Sermon for Pentecost
Trinity Church, Mt. Airy, NC
May 21, 2018 10:30
וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֵלַ֔י הִנָּבֵ֖א אֶל־הָר֑וּחַ הִנָּבֵ֣א בֶן־אָ֠דָם וְאָמַרְתָּ֙ אֶל־הָר֜וּחַ כֹּֽה־אָמַ֣ר׀ אֲדֹנָ֣י יְהוִ֗ה מֵאַרְבַּ֤ע רוּחֹות֙ בֹּ֣אִי הָר֔וּחַ וּפְחִ֛י בַּהֲרוּגִ֥ים הָאֵ֖לֶּה וְיִֽחְיֽוּ׃
And he said to me, “Son of Man, prophesy to the Spirit, and say to the Spirit, ‘Thus says the LORD, “Come from the four winds, O Spirit, and breathe into these dead men, and they will live!”’” (Ezekiel 37:9)
They lived in elegant exile here. Nebuchadnezzar did not require them make bricks without straw, and overseers did not herd them out to the kilns and brickyards at first light as had the pharaoh’s henchmen done to their ancestors in Egypt. The Babylonians encouraged them to pursue their trades here in the flood plains of the Tigris River, to build homes and families. They weren’t poor, and nobody treated them like slaves; but not all slavery involves chains and shackles. Their freedom extended up to the borders of the ghetto and not one inch farther. They had some freedom, to be sure, freedom to survive, freedom to make a living, freedom to prosper even; but their homes lay in ruins hundreds of miles away in the hills of Judea where only famine prospered and despair alone flourished.
In their self-congratulatory chronicles, the kings of Mesopotamia, kings of the lands between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, kings like Nebuchadnezzar, had a way of describing their military victories as “fields full of bones,” gloating over the numbers of bodies their footmen and chariots had piled up on the field of battle to win glory for their sovereign. The exiles from Judah felt like those bones in the fields of battle, felt the sting of utter defeat, felt the hopelessness of separation from their land, from their farms, from the graves of their ancestors, from the God that had dwelt with them there. And the prophet Ezekiel knew his people’s pain, their hopelessness, their despair; and if he had once believed that his compatriots’ anguish had come from their own evil deeds, he was equally convinced now that the God they had known in ancient Jebus had a new thing in store for these melancholy Judean souls in Bel’s old city by the River.
That new thing came to Ezekiel in snitches and snatches of brilliance, in visions and dreams, in flights of poetry and in the throes of physical discomfort. What could he say about this strange hope that had taken root deep within him that would make sense to anyone else? He had dazzled and confused his listeners with his visions of spinning wheels in the sky and celestial beasts bearing the LORD of Hosts out of the soon-to-be-destroyed temple. He had shared his awful—and very accurate—vision of the final destruction of Jerusalem with them, but the new message was harder than the old one. Ezekiel’s new belief that God was about to rebuild this defeated people, rebuild their separated families, rebuild their devastated city, and rebuild his own dwelling on Zion’s holy hill—that belief just flew in the face of the realities of daily life in exile and defied common sense. In the battle of the gods, Bel had defeated Yahweh decisively, and Nebuchadnezzar had sent his storm troopers into the midst of the holy city not once but twice; and the second time around, the son of Bel had left no stone upon another. They weren’t going home, they felt; they were going to live among the black-headed people who had conquered them until nobody remembered the sights of Jerusalem or could sing the songs of Zion.
Ezekiel might have tired of being jerked around from vision to vision, but he must have instantly recognized the topography of the valley of dry bones from the kings’ chronicles, disarticulated and partially disarticulate skeletons of soldiers lying one on top of another so that no eye could discern the sandy loam beneath them. In his vision, the LORD deposited the old prophet right down into the middle of those bones and made him shuffle through them. This vision from heaven became more and more macabre by
“Son of man, can these bones live?” the voice demanded of him, and Ezekiel knew that question was far beyond his pay grade. Dead, dry bones don’t live. That’s why we call them dead. And death on Nebuchadnezzar’s industrial scale couldn’t be undone in this field of conquest, this field of bones. Some part of the prophet’s mind, though, knew that the dry bones he saw amounted to the decimated, dead hopes of his people Israel, and he knew from the depths of his own heart how impossible it seemed that those bones could live again. Nevertheless, the LORD commanded the prophet to address those bones, to call upon them in their God’s name. If your religion has ever seemed futile to you, or foolish, even insane, then try preaching to a valley of dry bones and try to believe that God will once more stretch sinews upon them and cover them with wholesome flesh so that they will stand up and be God’s people again, the hosts of the LORD. Visions can humiliate as well as ennoble.
Those first students of Jesus, huddled together in their upper room, knew something about the loss of hope too. They were twice let down. They had seen the master arrested, tortured and killed and had thought that their brief interlude of grace in his presence had ended as had all their hopes for God’s kingdom of justice. Their despair turned to a kind of unbelieving joy when that same teacher had once more appeared among them, continuing their instruction for a time through whatever miracle of resurrection had made that instruction possible. But now that presence that had made them believe, that had given them hope, that had called them into light had deserted them once more, departing into the heavenly world from a step on the Mount of Olives and leaving them to wander again aimlessly back to their place of obscurity, their place—not to put too fine a point on it—their place of hiding.
And these heartbreakingly young men were already old now, old in that worldly way that comes from knowing they had not been brave or true or bold in their master’s cause and had scattered when the police raided their little meeting in Gethsemane and had hidden out for the duration in the last place they had felt safe. Old too in having suffered just one disappointment too many, taken one final body blow on Mt. Olivet, and finding themselves with no reserves to face the Pentecost crowds, nor the soldiers, nor the policemen—nor even their own families. They might well have asked themselves whether those bones could ever live again.
The answer to that question, of course, did not reside with them any more than the answer to the LORD’s question to Ezekiel lay within the old prophet’s ken. If Andrew or James or John or the Prophet Ezekiel knew what made life then they would be the hosts of heaven. Ezekiel can only whisper to dry bones, and the disciples can only tell their sad story to each other over and over again.
God’s Spirit gives life.
Only God’s Spirit gives life.
And God’s Spirit is God’s business.
The dry bones in the field of bones will remain the defeated foes of Marduk’s champion unless the Lord gives them life; and Ezekiel has no way of knowing how or why that might happen. Likewise, the disciples in Jerusalem on Pentecost have no way of knowing how or why the Spirit of God might meet them in their desolation and create life. “Can these bones live? O LORD you—and you alone—know the answer.”
Can these bones, gathered here on North Main Street—can these bones live? Are we to gather in the valley of defeat or huddle fearfully away in our sanctuary? Sometimes when we read headlines like those that announced the needless and preventable massacre of children at Santa Fe High School or the heartless slaughter of demonstrators at the Gaza fence, the field of bones seems very real and any idea of their resurrection seems laughable. But we know we can’t answer God’s question to the prophet. Only God holds the answer. But the prophet’s vision and the tongues of fire suggest that we could know God’s answer full well. We could know that God has no intention of watching us cower in the face of the challenges our world presents us any more than God was willing for God’s people in Babylon to accept the tyranny of Nebuchadnezzar’s exile or for discouraged disciples to accept the smug reality of the Roman empire. God creates life, not Nebuchadnezzar, not Claudius Caesar, not Kim Jong-un and not Vladimir Putin. God gives meaning and hope, not political parties, not free market economics, and not the new racial bigotry under which our nation now suffers. Can these bones live? They’re already living, living in our songs of praise, living in our Eucharist, living in our loving outreach to our neighbors. We may not know how or why but we know that God can build, has built, and will continue to build from our flawed lives, from our dry bones, a kingdom of hope, a kingdom of love, and a kingdom of peace.