Come, O Spirit, Dwell Among Us
Breathe on Me, Breath of God
Sweet, Sweet Spirit
You may also download this audio file.
Ezekiel 37: 1-14
1The hand of God came upon me, and God brought me out by the spirit of God and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2God led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3God said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” 4Then God said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of God. 5Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6I will lay sinews on 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 God.” 7So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. 9Then God said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” 10I prophesied as God commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. 11Then God said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ 12Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13And you shall know that I am God, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, God, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord.
1When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
14But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “People of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 17‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young ones shall see visions, and your old ones shall dream dreams. 18Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. 19And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 20The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. 21Then everyone who calls on the name of the God shall be saved.’
The room was cool in the early morning when first they gathered, but as the day progressed it became uncomfortably warm. The people who had crowded into that room sat on chairs, on the floor, stood against the wall, every space was filled as they settled into the pocket of silence that the early morning held for them. Eyes closed, heads nodding, lips moving in prayer, the rag tag group of people who had followed Jesus for three years, watched him die a horrid death, tasted the impossibility of his resurrection, witnessed his sudden departure up into the clouds were now waiting for the Next Big Thing to happen. Jesus had told them to go to Jerusalem and wait, and that’s what they were doing. Waiting in that hot little room, praying as they waited, praying until the sweat began to bead up on their lips and foreheads and drip down their cheeks. Someone opened a window, then a door, but it was a windless day and the air was as still as death.
One follower of Jesus closed her eyes, leaned her head back against the wall, pressed her back against the wall, and took a long deep breath in and then let it out again. She let her mind wander, drawn out of the room by the sounds that floated up from the street. The wheels of a cart rattled as it passed by underneath their window, and long after it passed she traced the sound of its rattle like a thread winding its way through the throng of people who made their way through the streets. Her eyes closed as she focused on the sound and her mind began to drift.
The streets were full of people who had come to Jerusalem for Pentecost, or the “feast of weeks,” fifty days after Passover. Jews from throughout the Roman Empire had come to Jerusalem to celebrate the end of the barley harvest and the beginning of the wheat harvest. They came to offer the first fruits to God. Normally this woman, this follower of Jesus, would have been preparing food for visiting relatives and joining in the many celebrations, but her life had been so dramatically altered in the past few weeks that it didn’t occur to her to go on with “business as usual.” So she joined with these other followers of Jesus for their own celebration of Pentecost, to wait in the heat of this room, for a future she couldn’t imagine.
The rattle of the cart still a faint sound in her ears, her breathing slowed even more, until she found herself drifting in and out, half asleep, half awake. In the strange dream space the cart rattle became something else in her ears, a memory of the ancient story of Ezekiel at the edge of the valley of dry bones bubbled up, the faint rattle of bones as something began to shift. Ezekiel, hollowed out by loss on a personal and collective scale, stood where God placed him at the edge of a valley filled with dry bones. Ezekiel, along with his wife, “the delight of Ezekiel’s eyes,” had been sent into exile. But his wife died and Jerusalem was destroyed, and the double loss knocked the wind clean out of Ezekiel, he was completely rattled, bereft and unable to grieve. Ezekiel looked out at the landscape of loss and wondered why anyone would waste time with bones that have no more life in them, whose marrow is completely dried up? Who could expect life that is clean cut off from hope in any form to shift and stagger to its feet? Ezekiel surely didn't expect such a thing, but there before his eyes, the bones shook and rattled as they came back together and the skeletons clambered to their feet.
The rattle of the bones became louder and louder in the ears of the woman waiting for something on the day of Pentecost, and as she struggled to open her eyes from her dream an idea floated with clarity into her mind: that the Jews from all over the world who had come to celebrate Pentecost on Jerusalem were the living, breathing bones of the dry valley brought back to life. She sat bolt upright, about to share this idea that had surfaced before waking, hearing the bones rattling outside in the streets, but when she opened her eyes, she knew it had been just a dream. But the noise kept getting louder and louder, a great rumbling outside of the house. It no longer sounded like rattling bones, but wind, though no breeze could be felt. Suddenly the room was filled with a mighty roar and flames appeared to be dancing everywhere. Someone shouted something, but no one recognized the word. Then another person shouted another unintelligible word. Then finally someone must have shouted FIRE! for they all ran out into the street, all of them completely rattled.
The thing that happened next shocked them even more. They found themselves speaking languages they didn’t understand, and people in the street would turn toward them with recognition and surprise in their faces, as if they understood what was being said. Evidently, the thing they had been waiting for had happened at last: the Holy Spirit had arrived in town: the same Spirit that had animated the valley of bones, the same Spirit that had filled Jesus with power for his amazing ministry, this spirit had come to inspire the church.
We hear these two biblical narratives woven together, Pentecost and the valley of bones rising to their feet, both animated by the breath of God. As intriguing as these stories are to us, we are still a bit mystified, perhaps a tad envious that God came to people in such astonishing and unmistakable ways. We have grown content with a small insight here, a minor miracle there. But we don’t really expect dry bones to rise to their feet or rushing winds or flames to dance around us. We’d settle for a little burst of spiritual excitement about our lives, any hint that God is stirring the pot. We long for the Spirit.
So the animating wind of Pentecost has the ancient story of Ezekiel and the dry bones in the background. Who would waste time with bones that have no more life in them, whose marrow is completely dried up? Who could expect life that is clean cut off from hope in any form to shift and stagger to its feet? Ezekiel surely didn’t expect such a thing. We don’t either. But God has a different narrative to tell, a story that speaks of being ambushed by hope. Ezekiel sees a people in exile, cut off from their roots, lost in personal and collective despair, struggling to find hope again. Hope moves in like an unexpected breath of fresh air. In the early moments of the church the people of God begin to see new possibilities for ministry, they begin to notice a change in the climate that involves a flare up of imagination. People begin to act as if God can make a difference in their lives, in their hearts, in their psyches. The dried up bones begin to move, to creak, to groan, to breathe, to live!
In the same way, the point of the Pentecost story is to give God’s people hope. Luke writes the Pentecost narrative to remind us that God can heal the deep rifts signified by different language and culture. Luke writes the Pentecost narrative to assure us that a church unclear of its future as God’s people can live again, and find new life and meaning in their mission.
We might feel that the roar of Pentecost and the rattle of dry bones are sounds that are beyond us, that we must settle for what we have in our lives and in our churches, that nothing this fantastic will come our way. But notice that Luke is using a little bit of exaggeration as he tells the story. The Pentecost story is a mix of fact and fiction. Luke lists all the people who were gathered outside the house that day. He wasn’t just saying that Jews from all over the world were in Jerusalem, nor was he just saying that a culturally diverse group of people had come together in unity. The list of people is, as one biblical commentator notes, a “historically impossible collection of folks.” The Medes, for example, would have had to travel hundreds of miles and hundreds of years to get to Jerusalem. The Medes had disappeared from the face of the earth by the time this event took place. The same goes for the Elamites. What is Luke trying to tell us? Is he playing with us? What is Ezekiel trying to say with this outlandish vision of dancing bones?
When we look at these biblical narratives together, we find ourselves not asking: “Did these things really happen,” but rather “Are these stories true?” Is it true that we are impossibly divided from one another by language and culture, and only a miracle of God can heal the deep rifts that separate human beings from one another? Is it true that just when we think we are dead, lost in our depression or going through the motions of being the people of God, that something happens to stir us up, something that can only be attributed to God’s power? Is it true that when the church is the most uncertain about its future that God breezes in and empowers us to engage in life altering ministries? Is it true that God can make of a tired and despairing community a church that can transform the world with its message of forgiveness, mercy, justice, and love?
Faith answers these questions by saying YES!, these stories of God’s power are true. Walls are broken down, relationships are healed, new life is found, the church can make a difference in the world. Beware people of God, for these stories are true. The wind of the spirit is rattling at our door. Things will never be the same again. AMEN.