Sunday, June 4, 2017

New Breath on the Bones: Sermon for Pentecost 2017

What a ghastly, ghoulish scene he saw all around him, this refugee prophet. Not minutes earlier, he'd felt that now familiar sensation come over him – dizzying, overpowering – as Yahweh, the God of Israel, seized him in his grip. And as the vision washed over him, he found himself surveying a scene unlike any he'd ever beheld. Ezekiel looked around, and the contours were familiar. He'd seen this valley before, years before, back home – home in the mountain peaks and winding valleys of Judea. It was familiar. But it was unfamiliar. Then, you could see the temple's peak in the distance. Now, nothing was left of God's house but scorched rubble, and all the holy city in ruins with it. Then, this land, this valley, had been a lively place. Now, there wasn't a sound – not even the distant chirp of a bird or cricket, not the blowing of a breeze or the stirring of a creature. Everything was perfectly still.

Most noticeable, though – Ezekiel wasn't alone. He had the dead for company. The valley, up to his shins, was filled with... other shins. Or what used to be shins – tibiae and fibulae – and, what's more, femurs, pelvises, ribs, vertebrae, scapulae, humeri, radiae, ulnae, carpals and metacarpals and phalanges, skulls and mandibles, scattered hither and yon – all bleached, picked-clean, desiccated. They gleamed white under the warm sun – blindingly white, so that he could hardly bare to keep his eyes open. And dry and dusty – they looked old, these barren skeletal remains of men, women, and children – and all left unburied, like the scene of an ancient slaughter, like a forgotten battlefield from a total defeat (Ezekiel 37:1).

Ezekiel was hopelessly confused – could this really be the valley he'd visited in his youth? Could these really be his people? This spine wrapped around his calf – was that his cousin, his mother, his father? Could this even be the present at all? Or was this the distant future? Is this the final fate of God's so-called people – left to rot beneath the sun for all eternity, picked clean by vultures and ravens, and forgotten to the sands of time? What Ezekiel surveyed around him was well nigh a portrait of hell.

But as the tears streamed from his eyes, he felt a tug, an irresistible tug. God still had him in his grasp. And so this LORD pulled him through the bones – Ezekiel didn't want to move, didn't want to come into contact with death, didn't want to be defiled with every step, and what's more, feared that the slightest touch would make the bones crumble to dust – but the LORD kept pulling and pushing and prodding, leading him through the valley (Ezekiel 37:2).

And as he went, Ezekiel remembered the chant that some of the more melancholy Hebrew refugees sang in the camps at night: “Dried up are our bones, gone is our hope, cut off are we” (Ezekiel 37:11)! And, thought the prophet, that's how this looked: everything he saw with his eyes, felt with his legs, epitomized the very word “Hopeless,” as he trod down the sum total of what was left of the dishonored dead. What was he to answer when the still silence was split by a sound, the voice of the LORD: “Can life be found here, with these forlorn bones? Can these bones live? Is there any hope at all here?” (Ezekiel 37:3).

Ezekiel felt alone in the valley. But he's not. And not simply because the Spirit of the LORD took him there. No, Ezekiel isn't alone in the valley because we've seen it, too. We've surveyed scenes that look like this – that afford no hope in themselves, no prospect of life, no vitality, no future, nothing but the accomplished fact of decomposition and destruction. We've seen things that look hopeless. And really, left to our own devices, we are a scene like this! Circumstantially, we get ourselves in hopeless situations, find ourselves somewhere we feel as good as dead.

Physically, we know this is where we'll end up – death is inevitable, with nothing in us to suggest an alternative to its finality: excavate the grave of any king, any president, any celebrity, and beneath the fancy monument, you'll find nothing that wouldn't blend in at Ezekiel's feet that day. Dig up your loved ones, leave them in the sun for a little, and they'll be every bit so bleached and every bit so dry. No exceptions. Charlemagne is no less dead than every forgotten peasant who farmed his food. Nor is there one whit more life in our great-grandparents' bones. And the hour is fast approaching when the same can be said of us. The clock is ticking with unrelenting inevitability – we all end up as dust and bones, hopelessly lifeless.

And spiritually, left to our own devices, we are “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). Not merely handicapped, not merely disadvantaged, not merely needing to put a little more effort in, but dead, dead as dry bones, devoid of the capacity to fix ourselves or even make ourselves better, empty of life and hope. Left to our own devices, we are a resident of the Valley of Dry Bones. And that is not a cheery thought! It's enough to make you want to say that the whole world is meaningless, that nothing matters, that life is a tragic joke that falls flat, that hope is a lie and everything is lost.

And yet, we read, that God would “not let his Holy One see decay” (Psalm 16:10; cf. Acts 2:27-32). God did not allow the Valley of Dry Bones to be all-consuming. Dissolution and disintegration and decomposition and destruction and death do not have the final ruling! And Ezekiel saw that firsthand for himself. Faced with the divine question, Ezekiel submits. He dare not presume by saying yes, but he dare not preclude the prospect by saying no. And so the prophet says, “Lord Yahweh, you know” – God alone can discern the hope for life when all is hopelessly dead (Ezekiel 37:3). And so the LORD bids Ezekiel to introduce these 'hopeless' bones to the word of God, to bring the silent grasp of death and decay into confrontation with the noisy language of heaven (Ezekiel 37:4-6).

Ezekiel must have felt profoundly silly. It's an awkward thing to preach a sermon to a totally still audience, one that doesn't react, doesn't offer any cues as to how it's received – that's why pastors love to see people nod, see people murmur, hear them call out 'Amen!' or at least something, any sign of acknowledgment and recognition and engagement, any sign of life at all out in the land of the pews. So Ezekiel must have felt profoundly silly, trying to prophesy, trying to preach, to the long-dead bones all around him, all over the valley. But he shouts it out all the same, the message that God has given him today.

He prophesies to the bones, he prophesies to the stirring wind, and just as in the beginning, when matter meets form, and when matter plus form meets the Spirit of God, the breath of life, that equals something that lives and moves and has its being! The quaking gives way to bones reconnecting, regaining their tendons and muscles and skin (Ezekiel 37:7-8); and when the Spirit hits them, this wind, this breath – it's all the same word in Hebrew – when this wind or breath or Spirit gets in them, their lungs fill up, and energy throws their eyes open, and they stand up, and you can almost see the lightning flash in the distance and Ezekiel call out, “It's alive! It's alive!” But look, look! This is no lumbering monster cobbled together in a lab; this is a countless army, vigorous and strong, girded for battle! When the word of God is proclaimed, and when God's Spirit rushes uncontrollably and untameably in like a “mighty rushing wind” (Acts 2:2), it breathes a lively fight back into what once was a long-dead scene of uncontestable defeat (Ezekiel 37:9-10).

The message for Ezekiel himself, his lesson to take away from all this, is that no matter how final things may look for the demoralized exiles living under Babylon's thumb, no matter how irreversible their loss, no matter how hopeless it may seem, the Spirit of the LORD turns distance into nearness, deportation into homecoming, defeat into victory, dryness into freshness, death into life. The exiles may feel like saying, “My life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my iniquity, and my bones waste away” (Psalm 31:10). But that is not the last word – no matter how extreme the loss, things can change the instant God blows his Spirit on the situation. No matter how far gone they are, the Spirit can carry them home. They don't have to stay in Babylon like a grave – and neither, one day, will the slaughtered whose bones got left behind (Ezekiel 37:11-13).

The Lord GOD, as it turns out, is something of an expert on getting out of the grave alive. See, that's exactly what he did with his Son, Jesus, the long-awaited Messiah, the Spirit-bringer. After the crucifixion, everything seemed lost, far gone, hopelessly dead. The disciples went around saying, “we had hoped,” in the past tense (Luke 24:21). But then came “the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the grave, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we are all witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from his Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing” (Acts 2:31-33).

Those were the words of Peter fifty days after the resurrection – on the sixth day of Sivan, the Feast of Weeks, traditionally identified as commemorating when God gave his Law to the people and constituted them as “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). The Feast of Weeks was a time for recalling how they became God's treasured possession, and how they were given his Law to guide them through life. But that year, on the Feast of Weeks – which we call Pentecost – an even greater gift came to raise up for God a fresh people out of the walking dead as dry as deserted bones.

All because Jesus Christ is risen, all because Jesus Christ ascended, the same Spirit that revived the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel's vision came to do the same for his church. The same Spirit who, in the Old Testament, came to gift visionaries, artists, preachers, and warriors – that same Spirit was breathed out upon those disciples that day (Acts 2:3-4), equipping them, too, with life and power and startling gifts from above. The Spirit was never under their control, never subject to their bidding – “the Spirit blows where it wishes” (John 3:8). They can't command the Spirit, can't control the Spirit; all they can do is receive the Spirit through faith (Galatians 3:14) and avoid quenching the Spirit once he arrives (1 Thessalonians 5:19).

And what we find on that day is that the Spirit isn't just for speakers of Hebrew and Aramaic. God had promised to pour out his Spirit on all flesh,” man and woman, young and old, dignified and lowly (Joel 2:28-29; cf. Acts 2:16-21) – and as the disciples saw at a later time, “the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles” (Acts 10:45). When Ezekiel glimpsed the Spirit restoring life to “the whole house of Israel” (Ezekiel 37:10), that meant branches grafted in from many other trees as well (cf. Romans 11:17-24). We who once were not his people are now claimed as his people (Romans 9:25-26) – we belong to the house of Israel made alive by God's Spirit, if we receive him through faith.

That was true for the multilingual Jews at Pentecost, it was true for early Gentile converts in the first-century church, and it's just as true today. And that's a game-changer! The word has been proclaimed to us, the Spirit has rushed down upon us – 'dry bones' is not our destiny. If you could find a Christian online dictionary, type in the word “hopeless,” and hit 'search,' you know what comes up? “No Results Found!” For people who know the Spirit, it's just not in our vocabulary! See, because Christ is risen, because he pours out his Spirit of Life, dry bones can live! God promised by Ezekiel, “I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live” (Ezekiel 37:14) – and so he did, and so we do! “Even when we were dead in our trespasses, [God] made us alive together with Christ … and raised us up with him” (Ephesians 2:5-6).

We were not left to rot! We are not forgotten! We will not crumble to dust – at least, not irreversibly, not for long. When the Spirit would come, we would “receive power” and life again (Acts 1:8). The Spirit has come – so our suffering, however it feels, is not hopeless. The Spirit has come – so our situation, however it looks, is not hopeless. The Spirit has come – so our setbacks are not hopeless. The Spirit has come – so our sin is not hopeless. The Spirit has come – so death itself is not hopeless!

It's not hopeless spiritually – we are made alive in Christ and given a Spirit “of power and love and self-control” (2 Timothy 1:7). And it's not hopeless physically – because “if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Romans 8:11). One day, in that cemetery behind me, the bones will literally come back together, they will literally be covered in tendons and muscles and skin, they will literally live and breathe again, glorified beyond death's reach forever – and so will you: “[Jesus is] the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in [Jesus], though he die, yet shall he live” (John 11:25). “What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable … raised in glory … raised in power” (1 Corinthians 15:42-43).

Through the Holy Spirit, you are not dry bones. Even though you die, yet shall you live. Through the Holy Spirit, you are brought back to life. Through the Holy Spirit, you are a new creation, every bit as fresh as the first. Through the Holy Spirit, you will live to fight again, with the vibrant vitality of God himself – because his Spirit is in you, whatever you may feel, and can turn things around in an instant when he comes rushing in. And through the Holy Spirit, you will never be a 'hopeless case,' not on any day, not on any night, not when the mountains fall and the tempest rages, not even when you're six feet under – because Jesus Christ is risen and his Spirit is here!

These bones, once dry, are dead and dry no longer – they've got new breath in them! The Spirit of God turns defeat into victory, dryness into freshness, and death into life! “Having been buried with [Jesus] in baptism,” Paul writes, “in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses” (Colossians 2:12-13). We are alive to fight on, another day, and another day, and onward into the Last Day that has no end! Life has come, and life has the last word! So since we live by the Spirit, “let us also keep in step with the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25; cf. Ezekiel 36:27), and march onward as the army of life, breathing life upon a world of dry bones. Amen.

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