Participating In God’s Life-Giving Mission
Nine years ago, I packed my bags, said goodbye, and boarded a plane destined for the place that would become my new home: Vancouver, Canada. Now, if you watched any of the TV coverage back when Vancouver hosted the Winter Olympics in 2010, then you glimpsed just how beautiful and scenic that city is. Massive, snow-capped mountains surround the city and feel as if they are just an arms reach away. The area’s temperate rainforests constantly beckon you to escape into their world of colossal pines and lush undergrowth of ferns and moss.
Even the city itself can feel like paradise. There are locally owned, fair-trade coffee shops on every corner. Sushi is cheaper than McDonalds. And bakeries sell fresh maple-flavored donuts all year long. It’s like heaven on earth! What’s more, nobody would dare to commit the heinous crime known as littering. And everyone seems so polite! You can rear end another person’s car, and its clearly your fault, yet the other driver will come to you and say, “Sorry!” “Oh, I’m so sorry aboat that.”
That’s Vancouver for ya! Or at least, that’s the public image that Vancouver puts on display for the world to see. But the truth is, Vancouver also has a dark secret. It’s a neighborhood that the city tries so hard to hide from the public eye. Tourist maps frequently cover over this portion of the city with the map key. And locals avoid this place like the plague.
Yet this neighborhood was why I moved to Vancouver. I came in order to join a handful of Christians from around the world, who all felt called by God to make our home right in the middle of Canada’s poorest and most dysfunctional neighborhood, Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
This small, four by eight city block area is home to 3000 homeless, 5000 cocaine and heroin addicts, and over a thousand prostitutes. Walking down the streets each day I would pass scores of people injecting drugs into their veins, and most days I’d have at least one woman offer me her body in exchange for a few measly dollars. “Crack, heroin, T3s,” the dealers would shout, while women would nervously approach and ask if I felt lonely and wanted some company. And it’s no wonder, these precious daughters of God, would approach men with such apprehension. Just a few weeks before I arrived, a nearby pig farmer named Robert Pickton was arrested for the murder of 49 prostitutes from the Downtown Eastside. This man would never have become the most prolific serial killer in Canadian history, were it not for the fact that society ignored these marginalized women and their persistent cries for help.
This was my new home. My community. My neighborhood. And it was filled with people reeling from the pain of so many different forms of death.
One evening, about a year after our missional Christian community moved into the neighborhood, our homeless friend Randy joined us for dinner. As we all shared a meal together, Randy began describing an epiphany he had while waiting for us to answer our front door. He said, “You know I never noticed before how your house sits on top of a hill. From your front door, I was able to look down upon block after block of the Downtown Eastside. As I gazed upon our neighborhood, I saw scores of frail bodies lining the sidewalks. Drugs have emaciated our bodies. We’re nothing but skin and bone. And that’s when it hit me,” Randy said. “The Downtown Eastside is like a valley of skeletons.”
What Randy didn’t know as he shared with us his epiphany was that our Christian community had recently sensed God calling us to embrace the vision contained in Ezekiel chapter 37 and to view that vision as a description of what God wanted to do in the Downtown Eastside. Thus, God’s vision to Ezekiel became our vision for the Downtown Eastside. So listen as I read this vision from Ezekiel 37, and see if you hear echoes of Randy’s words in it:
1 The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. 3 He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.” 4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! 5 This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. 6 I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’” 7 So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. 8 I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them. 9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—an exceedingly great multitude!
Last week, David Bridges spoke about the theological crisis that occurred when Babylon defeated Jerusalem and mercilessly dragged the Jewish people into exile. For the people of Judah, it seemed that God had either turned His back on them, or He had been proven impotent by the far superior god of the Babylonians. Either way, their source of hope was no more.
A few years into their exile, a Judean priest named Ezekiel received a commissioning from God to be a prophet to his fellow countrymen. In other words, Ezekiel was tasked with speaking God’s words to his community. It too was a community reeling from the pain of so many forms of death.
The vision recorded in Ezekiel 37 took place roughly ten years after the exile began. And thankfully we don’t have to guess about how to interpret the imagery of this vision. In the verses immediately following the ones I read, God interprets the vision for Ezekiel. The dry bones are the people of Israel. And their return to life signifies that God would enable them to return to their homeland.
At the time of its reception, nobody believed Ezekiel’s vision would come true. It was a pipe dream, a foolish fantasy, a wishful delusion. There was no data to support the audacious claim that Babylon, the great and mighty Babylon, would ever crumble and fall. There were no grounds for hope.
Yet in the end, Ezekiel’s vision did come true. Israel only ended up being in exile another forty years. Seemingly out of nowhere, the Persians arose on the scene and defeated Babylon. What was equally unforeseeable was that the Persian ruler Cyrus ended up decreeing that the Jews could return home.
So all of that is an overview of the historical situation into which the vision spoke and of which it predicted. However, for our purposes today, I don’t want us to get bogged down by the historical details of this passage. That’s because I firmly believe this vision is intended to function as a description of what God wants to do in all dying communities. Thus, the historical details are not as important as what this vision says about God and what it says about how we participate in God’s life-giving mission.
I firmly believe that God is still in the resurrection business. And He wants us to join Him. That is why our quest this morning is to discover what this vision says about how God wants us to participate in His life-giving mission. So toward that end goal, I simply want to highlight the five steps Ezekiel took as he participated in God’s life-giving vision for his particular community. My hope is that these five steps will enable us to more faithfully and effectively participate in God’s life-giving vision for our particular community. OK? So let’s get started.
The vision begins in Ezekiel 37 verse 1 and it says, “The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley full of bones.” In this verse God leads Ezekiel to a place full of death. Friends, if you want to participate in God’s mission of imparting life into dying communities, then the first step is to allow God to plant you in the midst of one. Put simply, the first step is to go. Go and enter into solidarity with a dying community. Doing so may require a geographical relocation, like my move to the Downtown Eastside. Or it may require you to go and enter into solidarity with the marginalized that exist in the place you already call home. Friendswood. Or it may be a call to go and enter into solidarity with a dying people who are not all located in one place. Perhaps God is calling you to go and enter into solidarity with the estimated 9 million Syrian refugees as they flee violence and struggle to find anyone willing to welcome them into their homes and lives.
So whether you move to a far away country or remain here in Friendswood, either way, this passage informs us that the crucial first step is to allow God’s Spirit to lead you to a place that’s like a valley filled with dry bones.
Now, usually going to a place of need is not the first step we take. Typically when someone decides they want to help the poor, the first thing they do is devise a plan. They have a vision of sorts about how to help a needy community. After they’ve devised a plan, then and only then do they go to those they intend to help. They go, quickly implement the plan, and then leave. The sad reality is, these plans usually cause more harm than good.
In the Downtown Eastside, you’d often see well-meaning Christians from the suburbs pull up in their church van. Twelve smiling faces would jump out. Someone would yell “free food”, a crowd would not so miraculously appear, bagged meals would be distributed while someone strummed a guitar and bellowed praise songs. Once the bagged meals ran out, the Christians would jump back into the van, and drive off into the sunset. The first time you encounter one of these rapid acts of kindness, it leaves you a bit shell shocked. It feels like a drive-by feeding, like a hit-and-run of kindness.
On more than one occasion, once the Christian outsiders left, fights broke out between those who received a meal and those who did not. And honestly, my neighbors didn’t even need the food. You see, a missionary colleague and I once spent a week voluntarily homeless on the streets of the Downtown Eastside. One thing we learned from that experience was that you can get free food 23 times a day in the Downtown Eastside. Nobody is starving in that neighborhood. But these well-intentioned outsiders didn’t know this. They couldn’t know this because they skipped the first step. And they also skipped the crucial second step that’s revealed in Ezekiel’s vision.
Verse two reads: “God led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry.” In other words, God had Ezekiel assess the situation. First you go. Then you assess. At this stage, your task is to be a learner. Ask questions like: What’s killing my neighborhood? What’s sapping it of life? What would it look like to inject life into it? Learn from the community. Hear their answers to these questions. Get to know the people. Unearth their history. Discover their God given potential that has been buried for far too long.
Now, please do not rush this step. It usually takes at least a year. I’ve lived in Friendswood, now, for four years, and in many ways, I am still on this second step. I am still assessing and learning about this community.
Step 3—Push Through Your Doubts:
But the time will come when we inevitably find ourselves engaging in the next step. For you see, the result of going and assessing, is that at some point in time, you will no longer be naïve about the challenges facing your community. The time will come when you now know just how powerful the destructive forces truly are in your neighborhood. When that day comes, doubts will start to consume your every thought. And so, the third thing you must do, the third step you must take, is to push through your doubts.
You’ll find yourself saying things like, “Look, I know God is in the resurrection business. But there are a lot of bones here, and they are really, really dry. Perhaps they are too far gone to be revived.
It’s at this point, when you’re overwhelmed with doubts, that you’ll hear God ask you, just as He asked Ezekiel in verse three: “Son of man, can these bones live?” “What do you think?,” God will say. “Do you think I have what it takes to impart life into this dying community?”
I hope your answer, I hope my answer will be as good as Ezekiel’s was: “Oh Sovereign Lord, you alone know.” If anyone can do it, Lord, it’s you!
Step 4: Wait & Listen For God To Reveal His Vision For Your Community.
So, after you go, and you assess the situation, and after you push through your doubts, now you’re ready for the fourth step: Now it is time to wait and listen until God reveals His vision for your particular community. Now we wait for God to declare how He wants to impart life into our community. Now we listen attentively, knowing that God will reveal His plan, just as He did for Ezekiel!
4 Then God said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! 5 This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life.”
The passage goes on to tell us that Ezekiel began prophesying just as God had commanded him to do. And miraculously, bones came together, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them. Yet, despite all this progress, verse eight ends by saying there was still “no breath in them.”
Friends, let me pause here and offer a little advice. Do not settle for partial fulfillment of God’s vision for your community. When God declared his vision for Ezekiel’s community, there was only one promise that he repeated a second time. Twice God promised to breathe life into the dry bones. Yet, at the end of verse eight, this is the only part of the vision that had yet to be actualized. Much progress had been made, yet the bones had yet to be filled with life-giving breath. So instead of being satisfied with partial fulfillment, God told Ezekiel to press on, to persevere, until the vision became a reality! Verse Nine:
9 Then God said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—an exceedingly great multitude!
What a beautiful vision! The only thing is: When the vision ends, reality sinks in. That’s because, on the ground, nothing has changed. For Ezekiel, the people of Israel are still like dry bones; they are still in exile.
Friends, please do not confuse the receiving of a vision with its fulfillment. After you receive God’s vision for your community, now you must labor to make it a reality. Now you must actualize it. This is the fifth step. Now it is time for you to do the part that God has assigned to you.
At first, this step usually feels really discouraging. You tirelessly labor to see the vision become a reality, yet there seems to be no fruit. You keep casting the vision, yet nobody believes in it. Everyone thinks the vision is a joke and you are the town idiot.
So, let me offer you another tip that may help as you seek to implement the part of God’s vision that He has assigned to you.
For Ezekiel, nobody initially believed that his vision was from God. The people of Israel did not believe Ezekiel’s claim that God would free them from Babylonian captivity and return them to their homeland. So what do you do when God’s vision for a community is met with total skepticism? For Ezekiel, he switched strategies. Instead of persisting in his fruitless attempts to convince his fellow countrymen, Ezekiel changed tactics. He simply began to prepare for Israel’s future liberation and, in doing so, he got others to participate in the actualization of the vision despite the fact that they had yet to believe in it.
When the people of Israel persistently rejected Ezekiel’s vision, he simply began discussing out loud the redesigning of the temple. Soon the people of Israel started debating with Ezekiel about how the temple should be redesigned. Lost in debate, they overlooked the fact that they had begun participating in the actualization of the vision! Their participation in the vision preceded their belief in it. The same will often be true in our efforts to see life imparted back into dying communities. Often, instead of trying to convince our neighbors that God can impart life back into the community, we simply invite them to join us in the process of making it so. And soon, their doubts will give way to belief.
For those of us who relocated to the Downtown Eastside (step 1), after a full year of learning and assessing (step 2), and after pushing through our doubts that change was impossible (step 3), we sensed God calling us to a ministry of hospitality (step 4). Hospitality was the role God assigned us. God was calling us to welcome into our home those people who are not normally the recipients of welcome. So (step 5), we opened up our home, and invited our neighbors in, treating them like family. They’d cook with us and eat with us. They’d celebrate with us and cry with us. They’d sing Amazing Grace with us; they’d sing ACDC with us. They’d often give to us and occasionally steal from us. They’d bless us and drain us. They’d minister with us and minister to us. And they frequently lived with us as they waited to get into drug rehab programs. Over time, as we shared life together, and as we testified to the goodness of the One who resurrects the dead, a miraculous thing began to happen. Dry bones started coming to life!
One guy named Kevin use to literally shoot heroin into his veins while sitting on the sidewalk just outside our home. One day, just a week after admitting himself into a drug rehab program, Kevin came to us and declared that God was calling him to be a missionary in Cambodia. This was too preposterous of an idea for me to believe. Thankfully, my teammate Craig pushed through his doubts and trusted that God could breathe life into even the driest of bones. So Craig started mentoring Kevin and teaching him the Khmai language. And sure enough: For the past six years, Kevin has been living and ministering in a poor slum community in Cambodia. And he is an amazing missionary! Just last year, Kevin was one of the keynote speakers at the annual conference for the International Society of Urban Missions.
God can resurrect the dead. He’s doing it in my life. He’s doing it yours. And He wants us to join Him in His glorious, life-giving mission.
If you’re willing and able, would you stand with me as we close in prayer: Heavenly Father, You are our source of life! For you still resurrect lifeless souls. You still mend broken hearts. You still raise-up the downtrodden. You still revive dying communities. You still restore desolate places. You still heal broken neighborhoods, and you still breathe life into dry bones! Yes, You are in the resurrection business! And this morning, I believe You’re asking us to join you. To join you in your resurrection work in the world. You’re calling us to participate with You in this life-giving mission. So, equip us to do just that, I pray. Amen.