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The Day of Pentecost, 05/31/2009

Sermon on Ezekiel 37:1-14, by Hubert Beck

The hand of the LORD was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones.  And he led me around among them, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold, they were very dry.  And he said to me, "Son of man, can these bones live?"  And I answered, "O Lord GOD, you know."  Then he said to me, "Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD.  Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.  And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the LORD."

So I prophesied as I was commanded.  And as I prophesied, there was a sound, and behold, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone.  And I looked, and behold, there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them.  But there was no breath in them.  Then he said to me, "Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord GOD:  Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live."  So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army.

Then he said to me, "Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel.  Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are clean cut off.'  Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD:  Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people.  And I will bring you into the land of Israel.  And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people.  And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land.  Then you shall know that I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the LORD."      

                                   (English Standard Version)  [Capitalization of the name of God is in the text.]

  

THE PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE OF GOD'S SPIRIT

The Future Has a Past,

The Past Had a Future,

and The Future Also Has a Future!

 

This very day, of course, is the swiftly fleeting past of the future.  The future hangs in the balance of our present.  But so also is our present born out of its own past.  Thus the past, present and future are inescapably bound together. 

We tell that to our children:  What you do with your life today is the making of tomorrow.  We speak out of the experience of our own past.  So act wisely today. 

Of course, our parents told us the same thing - usually to as little avail as our telling the same thing to our children.  The difference, as you know, is that we have learned the hard truth through experience of that which we are attempting to tell our teenagers while the very truth we tell our teenagers is, to them, only a theory that they must test for themselves.  We recognize the train wreck waiting to happen when they test it out, to be sure, for whose life has turned out the way one expected it to in the long ago when we were testing the theories of our older advisors!?!?!?  Few of us in all likelihood!

The Future Has a Past

Ezekiel had joined his voice to many other prophetic voices long before he saw the vision recorded in our text, warning Israel that God would not sit idly by as the life of the house of Israel deteriorated king after king, year after year, decade after decade..  He, along with those others called by God, made it clear that the future would require an accountability for the ungodliness that increasingly marked the life of God's people.  Those prophets had all seen a valley of dry bones developing before their very eyes, and they tried desperately to avert that future by calling the people to repentance and renewal.

All to no avail.

Now they were living in the valley of dry bones - the future whose foundations had been laid in their sad past.  Living in Babylon, the land of their captivity and the land of their foreseeable future, they said, "Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are clean cut off."  The future had caught up with their past, and there was no discernible way out of the future they had made for themselves.

Nor is this foreign to much of human existence!  The world in general and our nation in particular is experiencing this, in a smaller way, to be sure, but nonetheless in a similar form, in the economic distress of our day.  Fingers are pointed every which way - at bankers, at Wall Street, at government policy, at greed, at poor to non-existent regulations, and so on and so on.  The past has caught up with us, and its future did not turn out to be nearly so rosy as it had been made out to be in those delightfully care-free and happy-go-lucky days of the past!  We can understand Israel's plight in at least a minor way:  "Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are clean cut off,"  we cry today.

The church, too, knows some of the same agony.  Mightily Christian Europe of only a few decades ago has fallen off into a sad skeleton of Christianity if church attendance is a measure of anything.  The "homeland" of Christianity in Israel is in great turmoil.  The church of North America and in particular of our own nation is falling under increasing attacks from every direction!  To cover our flank is only to expose our front - and to cover our front is to discover our side under attack.  Denominations are increasingly decreasing and, although non-denominational churches appear to be thriving, the number of those openly identifying themselves as Christian is diminishing by the year.  While our bones are not entirely dried up, we feel the heat that threatens to dry them out.  While our hope is not lost, we discern a deteriorating sense of just how to define the future of Christianity.

Does not every believer, for that matter, sense a formidable assault on one's faith in our day?  Our surrounding culture, rather than supporting our faith as was the case only a relatively few years ago, is increasingly neutral at best if not negative at worst when it comes to the support of sound faith.  "Spirituality" is on the rise - but it is a spirituality that has little to no base in classic Christian thought and confession for the most part.  Those who profess the faith as it has been passed from our fathers and mothers of the past find themselves beleaguered by bewilderingly strange voices.

How does one cope when former hopes and dreams have been wiped out so suddenly and unexpectedly?  The disciples asked that when their master was crucified.  Their hopes and dreams had been pinned on that one man in whom they found such a great promise of the future - and he had been executed as a common criminal.  They were a confused, confounded, demoralized, disheartened, discouraged bunch coming together with "the doors being locked . . . for fear of the Jews."  (John 20:19)  Everything had fallen apart for them.  Their future had a past - but it was not a past that seemed to them much of a foundation for what was yet to come.  Their voices were joined to the Israel of Ezekiel's time:  "Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are clean cut off."

The Past Had a Future

It was beyond their imagination that the past now haunting them could possibly have a future of any significance compared to their former hopes.

But it did!  In spades, in fact! 

"On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them, and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.'"  (John 20:19)  Now there was a past with a future nobody had even remotely expected!  Jesus, the crucified one, their past, was alive and well again as their future.  He began dwelling among them again - at least off and on - showing himself to them, instructing them anew, opening a future with a new past that was so unforeseen and unanticipated and surprising as any future could possibly be!

Their own past now had a new future ----------

Just as Israel's past, according to Ezekiel, had a future that it did not expect.  "[The Lord] said, 'Son of man, can these bones live?'  And I answered, ‘O Lord GOD, you know.'  Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD.  Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones, Behold I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.  And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the LORD.'"

How can dry bones live?  By the word of the Lord!  The same one whose word had called the entire universe into existence and had then breathed into a lump of clay the breath of the very first human life to inhabit this earth gathered those bones together with a great rattling and clatter, placed sinews and flesh and skin upon them, breathing new life into them.  "'Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord GOD:  Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.'  So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army."  What a picture! 

Then he was to impress upon those distressed, forlorn, hopeless, despairing, discouraged, despondent people a word that only the Lord, himself, could give them:  "Thus says the Lord God:  Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people.  And I will bring you into the land of Israel.  And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people.  And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land.  Then you shall know that I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the LORD." The graves of which he speaks is not likely to have been the individual graves of dead people being resurrected, for the text itself, the entire context and the time within which these words were spoken, indicates the "grave of Babylon," the "captivity within which their hopelessness was being experienced," the "deadness of the future that they felt tightly bound around them."  They would be released from captivity, free to return to their homeland - raised from the death of their imprisonment.  That was the word of hope, the highly unexpected promise expressed in the face of their despair.

You very likely know that the word for "Spirit" in both Greek and Hebrew can be translated "breath" or "wind."  "Say to the breath, Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live."  "I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live."  The Spirit was the life-giving breath, the wind blowing across the face of the people of Israel to whom Ezekiel addressed himself.  "I will place you in your own land.  Then you shall know that I am the LORD."  The word of the Lord does not go forth in vain, but it bears its own fruit, accomplishing that which he purposes and succeeding in the things for which he sends it.  (Isaiah 55:11)

The past of Israel, her captivity and her despair, had a future after all!  The Spirit of the Lord was her future, and he spoke through Ezekiel.  "It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came.  And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them.  And the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Lord God, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes."  (Ezekiel 36:22, 23)  These words, preceding the words of our text, make clear that Israel's past had a future . . . not because Israel was, herself, faithful (which she most certainly had not been!), but because God would "vindicate the holiness of his great name."  In spite of Israel's unfaithfulness, God would hold to his word, his promise, creating a future of his own making within which Israel would have yet another opportunity to serve and obey him.  His Spirit would see to that!

Is there any past that cannot have a new and different future when God steps into the picture?  The certain path established by the past can be - and has been, time after time! - intercepted and intervened with in most miraculous ways.  What is the economic, social, civic future of our nation - or the world, for that matter?  Patterns and paths that appear to be headed in threatening and uncertain directions have been established.  Just as the Berlin wall had so solidly established the future of Germany that nobody questioned it - nobody, that is, save our Lord, himself.  Just as Marxism was so firmly entrenched in the Soviet Union that it was unchallengably its future - except for the fact that the Lord did not see it that way.  We can find all kinds of human explanations for such sudden alterations of our earthly futures, but underneath and within all those explanations is this strangely mysterious movement of God's Spirit changing everything just when we least expect it. . . .

As he did for those disciples on the day we observe as Pentecost.  According to Luke the disciples had been privileged to see, speak with, and experience the presence of the risen Lord for forty days when he took them to that mount from which he ascended into the heavens to be seated at the right hand of the Father, fully restored to the glory from which he had departed to be born of the virgin.  He had tutored them in preparation for the future, but, as he had made clear on the evening before he died, "When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.  And you also will bear witness because you have been with me from the beginning."  (John 15:26, 27)  Then he had gone on to say, "I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.  When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come."  (John 16:12, 13)

Then, preparing to leave them for good in his physically discernible form, "he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father," (Acts 1:4) adding that they would "receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you."  (Acts 1:8)

Just what did that mean?  For ten days they waited.  For what?  They were not sure.  At least not until -

"They were all gathered together in one place.  And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.  And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them.  And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance."  (Acts 2:1-4)  Then they knew what Jesus was talking about when he promised them the "power of the Holy Spirit."  The Spirit began "sorting through" all that had happened in the life, suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth in such a way that they recognized that all this had happened "for them" - "for us."  Peter was so moved by that Spirit that he gave the first "Christian sermon" on that day:  "Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words. . . ."  (Acts 2:14)

So began his exposition of the prophet Joel and the psalms under the influence of the Spirit who had swept over them so powerfully that he cut his listeners to their hearts.  "Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself."  (Acts 2:38, 39)  And the first wave of believers were washed in the blessed waters of baptism . . . about three thousand of them!

Their past had a future - a brand new future - a future of which they had no idea when they got up that morning to gather in that room through which the Holy Spirit had swept so powerfully - a future for up to three thousand people who, upon hearing the good news of God's love for them in Jesus Christ his Son, died with Christ and was raised to newness of life with him in the waters of baptism!

So why do we fear for the future of a church whose beginnings were so marvelously, wonderfully manifested by "a sound like a mighty rushing wind" [there it is again - that "wind" of the "Spirit"!] and tongues of fire dancing powerfully and gracefully over the heads of those gathered in that room on the first Pentecost?  When we look at our present situation in what appears to be a failing expression of the Christian faith we remember that our past has always had a future - that it is nothing new for the church to go through trials and temptations, persecutions and distresses, uncertainties and dangers, fears and concerns.  Faithful responses are called for, to be sure - but in and through them all we remember, especially on this day, that it was not human wisdom or strength that prevailed in that long history of the church, but it was always the Spirit of grace and mercy, the working and mysteriously marvelous pathways of the Spirit along which he led the church. 

Its existence to this day is a marvel, given all the miserable byways and human failures that mark its past.  But its past always had a future, for it is the possession and work of the Holy Spirit who not only brought it into being but has sustained it through all its years.  His presence is our assurance that, in spite of all our fears and concerns, the church has a future.  It is the Spirit's past that assures us of that - and it is the experience of the church's past that the Spirit always gives it a future - not necessarily the kind of future that is expected (the Reformation is testimony to that!), but a future of the Spirit's making.  It is with that assurance we move into the future.  What looks like dry bones today can take on sinew and flesh and skin and breath as fresh and new as was the life of Eden itself!  "Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. . . And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live. . . Then you shall know that I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the Lord."

The Future Also Has a Future

So where will the Spirit lead us? 

He led Israel back to its own land.  Ezekiel, whose mouth was the mouth of the Lord, said, shortly after our text, "My servant David shall be king over them, and they shall all have one shepherd.  They shall walk in my rules and be careful to obey my statutes.  They shall dwell in the land that I gave to my servant Jacob, where your fathers lived.  They and their children and their children's children shall dwell there forever, and David my servant shall be their prince forever.  I will make a covenant of peace with them.  It shall be an everlasting covenant with them."  (Ezekiel 37:24-26)

The people and the land never attained the grandeur of David and Solomon's day.  Yet God has preserved them as a people through centuries in a way that no other people have enjoyed.  Where are the Philistines of today?  Where are the Edomites or the Amalekites of today?  Although they are long gone, the progeny of Israel is traceable to this day.  Out of two captivities, through persecutions and pogroms and adversities of every sort they have enjoyed future after future.

It is not a future that Ezekiel may have envisioned for them.  Nor is the world of today the future that Roman emperors or kings of empires or dictators of the past or even those forefathers who first brought our nation into existence envisioned.  The futures have all taken strange twists and turns.  God's presence within history is a mysterious force that turns expectations into disappointments and disappointments into new expectations.  Yet all these futures rest in the hand of him who has guided them into that which they now are - sometimes in gentle and peaceful ways and sometimes at the hands of mean and cruel tyrants - men like Cyrus under whose hand the dry bones of Israel were raised to a new life, free to return to their homeland.  Friend and foe alike have been used by the divine hand to shape the world of our day.

Did Peter envision the church of the early twenty-first century when he preached that first "Christian sermon" on the day of Pentecost?  Hardly!  Nor would Martin Luther, one of the many heirs of that prodding of the Spirit that moved the church out of Jerusalem into all the world, be able to recognize the church of our day.  Would he be surprised?  Undoubtedly!  Would he be at least a bit upset or disillusioned or saddened or dissatisfied with the future of the future that he inherited out of his past?  It is hard to tell.  But we believe the word of the Lord to Ezekiel, however - the word that said, "My servant David shall be king over them, and they shall all have one shepherd.  They shall walk in my rules and be careful to obey my statutes. . . They and their children and their children's children shall dwell there forever, and David my servant shall be their prince forever."  (Ezekiel 37:24, 25)  Out of the house of David has come the one to whom the Spirit points as our certain and sure future, Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, ascended into the heavens, living and ruling at the right hand of the Father, and coming again to judge the living and the dead.  He, the head of the church, sends the Spirit that burst upon the scene in such a powerful way on that first Pentecost.

Nor did his Spirit first become active then!  The self-same Spirit had always been the past of their future, for throughout Old Testament times we hear of his constant presence, activity, force, movement across the face of Israel's history.  He was not new to the scene by any means.  But the immediacy of his presence, his commanding influence, his direct intervention in the lives of those gathered in that room on the day we commemorate today took everyone by surprise.

He always surprises us, does he not?  He who came so visibly powerful in wind and fire comes among us also in the quietness of water poured, of bread and wine offered, of word spoken, read, exchanged among us.  He is present in those myriads of ways by which the people of God gather, celebrate, remember, rehearse, rejoice, mark the days and times of the Spirit's interweaving presence among us.  We do not know where he will lead us - or the church - or the world, for that matter - as new futures unfold.

One thing we can be sure of, however.  "The wind (Spirit - remember?) blows where it wishes, and  you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."  (John 3:8)

Or, to use the words of our text, "Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live." 

Dry bones whose future had a past that seemed ever so final and absolute are raised into a future that they could never have imagined when they were given flesh and sinew and skin and breath for the simple reason that it is the future of God's making.  There is nothing more exciting than this - to know that the Spirit of God is blowing across our lives today, no matter how dispirited they may be at the moment, bringing a future into being that can be known and recognized only when it gets here!

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.



Retired Lutheran Pastor Hubert Beck

E-Mail: hbeck@austin.rr.com

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