Sunday, December 5, 2021

Phil Kniss: God only knows

Hope...while we wait
Advent 2
Ezekiel 37:1-14; John 11:17, 22-27; Romans 8:10-12

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Let’s all think about the future for a minute.

First, think about your own foreseeable future,
as in, the next 5-10 years of your life . . . . . .
Now think about the future of our country,
our democratic institutions . . . . . .
Now think about the future of the church . . . . . .
Now think about the future of our planet . . . . . .

So how many of you, when you stop to contemplate the future,
find it a bit challenging, at least sometimes, to feel hopeful?

These days hope seems to be in short supply.
And we can’t blame this on the supply chain.
We can only blame ourselves.

But as soon as I say that, I have to qualify my statement.
Sometimes loss of hope is tied to things entirely beyond our control,
like catastrophic loss,
or extreme injury,
or acute mental illness.
Sometimes people dangling over the precipice of life,
are, in fact, completely devoid of any hope for rescue.
All too often, they are not rescued.

When they fall, we do not need to assign any blame.
These are simply tragic realities to be grieved.

But that’s not the kind of hopelessness I’m talking about right now.
I’m talking about when a person . . . or a community or a country
has the necessary resources for life,
but still suffers from a generalized, widespread, and chronic
inability to imagine a hopeful future,
and act accordingly.

When we lack that kind of hope it is not only sad, it is preventable.
And it’s in our collective hands to do something about it.

Lack of hope stems from lack of imagination.
And our lack of imagination may stem
from looking for hope in the wrong places.

If our hope depends on the likelihood
that a set of unpleasant concrete circumstances
will change in a particular way . . . well,
sometimes it’s so hard to imagine them ever changing,
that we are hard-pressed to muster any hope.

But what if our hope lies in something beyond the circumstances?

Here, perhaps, is one place people of faith have a natural advantage.
Now that might be disputed by some happy, hopeful people,
who claim not to have faith of any kind.
But that argument’s for another time.

I do believe that virtually all faith traditions
orient people to put their hope
in something that transcends circumstances,
that is larger than us,
that is forward-looking . . . and requires imagination.

A healthy faith-filled imagination is the seed-bed for hope.

And it took a lot of imagination for Ezekiel
to see and write down this amazing prophetic oracle we have
in Ezekiel 37.
This is a favorite text of mine,
because I like to think of myself as imaginative.
And Ezekiel had a healthy imagination.

If anyone ever tries to tell you to reign in your imagination,
when it comes to matters of faith,
pay them no mind.
Imagination is essential for faith.
Hebrews 11 tells us that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for,
the conviction of things . . . not seen.”
Imagination is drawing a picture of something we can’t see.

And faith is holding on to that imaginative picture,
so that it fills us with a sense of hope,
and has a direct impact on how we live in this world.

Some Christian traditions (and I’m sad for them)
seem to think their faith rises or falls,
on whether we can prove that something did or didn’t happen
the way it is described in the Bible.
That might be an interesting mental exercise.
But it doesn’t build hope.
Good imagination is the seed-bed for biblical hope.

Ezekiel 37 begins with,
“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.”
Now did the Spirit literally lift up Ezekiel,
and physically transport him, and drop him into a valley of bones?
Or was it a dream in the night?
Or was it some imaginative daytime vision?

I assume it was the latter.
The prophets often say simply, “the word of the Lord came to me.”
I like to think the prophet Ezekiel put himself, intentionally,
into a space of openness and attentiveness to the Spirit.
I imagine that Ezekiel was a practitioner of some kind of
regular spiritual listening and watching.
Maybe it was a daily discipline.
Maybe it was a certain place in his house,
or a favorite tree he liked to sit under.
And probably most of the time, nothing happened.
Be he kept on doing it. Kept opening up his mind and heart.
And occasionally words would come.
Or pictures would come.

And one day, as he let his imagination go,
God gave him this picture.
Only in retrospect, he would say, God took him to this valley,
and God told him to prophecy to the bones,
and he watched God bring life to these bones,
and he listened to God explain what it all meant.

Ezekiel’s imaginative picture was a picture of hope,
in a circumstance where all hope was lost . . . long ago.
This was about the exiled nation of Israel, that in fact,
had ceased to exist.

Ezekiel 37 is a brilliantly composed prophetic oracle.
I would say, not only did Ezekiel have a great imaginative mind.
He was deeply reflective, and when it came to writing it down,
he was a rhetorical genius.

I won’t take apart the whole text right now,
but spend some time in Ezekiel 37 later,
and discover its gems for yourselves.
For instance, how many times did God address Ezekiel as “mortal”
which means literally, someone who is going to die.
“Hey, You-who-are-going-to-die, do you see these dry bones?
You-who-are-going-to-die, can these bones live?
You-who-are-going-to-die, prophesy to these bones.”

In this portrayal of Ezekiel’s imaginative vision,
he gives God a perfect answer to one of God’s questions.
When God asked, “Mortal, can these bones live?”
The obvious answer was, No—
especially given the detail that the bones were not only dry,
but “very dry.”
But rather than challenge God with the obvious,
Ezekiel replied, “O Lord God, you know.”
I think that’s only more evidence of Ezekiel’s healthy imagination.
He had spent enough time listening to the Spirit,
and imagining possibilities beyond the present reality,
that he knew better than to limit God.
I’m guessing he came to the conclusion long before,
that he was not the best judge of what was hopeless.
God only knows what is truly hopeless.
God only knows.

Who else but someone with a healthy prophetic imagination
could see such a fantastic vision
of a valley of bones not only becoming embodied,
but receiving breath and spirit, and living again!

A similar scenario unfolded in Jesus’ ministry,
described in the John 11 reading today.
We’ll encounter this story again on March 6 next year,
as we work through the Gospel of John.
But I wanted to highlight just a few verses
to underscore that God only knows what is hopeless.
The two sisters of Lazarus knew their brother’s death
was the end of the story,
and they pointed fingers of blame at Jesus,
who arrived late to the scene.
But Jesus calmly asserted, “I am the resurrection and the life.
Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.”
And he promptly spoke a word, and Lazarus came out of the tomb.

The apostle Paul was also gifted with a good imagination.
He could see life where there was only death.
In today’s reading from Romans 8, he wrote,
“If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin,
the Spirit is life because of righteousness.”

Over and over in scripture, someone’s imagination gets stirred,
and hope emerges.
Motivated by God’s mission of healing and saving the cosmos,
they are able to see what others cannot see.
They allow themselves to touched, to the core,
by this healing vision of God,
and let that vision shape their way of living in the world-that-is,
rather than giving in to despair.
Attitude shapes reality.
And no, we’re not just playing a psychological game here,
trying to muster up positivity as a coping mechanism.
No, we are making a conscious choice about
what we will allow to shape
our real-life decisions and behavior.

Despair is not something confined just to our head.
Despair will shape how we live and interact and behave,
thus, it will shape the institutions we are part of,
and it will shape our culture and society.
And so will a biblical, prophetic imagination that nurtures hope.
Holding onto and contemplating and believing
God’s healing mission—often, regularly, and intentionally—
will also shape how we live and interact and behave,
thus, it will shape the institutions we are part of,
and it will shape our culture and society.

We get to choose which one we live by.
Today, like Ezekiel, like Jesus, like Paul,
like many who have gone before me,
I choose imaginative hope.
When God is in it, nothing, ultimately, is hope-less.
Imagine God’s future.  And choose hope.

Coming to the communion table is one way we choose hope.
These elements are symbolic, yet they are more than that.
They symbolize the broken body and shed blood
of Jesus Christ, our Lord.
But partaking of them is a real act of hope.
When we partake, we say, by our action,
that we choose to ingest, to internalize, to become one with,
the crucified and resurrected Lord Jesus.
We enact our trust that there is more life to come.
We imagine healing and peace and shalom. 
We choose hope.

—Phil Kniss, December 5, 2021

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