Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Difference the Spirit Makes

(A sermon based on Ezekiel 37:1-14 for Pentecost Sunday, 2009)

Today is Pentecost Sunday on the Christian calendar, which naturally leads us to think about and to talk about the Holy Spirit, although we really should think and talk about the Holy Spirit more than once a year; in fact, we should be constantly aware of, constantly in touch with, and constantly open to the Holy Spirit because the Holy Spirit is God with us to comfort us, to teach us, to direct us, to encourage us, and to empower us. Indeed, it is the Spirit that gives life to the Church; it is the Spirit that gives life to God’s people; it is the Spirit that gives new life where it seems that death has come to reign; it is the Spirit that generates hope where it seems that despair is the only possibility.

Ezekiel’s vision offers an inspiring picture of how the Spirit of God can and does work in the midst of God’s people—just when they need it most, namely just when they have decided that it can’t happen.

Ezekiel was a prophet—a preacher—who knew all about devastation and despair and hopelessness because he witnessed it firsthand and because he lived in the middle of it. A priest, Ezekiel was apparently taken to Babylon along with other exiles when the armies of Nebuchadnezzar captured Jerusalem in 597 B.C.E.; he was living in Babylon when Nebuchadnezzar’s forces returned to Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E. and utterly destroyed it, thereby bringing to an end—forever it must have seemed to most people—the political and religious life of the nation. Many of the people of Judah found themselves living in exile hundreds of miles away from home, assuming that they would never go back, believing that everything that they had known was gone for good. Their life as the people of God, many of them concluded, was over; they were, from a spiritual point of view, dead.

It was such an assumption, such a belief, and such a conclusion that the vision given to Ezekiel by God addressed. In the vision Ezekiel saw a valley full of human bones; their utter deadness, emphasized by the use of the word “dry,” is emphasized—these bones were really, really dead. When the Lord asked Ezekiel if those bones could live, the prophet responded with a very good answer: “O Lord, thou knowest”; it is an answer that covered the two crucial truths, which were (1) that only God knew if those bones could live and (2) that if anyone could cause those bones to live, God could.

Then Ezekiel was told to preach to the dry bones—an experience all preachers have had!—and when he did so the bones came together and became covered with sinews and flesh and skin. At that point they looked better and they appeared more whole and complete—but they were still dead. So Ezekiel was told to preach to the breath (the same Hebrew word can mean “breath,” “wind,” or “spirit”) and when he did “the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude” (v. 10).

It is quite a vision and we are blessed that we do not have to wonder what it means because we are given the interpretation right there in the text when the Lord tells Ezekiel,

Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; they you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken and will act, says the LORD.

The meaning of the vision, then, was that, through his Spirit, God was going to reestablish Israel and restore them to their homeland—he was going to lift them out of their hopelessness and give them hope; he was going to lift them out of death and give them life.

Sometimes it seems to the Church that “our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely”; sometimes it seems like, while things may not be that bad, we still are lacking in hope and in life. At times like that—at all times, really, but especially at times like that—we need to know that the Holy Spirit is still working to inspire, to encourage, to challenge, to teach, to lead, to enliven, and to empower.

What are some things we can say about the work of the Spirit?

The Spirit works with us as we are and where we are.

The Spirit will work to make us better and more like God intends for us to be—to “sanctify” us, to put it in biblical terms—but make no mistake about it, the Spirit works with us just as we are and right where we are.

Consider again the plight of the people to whom Ezekiel preached. Because of their constant violations of God’s covenant—because they continuously put other gods before the Lord, because they continuously misused, abused, and neglected people, and because they continuously trusted in worldly power rather than in God’s faithfulness—they found themselves in exile, their most cherished institutions gone, their most basic beliefs challenged, their families ripped apart. There was no doubt about where they were—they were in exile; there was no doubt about how they got there—they had sinned against God, they had sinned against love, and they had sinned against life.

The Spirit will work with us, too, as we are and where we are, but we also need to acknowledge where we are and how we got there. We are no better than we in fact are; we are no healthier than we in fact are; we are no more Christian in our ways of thinking, feeling, and acting than we in fact are. Where are we as the Church? Are there ways in which we are in exile, are there ways in which we have paid and are paying the price for being unfaithful to God’s covenant with us and to our covenant under God with each other? Whatever problems we have, whatever sin we have done, whatever violations of our one law—to love God and to love each other—we have committed, we are what we are and we are where we are.

But the Spirit of God will come into our defeated, deflated, deceased body and will give us life and will give us hope. Just as surely as God through God’s Spirit gave God’s people hope, just as surely as God gave them life, so God through God’s Spirit will give God’s people hope and life here and now, today.

The Spirit inspires hope for the future.

Through Ezekiel, God promised that the Spirit would give the people new life and new hope but God did not promise that it would happen right away. There are things that God’s people need to learn—and they are hard lessons to learn: first, God is working God’s purposes out and so the future really is in God’s hands; second, God’s future is the right future and we can trust in it; and third, we have to wait for God’s timing.

We can do some things, yes—and God expects us to take as active a role in our walk with God as we can take. There were no doubt people active among the exiles whose actions made a great difference for the future of Israel—think of those leaders who developed the synagogue or who edited and collected writings that became Scripture or who (like the “Isaiah of the Exile”) reminded the people of what God had done in the past and of what he was about to do in their future. But the fact remained that what really needed to happen—the coming of the life-giving Spirit of God into that situation of helplessness and hopelessness—could only happen if and when God caused it to happen; Ezekiel wanted his people to know that God was going to cause it to happen. But it would happen in God’s time, not in theirs.

So let’s do what we can do but let’s remember that only God can do what really must be done. Let’s also remember that so long as God’s Spirit is working, which God’s Spirit will be doing until the end of time, there is a future and there is hope. God is always moving us forward toward what God has waiting for us—our call is to wait and to watch and, when the time is right, to go with God in what God is doing.

The Spirit works through continuity and through change.

The time eventually came, several decades after Ezekiel had this vision, when God did indeed cause his people to come out of the grave of their exile in Babylon and to be restored back in their own land. The time eventually came when God’s Spirit breathed life into the dead bones of Israel and gave the nation new life in their homeland.

Some things were the same—it was the same land and the people had many of the same teachings and traditions and they certainly worshiped the same God.

But many things were different and many creative responses had to be found to the new situation into which the Spirit was leading them; the people of Israel had to take their foundational relationship with God, their foundational identity as God’s people, and their foundational traditions as found in their developing Scriptures, and learn to live them out in a vastly different landscape. It is also the task of the Church to be what the Church has always been but to do so in a changed and changing world. Where the Spirit works, new things happen; where the Spirit works, changes come about.

In the Church we are appropriately about the way things have always been—we celebrate our traditions and our heritage and our Scriptures and we especially celebrate our Savior. Some things will never change. Still, we have to be careful lest we close our eyes and minds and hearts and lives to what great things—and what challenging and disturbing things—the Spirit has in store for us. The Spirit works through what always has been but the Spirit also works through bringing about change and progress and sometimes even a little bit of upheaval.

Have you seen that Post Shredded Wheat commercial in which a fictitious CEO proudly touts the fact that Shredded Wheat never changes? He says, “We put the ‘no’ in innovation.” I don’t believe the Church can afford to think like that. We need to be committed to going wherever the Spirit leads us, to doing whatever the Spirit wants us to do, and to being whatever the Spirit shapes us to be. It takes openness and that means that it takes courage, it takes faith, it takes resolve, and it take commitment.

The Spirit makes a difference; what difference will the Church make if we are open to the Spirit?

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