Thanks to the work of Walter Wink in this article, which helped shape the first half of this sermon.
Israel was hopelessly defeated.
The best and brightest minds, the leaders of the land,
were in exile . . . taken into captivity by the Babylonians.
It was hard for the exiles to see anything good about their situation.
And many saw their defeat as not just the defeat of their nation and their military strength,
but also as a defeat for their God.
Yahweh had lost.
Marduk, the god of the Babylonians, had won . . . decisively.
Jerusalem had been ransacked,
the Temple, the dwelling place of God Almighty, had been destroyed,
the people who had been left behind were like sheep without a shepherd,
and the exiles were hundreds of miles away from everything they loved or cared about.
As the biblical scholar Walter Wink puts it:
“Yahweh had been proven impotent.
Marduk had prevailed.
The ancient faith had proved inadequate;
it was nothing but the tribal faith of a tiny population on the fringe of a great empire.
Now the exiles were bereft of their land, their temple, their sacrifices–
everything that made them a people with a unique identity and vocation.
They were removed to the heart of empire.
Here were gods of real power,
gods of universal sovereignty,
gods of irresistible might.”
In other words, their freedom had vanished,
hope was all but gone,
and Israel was as good as dead.
And so the people cry out,
"Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely."
And what’s interesting is that when Yahweh addresses the prophet, "Mortal, can these bones live?," Ezekiel can’t even answer yes.
In fact, the only reasonable response is no,
and so Ezekiel’s evasive answer becomes an act of superhuman optimism:
"O Lord God, you know."
And so Yahweh orders Ezekiel to prophesy to these dry bones–
spiritually dead Israel–and to call them back to life.
to declare the unimaginable,
to think the unthinkable,
to call the people to new hope,
grounded not on their past but on the sheer faith that God is about to do the impossible.
And it literally did seem impossible.
No people could be expected to survive the Babylonian experience intact and whole,
and yet God literally resurrected his people and brought them back into their land.
And God did it through nothing but vision.
God promised, "I am going to open your graves,
and bring you up from your graves, O my people;
and I will bring you back to the land of Israel….
I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live."
That is how history is made,
that is how despair is overcome,
and that is how life is resurrected from the dead:
by seeing the impossible and yet still believing that with God anything is possible.
The truth is . . . Israel did go home.
The temple was rebuilt.
Babylon, that eternal empire, fell within 50 years.
And even more: God’s promise to put divine spirit in them,
though not immediately fulfilled,
was repeated by Joel in an even more unbelievable vision:
"I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves, in those days,
I will pour out my spirit."
This vision from Joel had to wait 400 years before it became a reality at Pentecost, where, once again,
we find a group of people who had lost their moorings,
people who were uncertain of the way forward,
people who knew all to well the power of death (Wink).
Their friend and teacher Jesus had been killed,
and though he had miraculously come back to life,
now he had left them again.
What were they to do?
And how were they going to do it?
And then the answer came . . . in a sound like the rush of a violent wind,
Once again God was doing the impossible,
and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit became both the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise and the power they needed to do his work and will.
So what does all this have to do with us?
Almost every year at Annual Conference we find out that the United Methodist Church has lost thousands and even tens of thousands of members since the last time we last met.
Anywhere from 40 to 60 thousand people.
As a preacher, upon hearing the statistics one year, once said,
“I had a vision of all these people we had lost.
I saw them, all 60,000 of them,
lying around like dead bodies,
60,000 corpses stacked upon one another.
And I thought to myself,
That’s how many members our church lost in the last year.
This pastor went on to state,
“With this image in mind,
I fully expected someone to say,
Gosh! 60,000 members is a lot to lose.
But no, we went right on ahead with business as usual.
Death, decay and decline are not so tough to deal with once you get used to them.
We come to accept decline and death as normal,
as the way things are.”
After all, so the excuses go,
the church has too many older people in it.
Our church’s are in declining areas.
There’s no growth in these places to speak of.
What did we expect, anyway.
What do we expect?
We expect death, of course,
and death is what we get.
And what does death look like?
Well, the Bible has a picture of death.
It’s found in our first reading for today . . . that valley of dry bones stretched out as far as the eye could see.
It is a picture of death and its horrible effects that Ezekiel is confronted with.
Death reigns there . . . unchallenged and supreme.
What does death look like?
I have seen death in a person.
I have witnessed the gradual wasting away of the flesh down to the bones,
the skin hanging on frail arms and legs due to illness,
and I have heard the rattling, gasping breathing of a dying person,
as he or she tries to stave off death for just another breath.
And I have seen death in the church.
Death is faded Sunday School books lying about a room that hasn’t been used for Christian Education in years.
It is dark hallways where children once scurried to their Sund
ay School classes, now empty and vacant.
Its empty pews staring back at the pulpit,
and a building in need of repair.
It is the frantic search for money for a church more preoccupied with keeping a roof over its head than it is with proclaiming the gospel.
It is people not concerned about their spiritual well-being,
not interested in growing in their faith,
satisfied to put their time in on a Sunday morning,
and not have to think about their faith again for a week,
a month or more.
That, my friends, is death.
I have heard other pastors ask the question God posed to Ezekiel,
"Can these bones live?"
And I must admit that I too have asked that question at different times and places in my life.
It is a question I ask today, on this day of Pentecost.
Can these bones live?
You see, although it rarely celebrated as such,
today is one of the highest days of the church year.
It is after all the church’s birthday.
Pentecost should have as much joy as Christmas,
and as much pageantry as Easter.
People should turn out in droves today.
There should be multitudes here,
singing God’s praises,
lifting up their prayers,
and turning to God’s word for guidance and direction.
All of Christendom should be celebrating the birth of the church and the wonderful gift of the Holy Spirit.
Today is meant to be a day of hope, of happiness, even of ecstasy.
But the truth is that many of us here were not any more thrilled about coming to church today than we are any other Sunday.
And the truth is that some Sundays finds our level of excitement barely enough to keep a pilot light burning,
let alone inspiring the tongues of flame we read about in Acts 2.
Let’s face it.
We bear a more striking resemblance to the dry bones in Ezekiel than we do to those disciples who are gathered together praying, rejoicing, and celebrating.
Our churches are rarely like the Upper Room.
Instead, they evidence the dry and parched conditions of the desert.
Now before you think that I am being too harsh and critical,
let me say that I am indeed being harsh and critical.
I am critical of the church,
and I am critical of my own Christian Walk.
I know all too well that all too often I am of not much more than a pile of dried up bones.
I know that there are times when I let my spiritual life decline to the point where there is hardly a heartbeat left.
My prayer life fades,
my devotional reading ceases,
and my activities in the church become ritualized,
and at these times I’m merely going through the motions of being a Christian.
This is another picture of death for me.
And so there are times when I look at myself,
as well as at the church,
and ask, Can these bones live?
And if they can live again,
what will that life look like?
My friends, the valley of dry bones,
what the psalmist called the valley of the shadow of death,
can be a frightening, lonely place.
It can be soul-crushing.
But the miracle is that we don’t have to stay there.
Ezekiel’s vision tells of a wind,
a holy, mysterious, life-giving wind,
that blew through the valley,
remembering and caressing each of those old detached dried up bones,
and in the end giving these bones their muscles,
their flesh and blood, and their life.
This wind was nothing other than the breath of God,
the Spirit of God,
the same Spirit that hovered over the dark waters of creation,
bringing forth life from the chaos.
This wind was the same breath of God that breathed into the first man and woman in the garden,
creating humankind from the dust of the earth,
whispering life into being.
It is the same wind that filled the room where the followers of Jesus had gathered.
And it is the same wind that gave those 120 people new life, new hope,
and a new strength to carry out their mission as Christ’s disciples.
And you have seen this same wind, this same Spirit, in your life.
I am sure many of you have experienced times like the ones I described experiencing.
Times when you have been in some dark valley of death,
seemingly cut off, severed from life,
your existence little more than a "valley of dry bones."
But then, as if out of nowhere,
a holy wind has come upon you,
refreshed you, and brought you back to life.
That life-giving wind was not "out of nowhere."
That wind was the Holy Spirit.
If First UMC is to live,
if we are to survive as God’s people here in Pottstown, PA,
it will be as a gift,
as a result of God’s gracious Spirit blowing through here,
giving us that which we can not have on our own.
Dried out bones do not take on flesh and life through the exercise of their own free will.
Just ask Ezekiel.
It is only through the life-giving presence of God’s Spirit that the bones come together, take on form and flesh, and live again.
(Pointing to the church) Can these bones live?
(Pointing to myself) Can these bones live?
(Pointing to the people) Can these bones live?
These are life and death questions,
and the answer depends upon what we are willing to do.
What are we willing to do to experience new life for ourselves?
What are we willing to do to bring new life to our church?
And are we willing to be open to the moving of the Holy Spirit in our lives and in our church?