However this stranger is in many ways familiar. He goes to work 9 to 5 like us, he is a regular out on the beach and down at the pub - he is not so very different from you and me. Now it is the things within this character that are meant to make him the stranger - his callousness, his unfaithfulness and disinterest. But really these things are just narrative exaggerations of the things within each of us. It is exactly that callousness, that faithlessness, that dryness that we are all capable of showing even our family and friends, even our Lord God.
The novel leads through this man's life, leaving you at the end with a question. But the question is not about the man in the novel - his fate seems sealed. The obvious question is instead directed at we the readers. If, even slightly, we see ourselves in this man - his unfaithfulness and callousness toward others and towards God - how can our own lives be any different than his in the end? Can there be hope for us at last, or are we as dead as he?
SON OF MAN, CAN THESE BONES LIVE?
Ezekiel is prophet to the sons of men, the sons of God, the sons of Israel. These sons are currently dispersed from their land, and they are dispersed for their unfaithfulness. These are the judgements of God as prophesied by Ezekiel. They come down against false prophets and idolators, all the things that reveal Israel's inward callousness towards their God. They made themselves strangers to God, and so they were estranged - sent off to captivity in horrible Babylon. There they lay, scattered on the surface of the valley, cut off from one another and from God himself.
These sons of Israel once stood united, but David their king of unity is long dead and his days of unity and prosperity are a dim memory. They are cut off from their past; even the great temple of David's son is now sieged and ruined, along with anything that a Hebrew might call home. Jerusalem is claimed by her enemies and her people have been led off to exile. God has used the nations to scatter his own flock. But in the end his judgement turns even on them, as Ezekiel's prophetic tongue lashes out against Moab, Edom, Tyre and Egypt. In the end, no people is left unjudged.
It is not for the sake of nationalistic nostalgia that Israel's prophet laments for 32 chapters. He is not just pining for the good 'ole days; the prophecy of Ezekiel points us, not just back to David and the peace within Israel, but back to Eden itself and the peace in the beginning between God and man. Just before God shows Ezekiel the valley, he shows him the Garden where God formed man and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living being.
God breathed life into Adam, and Adam surely lived; but then his eyes fell on the forbidden fruit of the tree, and on the day he ate of it, he surely died. He died to God, and with him all the generations that call him father - the Israelites; and the Moabites, Egyptians and Philistines; and the Greeks and Romans; and the Asians, Americans, Africans, and Europeans. Here we see Ezekiel's prophesy to all and against all - against us.
The new idols are just like the old ones. We are vibrant and connected modern nations; our streets bustle, our airways buzz. There we can find anything we want for ourselves, and safely ignore everyone else. Our priorities, our schedule, our new toy or gadget, our 'me' time, our preferences, our selves. We do not listen, we do not share, we do not stoop to help. Instead, we float 'freely' from idolatry to callous, selfish idolatry.
These are the things divide us, they turn our hearts toward ourselves - away from others, away from God. They make strangers of us all, and in the end we too fall victim. We clutch our idols tightly and we choke ourselves. In them there is no breath, no life; and when we have clutched so tightly, and have driven the breath from our own lungs, there remains nothing inside us at all but dead, dry bones. Can these bones live?
Can you live? Oh dry bones, hear the world of the Lord... I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live...
So answers the Lord God: you shall live. The life of peace and unity that all the nations since Israel have sought in vein is given to you by the Lord. It is an everlasting unity, and even today we hear it in the joyous rattling of this divine service - as we bones come together, bone to its bone and hear the word of the Lord. We are not scattered as we once were, not strangers to one another. We are bound together in a brand-new nation; a brand new Israel.
This is the dream of David that Ezekiel goes on to give: that of an everlasting union, where the shattered tribes will be one again. But recall with the Apostle Peter, in his Pentecost sermon, that "David is both dead and buried..." - Ezekiel is not looking back in time, but ahead.
His prophesy prefigures that of Peter that proclaims as both Lord and Christ, this Jesus who was crucified. Jesus is the new and eternal David - the King to unite and give life to his new Israel. However this King dons a strange crown, and occupies a strange throne. He is the King portrayed by the Psalmist - poured out like water, who's bones are out of joint, heart melted, strength dried up. His tongue clings dryly to his jaws as he lay in the dust of death - the dust of the valley, next to you and me.
He is the new David, and he is also the new stranger; not callous but faithful, not selfish but self-sacrificing. He estranges himself from God his Father - he is forsaken - for our sake. And in this separation, he gathers his Church to himself, a new and everlasting people. He does not bring them merely to a new promised land, but to a new Eden, to the place where God once more breathes his breath of life.
Today we find ourselves in this very place. We have passed beyond the flaming sword of the angel into the garden where we walk (and stand and sit) with God. We come downtrodden and sinful; we come dead. Behold, we say, 'Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.'
Thus says the Lord God: Behold I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people... And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live... Then you shall know that I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the Lord.'
And so he has.