Advent is tricky and fleeting. It does not easily sync with our cultural traditions of December because we start binging on Christmas as soon as that last bite of Thanksgiving roll mops up the last pool of gravy.
I love Advent because it's jagged and askew and we don't know what to do with it. The message is hushed and urgent…or damning and patient. I can't decide which.
At Zion we are in the midst of a sermon series on the prophets. Today Ezekiel the Weirdo did the talking. I love him for all the same reasons I love Advent. He catches our ear with the bizarre and mysterious, with morbid words that are strangely comforting.
His most famous vision was of a valley filled with dry bones. The stench of death. Dead ends all around. A nation cut off from breath and life and spirit and purpose and God and home. The air was still and all hope was void.
This is how the people of Jerusalem felt after the city finally fell to the Babylonians. In the wake of rubble and smoke, they were no longer free. They wondered whether God died in the siege. The loneliness and fear were so overwhelming that it became easy to forget God's resume for showing up and saving and caring and grieving and mending when life gets torn. And so they are like dry bones in a valley - waiting for hope and breath.
This is how the people of Lake Street look on Sunday mornings as I drive to church. There are people hiding beneath thick layers - only their weary eyes showing - and I wonder how long and cold their night has been. The buses don't come quickly enough. Men gather in small groups near the Kmart to talk about the jobs they still don't have. Women shlep strollers and toddlers through the ice and wind to buy groceries and make calls at pay phones. It is both quiet and noisy. The people look scattered and exhausted. Simple things are difficult in the dark cold of a Minneapolis winter. And so they are like dry bones in a valley - waiting for hope and breath.
This is how the people of Zion look when I rise after the Prelude. The crowd is slender and the average age is younger today. We gather our dead ends together: grief, layoffs, surgery, snarky moods, cars that don't start, checkbooks that don't balance, and fears we're not quite ready to name. There is room for all of these hard things and, because they do not get the final word, it will not be a pity party or self-help group when we begin.
Because we have come through the cold, dark valley to light candles, even though it seems silly. We have come to be honest about our human condition and our deep need for someone to trump our dead ends, even though it seems impossible. We come to have our ears opened to Ezekiel the Weirdo to "Hear the Word of the Lord" and be changed by promises that dwell in dead and dry places. And we have come to feast on something sacramental - God's vow to connect and strengthen us with sinews and flesh and breath that raise us up and cause Life.
Maybe they're just promises, but we sing differently once we know - once we remember that God has not perished in the rubble of Jerusalem or the weariness of our week. God is even in exile. God is especially in exile. God shows up in the dead ends and the graves and the valleys to restore our breath, purpose, and sense of home.
After worship, a keen ear approached me and said, "You got me thinking about how many Ezekiels we have around here. We have so many who are known for doing bizarre and mysterious things on the street that speak to raw faith and real life." Yes. Word and Sacrament. Dry bones and dancing. Dead ends and new breath. Listening and proclaiming and waiting and longing and confessing that we need someone to break into all that we carry with Hope.
We are Advent people through and through.