Recently I came across several articles regarding the efforts in Iraq to regain cities that were lost to ISIS.For so long, the news about the fight against ISIS had been all about their power and progress.It appeared hopeless.No one seemed to know how to fight these extremists who represented no country and operated with no moral code whatsoever.Yet recently, there are indications that they are being driven out bit by bit, mile by mile.People are returning to the towns that ISIS had control over.There was one article about a town called Bartella, which is not too far from Mosul.Bartella is one of the oldest Christian towns in the world.Thousands were forced out after ISIS came in.It was over 2 years before the town was reclaimed by American and Iraqi soldiers.In the article I read, some of the displaced people said that they planned to return, but many were afraid to do so.Many were worried that there was nothing to return to.They were afraid that ISIS would regain control or some other extremist group.
The people or Bartella were forced out of their homes for a little over two years.It’s a long time to be displaced, especially when you don’t know if you will ever return to your home, or if there will be a home to return to.The people of Israel were exiled for over 50 years…more than a generation.That 50 years is known as the Babylonian Exile and is a defining moment in Jewish history. To put it in context, it was approximately 500 years before Jesus was born.
The Book of Ezekiel begins with the prophet warning people of what was to come. There was a great deal of judgment and anger.By the time we get to chapter 37, which is where our Old Testament reading for today comes from, Jerusalem had been destroyed and most of the people were forced to leave their home and live in another land.Ezekiel was one of those displaced people.He was there with the others in Babylon.While he was a little hard on them before the exile, his tone shifted after the exile.They didn’t need judgment anymore.What they needed was hope.
You see it wasn’t just that they had been defeated.It wasn’t just that they had been forced from their homes.It wasn’t just that they had seen so many of their people die in battle. Any of those things would be enough to leave a person in despair.Yet for the Hebrew people, it was that much worse because they were away from their spiritual home.For the Hebrew people, God was in the temple in Jerusalem.That was where God lived.What did it mean that the temple was destroyed?How could they worship God when they were no longer near him?They felt as though they were completely cut off from God. Even though they were no longer fighting a bloody war… even though they were not living in this valley of bones, they might as well have been.Their home was destroyed.Their God had abandoned them.Hope was buried under the rubble that was once their home.
God knew what the people were feeling. He knew their grief.Thus, he gave Ezekiel a remarkable vision to share with these displaced people. In this vision, God brought Ezekiel to this valley of bones and he showed him how to bring life back to these bones. As you heard in the reading, the rubble of bones became people of flesh and blood and even breath.There was new life in the valley.After showing Ezekiel this, the Lord said to him, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ God told Ezekiel who these bones represented and what the vision was in response to.
The Psalms have all kinds of prayers of people who were living through the Babylonian Exile.In these Psalms, the people who were crying out often referred to their bones.In many ways, references to bones, is like a reference to our deepest self.We still use phrases like, “I can feel it in my bones.” Or. “I’m bone tired.” It’s almost like referring to our core or our essence, much like it was in the time that Ezekiel was writing.
When the people said, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost…” God took that dreadful image of bones piled up and he transformed that image. God showed how these bones could have life.It was/is a way to show that hope is not lost…not as long as you have the breath of God.Because that is what made the difference. Ezekiel said, “I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.”It was the breath of God, the Spirit of God that allowed them to live, that gave them the power to stand together.
It is important to note that they stood together.When these bones came to life, it wasn’t just a couple of them.It was this whole community, the multitude.It had to be because it was the whole community who had been exiled.It was not enough for one of them to have hope.They all needed to be inspired.They all needed this breath of God.It was the only way they would find the strength they needed. The people of Israel were exiled for a long time, but eventually they returned to their beloved city of Jerusalem.Much as they feared, their city was in ruins.There was no temple. There were no homes to return to.Once again, they had to find a way to bring life to a place that seemed to be lifeless.They had to do it together.
The town of Bartella in Iraq was liberated in October of 2016. That Christmas, about 200 people returned to the town to celebrate Christmas Eve in their church.For most, it was the first time they had returned to their home.While it was uplifting to celebrate that holy day in their sacred space, their church, they were surrounded by rubble. The church had to be guarded by snipers so they could celebrate in relative safety.Many said that while it was nice to have this experience and good to be back home, they would not be returning for good because it was not safe.They could not take that risk.Yet one woman who was interviewed said, “Daesh (ISIS) came to kill the soul. But they couldn’t. They killed the body. We are back now.”ISIS thought they could take the life from the town, from the people.They thought that they had left only rubble and bones.But there was still life there.The breath of God remained with the people of God.When the soldiers reclaimed that city, one of the first things they did was to go to the church and ring the church bells.
Christmas Eve Bartella
Both the people of Israel, the people in Iraq, and people everywhere who have been forced to flee from their homes, they survive on hope…a hope that God will continue to breathe life into them and a hope that when God does breathe that life into them, there will be a community to stand with them.
After the Civil War, the St. John’s community returned to find their homes and their church in rubble.Yet they found a way to rebuild, to survive so that we could worship here today. They did not do it alone. They did it with the help of people from around the state, even the country.That is what we are called to do as Christians, to help others rebuild, to be the breath of God for communities and people who have lost hope. I will be honest.I am not sure how. Ezekiel had a wonderful vision that changed him and helped him inspire others.But he had to first be open to that vision and then act on that vision.I suppose that is the first step for all of us, a willingness to envision the world transformed….and to see ourselves as the agents of that transformation.