May 24, 2015
Before we explore today’s texts and what they might say to us today, I think it’s helpful to point out that some significant wordplay we English speakers might miss from the original languages. In the OT reading from Ezekiel, one Hebrew word—RUACH—is translated three different ways. It means breath, and it means spirit, and it means wind. So if you look at that lesson again in your bulletin, and use the same word over and over wherever those three different words appear, you will have a sense of the poetry of the story. In a similar vein, the Greek word PNEUMA means spirit and breath and wind. So as you look at the reading from Acts and the Gospel lesson from John, try substituting one word for each of those, and again, you will find some rich word play.
Perhaps it’s right that we have to consider linguistic games on this day when the church marks Pentecost—a day when we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit among Jesus’ disciples in a sort of reverse-Babel story, where suddenly people from different places all hear the Gospel in their native tongues, despite the fact that the speakers are illiterate fishermen from Galilee. Pentecost Sunday is the appointed day for the Church to get really excited about the Holy Spirit being quite playful, causing onlookers to wonder if Jesus’ followers were drunk at 9:00 a.m.!
Then, to the relief of many, we usually tuck away the Holy Spirit until next year on Pentecost Sunday. Most of the time, Lutherans—genetically rooted in Northern European heritage—tend to be big on God the Father and even bigger on Jesus Christ, touch only lightly on God the Holy Spirit. Why is that? I suspect it has to do with Her unpredictability. We don’t like interruptions to the usual way we do things, and if something must change, we prefer it to happen “in good order.” The Holy Spirit, however, seems to thrive on surprise and chaos.
In the reading from Acts, the Spirit does not descend among a homogenous group of people who were united in heart and soul and voice on this day, observing, “Oh, now THAT looks like an amazingly well-organized and harmonious gathering; I think I’ll go there.” No. The Spirit descends in a marketplace, among people who don’t speak the same language—let alone share all the same values or cultures!—and connects them with one message: that God loves the world. The whole world, in all times and all places.
And, if we believe what Jesus says in today’s Gospel reading about the Holy Spirit abiding in us, we are claiming that this new way of living, this life infused with the Holy Spirit is not just something that happened long ago in Jerusalem, but works in and through and around us, unseen as the wind, transforming all the it touches, regardless of whether or not we understand it.
By way of explanation, Peter quotes the prophet Joel, announcing that now everyone would see visions and dream dreams, not just those who went to seminary, or who could say the creed without peeking at the words in the bulletin. Women and slaves and young men will be speaking up alongside elderly men who could take for granted that their voices mattered in a patriarchal society. In God’s audacious vision, the world be transformed—poverty and war will be unknown, every child will enough food and water and friendship and education on which to thrive and grow.
I think this is also the message that the prophet Ezekiel shares in his odd vision. By the Spirit (yes, breath, yes, wind), Ezekiel overlooks a battlefield filled with bones, soldiers who were slaughtered in battle and never buried, just left lying where they fell. This is an uncomfortable image, and far too many people in too many situations have witnessed such atrocities. I have only witnessed such gruesome scenes on TV or in movies. Ezekiel, however, would have been familiar with this kind of horror.
He was a priest during the 10 year period when the Babylonians were capturing the Israelites and taking them into captivity. He would have seen his fair share of battles, and the people to whom he ministered would have been filled with layer upon layer of grief over losing their loved ones and their homes.
When God asks, “Mortal, can these bones live?” the only possible answer seems to be “No.” Neither the soldiers who were killed in battle, nor those who were still alive but far from home had an ounce of hope left. But Ezekiel hedges and says, “O Lord, you know.” And then God tells the priest to preach to the bones, telling them to get up. And they do. But even as muscle and sinew knit together again, there is no life in these bodies. Life comes, quite clearly, only when there is breath. When there is an animating Spirit present.
After Ezekiel invites the four winds—the spirit, the breath—to come to the dry bones, then there is life. And what does the Lord see for these resurrected bodies? Life. Abundant life. Life overflowing with joy and a sense of home. Life, breath, meaning, security, possibilities for all.
All means all. All means those sad, struggling people in Ezekiel’s congregation, and it means the varied collection of worshipers in Jerusalem at Pentecost, and it means us. Yes, we too, are recipients of the vibrant, active Breath of God forgiving us, renewing us, empowering us, gifting us, teaching us, and all the while, imparting in us the faith to believe any of this!
W are called to share the truth and hope and love of Christ that is in us. We are sent to spread the word that God is a loving God, a uniting God, a strong God. Because God loves the world, we can trust that as we share the hope that is in us, the Holy Spirit will change our fumbling words into an intelligible and meaningful message for others, just as the Holy Spirit did with the disciples. Or if the Holy Spirit doesn’t change our words, then She will change the ears of the hearers, enabling them to listen and comprehend beyond our capacity to articulate. Or maybe the Holy Spirit doesn’t change words or ears, but somehow opens the hearts of the people who gather around, so that they are moved to approach God in ways we cannot fathom.
It’s not our job to comprehend how the Spirit is poured out on the people. It is simply our calling and our privilege to speak of God’s deeds of power using whatever gifts we have been given by the Holy Spirit! For God’s sake, and for the sake of the world, let us dare to pray “Veni Sanctus Spiritus.”
Maybe that’s among the reasons I love our Global Sunday worship services too. We pray to God with unfamiliar words, absolutely butchering correct pronunciation on the way. But we do so in solidarity with people who use those very phrases and tunes to communicate their deepest truths to God. We do so, knowing that the Holy Spirit does not rely on our correct understanding or expression of liturgical or theological or Biblical convictions. We babble on in hope because we rely not on our own abilities, but trust in the Holy Spirit’s work in, among, through, and sometimes in spite of us.
Why not? Remember the raw materials the Holy Spirit had to work with on that first Pentecost. James and John, fighting about who was more important. Peter denying he ever knew Jesus. Judas selling him out to his enemies. Need I go on? You see it. Not many were faithful. Not many were brave. Not many were wise. Remember how when Jesus visited them on the first Easter evening, they had locked themselves up in a room to hide? Not exactly the evangelism model we’re after. And yet, Jesus specifically came to that rag-tag bunch, and breathed peace on them. And then, just as Jesus was leaving, he said, “Just as the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
Ezekiel’s vision challenges us to see that the problem is not death but the fear of it, while the solution — God’s ever-present gift of life — is as near to us as breathing.
Under the hand of God, Ezekiel is carried in the spirit to a valley filled with a great many dry bones. Although it is not named, its identification as “the” valley suggests a particular place; other clues suggest a battlefield. As such, it evokes ancient Near Eastern curses threatening treaty violators not only with wholesale destruction but also with leaving the slain unburied for carrion prey to devour.
In this one grim scene, then, we are reminded of all that has transpired since Ezekiel was first summoned to speak to the rebellious house of Israel. From the time Ezekiel first began to speak in 592 BCE, the people’s long history of rebellion against God and now also against Nebuchadnezar has sealed their fate. Destruction was inevitable, and by 586 BCE Jerusalem lay in ruins. Whether we are to think of this battlefield as Nebuchadnezzar’s doing or God’s, we are to remember a broken covenant and unspeakable loss.
We may also be asked to remember Ezekiel’s commission as a prophet to sound the warning in the hope that some might hear, repent, and live. The sheer number of bones suggests prophetic failure, and God’s question to Ezekiel can only remind us of that grim fact. “Mortal, can these bones live?” At the end of his own imagining, Ezekiel can only leave it up to God: “Oh Lord, you alone know.”
God responds by commanding Ezekiel to prophesy. Although God addresses Ezekiel, the message addresses the bones directly, promising to bring breath into them and clothe them with flesh. The message makes it clear that any new life is God’s doing (verses 4-6), and it ends in a familiar Ezekielian refrain: “and then you will know that I am the Lord.”
As Ezekiel prophesies, the bones come together with a great rattling and quaking as sinew, flesh, and skin come on to the bones. But there is still no breath in them, so God commands Ezekiel to prophesy again, this time to the “breath,” or “wind” (Hebrew, ruach). Ezekiel does as commanded, and as breath enters into the slain, they live and stand as a great multitude.
The image is not entirely heartening. In other prophetic images of restoration, there is dancing and rejoicing; here, the dry bones are indeed alive, standing on their feet. But they’re not doing much more than that. What are they doing just standing there?
The ambiguity of the image is only heightened by God’s explanation to Ezekiel in verses 11-14. God explains to Ezekiel that the dry bones represent the whole house of Israel. Their complaint, “Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost, we are clean cut off,” gives further clue to their identity and concerns. These are not the ones who were slain but those who have survived in exile. Parallels with similar expressions in the Psalms suggest they feel themselves cut off from God’s presence — perhaps because they perceive the covenant to have been severed, certainly because absence from the Jerusalem Temple closes off any possibility of seeking God. For the exiles, being cut off from God means they are as good as dead.
If the dry bones represent the living exiles, then, it turns out that the entire vision is concerned, not with the reality of death, but with despair. The exiles were the survivors, yet they have dug their graves with their fear of God’s absence. To this hopelessness Ezekiel offers a startlingly simple metaphor of divine presence, the ready availability of breath. In just fourteen verses, the word ruach occurs nine times, and while it is variously translated as “breath” (verses 5, 6, 8, 10), “wind” (verse 9) and God’s own spirit (14), we would lose the metaphorical force of this usage if we neatly differentiated between the meanings. Whether it appears in one instance as breath or in another as wind, it is all the same life giving force. And it is all from God.
And it is in this sense that breathing becomes a metaphor for divine presence. Despite the exiles’ fear of being cut off from God, God is as near to them as their own breath. Ezekiel’s vision does nothing to alleviate them of their present difficult circumstances, though it does promise them a future in their own land.
Though they remain in exile, still coping with the death of loved ones, still mourning the loss of familiar ways to find and meet God, they are reassured of God’s presence. The standing multitude of dry bones brought back to life now acquires a somewhat different connotation. Because God is present, they can breathe. And stand ready for the future, looking forward in hope.
Ezekiel, it is assumed, went into a Babylonian exile with the first wave of deportees in 597 B.C.E., a group that was added to when Nebuchadnezzar ten years later destroyed what remained of Jerusalem in a furious rage, capturing and blinding the king, Zedekiah, and herding the last leaders of a shattered Judah eastward to the huge Babylonian capital. So, when Ezekiel speaks of dry bones in a valley, he means precisely that — dead soldiers after a slaughter, empty lives after a crashing defeat. When YHWH drops him into this silent and terrifying valley of bones, obviously dead and gone, and asks him, “Can these bones live?” the certain answer must be: “Not a chance!” Yet, Ezekiel does not answer in that way. He says instead, “O YHWH God, you know,” a delightfully ambiguous response that could mean “it is your call, not mine,” or “you know better than I that dry bones mean nothing less than eternal death.”
God makes no appraisal of Ezekiel’s hedged reply, but instead in typical divine fashion calls the prophet to his work. “Prophesy to the bones, and say to them, ‘Thus says YHWH!'” The prophet is then admonished to proclaim an anatomy lesson to the bones, wherein YHWH will provide breath and sinews and flesh and skin such that the bones will leap to life again, until the valley is filled with a standing host, a “vast multitude” of living beings (Ezek 37:10). In short, Israel’s exile to Babylon is far from the last work of YHWH; the dry bones of defeat and humiliation will become the healthy host of Israel once again. There will be a future and a hope for the scattered people; dry bones will indeed live again.
Older commentators seized on this passage as a presentiment of the much later belief in the resurrection of the dead, but this idea is hardly in the mind of 6th-century Ezekiel. That is made quite clear in verses 11-14. Here begins the allegory of the dry bones. Those bones are “the whole house of Israel,” whose whining in Babylon about a loss of all hope among the foreign pagans, is confronted by the power of YHWH and YHWH’s prophet who announces that the graves of exile will open and the renewed people will return to the land of Israel. “I will put my spirit within you and you will live,” promises YHWH.
And here is what we 21st-century Christians must hear on this Pentecost Sunday. This day is far more than the birthday of the church. This is the reenactment of YHWH’s promise for a rebirth of those of us who are dry bones in a valley filled to the brim with dry bones. The valley of our lives is vastly more interested in death than the possibility of a new life. In 2015 only eighty individual people in our death-filled valley control as much financial power as two billion of the world’s population. Think of that! Eighty men and women have more money than 30 percent of all the people who live on our planet. Surely YHWH did not have that abomination in mind when YHWH spun the world into being. In addition, the top 1 percent of Americans has the financial power of the bottom 50 percent, and the figures continue to grow.
My heaven, we are rattling bones here in our valley of death! Another city has gone up in flames as another black man has died at the hands of police. Certainly, the valley of dry bones may be found in Baltimore, as poor men and women scratch out existences that promise little and provide scant hope for the future. Little wonder that looting and burning, while hardly to be excused, are the results of another insult to our common humanity. Every one of our great American cities offers similar examples of shattered lives in exile from hopes and dreams, while a few find riches and luxuries beyond the reach of the pharaohs.
Until we all hear the rattling of these dry bones in our valleys, any celebration of the church is premature. A church that dwells in the valley of dry bones needs to recognize its own contract with the culture of death and then needs to speak the word of prophecy, echoing the ancient cry of Ezekiel, “O YHWH, can these bones live?” And it must answer not in ambiguity but in certainty, “YHWH, you know,” but so do we. These bones can live, and we are in the surgical business of aiding our God in their and our regeneration to a fuller humanity.
~Pastor Susan Schneider