Tuesday, July 28, 2009

From Death to Life

(Read Ezekiel 37:1-14 and Colossians 3 (from the Message)

The sad reality is that events occur in the course or our lives that cause us to die in some way. If someone that we love passes away, a part of us dies with that person. If someone that we love mistreats us, a part of us shuts down as we try to cope with the pain. Sometimes, we choose our own demise. We stay in a job that devours our souls. We partake in behaviors that destroy our health. No matter who we are, how well adjusted and faithful we are, there is a part in each of us that has died through the process of living.

A few months ago, I had dinner with a group of women and was amazed at what they had been through recently in their lives. Sara’s story really struck me. She had married her college sweetheart. They moved to NYC together upon graduation, and both secured great jobs on Wall Street. They seemed like they had it all. Love, success, money. That is until one day when $600, 000 just appeared in their checking account. Sara wondered how that could have happened. Turns out, her wonderful husband, John, had a huge gambling addiction, and was involved in some pretty serious white collar crime. The deception destroyed their marriage. Sara filed for divorce. John went to prison.

I knew about Sara’s past the night we had dinner together, but I did not know how Sara had changed since then. It turns out that after the divorce, she quit her job, and spent the last several years traveling around the world, living in interesting places such as Barbados, Hawaii, Sumatra, and Bali. As Sara described the glamour of her travels, I couldn’t help but think that the part of her who was completely trusting, and could fully invest in another human being, fully commit, set down roots and have a family, that that part of her had died through her husband’s betrayal. She was still beautiful, intelligent and vibrant, but I worried about her heart. I wondered if she would ever be able to trust someone again. If she would be able to fall in love, marry and have the family she claimed she deeply wanted.

Sometimes, things like this just seem to happen to us. Othertimes, we are the culprits. But what I want to talk about today is the result, which is that these painful, heart-breaking experiences shut us down in some way. They kill parts of ourselves. They are life-taking.

But God is in the life-giving business. God wants us to have life and have it abundantly. That’s why he sent us Jesus.

The prophecy of the valley of dry bones from Ezekiel is filled with rich imagery that it is God's will for us to come back from the dead and live again. At the time of this prophecy, the most important people in the tribe of Israel had been captured and taken from the Promised Land, taken from Jerusalem, into captivity as slaves in Babylonia. You can imagine the heartache and weeping in Israel. Life was stolen from the slaves and the whole tribe. There was such weeping that it was as if the people had dried up, withered and died. The lively people that was once Israel was now a dead people, laying in a valley full of dry bones.

But our God, who is in the life-giving business, came to Ezekiel and said, "Can these bones live?" Only you know, God, Ezekiel says. And then God says, "Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live!"

I believe it is our spiritual work to be as alive as possible. And to help other people be as alive as possible. Each day, we wake up and exist somewhere on the continuum between death and life. The Triune God plays a dominant role in restoring us to life. Every time Jesus forgives you, you are being brought back to life. Every time the Father pours grace upon you, you are being brought back to life. Every time the Spirit inspires you and lights your heart aflame, you are being brought back to life. Every time you partake of the bread and the wine, you are being brought back to life.

In the Colossians reading, St. Paul offers us a list of behaviors, feelings, ways of being that correspond to either the life of death or the old life, as well as a list that corresponds to abundant life or the new life in Jesus Christ.

The old life of death includes: Sexual promiscuity, Impurity, Lust, Doing whatever you feel like whenever you feel like it, Grabbing whatever attracts your fancy. These must have been some of the issues the Colossians were facing.

The new life, the resurrected life includes: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline, being even tempered, content with second place, quickness to forgive, LOVE, peace, thanksgiving and singing.

I made up my own set of lists On one end there is death, on the other life. Below each
heading are emotions, attitudes, and ways of being that correspond to death or life. And its a continuum: You are rarely totally on one side or the other, but somewhere in between. And the goal is to be moving towards life.

Death/old life -- Life/new life in Jesus Christ
Dry bones -- filled with God’s breath/Spirit
Greedy -- generosity
Fearful -- confident
Defensive -- open
Cruel -- kind
Anxious -- peaceful
Depressed -- hopeful
Angry -- understanding
Fake -- authentic
Oblivious -- aware

We need to reflect upon our lives. In what ways are you close to death? How can you be transformed so that it is new life that fills you?

There are two aspects to our transformation from death to life, or from the old life to the new life in Christ. First, and always first, is grace, which is God’s love and goodness given freely to us. Second, and as a response to grace, is our acts of faithfulness.

First, the Triune God reaches out to us with grace. The Maker comes to us, asking, “Mortal, can these bones live?” God sends us Jesus Christ and through him, frees us from the law of sin and death, forgives us. God sends us the Holy Spirit, who guides and empowers us into new ways of living. This is all grace.

Then, it is our turn to respond to God’s grace in faith. We must consent to grace, receive it because God will not force it upon us. The Maker says, “Prophecy!” And in faith, we prophecy. Jesus says, “Believe in me!” And in faith, we believe in him. The Holy Spirit says, “Go!” And in faith, we go.

Grace. Faith. Grace. Faith. These two work in tandem together, and by them, our lives are transformed from the old to the new, from death to life.

It's not just up to God. We are partners with God. We are co-creators of our own destiny. We have free will, and it is the choices that we make that also determine where we are on the continuum. Whenever you make a choice or find yourself in a situation, you can ask yourself: Is what I am doing life giving or life taking?

My friend, Sara, needs to figure out the parts of her that have dried up, withered, and died. I'm sure the Triune God is already working to bring those parts back to life in some new, refined, revitalized way. She must also choose the things that will bring her back to life. In fact, I think she has already started. Sara made the choice to stop traveling for awhile, and at 38 years old, to move back in with her parents, near to her sister, and to take care of her sister's children so that her sister can go back to work. Not what you would expect from a Wall Street trader and world traveler, but maybe exactly what she needs for her heart to come back to greater life. Perhaps living with family will help her to trust and invest and commit to love again.

Even after we have died, or parts of us have died, it is God's will that we live and breath his very breath. Towards the end of the Ezekiel reading, God offers these words of hope to the slaves of Israel, "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." God restores his people to their land! He redeems their lives from the pit! He gives them his Holy Spirit to live by! And, God puts his people on their own soil. Soil is a place where we can grow. God takes dry, crumbling bones, and raise them up to people of health and vitality, and he puts them in a place where their hearts can open up and their lives can flourish once again.

Brothers and sisters, today you are invited to receive the grace of God. In whatever ways you have been broken, or shut down, in whatever ways your heart has closed or your spirit has died, God is offering to you new life, resurrected life. Believe and respond in faith. On this day, you are being born again and given new life through Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit.

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