First United Methodist Church
July 24, 2022
Rev. Lauren Hall
Opening Your Sails to the Wind of God
Have you ever wondered what it looks like when faithfulness springs up from the ground and righteousness gazes down from heaven? This week I came across Psalm 85, and verse 11 said just that, and as I reflected on that image, I imagined that it would be a little like walking into the heart of a forest during late spring or early summer.
One of my favorite activities is to take hikes through the forest, and for several years I lived near a wetland preserve, in which I hiked quite often. The first thing I would notice once I left the roadside trail leading into the preserve was the drop in temperature. The sun shines through the upper canopy of leaves in little bright patches and meets the cool moisture rising from the mossy bogs, creating a natural air conditioner made even more beautiful with all the outdoor sights and fragrances.
Then I would start to look around and really see the beauty of the forest floor – earlier in the spring you see daffodil shoots pushing up through last year’s leaves in one direction, May apples in the other. Mushrooms sprout out of decaying logs and rhythmic chirps and chatters are heard in every direction as the creatures adapt to my presence and then finally commence with their daily doings as they realize that I am not a threat.
These visions of nature offer us glimpses of God’s grace: anger turning into faithful love; hurt and rejection transforming into faith and forgiveness; fear and despair dissolving into the warm embrace of God’s limitless love – a love that is all-forgiving, all-encompassing, all-embracing.
This is the God we serve. Let us pray…
As we think about our two scriptures today, I’d like you to consider two images – a ladder, and the cross. The ladder represents an image of our culture. In our society, we are taught from a very early age, that we are supposed to be ladder climbers. Our gospel this morning is very comforting to ladder climbers – ask and you shall receive, because society tells us that real life comes only with success and achievement. Ladder climbers tend to believe that if you pray prayers like the Prayer of Jabez often enough, “Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my territory, and that your hand might be with me, and that you would keep me from hurt and harm” (1 Chronicles 4:10), God will bless you with whatever you ask, just like he granted Jabez what he asked.
That’s what we tend to believe anyway.
Now, I’m not saying that having goals and wanting to achieve them is wrong, because many of our goals are good. But sometimes we get caught up in the 21st Century bombardment of advertisements telling us that the only way we will be happy is through the accumulation of material things.
The other thing to keep in mind is that having things is not a bad thing. There are times when we know that it is okay to splurge and buy something that we don’t really need because there is a balance in our lives, and we also know when it is not okay.
We know these things about ourselves only; we do not know them about anyone else. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reminds us, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.” (Matthew 7:1-2) One person’s splurge may be another person’s compromise.
With that said, let’s dig into Ezekiel a little bit and consider how his message about breathing life into our old, dry bones speaks to our 21st Century struggle with ladder climbing.
First, let’s remember that when we read this passage in Ezekiel, we encounter the prophet at a place in his life where he has seen and experienced more misery than most of us can possibly imagine. Ezekiel witnessed Nebuchadnezzar’s siege of Jerusalem (24:1-2), saw Judah’s leaders killed or sent into Babylonian exile, and watched Judah lose its land and temple. Despite these traumas, Ezekiel preaches that the Holy Spirit will renew the desolate land so it will “become like the Garden of Eden” (36:35). In his vision, dry bones come to life because of the breath (or spirit) of God (37:10).
Now, imagine that the passage we read earlier went like this:
One day Ezekiel the prophet was passing time in the desert when the Spirit of God led him to a valley of dry skeleton bones and asked, “What do you think, Ezekiel? Can these bones live?” And Ezekiel replies, “I don’t know, God. You tell me.”
God replies, “Ezekiel, here’s the deal. You speak to the bones. Tell them that I will breathe on them and cover them with muscle, flesh and skin. Tell them I will bring them to life and then they will know I am Lord. But Ezekiel, this isn’t really about dry bones; it’s about people who aren’t really alive. The living dead.”
God made a promise to the exiles, “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live” (37:14). God’s Spirit breathed upon Ezekiel and enabled him to promise a new Judah, a return from exile, a cleansed people, and a new heart. The Spirit moved God’s people from trauma to renewal amid and after the exile. The dry bones that Ezekiel saw in his vision represented the people of Israel, who were now spiritually dead. God was offering, through Ezekiel, to breath life back into the people.
John Wesley often used this image of the Spirit of God breathing new life to talk about how God enlivens Christians, both initially in the Spirit’s witness that makes us new and through “spiritual respiration” that sustains our relationship with God. According to Wesley, when God breathes the works of grace into us, we exhale God’s goodness and grace in our own lives. Getting into a rhythm of spiritual respiration is one of the keys to a Christian centered life.
Awhile back, my nephew posted a quote on Facebook, which I thought was quite profound. It said, “There” is no better a place than “here.” When your “there” has become a “here”, you will simply obtain another “there” that will again look better than “here.” My nephew was going through a rough spot in his life, and his words come very close to describing the dry bones, or the spiritual deadness of many people in our modern society.
When I read his post, I was reminded of a conversation I had years ago with one of my supervisors, as we compared our camp to another one that seemed to be having a lot more success than we were experiencing. As we talked about the other camp’s facilities and reputation, my supervisor finally said something that I have never forgotten. He said, “You know, you can spend your whole life dreaming about places you’d rather be, or you can do what you need to do to make the place where you are the place where you want to be.”
I think this is what Jesus really meant when he told the disciples to “ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” Jesus is telling us to ask for and pray for life in the Kingdom of God – thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, life here on earth, just as it is in heaven.
We postpone life when we put things on hold until we’ve achieved ladder-climbing goals. One of the things that Americans find most difficult to do is to take time off from achieving their goals. We overcommit our lives and find ourselves running from one place to the next, barely taking enough time to eat and sleep.
What we fail to realize is that by pursuing our ladder-climbing dreams, the ladder just gets bigger and bigger, and the cross seems to get smaller and smaller. When Jesus tells us that to be followers we must take up our cross, change our direction and follow his direction, it becomes very difficult to take these instructions seriously if we have reduced the cross into something we can hide in our pocket.
Jesus says, “Ask and it shall be given to you.” If we want to find real life, real success and real happiness, we will only find it if we lose our own lives. By taking ourselves off the throne and making Christ the center of our lives, we can exchange our worldly goals and dreams for the goals of the kingdom of God. We need to find out what we want to do, but more importantly, we need to find out what God wants us to do.
Over the next few days, ask yourself what God’s purpose is for your life and see what happens. Many good things will cross your path, but you need to take the time to discern those things that are from God. It’s okay to ask yourself whether or not something would be God’s priority, and if it is, then say no to everything else. Is what you are doing going to further God’s purpose? If not, then leave that task to someone else. That’s how a disciple makes decisions.
Real followers are Spirit led, not success driven. Our busy and complicated lives give us plenty of excuses for not following. But over-commitment in our lives is really under-commitment in our relationship to God: we say yes to so many things that we forget that we are also saying no to other things. We have to realize that not every opportunity is from God.
Think about the difference between a sailboat and a speed boat. A speed boat driver knows exactly where he or she wants to go and there isn’t much that will take it away from its path. But a person in a sailboat is dependent on the wind, making gradual twists and turns, traveling at the speed that the wind will allow. Real followers are Spirit led, not success driven. True life is found only when you open your sails to the wind of God and go where Jesus is leading.
Life isn't only about getting to the top of the ladder, about achieving success. It isn’t about trying to get “there” all the time. It’s about trusting God, and drawing our life from God. It’s about making the cross bigger, and recognizing the hope that is offered to us because of Christ’s sacrifice. When we dream God’s dreams, when we trust God to move us along at God’s pace, we give ourselves a chance to be truly alive.
Let us pray…
Gracious and loving God, you reveal to us everyday examples of your grace. Open our eyes to see these things. Help us to slow down, to take the time to breath in your loving Spirit. Enable that Spirit to transform us so that we become vessels of your love, equipped for the ministry that you have called us to do. Strengthen us for the journey and guide us where you want us to go. Thank you, Lord, for being in our lives and giving us an example in Christ. We pray this prayer in his name. Amen.