The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord GOD, you know.” (Read the whole passage here)
Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost.
For a significant portion of medieval Christianity, there were 4 major Christian Feast Days that all Christians were obligated to attend. Easter, Christmas, All Saints Day and Whitsun Day.
Whitsun Day is also known as the Day of Pentecost. On the 8 Sunday after Easter Sunday, 50 days afterwards, Christians gathered to celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit to the disciples early in the morning. On that day the disciples spilled out in the streets, with tongues of fire on them, and the preached the Good News in all languages.
It is an incredible story, a miraculous story. Pentecost has more recently become strongly associated with the idea of speaking in tongues. Pentecostals, a movement born in Azuza Street Revival in early 20th century Los Angeles have become strongly associated with Pentecost and speaking in tongues.
As interesting and perplexing the idea of speaking in tongues might be to a bunch of stayed and stoic Lutherans like us, the most interesting part of the Pentecost story comes just after the speaking in tongues part. After Peter finishes his impromptu sermon to the people of Jerusalem, 3000 people are baptized.
And with that Pentecost becomes birthday of the church.
2000 years since that first Pentecost, the church has survived much. 300 years of marginalization in the pluralistic and pagan world of the Roman Empire. The church has kept going despite bing co-opted by that same empire for political reasons. The church has survived schism, crusades and holy wars, upheaval and reformation, renaissance and scientific revolution, World Wars and Great Depressions.
Pentecost shows us the resiliency of the church, or more particularly, the faithfulness of God. This community of faith born in the Good News and nurtured by water, bread and wine is the ongoing sign of God’s great love for world. And while Acts brings us back to the beginning of this community, it is in Ezekiel that we might find more in common.
The idea of 3000 people being baptized today sounds frightening and exciting, but that is not where we are. It is not where the church or where our congregation has been at for a long time – if ever.
The words spoken by the House of Israel in Ezekiel’s vision sound more familiar:
Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost.
2000 years after Pentecost, the vision that Ezekiel describes, seems to resonate a little more with us. At least the first part, the valley of dry and dead bones part.
Just this week, Pew Research in the US released a report detailing the decline of church attendance. Nothing that we didn’t know of course. Except, the report contradicts the common narrative that evangelical and conservative churches are still growing or maintaining. Attendance is dropping across the board. Declining for every group except one. The ‘Nones’ or the group the group who describe themselves as belonging to no religion.
Christianity is declining around us – our bones are dried up. And those who are leaving are leaving for nothing – our hope is lost.
The prophet Ezekiel lived in world much more like ours than the Pentecost moment. He was a young man when Jerusalem was sacked by the Babylonians, the temple was destroyed and all the elites of Israel carried off into exile in Babylon. And for 5 years Ezekiel started preaching about and re-enacting the destruction of the temple. 5 years.
It took 5 years for the people to believe that the temple was gone. That the world they once knew was gone. It took 5 years to sink in that there was no going back. It wasn’t enough to see the temple destroyed. It wasn’t enough to be in Babylon. It wasn’t enough to be conquered and forced to worship new gods. They needed to hear the story over and over again for it sink in. For them to accept their new reality.
Sounds familiar yet?
We too tell the same stories. The stories of our decline. The stories of our destruction. We lament and long for a world that is gone. We grieve for a world that we cannot go back to. And it might take us years to admit to this change, for our new world to sink in. Accepting our reality is just as hard.
Our pews will never be full of the people that filled them before. Our Sunday School and Confirmation classes will never have the students they once had. School children will never pray our prayers again. Sports, music and dance will never be banned during our worship again. Shopping hours will never be reduced to accommodate church attendance in our lifetimes. There are fewer Sunday sermons on radios and prayers at town council meetings. We will feel like we are having to make room for other religions and like we are being pushed out of public space for years to come.
Our bones are drying up, and our hope is lost.
And still, standing with Ezekiel with the valley of dry bones spread before us, God will speak to us too.
“Mortal, can these bones live?”
Ezekiel’s responses is one of powerlessness. It is a sentiment that we understand. It is an utterance of exasperation that we speak often.
“O Lord God… you know”
50 years ago… if you had been sitting in a full and bustling church on Sunday morning, the only show in town, the place where many of your family, friends and neighbours were week after week, and the preacher stood a the pulpit and said,
“In only a few years this place will be a hallow shell of itself”
You might have laughed. It would seem unbelievable. It would sound crazy.
And yet, here we are.
Here we are with Ezekiel standing at the valley of dry bones and we are admitting, we are giving in, we are hopeless. “Only God knows what is next for us”
And God says,
“Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”
Today… as you sit in a church with more empty spots in the pews than occupied ones on Sunday morning, as we are just one Sunday morning activity option among many, where friends, family and neighbours are rarely seen.
And the preachers stands in the pulpit and says,
“In only a few years this place will be full and alive with the spirit again”
You might laugh. It would seem unbelievable. It would sound crazy.
And yet, that is just what God is saying:
Then God said to us, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of [Good Shepherd], the whole house of [Christianity]. [You] say, `Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, [and hear the word of the Lord for you], Thus says the Lord GOD: I am going to open your graves [I am going to open your doors, open your hearts, open your communities], and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of [Christ]. And you shall know that I am the Lord [you shall know that your church does not live and die by you], when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord.
Today, a new Pentecost is dawning on us. Today, the spirit is blowing again in our midst. We might feel like our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost. We might only see a dying church… but God is about to do something new among us.
God is setting to the task of making dry bones walk. God making us ready for what is coming next for the church. And that might begin with years of telling the story of our decline and destruction. But like Ezekiel, once the story has been told enough, God will provide a new vision. Ezekiel saw a vision of the new temple and God is even today giving us glimpses of a new church, a new way to be people of faith in a changing world. It still took 200 years before the exiles returned to Israel to rebuild the temple, and it might just as long for the church. But this is how God works. God is making us ready for what is coming next.
Today the Lord says to us, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy my church, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live”