The tree guys have been here at church this week. They took down three dead or dying trees in the back, by the kitchen. In my office, I’ve been able to watch and hear their work.
It was necessary work, of course. Had those trees fallen down in a storm, they might have damaged the roof or broken windows or crushed the railing to the back staircase.
The workers were masterful. They climbed the trees with cleats on their boots that looked like rooster talons and had safety belts that secured them to the trees. They carefully roped the branches before they sawed them off, so the limbs wouldn’t fall wildly and take down a power line. Then, after all the branches were removed and either tossed into the back of the truck or sawed into smaller lengths, they began to slice off pieces of the tree, working their way down its length, until the tree was utterly deconstructed. Then they neatly stacked the pieces of sawn wood with geometric precision beside the shed out back.
There was a certain beauty to that wood. Cut, stacked, different diameters but somehow fitting together into a rough rectangle, cords of wood. In each circle of wood one could see the rings marking the years. Now all the years of the trees’ life were visible, but there was no life left in them.
Over the next few months the wood will dry out, making it useful for our fireplaces or woodstoves. For now, though, it simply sits, a pile of dead wood.
It dawned on me as I was looking at the woodpile how different that process was from the old Joyce Kilmer poem I had to memorize as a child: “Poems are made by fools like me, but only God can make a tree.”
Only God can make a tree, although some good workmen can certainly deconstruct one.
We’re much better at the deconstructing than the reconstructing, aren’t we?
We take things apart, like the men sawing apart the trees. But what if we wanted to rebuild a tree? Could we do it?
Could we take the beautifully stacked wood out the back door, figure out the jigsaw puzzle of the various pieces, restack them as they had come down? Could we glue them together again? Would that tree come back to life?
It might stand, but it would be a dead thing, a pale imitation of a living tree. The breaks made by the saws are now beyond repair, beyond regrowth. The relationship between the roots and the trunk and the branches and the buds – that pathway is severed. The sap will not flow next spring, even if we glue the pieces together masterfully.
Only God can make a tree. ..
…and only God can repair a relationship.
In a way, this is what we learn as the prophet Ezekiel talks about the meticulous work of reviving those dry dead bones.
Can these bones live? Can this tree be put back together?
It’s the same question.
The mystery of what brings life to something that is broken, seemingly beyond repair, is at the heart of Ezekiel’s vision. He finds himself in a field full of death, of broken bones. Are they the dead of Israel, the people who have gone before? Remember that the Babylonian exile was not a total one. Some of the people of Israel had been in exile in Babylon, God’s punishment for their waywardness. Some remained in Israel. The nation of God’s chosen people was torn, politically and spiritually. Could it be put back together?
This was the scene at the start of Ezekiel’s vision. A post-apocalyptic wasteland. Nothing living in sight. A vast expanse of desert, with the whole littered by bones that were out under the hot sun so long that they were bleached and utterly parched. The bones of a nation destroyed by its own hubris, the bones of Israel.
And then God’s voice, speaking to the prophet…
“Mortal, can these bones live?”
Ezekiel might have given the obvious answer, “No, they are beyond repair.”
But Ezekiel knows that God is powerful, and he does not know why he has been brought here, so he simply hands it back to God. God’s people have been humbled by their adversity, and Ezekiel has been humbled, too.
“Only you know the answer to that question.”
So God sets him at a task that on its face is an impossible one. Ezekiel is to bring these bones back to life, to call them back together into human form. With what? With words, with prophecy.
God commands the prophet to tell them that they are brought out of their graves and brought back to life by the breath and command of God, and thus too the house of Israel will be restored to life. They will return to their land. Even more important, they will know that it is God who loves them who has done this for them.
A broken relationship, like a sawn tree, like shattered bodies, put back together again like a broken watch. If you wind it, will it run?
And such strange words: “Prophesy to the bones,” as if they could hear the words Ezekiel says.
But Ezekiel, a humble prophet, does precisely what God commands. He prophesies to the bones. He tells them to knit together, to re-form into the bodies of the people of God…and like mad skeletons at Halloween they do as he proclaims. They come together. They are knit, and then they are covered with sinew, with flesh, but they are still dead things. There is no life in them. Their bodies are restored with the words Ezekiel has proclaimed, but no sap runs, there is no spark of life or soul.
Has Ezekiel failed? Or have these dead things failed to fully hear the words? Will this command fail, or will they once again live, as God has said?
So God gives Ezekiel additional instructions. “Prophesy to the breath! Call the four winds to breathe life into these creatures.” Was their sin so great, their faithlessness so deep, that it requires greater effort to repair the damage?
And Ezekiel once again cries out, proclaiming to the dead and to the winds, commanding them in God’s name. And the wind blows, winds from the four corners of the earth, wind from God’s great lungs, revivifying them, just as God’s breath into Adam’s newly formed lungs brought the first man to life. They stand. They live. Thousands, hundreds of thousands, all those who had been dead to God, dead to relationship with their creator. Given a second chance at life and at relationship because God wanted to salvage their poor desiccated bones, their sad broken souls. God wanted to restack the wood that had made up the House of Israel and cause the sap to flow again, the relationship to bloom again. God wanted them to know how great was the love he felt for them, that he would do this impossible thing…bring them back to life, back to relationship.
And six hundred years later, God did another thing to bring his wayward people back into relationship with him.
This time, it was no prophet having a mystical vision. It was something harsher by far. A man nailed to a cross, not a visionary calling to the bones and the winds. A hard price to pay, the gift of a son, for eternal life for the rest of us.
God made a choice to rebuild a relationship that was broken, broken because of our own sins, our own cupidity and hubris and desire. He could have left our bones out under the hot sun, our souls resigned to the chill of his absence. But his love was so very great that he reached out for yet another time, to repair that which was broken.
Only God can make a tree, and only God can repair a relationship.
We may think in our worst moments that we are no more than a stack of dry wood out back by the shed. We may think that there is no life in us. We may think that our own brokenness is so great that we have chain-sawed apart our relationship with the one who created us.
But I tell you this is not so. There is no brokenness that cannot be repaired. There is no chain saw that can separate us from God. God loves us too much to let us stay apart from him. The whole story of God and God’s people is a love story, of God continually reaching out to repair the damage when we in our foolishness cause a rift. God wants us to live, and to live in love with him as he is in love with us. In Lent, we remember the efforts that God has made to fix what we have broken. We remind ourselves of how God extends the hand of love over and over and over again, and Jesus as the ultimate sacrifice to ransom us from our brokenness.
And can we not learn from this, and repair the broken relationships in our own lives? Can we not reach out, as God kept reaching out for us? Can we not ask for God to breathe the breath of healing and life into that which we ourselves have injured?
God heals. God brings back to life that which seems beyond repair. God forgives. We should, too.