While COVID-19 makes our in-person services challenging, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.
Life out of Death
Every year at Pentecost we are given the same scripture reading: the Acts lesson that talks about the gift of God’s Spirit to the disciples; the rushing wind, the tongues of flame, the sudden ability to speak in untaught languages.
But sometimes it’s good to change things up, like this year’s readings where we are given some other perspectives on the work of the Holy Spirit. Change can jar us out of complacency, can make us ask deep questions instead of doing the “same old same old”, which is a good thing and very appropriate when you consider how jarring Pentecost day must have been.
Our first lesson is that famous one about the valley of the dry bones where the prophet Ezekiel watches with disbelief and possibly some horror, as scattered, dry bones re-assemble themselves and then get coated in layers of muscle and flesh like a really fast reverse episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. And it is all topped off when God breathes the Spirit into all these bodies and they live again.
This is an incredible scene. What the Prophet saw would have raised some questions: how do you get a valley of dry bones? Why weren’t these people buried?
You’d have to conclude it was long after a great battle; a horrible defeat, or maybe a genocide, where no one was left to bury the dead. They were eaten by ravens and vultures and their bones left for years to dry out, unloved, dishonoured by their enemies, forgotten, as dead as dead can be.
And then we’re told that this is a metaphor; that these bones represent the nation of Israel; a people so discouraged and depressed that they feel like they might as well be dead; not only dead but in the tomb, mere dry bones, unable to live or do anything.
This vision makes the promise of the gift of God’s own spirit. There is a play on words going on here. The word for breath is also the word for Spirit. God is promising to breathe into this discouraged nation and give them new life to pull them out of death and bring them home.
The clear message is that this lively, life giving force; this miraculous spark that marks the difference between a lump of flesh and a living soul will be lively and at work among the people, just when they thought it would be impossible.
A little over a year ago I replaced the fence at the back of our property. The new fence panels were two feet higher then the old ones which meant I needed to trim some tree branches. Some of the trees were starting to bud, so I figured that the bare ones were probably dead, especially on one tree where much of the wood was cracked and dry and the bark was flaking off in many places.
I warned Lori that I planned to cut a lot of branches from this tree, maybe even cut down the tree itself because I’ve learned to give warning before getting enthusiastic with the chain saw. And Lori informed me in no uncertain terms that no matter how dead that old tree looked, it was healthy and very much alive and more to the point was her favourite honeysuckle rose, so I should trim off only what was absolutely necessary to accommodate the new fence panels.
I just looked at that tree yesterday, over a year later and it is covered in leaves and the pink blossoms are everywhere and yes, the wood still looks dried out and cracked.
Life surprises us. It hides, and springs up in unexpected places. God’s gift of life is much tougher than we give credit for.
We are facing a time right now where a lot of churches feel like they are on their last legs with struggles over the years to hang on to young people and keep membership numbers up, not to mention financial numbers. And then this pandemic hits, incomes go down, some churches find they can’t get a minister at all, some can’t afford to keep the ones they had and the people get discouraged, especially after months of isolation with no clear end in sight, no clear opportunities to see the church as a living thing, no recent experience of that community that gets together, that shares, and celebrates and eats too much dessert at pot-lucks.
When we’re denied all of this for long enough, we start to feel like those dried up bones and we worry that resurrection is impossible. It’s a good thing that the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs deeper than words, because we’ve run out of words to describe how all this feels; how badly we need to be together again.
I would invite you to consider the promise of this Ezekiel lesson. God wasn’t just saying that the people would endure, that they’d struggle and gasp through a tough time. God was saying that the people would be filled with new life, that there would be a breath of fresh air animating the people of God.
What kind of promise is that to give to suffering people? It’s a promise that knows what makes us tick and knows our true nature.
Think of the people you admire. How many of them have come through hard times, through challenges that looked unbearable?
Think of someone like Nelson Mandela, who spent most of his life in prison and who managed to emerge to unite his country, overcome Apartheid and create an atmosphere where truth and reconciliation could start the healing of a divided land.
It’s not just that suffering builds character or some other platitude like that. It is that in adversity we are pushed hard; our circumstances demand that we develop a new perspective as the world we’ve take for granted changes. We have the chance to learn about ourselves and others in ways we’d probably never wish on anyone but that still reveal truths that we’d never otherwise see.
Every time something is stripped away from us, even temporarily,
we are challenged with the question: “what really matters in our lives?”. We have the opportunity to discover what values lie deepest within us, discover truths that the busyness of normal life would otherwise keep hidden.
And so we are given the chance to learn, and to grow, and to do something with this hard-won understanding.
Those people we admire came through adversity and blossomed;
we can too!
I believe that God’s Spirit is always available to us so that we don’t have to face trouble alone. If we let God really work in our lives then we, too, will come out of this pandemic and the other challenges of our lives with a gift of wisdom and insight and with a revived sense of life that leads us to the core of what matters and gives us new ways to revitalize our selves and our community.
We may feel like dried bones right now, but once God’s Spirit has done with us, our future will be full of unexpected new life.