Homily for the 14th Sunday of the Year

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

6/7 July 2024

Ezekiel, a young priest, lived through the worst catastrophe in ancient Israel’s history after their slavery in Egypt. Babylon wiped the Jewish nation off the map and levelled Solomon’s majestic Jerusalem temple which Jews considered God’s earthly home and the only place where they were allowed to worship him. Ezekiel warned it was coming: God’s punishment for the nation’s legacy of sin.

Ezekiel was 25 years old and serving in Jerusalem’s temple when King Nebuchadnezzar’s army arrived. The Babylonians had come from what is now Iraq to enforce their right to collect taxes from Judah and to crush any hope of Jewish independence. It was 597 BC, and Babylon’s strategy for derailing the drive to independence included taking hostages: 10,000 of the Jewish elite, royalty, soldiers, artisans and priests, Ezekiel among them. This is what becomes known as the Babylonian Exile.

Five years later and 1000 miles from home, Ezekiel saw a vision of God telling him to prophesy to the Jews in Babylon. In this vision, God fed Ezekiel a honey sweet scroll, a symbol that Ezekiel’s words would come from God. “Doom” describes the prophecies. In, perhaps, Ezekiel’s most troubling vision, he witnessed the glowing cloud of God’s glory leaving Jerusalem’s temple. God was gone and, worse, God says “I am your enemy, O Israel, and I am about to unsheathe my sword and destroy your people”.  This came to pass in 586 BC when the Babylonian soldiers crushed a revolt by levelling Judah’s cities and burning Jerusalem to the ground – just as Ezekiel had started predicting about seven years earlier. Suddenly this prophet, ridiculed for his bizarre visions and acted-out prophecies, gained an eager and respectful audience.

Doomsday over, it was time for Ezekiel to deliver a new and startling message. In a vision, God transported him to a valley littered with human skeletons. This “valley of the dry bones” is probably the most famous part of the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, and is the inspiration of the famous spiritual song, “Dem Bones”. This vision must have looked like a massacre from many years earlier. “Son of man”, God asked the prophet, “Can these bones become living again?” Within moments, bone-clack rattling echoed through the valley as skeleton pieces snapped together, soft tissue latched the bones in place and organs filled the skeletal cavities. The flesh erupted and spread over each lifeless corpse, decay reversed, wind rushed into the valley of the shadow of death restoring breath and life. The massive crowd stirred and stood. God had breathed life into the most desperate and dire image of death.

“Son of man, these bones represent the people of Israel,” God explained. “They are saying ‘we have become old dry bones – all hope is gone’”. But God told Ezekiel to deliver this message, “I will put my spirit in you and you will live and return home to your own land.”

Ezekiel probably didn’t live to see it – his ministry seemed to end about 30 years before Babylon fell and the new world dominator, Persia, released the Jews to go home and rebuild their country. But the people remembered Ezekiel’s words which had poured like honey from the scroll of God.

Ezekiel prophesies during a time of immense crisis for Israel. Despite the devastation and despair of exile, Ezekiel consistently delivers messages of hope regarding Israel’s restoration and renewal. He prophesies about God’s promise to gather His people back from exile, to restore them to their land, and to renew their covenant relationship. Throughout the book, Ezekiel vividly describes his encounters with divine visions, emphasising God’s sovereign presence and action among His people even in their darkest moments. These visions, such as the vision of the dry bones (Ezekiel 37:1-14) and the vision of the new temple (Ezekiel 40-48), depict God’s power to transform and renew, instilling hope that God is actively working for His people’s future welfare.

St. Paul’s famous assertion in the second reading, “when I am weak, then I am strong”, complements the message of hope found in the book of Ezekiel. This statement by Paul , which is often reduced to a cliché or bumper sticker, emphasizes a truly profound spiritual truth that aligns with Ezekiel’s themes of hope and divine strength despite human weakness. St. Paul acknowledges his own weaknesses and challenges, which he refers to metaphorically as a “thorn in the flesh” that humbles him. Much ink has been spilled to try and figure out what exactly this thorn was – was it a person, a vice, a situation? We really have no idea, and it is not important. What is important is that Paul finds that God’s grace and power are not most evident or manifest when he is energetic, full of vigour and zeal, but, rather, are magnified precisely in his moments of weakness.

Both Ezekiel and Paul exemplify hope in God’s faithfulness and strength. Ezekiel prophesies hope to a people in exile, assuring them of God’s promises of restoration and renewal. Similarly, Paul’s declaration reflects his unwavering trust that God’s strength is sufficient to sustain him through trials and difficulties, reinforcing the hope that God’s purposes will prevail despite human limitations. Ezekiel’s visions, such as the valley of dry bones (Ezekiel 37:1-14), demonstrate God’s power to transform and renew even the direst situations. Paul’s acknowledgment of weakness highlights a transformative aspect of faith—that in recognizing our limitations and relying on God’s strength, we become vessels through which God’s grace and power can manifest more fully.

We could say that it is in the moments that appear the most dire, with the least hope, that God’s grace and power is manifest most distinctly. Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones coming to life is certainly a foreshadowing of the hope of resurrection and God’s ultimate victory over death and despair. In our messiest, weakest, most confusing moments, we often will ask “where is God in all of this”? And while this question may begin with a seeming sense of despair, it remains the correct question to ask. Where, indeed, is God?  On the cross, Jesus cries out in the most human way, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” which is the opening line of Psalm 22 – even if Jesus was unable to pray the whole psalm on the cross, the reference was clear to him and to those at the foot of the corss. This psalm is a heartfelt expression of anguish and distress, yet it ultimately turns to a declaration of trust in God’s deliverance and faithfulness, and, indeed, as Good Friday appeared to be the most desperate of days at face value, the most tremendous victory was being wrought by God.

So, yes, in the times of dry bones in our lives, we can certainly begin by asking where God is. But let us also allow that question to be answered. Because we know that he is faithful, that he is present and that he is active. And we must seek him out. And where will we find him? In the consolation of prayer, through the love that is shown to us by those God sends us, by the words of comfort and assurance we receive in the reading of Sacred Scripture, and in the Sacraments – the nourishment of the Eucharist and the grace of forgiveness and absolution in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Indeed, when we speak our most private and desperate struggles in the face of pure embracing love, we hear the consoling words of the Lord reminding us of his presence. Where we are weak, God is certainly strong.