Oh ah, well, my goodness, this is a very interesting graph (assuming it is real–I couldn’t find a link to a study, but this thing from Pew certainly doesn’t contradict it):
You can check out the whole tweet thread if you want. Also this graph:
For those who, like me, aren’t very good at maths, you’ll see that evangelicals are listing towards apostasy at a nice tick.* You may observe the various generational lines trundling down the broad, wide, gentle road towards perdition, though, at least in my own generation (gen X) with a thoughtful pause through the early 2000s. What is most alarming, of course, is the sharp, persistent, committed downturn (in the first graph) of the millennial. Is it alarming, though? In your heart, scrolling around social media at a brisk pace, you must have observed the way things are going without having the validation of a sociological survey. There is, nevertheless, something so discomfiting and definitive about seeing it in a picture like this.
It is Sunday, as you may have noticed, and so we must shuffle our way towards the lections. We are fast approaching the end of Lent, careening (at least I am) towards that most holy week of the year—the one where we walk in the way of Jesus, step by step through his glorious Passion, his laying down his life for sinners and his taking it up again. But before we peer into the apportioned texts, let me say two things about the question of homosexuality and the sorts of things people today think about gender and sexuality.
The first is that this blog—Stand Firm—came into being almost twenty years ago during a time when a once grand and faithful church was formally and institutionally committing its way to apostasy. For—and let me be very plain about this—to become “affirming” of that which the scriptures, which are understandable and clear on this issue, condemn is to reject the faith once delivered to the saints. It is to cease to be within the bounds of the visible church. True believers may not any longer call you “Christian.” You, as an “affirming” person, may be angry about this, but that doesn’t change the reality that what God has said in the scriptures is the basis upon which our faith rests. We are not free to change it, no matter how we or the wider culture in which we live feels about it.
The second thing is that it—all of it—is a matter of love. We are talking about love. We are talking about how God loves his people and how his people are to love him. For the last twenty years, I have often been hearing well-meaning people try to say that there is some kind of tension between “love” and “truth.” Love and Truth are on two sides of a chasm, and a good person will try to walk a tightrope between them. Recently, I have been convicted of the very unbiblical nature of this view. In Jesus, mercy and truth kiss each other. Love and Truth are not on opposite sides of the insurmountable depths. They meet in Christ. He is the Truth, and he is also Love, in whom there is no darkness at all. The person anxious for the well-being—both temporal and eternal—of her neighbor does not need to fear that telling the Truth will be an “unloving” action. Jesus is stronger than death, as we will see in a moment.
And now, before another moment goes by, we must rush headlong into the strange Valley before us this morning. For poor Ezekiel, so beset by visions and trials, was picked up by the hand of the LORD and set down in that strange, dry, desolating place, for it was full of bones. Behold, there were very many bones all over the surface of the valley, and “they were very dry.” Which is the biblical way of saying that the bones were not flourishing in any way that you would understand that word.
We must stop and ask ourselves a couple of crucial questions. First of all, what happened before this disturbing vision? And second, whose are the bones? As to the first, if you glance through the preceding chapters of the entire Old Testament, you will see that God was angry with the people he had called to be his own. He brought them up out of the slavery of Egypt. He gave them his Law and his land. He called them to obey and worship him in all that they did. But he also told them that he knew they wouldn’t love him and wouldn’t obey. And he told them what would happen as a result of their disobedience. More immediately, which brings us to the question of who the bones are, you will see that God has been particularly angry with the Shepherds of Israel—their spiritual leaders—for feeding themselves at the expense of the sheep. They devoured the sheep, rather than caring for them. And you will see that God likens Israel to a woman in her “menstrual impurity,” a lurid way of referring to her heretical embrace of foreign gods and idolatrous practices. It isn’t, in other words, just that the leaders were to blame, though they were. The whole nation together had devoted themselves to false religion, to apostasy. And so, when the LORD says to Ezekiel, “Son of man, can these bones live?” he is talking about the total and terrible death of being spiritually cut off from the grace and mercy—and truth—of God. Israel did not want to know God nor follow him. And so they were dead. And Ezekiel, as you can see if you look at the text, had no power to raise them up.
Nevertheless, the LORD calls upon Ezekiel to speak. “Prophesy over these bones,” he says, “and say to them, ‘O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD…Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon 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.’”
Of course, you might like to say, what could be more wonderful than Ezekiel telling all those bones to live, and hearing them rattle together all over the valley floor, each person standing up one by one, a whole community restored to life and love? Nothing could be more wonderful! There is just one small problem. The valley of dry bones is both literal—we all die, every single one of us—and metaphorical. The people to whom Ezekiel was called to prophesy were not physically dead, yet, though they were spiritually as entombed as anyone.
It is the curious reversal of the Gospel reading, where Lazarus, lying there in the breathless, moldering quiet of death, is literally dead, but when Jesus calls him forth out of the tomb, the very real and ghastly spiritual death of the whole household of Israel is brought into sharp relief. For what happens when you open your mouth to speak of the works of God? So many things happen. Those that are dead in trespasses and sin, slaves, as St. Paul says, to impurity and lawlessness, are excessively vocal in their death rattling. They accuse you of being unloving. They cry aloud their wroth at your dis-affirmation of their death. Which is why Ezekiel and Jeremiah were such unhappy people—the dead don’t like to be told they are dead. But it is only by telling the truth about death that the dead can be raised again.
Imagine Lazarus, grumbling from the degradation of the tomb. ‘Don’t hassle me, Jesus. Why can’t you just accept me for who I am?’ And yet that is the cry of every person enslaved to sin.
And so, prefiguring Jesus, Ezekiel prophesied as he was commanded. And as he prophesied there was a sound, and behold, “a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone…flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them.” And I suppose Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris fainted and had to be carried away once the breath had also been called into all those dead bodies, making them live again. How would they even cope to see Lazarus walking out of the tomb, entangled in his grave clothes?
More importantly, what happens to you when you face death on every hand? When you see that downward sloping line, the descent into the valley of death for western Christianity? Are you grieved and anxious like Mary? Are you stressed out like Ezekiel? Like the Psalmist, are you wailing and begging for help? Maybe you are like Jesus, who stops at the critical moment, and instead of alleviating everyone’s fears, himself—of all people—weeps before this great and terrible foe.
Like all those who rise up to defy the LORD, however, death doesn’t stand a chance. “I am the resurrection and the life,” said Jesus not just to Mary, but to every person who will stop for a few minutes to ponder the contours and shadows of that valley, “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” He isn’t just tweeting out his aspirational thoughts, standing there with the grieved and devastated Mary. He is the resurrection because he is the only person who ever had the power to die, and in his dying, destroy death. He is the only person who ever could make “these bones live.” He was the only person who–free from death-dealing sin–could take on our great foe and do him down to death. And still, all these years later, he is the only one who can restore life to the household of faith. So anyway, go to church! It’s still the only place to catch a whole breath and come away alive again.
*Mixing metaphors, if that’s even what I’m doing, is totally biblical. By which I mean, the writers of the Bible do it all the time. Which makes it basically ok.
Photo by Anne Nygård on Unsplash