May 24, 2015 – Pentecost
Typically on Pentecost Sunday we focus on the story of the disciples receiving the Holy Spirit as it’s told in the 2nd chapter of Acts. But, of course, the Spirit has been around long before that—in the very first chapter of Genesis we hear about the Spirit moving over the waters before anything was created. This morning I’ve chosen to look at one of the other great Spirit texts—this one from the prophet Ezekiel. The story of the valley of the dry bones.
Ezekiel was a priest in the Temple in Jerusalem until the the Babylonian army came through, marched the people of Israel, including Ezekiel the priest, into exile and destroyed the Temple. Away from the land God had promised them, the reign of the house of David disrupted, and the destruction of the Temple which was identified with the very presence of God, everything that assured the people of Israel of God’s presence and providence was destroyed.
As the years dragged on, the exiles despaired: “Our hope is dried up; we are lost and cut off completely” they lamented. “We might as well be dead.” It was in this theological, psychological, social and emotional void that Ezekiel’s career as a prophet began. For some perspective, one writer says Ezekiel wrestles with a disaster similar to the modern problem of understanding the Holocaust. “Why did God allow Jerusalem and the Temple to be destroyed and why did God allow the people of Israel to be carried away into exile?”
While few of us in this congregation have personally experienced a devastation like the Holocaust, many of us have had, or are living now, in circumstances that take us to the brink of hopelessness. Losing your job or a partner or a child. Chronic pain or illness or depression. Addiction that holds you or a loved one in its teeth. Poverty and all its limitations. Incarceration. Discrimination because of your skin color or gender identity or sexual orientation. Circumstances in our lives that take us to the depths of despair, persuaded that God has abandoned us. Where we too say, “Our hope is dried up.”
In the midst of the despair, Ezekiel had a vision. The Spirit of God took him to a valley filled with bones. And God says to Ezekiel, “Can these bones live?”
Well, the answer to that question is no. There is no life in those bones.
But God says to Ezekiel, “Prophesy to these bones and say, ‘Hear the word of the Holy God.”
And don’t you just know Ezekiel wants to say, “Hey bones! Get yourself into a grave.”
But God tells Ezekiel to prophesy that the bones will live again.
So Ezekiel looks over at the expanse of dried out bones, “Hear the word of the Holy God.”
He said it sort of under his breath at first. Then he said it again with a little more spirit. “O dry bones, hear the word of the Holy God.” And he hears a rattling behind him. And the rattling grows loud all around him as the bones come together.
And then the bones are covered with tendons and muscles and skin.
And then it is silent again.
And Ezekiel looks at the bodies all around him—bodies of the thousands who were murdered in the destruction of Jerusalem and who died of broken hearts in the exile.
But God is not finished. Speak to the breath, God says. And in Hebrew that word for breath also means spirit and it means wind).
So Ezekiel does as he’s commanded. And the Spirit fills each of the bodies—just like in the story of creation. And they lived. As far as Ezekiel could see. The bones once scattered in hopeless disarray now are living beings filled with God’s spirit.
Once more, Ezekiel is told to speak. Speak to the exile’s hopelessness with words of hopefulness. That they are not cut off. That even from the grave—even from the valley of death—God’s spirit still blows and breathes among them.
Can these dry bones live? Yes!
Those dry bones, filled with God’s spirit, are reshaped into the community of God’s people, healed, restored and made whole again.
A number of years ago I heard Judith Jamison, who was then the Artistic Director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, talk about Alvin Ailey’s vision. “Celebrate what you couldn’t see” is how Jamison described it. For Alvin Ailey, back in 1958, I suspect that meant celebrating African American dancers and choreographers, the rhythms of African American musical traditions, the beauty of African American bodies.
I think of that vision when I hear this story from Ezekiel. Looking for what can’t be seen with human eyes but can be seen through God’s eyes. Even in that valley of bones we will celebrate the power of the Spirit— the power that surrounds us and fills the universe.
It’s the power of the same Spirit that came upon the disciples in Jerusalem centuries later—Jesus had left and they weren’t sure what was next or what they were supposed to do and the Spirit arrived and their lives were ignited with God’s power to tell and live the Good News of Jesus who is alive.
“Ezekiel challenges his fellow exiles and us: Can these dry old bones live? Not on the face of it. But look at them through God’s eyes, and watch bones” coming together. Watch as bones become bodies. Watch as the Spirit “infuses them, so that they rise up…testifying to the power of [God]. Can corpses be brought forth from graves and become living beings again? Look through God’s eyes, and watch them come up, receive God’s spirit, and return home. When we raise our vision to look beyond [the circumstances] our [ordinary] eyes can see, we watch the impossible happen through God’s eyes.”
Jim Wallis in his book The Great Awakening, raises the question about whether the church is an institution or a movement. An institution prefers things to be settled and contained. A movement lives in the arena of risk and possibilities—celebrating what cannot yet be seen—attentive to the Spirit who blows where it will.
A movement might look more like an Alvin Ailey Dance Company where the barriers that keep us in our place are broken down and the possibilities of life and freedom are celebrated not just with our heads but also with our bodies. Where traditional forms are learned at the same time they become the springboard for something even more amazing and transforming. And new ways of being emerge—ways that we couldn’t even imagine until one person starts moving and then a second person starts moving in response to that first person and then a third person starts moving in response to the first two…and on and on.
As a congregation we are still in the process of New Beginnings that began last July—asking “What is it God wants us to do and be in this time and place?” The small group leaders have met together to share the passions and resources and ideas from their groups. The common big idea from all seven groups is two-fold. First, for us to focus as a congregation on a few social justice issues and, second, for us to pay particular attention in our congregation to spiritual and leadership development.
A group of five to seven people will take all that the small groups talked about and help us get specific about that two-fold big idea.
The nominating committee welcomes your suggestions for the people who will help lead us in this way. There’s a form in the back pages of the bulletin to nominate people. Those nominations are due today.
What is it that God wants us to do and be in this time and place? What does God desire to celebrate that we cannot yet see? Where is the Spirit sending us to bring new life into old dry bones?
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1. “Ezekiel – Introduction” in The Access Bible, eds. Gail R. O’Day and David Petersen, (Oxford: University Press, 1999), 1058OT.
2. Katheryn Pfisterer Darr, “The Book of Ezekiel” in New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. VI, Nashville: Abingdon, 2001, 1504-1503.
3. Mentioned in Walter Brueggemann’s article “Elisha as the Original Pentecost Guy: Ten Theses” in Journal for Preachers, Pentecost 2009, p45.