers, Josiah’s sons bet Judah’s fortunes on the wrong horse.

Babylon, not Egypt, would write the next chapter in Mid-East history.

Ezekiel was a young priest ministering in the Temple when Babylon’s army savagely descended upon Judah. Babylon’s king waged and won a brutal campaign.

The invaders sacked the capital, looted God’s House, and carried off into exile most of the people.

These are a cataclysmic events that shaped Ezekiel’s life and ministry, a ministry distinguished by disturbing visions and fantastic proclamations.

Ezekiel lived in an uncertain time and his ministry was unlike any prophet’s that had gone before him.

While he was living in exile in Babylon, Ezekiel experienced his most enduring vision, the vision set before us this morning.

And Ezekiel testified,

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 around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.
After reading Ezekiel’s 37th chapter this week, I began to search out scenes from more recent history that would prove somewhat analogous to the prophet’s experience. I wanted to find other examples, be they good or bad examples, of leaders addressing a defeated people, their own defeated community, at war’s end. I thought about the American South circa 1865, about Japan after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Germany after Hitler’s defeat. This search ultimately led me to the rather remarkable political career of Konrad Adenauer.

Adenauer was the first Chancellor of West Germany, the capitalist and democratic country formed from Germany’s post-World War II division. Holding that position from 1949 to 1963, Adenauer’s commitment to democracy and a unified Europe, as well as successfully piloting his nation’s post-war economy, earned him lasting respect. A poll in 2003 named him the “Greatest German of All-Time,” no mean feat considering Bach and Einstein only scored top ten finishes and Martin Luther was the runner up.

Before he was Chancellor, though, immediately after the war ended in Germany, Adenauer became mayor of Cologne, a city located on the banks of the Rhine River that dated back to the days of the Roman Empire. Cologne was Adenauer’s hometown and he had served successfully as its mayor after the First World War. This political experience and his consistent opposition to the Nazi Party made Adenauer a logical choice to govern the newly liberated city, or at least what was left of it.

Allied Forces had bombed Cologne into oblivion. The United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force held 262 raids on the city during which they dropped over 34,000 tons of ordinance. These reduced the city to “the biggest pile of rubble in the world” and decreased its population by 95 percent.

The U.S. Army moved into Cologne in March 1945 and made Adenauer mayor soon after, an appointment that gave him an opportunity to make the speech that caught my attention this week. There, on the plains of the Rhineland, Adenauer beheld a valley of dry bones and wondered aloud about the forces that might bring them back to life.

Confronted with a lack of food, and fuel, and shelter, the mayor issued a word of caution.

The guilty, those responsible for this unspeakable suffering, this indescribable misery, are those accursed men who came to power in the fatal year 1933. It was they who…when their own well deserved perdition was certain, systematically and deliberately plunged our misguided and paralysed people into the deepest misery. They did this not, as is often assumed, so that the German people should perish with them…they intended something much more devilish: they wanted and they still want the thought of revenge and retribution to re-animate the German people against its wartime opponents.
I think this is an incredible insight because it is true that there’s a certain kind of new life that revenge and retribution promise. When anger causes a surge of energy to pulse through our bodies, when a community is stirred up to expel from its midst those judged to be enemies, when tyrants lash out at those who dare to question authority and pursue truth—sleepiness and lethargy fade and we are invigorated. We are reanimated.

But we know, and Adenauer knew, that revenge and retribution can only produce a terrifying zombie existence.

Hearts given over to these can only consume, never make.

They can only destroy, never build up.

They can only grasp and oppress, never release and liberate.

Ezekiel knew this, too.

Hate and a desire for revenge were present among the exiles. The darkest Psalms tell us this.

Nevertheless, the prophet persisted.

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.
This is the vision’s defining tension.

Dry bones had reassembled to take on the form of life, but what kind of life would it be?

Would wicked and dark forces write his community’s next chapter?

Would currents of vengeance and hate cause bruised bodies and spirits to twitch and convulse?

Certainly, these forces were present among the exiles, but Ezekiel plugged in to an even more powerful source, and in that moment of revelation, saw for himself what we experience by faith.

Life in its beautiful fullness, life in its selfless and sacrificial power, life received as a gift and shared as a blessing, comes from God.

Then the LORD 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.”
The LORD said,
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.”
“I will put my spirit within you,” says the LORD, “and you shall live (really live), and I will place you on your own soil (I will lead you home).”

As individuals, as participants in numerous communities that give shape and meaning to our lives, as Children of God and members of the Body of Christ, we do well to confess that we are tempted to take in the vapors of hate and vengeance, of pride and its lot, because these forces are intoxicating. They make us feel alive, or at least buzzed.

But the Good News of Jesus Christ calls us to press on beyond these lesser currents so that we might dwell in the Sprit that gives us real life, places our feet on stable ground, and leads us home.

Life in its beautiful fullness, life in its selfless and sacrificial power, life received as a gift and shared as a blessing, comes from God, and that is why we give thanks.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.