Reflection: “As Good as Dead?” December 10,2017
When I was a teenager I saw a movie called “Jason and the Argonauts”, based on the Greek hero Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece. I remember one scene in particular where he battles a field full of rejuvenated skeleton warriors known as the spartoi. They grew from the “Dragon’s Teeth” – sown by the opposing king to produce chaos and death. Whenever I hear that passage about the bones rising from the ground and gathering flesh I can’t help thinking of the spartoi. The scene’s a classic of stop-motion animation and seriously gave me the shivers – but in fact, what happens in Ezekiel’s vision is quite different.
The story of Jason is about capricious Gods and brawny adventurers whose only way to accomplish anything is through violence and trickery – with a little female magic thrown in when the guys can’t make it on their own. The spartoi in particular are symbols of death and destruction. On the other hand, the bodies that come to life in Ezekiel’s vision are symbols of new life and hope for a people who feel as if they are “as good as dead”. The message from the God of Israel is that new life is to be found through the Spirit – the breath – of God.
“As good as dead” is how many of the childless couples of the Bible seem to have felt – for their culture taught that the honour of a family lives on through its children, and if a person died childless, they would be shamed and forgotten. Women, especially, had it hard, as their primary role was to conceive and bear children, and a woman who was childless was subject to the judgement and even the contempt of others. Some of you here know what it is to desperately want a child and to be unable to have one – and when one’s own pain is compounded by other people’s harsh attitudes I can only imagine how couples like Abraham and Sarah or Zechariah and Elisabeth must have felt.
The birth of John to Zechariah and Elisabeth is symbolic of the birth of a new hope for Israel. This is what Zechariah proclaims: “God has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant…you my child, shall be called a prophet of the most high…you will give the people knowledge of salvation and forgiveness, and will guide their steps into the way of peace.”
Interestingly, when we meet a grown-up John in a few weeks, we will find he doesn’t seem to be a very peaceful person. He rages at the hypocrites that surround him, the cruel king that rules his people, the system that keeps people down. He urges people to be baptized with water as a sign of repentance, so that the wrath of God doesn’t fall upon them. Not very peaceful, it seems! Yet he also gave good advice as to how to promote peaceful relationships: In Luke 3, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ 12Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ 13He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ 14Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’ More importantly, he pointed people toward Jesus. He said, “Follow him”. That’s the way to the world you dream of.
The message of the stories for today echoes that theme of hope that runs through the readings of the past couple of weeks. It says: “You think it’s all over? You think your dreams are dead and the future only holds terror and the world is going to hell in a handbasket? You think your body is quitting and there’s nothing left for you but to wait for death to claim you? You think your life ended when your health or your relationship or your job or your talent disappeared on you? Think again! Even if you think that what is most important to you is “as good as dead”, God’s Spirit is at work. Breathe in the breath of God, get in line with what the Spirit is able to do, and there’s new life, even for the dead! And it’s not some ghoulish or sad or depressing reproduction of the life you had – it’s new, it’s different, and it’s a gift in its own right!”
Yes, Scripture gives us both visions and stories of new life given to those who are actually physically dead – you can decide if those stories are factual or symbolic. But Scripture also gives us multiple stories of people encountering a radical change or renewal in their lives: the cheating tax collector who paid everyone back with interest and shared his money with the poor; a woman bereft and grieving at the loss of her rabbi who short hours later becomes the first apostle to the apostle, sharing the incredible news of resurrection; the self-righteous, tyrannical persecutor of Christians who became a preacher, teacher and eventual martyr for Jesus; I’m sure you can come up with more. You can probably come up with contemporary examples too, of people who have found their lives turned around when they “let go and let God”.
We’ve probably all heard the saying from opera that “It ain’t over ‘til the fat lady sings.” The message we hear today is that it isn’t over until God says it’s over – and even when people have decided that the world is coming to an end, either literally or figuratively, God keeps coming up with something new. Our futures belong to God – and for me, that’s a comfort, a hope, and a source of peace. Amen.