The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
March 23, 2021 – Pentecost
The last two weeks we studied John chapter 15, in which Jesus said something that may strike us as false: “Apart from me, you can do nothing.”
As we experience life, we seem to be able to do a lot apart from Jesus: some bad things, and some good things that we accomplish without any conscious reliance on Him.
But can we, apart from Jesus, do what matters most and counts supremely?
Sometimes, we have to come face to face with our limitations, even the ultimate limitation of our mortality, in order to come to accept that, with respect to what is of greatest importance, we can do nothing apart from the Lord.
When God gave the Prophet Ezekiel his mission in that valley of bones, the whole nation of Israel was teetering on the brink of extinction. The Babylonians had destroyed Jerusalem, torn down the holy temple and deported almost all of Israel’s political and religious leaders (including Ezekiel). Exiled in Babylon, a strange and hostile country almost 1700 miles from home, many thought the future of the chosen people looked like a black hole into which they’d disappear. They remembered how, a century and a half before, their fellow Jews from the nation’s north had been displaced and assimilated by the Assyrians, and ended up becoming the so-called lost tribes of Israel. Many now feared the same fate for the remaining two tribes, both those in Babylon and those left behind. Many feared that the last of God’s people –cut off from their sacred places and, it seemed, abandoned by God – would likewise lose their identity and fade into the mists of history. Many viewed their nation and their faith as good as dead.
But in fact God was not about to fail them; God was about to enact a skeletal revival! Responding to their hopelessness and helplessness, God’s hand “came upon” Ezekiel and God’s Spirit set him in a valley packed with piles of scattered bones picked clean by vultures and jackals, a vast vista of human remains that gave Ezekiel a vivid vision of the danger from which His people saw no escape. But God was ready to fulfill another vision, His great and good vision, in a mighty miracle of mercy.
God started it with His commissioning Ezekiel to speak for Him. In the first of three such assignments, God told Ezekiel to “prophesy” to the bones, to pass on to them His promise, saying for God, “I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.” The Hebrew word here is ruach which refers to air in motion, whether it be a wind of mother nature or what passes through the nostrils of a human being; and which, by poetic extension, came to refer to the life or spirit of a person.
Hearing Ezekiel’s prophecy, the bones assembled and gained flesh. But God was unfolding this miracle in stages. While the slain had been put back together as bodies, they still lacked breath. So God told Ezekiel to prophesy a second time, in this instance to the breath – whereupon it entered the slain so that they “lived and stood on their feet”. By the vitality of the breath blown into them, they became capable of activity and arose upright.
Then God told Ezekiel to prophesy a third time, in this instance to the whole “vast multitude”. So Ezekiel proclaimed God’s promise to bring them up from their graves, to return them to their land and, most importantly, to put, God said through Ezekiel, “my spirit within you, and you shall live.”
Easter evening, Jesus breathed on his disheartened disciples, and told them to receive His Spirit. Apart from Him they could do nothing; but, running on His power, they turned the world upside down.
Apart from the Lord, I can do nothing of foremost importance. But, if I breathe by God’s breath and live by God’s life, I can surpass my limitations; and the Spirit can through me do things I never could on my own.
To really live, we need help from outside of us and to get that help inside of us. We need to be inhabited by God’s Spirit that in our flesh we might embody God’s love, justice and truth.
None of us can bring about our own revival; we can only, like the disciples and the dry bones. receive it. But receiving it involves our doing something, something that is next to nothing but still crucial. James A.K. Smith in his book, Imagining the Kingdom, gives us an apt analogy which, though I’ve shared before, bears repeating.
Being received into the grace of the Spirit is like being received into the arms of sleep. We cannot choose to fall asleep; but we can choose to put ourselves in a posture that invites and welcomes sleep to take hold of us and take us away. We do that by behaving as if we were already asleep. We lie down, close our eyes, slow our breathing, and let go. We cannot thereby make ourselves fall asleep; we can just imitate it until it comes upon us of its own initiative. Sleep is never under our control; the best we can do is offer ourselves up to it to come under its control.
So too, we cannot put the Spirit under our control; but we can come under His control by simulating the Spirit-controlled life until He makes it real in us. That He might activate us, we imitate what He produces until He takes over. We situate ourselves to welcome His flooding our life with His; and we wait in trust and hope that He will come and take us where we could never take ourselves, into that life that is really life! Let us pray.