Can These Bones Live?
One of a handful of things that I remember clearly from seminary is the opening lines from a chapter of one of our textbooks, where the author makes the argument that for much of its history the Church has avoided the Holy Spirit more or less as much as possible. The Spirit pops up when we say a creed or celebrate a sacrament, but beyond that the Church--at least the mainline parts, the powerful and polite parts (our part)--has set the Holy Spirit aside whenever we could get away with it. And this author says that the reason that's been the habit is simple: the Holy Spirit can't be trusted. The Holy Spirit can't be contained and controlled and put to good use for our best ideas. The Holy Spirit seems to be even harder to pin down with the nails of doctrine that the other two members of the Trinity, and I think that's saying something.
When the Spirit of the Living God gets involved, there's just no way to know what's going to happen. In the gospel of John a religious leader named Nicodemus comes to Jesus to try to get some straightforward answers about just what he thinks he's doing. And Jesus tells him that if he wants to understand he's got to be born of the Spirit. Only the Spirit can make sense of this Jesus thing--because when the Spirit's involved, as is certainly the case in Jesus' ministry, you won't know whether you're coming or going.
Sure, there are times when we experience the Spirit of Gentleness, as we sang earlier. But even buried beneath that pleasant, lilting tune is a line like You call from tomorrow, you break ancient schemes. Of course the Spirit comes as the comforting presence of God; of course the Spirit comes gently as breath. But the Spirit also disrupts: The Spirit breaks our long-successful schemes, unsettles the way things are, and launches us, often contrary to what we want, into the way that they will be. The Spirit is out ahead of us sounding the alarm that the kingdom of God is unstoppably coming.
If what we want is a good, polite and socially respectable religion, probably what we don't want is the Holy Spirit. If what we want is a faith we can keep to ourselves and attend to when the mood suits us, probably what we don't want is the Holy Spirit. If we're content with the way things are we're going to want to mention the Holy Spirit only when it's liturgically necessary, and sing the nicest songs available when the season requires it, and as much as possible, leave it at that.
Of course, if we think there might be more; if we have a sense that "the way things are" is not all the advertisers promised it would be; if we have any sense that gathered here this morning we might have been called into cahoots with the God who made heaven and earth, the God whose passionate goal is the redemption and renewal of all things, and that this impossibly good news is taking shape even now, then we can do no other than pray, Come Holy Spirit, come. We'll just want to hold on to our hats.
Let's pray: Holy Spirit, come. Make us bold to want more and more of you. We cannot do what we're meant to do apart from you. Do your enlivening work on our hearts and in our lives this morning. Comfort and convict, and strengthen us to walk in the way of life. Help us to know you more, so that we can make you more fully known. Through Jesus we pray: Amen!
I really don't want to undercut the more pleasant experiences of the Holy Spirit--the comfort, the joy, the rest that God's Spirit, God's intimate presence brings us. But I don't think we're short on the idea that God loves us and cares for us. That's absolutely, undoubted true. I pray with St. Paul that we would all grow more and more in the knowledge of the love of God for us in Christ Jesus. God loves us without qualification! What is also true is that God loves us way too much to leave us as we are. God's love disrupts and transforms. God's love gets us into holy mischief, and compels us to do things that make no sense by any of our comfortable standards. St. Paul reminds us that God's love, known here and now, specifically in the presence and power of God's Spirit, works in us and through us to do more than we would dare ask or imagine, even if we had the notion to do so.
Ezekiel and the disciples are two pretty magnificent examples of the kinds of things the Holy Spirit gets us into. If anyone knows any part of the Book of Ezekiel, it's almost certainly the Valley of Dry Bones. It begins with Ezekiel praying. The hand of the Lord was upon me (prophet speak for, "I was praying), and the Spirit of the Lord set me down in the middle of a valley. While he's on his knees, he has this vision. It's not exactly the kind of vision one might hope for. We see that prayer is not invariably pleasant; it's absolutely necessary, but it's not always nice. There's been a massacre, and the valley is strewn with bones. Bones, as far as the eye can see. And they're very dry. The Spirit of the Lord sets Ezekiel in a place of unspeakable hopelessness, of unspeakable brokenness.
And God confronts Ezekiel with the situation. It's hard to imagine that he felt comforted and loved, warm and fuzzy, in this particular work of the Spirit. He's being guided through a maze of death and indignity. Everywhere he looks all he can see is the way things are--another school shooting; another environmental disaster; another broken home; another injustice. There are no royal weddings to distract, no products on offer that will make everything better, no hockey playoffs or hashtags, no politicians to offer thoughts and prayers. It's just a mess. It's a total, unmitigated disaster. There's nowhere to turn to avoid the carnage; this death will be seen. These are the bones of those whose hope is utterly lost, who are cut off completely, and the Spirit makes Ezekiel look long and hard.
And then comes the question. Can these bones live? Can anything be made out of this? The answer, of course, is no. At least the logical answer. This is the way things are. What can possibly be done? Ezekiel gives a respectably religious response. He's obviously seminary trained: he doesn't really answer the question, he just shrugs his shoulders and goes straight for the loophole and says, Lord, You know. And then we see the kind of thing the Spirit really gets us into. That's all the room needed! God says, Preach to the bones. Prophesy in the midst of the valley of death. (And here we see that prophecy isn't predicting the future, but allowing God's creating and saving Word to come alive in us, to have its way in us. To prophesy is to give voice and shape to a holy truth not immediately plain.)
We shouldn't miss the humour in this, dark as it might be. Let's not skip past the ridiculousness of Ezekiel's divine task. If ever you think God is asking you to do something that can't possibly make a difference or makes no discernible sense, remember Ezekiel. If ever we get it in our heads that the kingdom of heaven can't possibly belong to the meek and powerless, that loving our enemies and praying for our persecutors is a waste of energy, that God isn't present in the bodies of the poor and the broken; if ever we doubt that radical generosity is a safer financial choice than prudent saving, that the way of the cross is anything other than the way of life--when we stumble over any of the ridiculous claims of the gospel--remember Ezekiel. Ezekiel, God says, preach to the bones; shout my truth from one end of this valley of death to the other.
And remember that Ezekiel does it. I don't know exactly how, but he does it. In the presence of the Spirit, beyond all reason, he refuses "the way things are," and insists on the way that God will have them. He brings God's word to life, in this impossible place that the Spirit has planted him. I wonder if he stuttered and sputtered as he started. It's hard to imagine, even in a vision, that he grabbed his soap box and launched into a barn-burner of a sermon for this improbable congregation. Maybe he did. Whatever the case, he spoke the truth into the midst of death.
And suddenly the valley begins to echo with the rattling of bones--very dry bones--being pieced back together. And the rattling is muffled only by the sinews and flesh that bind them together. And now we've got something to work with, and God says, Keep going Ezekiel. God tells him to pray breath--Spirit--Ruah--into these corpses. Again, he does it, and they are filled with breath, filled with life. From one end of the valley to the other what was dead stands alive--life as far as the eye can see, a vast multitude. This is the work of the Spirit, the breath that animates, the wind that blows through what isn't and brings to life what will be.
The Spirit disrupts and makes possible what is impossible; the Spirit defies the ways of death, the Spirit bears God's word that insists that hope is not lost, that we are not cut off, that death and indignity, injustice and irreconciliation will not have the last word on us, on our neighbours, on creation. The Spirit insists, compels, demands that a multitude will stand and refuse the way things are; will stand and live the way God desires us to live, on earth as in heaven.
Of course, Ezekiel tells us of a vision, a dream for the way things will be. In its context it's a vision for a specific people, exiled and beaten down, a people who have cried out that their hope is gone and they have been utterly cut off from the God who sustains them. And the vision comes true, at least in part. Exiled Israel returns to her land, rebuilds what was destroyed. But the vocation of that people is what it has always been: to be a light to the nations, a sign of how God is, of who God is in and for the world. And so this vision becomes not only a vision of God's desire for one nation, but for all nations; the death-disrupting power of the Spirit will be for all people.
Pretty well since the first Easter morning, followers of Jesus have seen in him the fulfillment of the Ezekiel's promise. Jesus became the One utterly cut off, utterly broken; and Jesus is the One raised impossibly, wondrously to life. In Christ we see the concentrated work of the Spirit, the One in whom the Spirit is fully and freely and finally made known, not just for one people, but Luke tells us in Acts, for every nation under heaven. In Christ God was pleased to reconcile all things in heaven and on earth to Himself (Colossians 1:20).
There were, we hear, devout Jews from every nation under heaven, in Jerusalem for the festival of Pentecost. God's people will not be defined by race or tribe, but God's promise is broken open, made ready for anyone who calls on God's name. There will be no boundaries to God's love; there will be no barrier to the Spirit. The good news, Ezekiel's sermon, the song of Jesus' kingdom will echo in Jerusalem, to Judea, and on to the ends of the earth. That's Jesus promises (Acts 1:8). From one end of the valley to the other. And here we go.
There's a similar sort of impossibility in the Acts story, as in Ezekiel's. We don't begin with much: a group of nobodies, most of whose names we don't know and will never hear, holed up for the sake of self-protection; so far, an insular little bunch, small enough to fit in one place. I always imagine them fervently praying or deep in meditation on the Scriptures, or something appropriate to the events that follow. But that's not what we're told. As far as we can tell they might be having another Board meeting, which is basically what they've done since Jesus ascended to the throne of heaven. Welcome to the Church. They know they're supposed to witness to the resurrection, but they don't seem to have figured out exactly what to do about that, so they busy themselves with nominations and logistics. In fairness: Jesus had told them to wait where they were, and apparently, for once, they listened to him.
They're just waiting, when all of a sudden from heaven there comes a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and the whole place is lit up like the burning bush, on fire but not consumed. These are decidedly mixed images. Both wind and fire can empower and destroy, can bring life and death. It's worth keeping that in mind.
Because when the wind blows the doors off the place, and the fire chases them into the streets, suddenly able to speak in ways they couldn't speak before, they're not greeted with a great celebration. They're preaching God's enlivening word, they're Spirit-launched into the world to proclaim that God's way has arrived, that in Jesus--crucified, risen, and now reigning--the kingdom of heaven is planted on earth. And what are they met with: bewilderment and astonishment and just a hint of bigotry. Aren't these Galileans? These aren't educated city folks; they're country bumpkins, suddenly declaring the glory of the Lord in such a way that no one has an excuse to miss the point. At least Ezekiel was a priest. Who are these? They're the types that get drunk before the workday starts.
But Peter spells it out. These folks aren't drunk before the pubs open. This is God's dream coming to life. It's a curious mistake that reminds us that it's a dream that's inconvenient for the polite and powerful, for those content with the way things are. This is God's Spirit poured out, blowing away distinctions and burning down neatly built boundaries, overturning the tables of our complacency; this is God's Spirit raising up women and men, old and young, slaves and free, to stand full of breath and prophesy: to make God's promised work of love, justice, and righteousness, God's hope, peace, and joy for this broken and beloved world come to life. This is what God has been promising all along, and it's hear and it's now, bursting forth in impossible and unexpected places.
I said earlier that the Church often avoids the Holy Spirit because the Holy Spirit can't be trusted. That's obviously only partly true. It's true that the Holy Spirit can't be trusted to leave us as we are. The Holy Spirit can't be trusted to help us keep our mouths shut and our eyes closed in the face of sin and death: of brokenness and injustice and all manner of violence. Indeed, Ezekiel reminds us that the Holy Spirit will make us see those things more clearly than we might like, if what we want is a religion that will make us feel good and bless our hopes and dreams. The Holy Spirit can't be trusted to protect our self-protective schemes, or keep us from the scandal of grace.
But the Holy Spirit can be trusted to bring life out of death, wholeness out of brokenness. The Holy Spirit can be trusted to overcome the ways and means that keep us and our neighbors bound and weighed down by all manner of sin. The Holy Spirit can be trusted to get us into holy mischief. The Holy Spirit can be trusted to help and strengthen us to sing and dance, shout and preach, laugh and love the ways of life into the valleys of death, wherever and whenever we find ourselves.
The Holy Spirit can be trusted to grow us and lead us in the disruptive ways and means of Jesus, to do whatever we do--in word and deed in the name and way of Jesus--to be the Church all the way to the cross, knowing that even death is no obstacle to Her power.
God, give us grace and guts. Come, Holy Spirit, Come.