Ezekiel is probably most well known for two of his prophecies, that of the “Wheel within a wheel” from Chapter 1, and his Valley of Dry Bones from Ch. 37.  And it is probably mostly music that has made them famous.  From “Ezekiel Saw the Wheel” to “Dry Bones” to one of my favorites, “Valley of Dry Bones” by Michael Card, music has made these more than confusing prophecies.

While the wheel within the wheel continues to confuse people, the valley of dry bones has struck a chord in many who have read it.  We get what it is to feel like dry bones: dead, useless, lifeless.  And we can feel the same way about our faith, our church, our society, and even the whole human race sometimes:  dry, dusty, old, barren.

But this message isn’t one of sorrow but one of hope!  Yet the hope comes in stages.  First, Ezekiel sees the bones and is asked by God whether there is any hope.  “Can these dry bones live?”  Message one, no matter how dry, impotent, and dead things may look, God tests us with the question, “Do you still have hope?”  Second, Ezekiel is commanded to call the bones back together, and so he does.  The bones come together into bodies, “but there was no breath in them.”  Message two, we are to call God’s people back into order, back to mission, back to God, but we cannot give them life.  Third, Ezekiel is commanded to call the Breath (the Wind, the Spirit) back into the bodies, and so he does.  The breath enters the bodies, they live, and they become a “vast army”.  Message three, while we cannot bring life to others, we are called to pray that God might bring it.

So have hope, lead well, and pray that God will bring life back to His people.

Ezekiel is probably most well known for two of his prophecies, that of the “Wheel within a wheel” from Chapter 1, and his Valley of Dry Bones from Ch. 37.  And it is probably mostly music that has made them famous.  From “Ezekiel Saw the Wheel” to “Dry Bones” to one of my favorites, “Valley of Dry Bones” by Michael Card, music has made these more than confusing prophecies.

While the wheel within the wheel continues to confuse people, the valley of dry bones has struck a chord in many who have read it.  We get what it is to feel like dry bones: dead, useless, lifeless.  And we can feel the same way about our faith, our church, our society, and even the whole human race sometimes:  dry, dusty, old, barren.

But this message isn’t one of sorrow but one of hope!  Yet the hope comes in stages.  First, Ezekiel sees the bones and is asked by God whether there is any hope.  “Can these dry bones live?”  Message one, no matter how dry, impotent, and dead things may look, God tests us with the question, “Do you still have hope?”  Second, Ezekiel is commanded to call the bones back together, and so he does.  The bones come together into bodies, “but there was no breath in them.”  Message two, we are to call God’s people back into order, back to mission, back to God, but we cannot give them life.  Third, Ezekiel is commanded to call the Breath (the Wind, the Spirit) back into the bodies, and so he does.  The breath enters the bodies, they live, and they become a “vast army”.  Message three, while we cannot bring life to others, we are called to pray that God might bring it.

So have hope, lead well, and pray that God will bring life back to His people.

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.

We all have seasons where we feel “ineffective and unproductive” when it comes to our faith.  Some gauge their faith by their outward successes, the number of people introduced to Jesus, the number of days spent serving the poor and needy, their attendance at church.  Some gauge their faith by how they feel, closer or farther from God, wise or foolish, excited by their obedience or like it is a struggle.  However we gauge our faith, every person has bad seasons.

I like that this is Peter sharing this.  Talk about seasons!  From Jesus’ right hand man (just 3 paragraphs later Peter is talking about his time with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration) to “Satan’s tool” (Matt. 16:23), from “the Rock on which [Jesus] will build [His] church” (Matt. 16:18) to denying Jesus to His face (Luke 22:54ff).  Peter knew about seasons of power and seasons of “ineffective and unproductive” ministry.  And what was his remedy for these seasons?

“Faith… goodness… knowledge…self-control… perseverance… godliness… mutual affection… love.”  Paul had a list similar to this which we all know as the Fruit of the Spirit.  But for Paul, these are attitudes born out of our proximity to Jesus.  For Peter, these are activities we need to work on and make a part of our daily routine.  Much has been made about whether our holy behaviors and attitudes are “done” or are “grown in us”, but regardless, these are the ways that mark a follower of Jesus.

Take some time today and go over each one.  How are you doing with each?  Any you need to work on?  Any you are doing pretty well with?  Anyone who can help you grow these in your life?

Today’s reading from Ezekiel is all about good and bad shepherds.  It is Ezekiel’s pronouncement of doom on Israel’s bad shepherds, those leaders who lead for their own personal gain.  And it is his promise that God will be their shepherd, protecting and caring for them.  In fact, it was this reading that was read every Hanukkah, the celebration of the Maccabees as good leaders of God’s people.  And it was this reading that was going on in the temple when Jesus interrupted by standing up in the crowd and proclaiming “I AM the Good Shepherd”.

Are these words specific to Ezekiel and his day or are they commands for us today?  This question is deeply important for us and much more than a theological exercise.  For if they are for us today, then we are in terrible trouble.  If they are commands for us and not just for Ezekiel, then we are called to be watchmen for God’s people just like Ezekiel was.  We are called to warn people of the consequences of a life without God, a very unpopular and even dangerous calling indeed.  And what’s more, if we fail to warn them, then their consequences will be theirs, but we will also be held accountable!  Their damnation, the result of a life without Christ, will be on our heads as bad shepherds, people who know the perils but do not tell them.

These are not questions we can ignore.  And they are not questions we can answer based on our own desires.  These are questions we have to approach with scripture, prayer, and meditation, or we risk pretty severe consequences ourselves.

While so many of our popular Christian authors are writing books about how to grow your church, save the next generation, and be effective in ministry, most of the original church fathers and mothers, as well as many of the mystics of today, are writing about how to grow ourselves, how to save our sanity through life’s stages, and be effective in seeing what God is up to in this world.  For them, the focus is not on our doing, but on our witnessing what God is doing.

Richard Rohr, whom I number among the later group, in his book “Falling Upward” speaks of this spiritual growth as life’s first and second journeys.  The first journey, which is life up to what we know of as the mid-life crisis, is all about building the vessel of our life: reputation, career, family, accomplishment, confidence, house and home.  The second journey, which is life after the mid-life crisis, is all about filling that vessel with what really matters in life.  After the mid-life crisis (my words, not his), we find ourselves done with success, being the best, career building, and the like.  Instead, we are more interested in simplicity, service to this world not for our reputation’s sake but for the sake of others, sharing wisdom to help others become mature, and welcoming everyone around us.

The transition between the two, what we might call the mid-life crisis or liminal time, is a time of suffering.  We cannot move from the first journey to the second without a time of suffering.  “All change is viewed as loss” a wise man once said, and this may be the biggest change we face, bigger than adolescence, marriage, or parenting.  So it is logical that this would be a time of suffering.

And maybe that is exactly what Peter is talking about when he says, “…because whoever suffers in the body is done with sin.  As a result, they do not live the rest of their earthly lives for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God.”

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.

In 1988, I went to CHIC (“Covenant Highschoolers In Christ”), our denomination’s triennial youth conference.  It was a great week filled with worship, speakers, and excursions, outings to various fun activities.  One of our excursions was to a water park where we were given wristbands to show that we were from CHIC and had paid the full price for the day.  As my friends and I walked around the park, we happened upon a group of guys about our age.  They asked what the wristbands were for.  Most of our group was shy about saying they were from a Christian conference, but one of our number stepped up and explained proudly that we were Christians.  Once he finished, the questioners smiled and took their hands out of their towels, exposing their own wristbands.  They were CHICsters themselves.  “Good job,” the leader told us.  “We’ve asked a lot of people and many are too ashamed to say they’re Christians.”

At least one of our group was prepared to give an answer to everyone who asked to give the reason for the wristband we had.  And with it, the hope of Jesus Christ.  Today, I remember that moment regularly and stay prepared to respond to anyone who asks.  I don’t always succeed, but more often than not.  That one guy from a waterpark in 1988 keeps me honest about my faith.

Are you prepared?  If not, then in the heat of the moment, do you think you’ll be likely to share your faith?  The tired old adage “to fail to prepare is to prepare to fail” is pretty appropriate when it comes to our faith as well.

Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind. Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.

While every holiday has food associated with it, none in my tradition is so taste-focused as Thanksgiving.  We gather every year with family not for the games though we sometimes play games, and not for conversation though we always have good conversation, but for the dinner.  And the years when we couldn’t gather with family, we made the meal ourselves and invited friends to join us.  And even then, it was the meal to which people are invited.

Have you tasted life with God yet?  Do you crave His presence like you crave the turkey or pie on Thanksgiving?  Once you’ve tasted life with Him, you won’t want any other spiritual food.  In fact, Peter calls us to not just enjoy a taste of God, but to continue to nourish ourselves with “pure spiritual milk”.  When our kids were infants and nursing, we knew the MINUTE they wanted milk.  It seemed they couldn’t stand a minute without it when they were craving it.

But what does this mean for us?  We get bored with milk when that’s all we eat.  So while we are to crave the milk in the beginning, Paul says that we should get beyond that to “spiritual meat” as soon as possible.  If you are bored with your spirituality, then push yourself to grow.  Read something deeper, pray differently, seek new spiritual practices.  Or follow Peter’s suggestion and work to get rid of malice (“evil intent”), deceit (lying, even little ones), hypocrisy (pretending to be someone you aren’t), envy (wanting more than you have), and slander (putting another person down).  That may be enough hard work to put some flavor back into your “spiritual milk”.

There is a ton of scripture that uses the image of God burning away sin.  Commonly it is a refining fire, burning away the unhealthy, unholy, and unclean in us yet leaving behind the precious, holy, and true.  From the Old Testament to the New, this refining fire is a terrifying image of God.  Who wants to have parts, even the Godless parts, of their soul burned away?

What if the image weren’t a refining fire but a spiritual antibiotic?  How much more would be welcome God’s cleansing work in our lives if we thought this way?  Taking away the bad and leaving the good is still the metaphor, but with a more familiar twist.

The point is that God promises to take away the bad within us, and if we are truly following Him and seek His will, this is our main goal anyway.  And with the promise to take away the ungodly comes the promise to encourage the godly in us.  This is grace, that God loves us so much that He takes a hand in helping us fulfill our life’s goal: to become like Him.

Late one night, I get the call from the police station that my daughter is in the drunk tank.  I’ve warned her again and again yet here she is.  I travel downtown and bail her out, bringing her home for a warm shower, good meal and soft bed.  In the morning I warn her again about our family rules, about the dangers of drinking too much, and about the pain in store of this continues.

At church, people talk about how merciful I am, how good bad a parent I am.  But the talk turns a week later when I get the next call.  I pace the floor for an hour in my anger, yet eventually give in and bail her out again.  She promises, “Last time, Dad.”  And I tell her, “yes, it is.  For me, too.”  The talk turns “merciful” into “soft”, and “good” into “lenient”.

And so when the call comes the next week about the cocaine charge, I know you have to fall before you can be picked up again.  So I leave her there.  I allow her the freedom to choose her own path.  I let her sit in jail, living out the consequences of her choices.  It breaks my heart and I long to rescue her, but for her sake, she has to be the one to choose me, to choose my ways again.  Otherwise, she will resent my “interference” and return to her folly.

Thus saith the Lord.

If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.

Knowledge is a dangerous thing.  Both Paul and James have things to say on this matter.  And neither is very encouraging.

Paul says that if we think something is a sin, then for us it is regardless of what it is.  If I think wearing hats is sinful, and I do it, then it is a sin for me.  If my brother doesn’t think its a sin and does it, it is not a sin for him.  This leads us to some very interesting theological considerations.  Are there, then, two lists of sins: one list of all activities that are universal sins for everyone regardless of what they think about them (murder, adultery, idolatry) and another list of those things that are specifically sinful for a person (eating meat, wearing hats, saying certain words…)?

James here speaks similarly.  He says if we know there is something good we are to do yet we don’t do it, we are sinning.  It is an echo of Paul’s writing and includes the same concept of “sinful for you”.  It is this subjectiveness that we find so disturbing.  How can something be sinful for one person and not for the next?  How can we possibly be sinless then?

And there is where the rubber hits the road.  This entire line of thinking still assumes that we can be sinless.  Any list of sins implies that our sinfulness is about behavior, about checklists, and about works.  It implies that it is possible to be sinless if we just behave correctly, do the right things/avoid the right things on the checklist, or work hard enough.  This is the ultimate hubris.

We have been saved not from our sins but from our very sinfulness.  We have been saved by Jesus Christ not from the list of things we’ve done wrong but from our very nature of selfishness.  We have been saved by Jesus’ death on the cross not just from our swearing in church but from our need to put ourselves first in every situation.  That is salvation for real.

Whether a sin is sinful for all of just for some is the wrong question.  Whether you have put your trust in Jesus as the only means by which you can be free from your sinful nature is the right one.