Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on the Day of Pentecost 2021
I imagine the prophet Ezekiel as a scary chap.
The Reverend Mark Birch Minor Canon and Precentor
Sunday, 23rd May 2021 at 11.15 AM
Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.
I imagine the prophet Ezekiel as a scary chap—penetrating—feyes, no-nonsense, no sugar-coating of anything; a man who will tell you exactly how things are, especially if they are really bad. A cross between Chris Whitty and the late Duke of Edinburgh, perhaps.
Ezekiel lived at a pretty bad time. He was among those exiled from Jerusalem in 597 BC and taken to Babylon; a priest separated from his Temple, which would itself be destroyed by fire a few years later in 586. It was a time of deep national and personal trauma.
You get the impression that Ezekiel took his priesthood extremely seriously. Being in exile might have been an occasion to look around, and think about how you might begin to fit in to this foreign, prosperous city, as we think many of the exiles did. Not for Ezekiel. His focus remained on the Temple, and his priestly job of mediating between Yahweh and his people.
In a time of national trauma, we might look to our priests to offer words of comfort and hope. Ezekiel would disappoint us. He told Israel that they were a rebellious house; the priests, that they were false shepherds; he prescribed radical surgery—the removal of their heart of stone and the giving of a heart of flesh. A new spirit I will give you—he tells them—but I don’t think he expected them to enjoy it.
Ezekiel sees visions, and we heard the most famous of them in the first reading today—the valley of dry bones.
There is nothing picturesque about this vision. It is like an old battlefield that no-one has bothered to clear-up. There has been an appalling slaughter, the corpses have been picked-clean, and are now on the verge of turning to dust. It is a vision of utter defeat and hopelessness. A Martian landscape, where, if there was once life, it is now a far, far distant memory. These bones are the whole house of Israel—Ezekiel is told—now, prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal…
The disciples, in the upper room in Jerusalem, had been told to wait. After the joy and bewilderment of the resurrection, Jesus had ascended—no longer to be seen or heard. A second bereavement, perhaps. They had sorted out the business of filling the empty chair left by Judas, and now they just had to wait. It would have been a long time to hold their breath, but it was surely, at least, bated.
When we are anxious our breath becomes shallow. The first thing we are taught in prayerful contemplation, or even just relaxation, is to breathe—to notice our breathing, to breath more deeply and evenly. Difficulty in breathing continues to be the defining symptom of the pandemic—breathless with anxiety; more so with disease.
The Feast of Pentecost, however, is a giving of breath.
The wind that shook the upper room echoes the first lines of Genesis
In the beginning the earth was a formless void… while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.
It is the same wind, the same breath—in Hebrew, the ‘ruach’ of God, that fills the disciples and is breathed out of them as language.
Having been confined to the upper room—entombed by fear - they are brought to life again by the breath of God. It is like the creation of Adam (again from Genesis):
The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.
The Holy Spirit is the Creator Spirit—the breath of God that creates and renews life in every moment; not just in the beginning, but now and always. Pentecost is a moment of new creation—the Genesis of a church that invites a great diversity of people to hear and be part of God’s work; God’s redeeming purposes in Christ.
This is a really fizzy moment—energetic and exciting—a bit breathless, ironically - making the hairs tingle on the back of your neck. We love that. We all need a bit of that. The last year has left us all feeling a bit adrift—stuck in the doldrums - longing for some excitement, some wind in our sails.
Some of the choristers are preparing for Confirmation in a few weeks’ time, and we’ve already talked a bit about the Holy Spirit. I really hope Confirmation will be a fizzy and exciting moment for them, launching them full-sail on a lifetime adventure of faith. But the readings today encourage us to realise that the Holy Spirit is not just about those moments. The absence of fizz and excitement does not mean the absence of the Holy Spirit—it doesn’t mean that the Holy Spirit isn’t at work.
The Holy Spirit is the Creator Spirit, sweeping across the chaos, the dry bones, the places where hope has all but evaporated. The Spirit is at work especially in the places where breath is short, where people are waiting, where life seems a distant memory.
Ezekiel is asked: Can these bones live? The canny prophet answers ‘O Lord God, you know.’ If we were standing in the midst of that devastation, that dust and decay, our answer would probably be a less canny ‘no—of course not—look at how dry it all is!’ We might be much less inclined than Ezekiel to leave the door open to what the breath of God might do.
Our faith in the Holy Spirit—the Lord, the giver of life, as we say in the creed—does not rely on ecstatic experiences (speaking in tongues and other strange goings-on, wonderful and encouraging though those things may be in the right context). The Holy Spirit is simply the breath of life, in us and in all creation; it is the creator spirit that makes us so much more than dust; and it is the constant possibility and promise of new life, even when we are little more than dry bones.
So while I wish you all the fizz and excitement of Pentecost, as an antidote to the dullness we have all endured, I can hear Ezekiel, crunching across the valley floor, telling us that this too, this especially, is where we will find the Spirit of God at work—this is where we should wait for him—and prophesy to the breath.