Sunday, May 27, 2012

Pentecost Ezekiel 37:1-14

Ezekiel’s Vision is hopeful.  It is horrifying and hopeless.  It speaks to us about our lives.  It has nothing to do with our lives. 
There is a painting of this vision by Battista Fontana.  If you focus on different parts of the painting, you will see things that make you feel hopeless, and things that give you hope.  You will see things that remind you of your life, and things that seem to have nothing to do with your life.  If you would stand too close to this painting so that you only focus on one part of it, you will miss the point.
The same thing is true about the words that Ezekiel wrote describing the vision.  We tend to be like a person who is standing too close to a picture, only focusing on one part of it.  We will naturally look for how this vision applies to us, and we might focus too closely on the place where we find ourselves.  We might forget that God speaks about dry bones, or forget that God speaks about those bones being brought to life again.  We need to take a step back, and consider all of what God says, and see how the whole vision applies to us today.  But then again, we might be standing too close to the picture if we only consider how this vision applies to us right now.  There are some parts that may not seem to apply to us at all.  We need to take a step back, and consider what this vision tells us about the things God has done in the past for us and for other Christians.  But if we only consider the past and the present, we are still standing too close to the picture.  There will still be an element of this vision that doesn’t seem to apply, that just doesn’t seem to be real enough to do anything for us now.  We need to take another step back, so that we can consider what God will yet do. In the complete picture, we find a promise that has not failed, and hope that will not be disappointed.  So take a step back, and see what God has said, what God has done, and what God is going to do. 

Theme:   Step Back to Find Hope for Your Dry Bones!
1.      Take a step back and see what God has said.
The prophet Ezekiel wrote, The hand of the LORD was upon me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the LORD and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones.  He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry.  He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”  I said, “O Sovereign LORD, you alone know.”  Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD!”  This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life.  I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life.  Then you will know that I am the LORD.’”  So I prophesied as I was commanded.  And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone.  I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.  Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.  Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel.  They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’  Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: O my people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel.  Then you, my people, will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and bring you up from them.  I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land.  Then you will know that I the LORD have spoken, and I have done it, declares the LORD.
Now where do you find yourself in this vision?  Are you among the dry bones in the valley, or among the living breathing army that has been raised to life?  Take a step back and consider the whole picture. 
If you feel like you are among the resurrected army, alive and well, step back and consider that you were once among the dry bones, and there is a part of that which still sticks with you.  You are not completely resurrected yet.  You don’t know when disaster is waiting right around the corner for you—but you can count on it coming.  You have death and the grave ahead of you.  The wonderful feeling you have now may not last forever.  Sometimes you will feel like dry bones.  Take a step back, and see that God has spoken about more than the good life you may have now.
If you think of yourself as the ‘dry bones,’ take a step back consider that God promised a resurrection in this vision also.  But it might not seem like that helps you much right now, so let’s all take a step back, and consider that God was speaking about much more than the life we feel now.

2.     Take a step back, and see what God has done.
Those words were first given to the Jews when they were in exile in Babylon, far from the land God promised to give them. God was not protecting them from their enemies anymore—the Babylonians were destroying Israel, Jerusalem would soon fall, and the temple would be destroyed.  What hope was left for them, if they were cut off from the temple?  How could they receive forgiveness, if they could not offer the sacrifices?
God gave them hope.  In this vision, he breathed life into their dry bones, and promised them a restoration.  The lesson we are to learn is that God is the one who gives life.  With God, it is never hopeless! 
Then, seventy years after the first Jews were taken to Babylon, God breathed a little life into their dry bones.  King Cyrus issued a decree that they could go back home.  And yet, their restoration did not quite live up to what God promised in this vision.  They did not have a pleasant and peaceful life back in Israel.  Their neighbors sent letters back to Babylon, trying to get them in trouble with the King.    On top of that, it could scarcely be said that the Israelites who returned from Babylon knew the Lord.  Rebuilding the temple was slow work, because the people cared more about rebuilding their own lives than rebuilding God’s temple.  Then too, all of them would die and be buried in the grave.  The Jews may have gone home, but they were still waiting to see that glorious living army from Ezekiel’s vision, and they were still waiting to know God like he had promised.
When the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost, we see that very thing happen.  God breathed spiritual life into people who had been spiritually dead, like dry bones.   The greatest miracle of Pentecost was not the fire that appeared over the apostles’ heads without burning them, or their sudden ability to speak in foreign languages; the greatest miracle was the work of the Holy Spirit breathing life into those who were spiritually dead.  Ezekiel’s vision shows us the miracle of coming to know God—but do we really think of it that way?  Was it really a resurrection to life when God gave us faith?
It all hinges on whether or not we actually see ourselves as spiritually dead by nature.  A lot of churches today downplay that, or deny it outright, but Paul wrote in Ephesians that without God we are, “dead in our transgressions and sins,” and that we are, “by nature objects of [God’s] wrath.”  Jesus said in John 3 that there would be no way we could know God unless we are born again—we need to be given spiritual life.  If we are going to live by faith in God, God needs to breath that life into our spiritually dry bones.
Perhaps you have believed for so long that this thought of being spiritually dead doesn’t really affect you anymore.  But that spiritually dead nature is still with you, living right alongside your faith. You see it every day.  When you lose your temper and hurt your spouse or your children, physically or emotionally—that was not the life God gave you.  That was the sinful, spiritually dead person that you have been from birth.  When in your selfishness you decide that what you want is more important than what someone else needs, that is not the life God gave you.  That is your spiritually dead sinful nature.  When in your pride and jealousy you think that you deserve better than what God has given you, that is your spiritually dead sinful nature.  When you do something good, and hope that someone will notice what a good person you are, that is your spiritually dead sinful nature.  Nothing good that you do is part of who you are by nature.  Paul wrote, “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature.”
When you were baptized, or when you heard the Word of God, the Holy Spirit breathed into your dry bones and you believed.  That was from God.  Just like Ezekiel spoke the Word of God, and the bones came to life, someone spoke the Word of God to you, and God gave you spiritual life.  He gave you faith.  For many of you it was when you were baptized that the Word of God was first given to you.  With that water God promised to wash your sins away, and to consider you his own dear child.  God has commanded the water of Baptism to give you spiritual life.  When God commands it, it happens—we see that in Ezekiel’s vision.  Your snis have been washed away.  You are God’s child.  Through that baptismal water God has given you life.  That life begins with faith, so that you know him and believe his promises, and it also lasts into eternity, because God has commanded that you will live with him forever in heaven.  He said, “Whoever believes and is baptized shall be saved.”  And again, we have his Word through the apostle Paul, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved,” (Acts 16:31).  God has commanded that we should believe and be saved, and his Word makes it happen.  Just like in Ezekiel’s vision, when God says, “live” the bones live, and when God says “believe,” we believe and are saved.  The command of God creates spiritual life and faith.
Don’t take it for granted that you have believed; God has worked a miracle in you.  There were thousands in Jerusalem at the time of Pentecost who did not believe, just as there are thousands today who hear but do not believe.  You believe because God breathed spiritual life into you.  It was a miracle.  It was a spiritual resurrection.
However, we still face disaster and death in our future, and we still have that old dead sinful nature that won’t go away.  If God gives life and nothing is hopeless with him, then there must be more.  Giving you faith was only the beginning.  God has promised a much fuller restoration.  Take a step back, so that you can see that the hope God gives us in this vision includes things that he is still going to do. 

3.     Take a step back, and see what God is going to do.
He said he would “open our graves and bring us up from them.”  How can we not think of the resurrection of the dead that Jesus promised when he said, “I am the resurrection and the life.  Whoever believes in me will live, even though he dies.”  And then he raised Lazarus from the dead to show us that he was talking about a bodily resurrection.  We are going to leave our graves.
After this miserable life of sorrows and disasters is over, after we lose everything that we have loved about our lives and death finally swallows up our body and we turn into actual dry bones in the grave, God has promised to raise us from the dead.  Then we will know him perfectly, as he promised through these words of Ezekiel.  Sin will not be a part of our lives anymore.  We will be the great living army that we see in Ezekiel’s vision, and we will never die again.  Then the picture will be complete.  We will see that there has always been hope, because God gives life in the fullest sense.
Conclusion:  Do you see the bigger picture?  Israel was hopeless in captivity, but God brought them back and gave them life again in their own country.  He did that because he had promised long before to bring a Savior from Abraham’s descendants, from the nation of Israel.  But by nature we were still hopeless and spiritually dead, so that the Savior could have appeared and we would not have believed it.  Once again, God gives life to the dry bones—the Holy Spirit gives spiritual life through the Word of God, so that we believe in him and hold his promises of eternal life.  Now we look at our lives and that hopeless feeling creeps back, because resurrection seems so far away.  The Word is spoken to you again, and the Spirit refreshes your hope, because you know that God has promised more than what you have.  If you take a step back from this life here and now, you see that God has a perfect record of keeping his promises, and you see that he is not done yet.  Take a step back, and hear what God has to say.  See what God has done.  See what God is going to do.  There, in the big picture, God gives our dry bones life.  Amen.