People, I Will Put My Spirit Within You
The reading from the book of Ezekiel presents a rather gloomy picture. The prophet describes the prevailing sentiment of Israel at a time in which the people were living the adverse effects of exile. God’s people are far away from home. They have been forced into hard labor and they see no light at the end of the tunnel. Israel lives with her heart soured and her head cast down. The spirit of the people is captured in the following text, “Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost, and we are cut off from the mercy and steadfast love of God.” (Ezekiel 37)
The valley of dry bones remains one of the most desperate and dreadful images of the Old Testament. It is a place of great loneliness and despair, overwhelming sadness and grief – where hope has no foothold.
Maybe you have encountered a valley of dry bones in your own life. Life has taken a wrong turn and you find yourself in a dry place, a place you never would have imagined possible, a place of darkness and suffering, a place without breath.
It was a Sunday evening, and children of the church had just finished their meal in the fellowship hall. John and Alissa Murrie along with Kay and I led this energetic and rambunctious group to the choir room where we read stories of the Bible, sang hymns and talked about what the Lord might be saying to us through Bible verse and song. When we finished the second hymn, Kay took out a pencil and piece of paper and asked the group if they had any questions about Jesus and the Christian faith that they would like to ask and have answered. Kay couldn’t write fast enough. Among the many questions were –
How did God begin and why were the 10 Commandments written?
Why did Jesus die for people who do not believe in him?
And then came the questions that stop you in your tracks and invite you to think and ponder –
Why can’t we see Jesus?
Why do people suffer and why doesn’t Jesus prevent cancer?
And then, at the tail end, came the following question: Who is the Holy Spirit?
This morning, like the young people of this congregation, WE, too, might be asking, “Who exactly is the Holy Spirit?” As orthodox Christians, we believe the Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity but a more personal understanding is found in the words of Jesus who promised his disciples that in the coming resistance to the gospel and hatred of those who preached it, Jesus would send what he described as the “Advocate,” the Holy Spirit. The story we have in the book of Acts and the liturgy for Pentecost Sunday celebrates the keeping of that promise.
During a visit to the Swiss Alps some 50 years ago, Billy Graham knocked on the front door of Karl Barth. As these two giants of the church talked back and forth, Billy Graham asked Karl Barth what he believed to be the most important doctrine for the church in a time in which people were caught up in social unrest, the struggle for civil rights, the Cold War between East and West, nuclear proliferation, and the conflict in Southeast Asia. Barth made the argument for the Holy Spirit adding that the doctrine of the Holy Spirit is often overlooked. According to Barth, the Holy Spirit opens our hearts to the Word of God, introduces us to the person of Jesus Christ, transforms us into a child of God, and is involved in the world in ways we cannot see.
This, of course, is no longer the 20h century. However, the person and doctrine of the Holy Spirit is no less important as we find ourselves living in a world filled with complex problems leading to further suffering and disappointment, disenchantment and confusion. Political experts are repeating a common litany. The human landscape has never been more dangerous and violent, unpredictable and volatile.
In the mix of all this, Christian writer Gordon MacDonald senses that in the real world of Western Christians there is a growing weariness of spirit. We have tried the gimmicks, the programs, the promises of a thousand and one “gurus” of the faith. For many the spiritual journey is a boring task. We realize we can’t turn back, but we’re almost too tired to go on. (Renewing Your Spiritual Passion)
Weariness of spirit. I would like to suggest that the problems we face in this century, both personal and corporate, and any sense of weariness, does NOT present us with a quandary but instead the opportunity to re-affirm AGAIN the Biblical principle that we are not self-sufficient, but dependent on the love, grace and guidance of Jesus Christ who we get to know through the work of the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit who teaches us that in issues of life and death, it is Jesus Christ alone who matters. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, page 49)
In the times and places where we find ourselves in a valley of dry bones, the late Henri Nouwen reminds us how important it is to lift our voice and counter what others are telling us is true. In the Name of Jesus, the Holy Spirit calls us to say “No” to every form of despair especially as we remember an ancient story about the people of Jerusalem who were invaded, exiled and relocated to a foreign land over 700 miles away. Surrounded by loneliness and death, the valley of dry bones appeared to be a harsh and long-lasting reality. And then something happened. The hand of the Lord began to move Ezekiel and it was the Spirit that ordered Ezekiel to prophesy to the dry bones, “I will cause breath to enter you; I will put my spirit within you; you shall live; and I will place you on your own soil; and you shall know that I am the Lord.” (Ezekiel 37:4 ff.)
So, on this Sunday morning, we are AGAIN faced with the decision to trust the message of the gospel. The Holy Spirit comes to give us life and hope in Jesus Christ. The writer of Hebrews tells us that Jesus Christ is our hope, and hope is the anchor for the human soul. To this end, may the Holy Spirit live in you and may the Holy Spirit abide in this church giving us breath, giving us life, giving us faith that we might be faithful followers of Jesus Christ. Amen.