Spirit Poured Out: Dare to Dance Again; Ezekiel 37:1-14; Acts 2:1-21
Plymouth First United Methodist; May 23, 2021
Pastor Toni Carmer
There are at least a couple of books entitled The Road; the first one I began reading because I read it was is a classic and among the top reads of the century, so I thought it would be a good choice. I decided about halfway through that just because a book is called a classic doesn’t mean I have to like it or finish reading it, so I stopped and picked up a second book with the same title. This one, written by Cormack McCarthy, follows the story of a man and his son in a post-apocalyptic journey south toward the ocean, where they hope it will be warmer, where they might find food, and perhaps some “good guys.” We’re not told exactly what happened to bring about these awful circumstances, but we hear the rumble and see the flash of light that changed everything. The child is born after that event, and the family survives in their own home for a few years. As the earth dies, and the weather grows colder, the mother is filled with such despair and hopelessness, that one night she walks out into the darkness to let death take her.
The man and the boy remain, and the man’s purpose is to protect and teach the boy to survive—on his own, when that time becomes necessary. And so they walk: the earth is scorched and dying and covered with ash. There are frequent earthquakes and falling trees. There are no bird sounds, no animals, but there are survivalists from whom they must run and hide.
There’s a movie based on the book that we watched after I finished reading the book. Being the optimist I am, I will say that the story ends with maybe (maybe) a tiny speck of hope. I don’t really recommend the book to you because it is filled with cruelty, sadness and despair. Its images will haunt you as you ponder the themes that are addressed, and consider the decisions you might make in a similar circumstance.
Ezekiel is a priest and a prophet who lived about 500 years before Jesus. He writes during the time of exile, after God’s often wayward people have been exiled to Babylon, before and after the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC. The Babylonians had killed the sons of their last king, Zedekiah, before his eyes; then they blinded him and led him off in bronze chains, to Babylon. They destroyed the temple and much of the rest of Jerusalem. Many of the exiles’ family members and friends were killed, wounded or missing.
As I ponder this text, I think of the book I’d just read. The deep ache the people experienced. So much of what had been important was lost from them; was seemingly gone forever.
They couldn’t help but wonder: Had God abandoned them? Would they cease to exist as a people, hundreds of miles from home? Would they ever return? How could they survive in a strange land? Psalm 137 gives voice to their agony: “By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion…How could we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? (v. 1, 4). Ezekiel 37:11b also reflects their anguish: “Our bones are dried up and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.”
Deep breath. Turn now to the book of Acts, where—some 500 years later, we read that the disciples are all together in one place…hiding, afraid to go out into the hostile world where they fear for their lives. Jesus had been executed, and it is as though the ash of death has settled on their future, their plans. Everything they had come to believe died on the cross.
But then Jesus was resurrected. He appeared to them and to others, he continued to teach them, to open their eyes to this new chapter when he wouldn’t physically be with them. They watched him ascend into heaven, and were now in Jerusalem as he had instructed them, awaiting the fulfillment of his promise to send power from on high. They didn’t know what that meant, and yet they waited. Still, they weren’t completely immobile. Peter had led them into a process of choosing Mathias to take the place of Judas among them. Neither were the 12 disciples on their own: there were about 120 additional Jesus-followers who were also there in the city, awaiting this power/this sign/this confirmation that would lead them forward. This power that would enliven their dry bones, that would cause the breath to come back into them so they could stand on their feet and live and DO what Christ called them to do.
This wouldn’t be something that could be accomplished by human hands alone—through mortal strength, planning or good intentions. It would be totally dependent upon God and God did not disappoint.
Though the disciples had entombed themselves in a grave of sorts, God opens the skies and sends a mighty wind. It’s not a wind or a rumbling that brings down trees or opens cracks in the earth, but it is a wind that clears out the grief, opens the minds and brings forth new life, sending the disciples out into the street and into the next chapter of their lives.
The day of Pentecost is described as the birthday of the church, the day when the Spirit—with tongues like fire—settled upon the disciples and they began to speak in different languages. They weren’t speaking in tongues that we might think of today, where only a select few might understand, but the disciples were speaking languages that they hadn’t previously learned, languages that made it possible for those who were visiting Jerusalem to understand what they were saying. There were visitors in the city who had gathered from the whole known world, for one of the 5 Jewish festival days as God’s people celebrated the giving of the Law to Moses.
People were amazed at what they saw happening—at what they heard. These disciples, men, and perhaps women (we really don’t know if the Spirit settled only upon the 12 or the entire company of Christ-followers), were obviously Galileans. I don’t know exactly what that means, but in some way, their dress, their mannerisms, their accents made it clear that they were Galileans—not travelers from these places whose languages they spoke. They weren’t learned men who would have for some reason taken the time and effort to learn and speak these foreign tongues so fluently.
While many were amazed, some scoffed, suggesting their behavior was because they’d been drinking. That’s when Peter speaks, explaining that his companions are not drunk. He turns the crowd to the words of the prophet Joel, proclaiming that in the “last days” God will pour out the Spirit on all flesh, so that sons and daughters will prophesy, young men and old, and “even” slaves, “both men and women” shall see visions and dream dreams, and everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved (Acts 2:17-21).
Peter continues to preach with power—with the Spirit’s power—and by the end of the day, 3000 were added to their number. 3000.
The Spirit, set loose, brings life.
The Spirit, breaths life into dead bones and they rise again!
There are so many parts of this story that are so important to us as the church. As we think about the fire of the Holy Spirit and the breath of life that filled the disciples and sent them out into the streets to proclaim Christ’s life-giving message, we might lament that the church in these modern days has lost its thunder, that we’ve gotten buried in the disagreements and divisions and they have stripped us of our unity and our vitality. We might lament the secularism of our culture, or the call to be ‘politically-correct’ and “culturally sensitive” as limiting the expression of our faith. When we think of spiritual growth, church renewal or evangelism our brains may immediately think of “church programs” recommended to us by the “experts” or the “greater” church, rather than thinking of them as real possibilities that might inspire us to think in new ways. When we consider partnerships with other churches we may think of this possibility as a viable response to declining giving and attendance rather than a real possibility for injecting new life into a world that is changing all around us in ways that we can hardly keep up with.
Rather than lamenting that we are laying in a valley of dry bones with no life left in us, on this day we celebrate the good news that at Pentecost the gift of the Holy Spirit was given to us. It’s important to us to know that that day—when the wind blew and 3000 were baptized—wasn’t intended to be a benchmark of what the church should look like on any given Sunday. What Pentecost tells us instead, is how important the church is, and how inseparable it is from Christ. We are Christ’s Body. And the gift of the Holy Spirit wasn’t given to us just once, on that day, but it is here, present, with us now, in our midst.
These dry bones can live.
It’s not necessary for us to travel dangerous roads looking for food and traveling south seeking warmth as the earth dies around us. Ezekiel prophesied that God will cause breath to enter us and we’ll live…and we do! The church—our church continues to live and to breathe.
That doesn’t mean that we’ll live and breathe in the same way that we used to. It doesn’t mean that we’re the same church we used to be. It doesn’t mean that what used to work will always work. The world has changed, and our church has changed as well, but it remains vital—to our world and to our community.
Our vitality remains strong as we intentionally proclaim the good news to those whose primary language may be different than our own. For some, that will literally mean learning a new language and reaching out to those who speak Spanish, for example. But perhaps, speaking a different language for us means increasing our knowledge of the needs that exist in the Plymouth community, perhaps learning the language of poverty and how it impacts the children in this community…to discover what needs exist in the schools that we could help to address… what kind of support might be helpful for parents with young children or teenagers, or—(and this would require my learning a completely new language—)what happens to those who are incarcerated in this community, to which much attention is given in the newspaper about providing skills and increasing success while they remain incarcerated—what happens after their release? Is there a way our community of faith might participate in maintaining success and preventing recidivism (every now and then it’s fun to show you that I do know some big words)?
These possibilities each involve learning a new language, but how might the kingdom be served—how might the Holy Spirit work to bring new life and new possibility—if any of these things were to happen?
Our vitality remains strong as we deal with skepticism. Skepticism on that first Pentecost involved others mocking the disciples—they’re drunk! Skepticism for us could come from within us or the outside—we’re aging! We can’t do that! Or, we don’t have the numbers we once had! We don’t have the financial clout we once had! We can’t do that… And yet, the Holy Spirit continues to work… We’ve been given gifts… These dry bones can live.
Our vitality remains strong as we dream dreams and see visions… Keep dreaming. Keep listening. Remain open to the possibilities that God will provide. Because our vitality remains strong as we receive the Holy Spirit…as we trust God with our future…as we seek first to listen and to follow in the way we’re being led.
Can these bones live? Oh, yes, my friends, they can. And they will.