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Now What? – I Will Put My Spirit In You – Ezekiel 37:1-14 and Acts 2:1-21

“A U.S. Lutheran bishop tells of visiting a parish church in California and finding a stirring red and orange banner on the wall. ‘Come Holy Spirit. Hallelujah!’ it declared in words printed under a picture of a fire burning.” But what really stood out to the bishop was that placement of the banner. It had been hung directly above a fire extinguisher. I think that image is a perfect representation of our relationship to the Holy Spirit. We want the Holy Spirit to come and move in our midst, but we want protection in case things get too wild for us. There is a hilarious scene in the British TV show “The IT Crowd” where Maurice Moss starts a fire in the office with a soldering iron and then has a series of troubles trying to handle the situation, which includes the fire extinguisher starting on fire and forgetting the new number for emergency services. Eventually, he sits down at his computer and composes an email to the emergency services which read like this:

Dear Sir/Madam: Fire! Fire! Help me! 123 Cavendon Road. Looking forward to hearing from you. All the best, Maurice Moss

When his friend and officemate Roy returns and sees the fire, he understandably freaks out a bit. And Moss says to him, “I’ve sent an email. It’s fine.”

That simply highlights for me the different ways we react to the work of the Holy Spirit. Many of us brush it off kind of nonchalantly as no big deal. While others get scared and want to stop it. I think it was perhaps the first category that the people of Israel fell into during Ezekiel’s time. They felt abandoned by God because they were in exile and were oppressed by the Babylonians. They had no temple to worship at and the community was spread out and unable to gather together. And God gives Ezekiel a vision of a valley full of bones and he tells Ezekiel, “These bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’” They had lost hope. They weren’t sure God was big enough to save them from their predicament. The spirit within them had dried up. They had become like the dry bones in Ezekiel’s vision…lacking life and spirit and vitality.

I wonder if the church today, having come through the coronavirus pandemic, feels a bit dried up, a bit spiritless. Or maybe we feel more like the disciples did between the ascension and Pentecost. Waiting for something to happen, unsure of what that something will be. Can you imagine the range of emotions the disciples must have been feeling? First, Jesus is dead. Then he comes back to life. Then he leaves again, but he says he will send them his spirit. And then they wait. It’s got to be difficult. A roller coaster of emotions and then just waiting. Isn’t that a bit how this pandemic has felt. At the beginning, there was a rush of emotions from fear to worry to confusion to hope. And then as we learned more and time stretched out a bit, it became more about waiting. Waiting for a vaccine. Waiting for things to open back up. Waiting for the spread to slow. Waiting for things to return to normal. But like the disciples, we don’t entirely know what we are waiting for because so much has changed.

And what God is doing now is really making something new. And in that, God is revealing Godself in a new way. Dr. J. Elder Cumming once said that “in almost every case the beginning of new blessing is a new revelation of the character of God–more beautiful, more wonderful, more precious.” I’ve been thinking lately about what the church will look like on the other side of this pandemic. I think most pastors and church leaders are thinking about these same things. And while there is certainly a part of me that wants to see things return to the way they were before the pandemic began, I can already see how things have changed. Things will never be exactly how they were because we are fundamentally changed. But I believe that the Holy Spirit is doing a new thing in our midst. God has spoken to us just as he spoke to Israel through the prophet Ezekiel, “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.” God, through the Holy Spirit, is doing a new thing in the church. And we can either fight it or we can embrace it and watch the tongues of flame alight upon us and go forth into the world.

Now, there are three parts of this that I want us to explore further this morning. First, the Spirit works through people. Sometimes we think of the work of the Holy Spirit as some sort of mystical, disembodied act that we can’t see but we notice the results of it. But I think most of the time when we see things that way, it is because we miss the hard work that is going on behind the scenes. It’s fun to go to a concert and watch a band perform flawlessly a list of songs they’ve either written, recorded, or have come up with their own rendition of. And we listen to them and are amazed at the talent and the precision with which they play their instruments and sing their notes. But what we don’t see are the hundreds of practices they had where the notes didn’t sound quite so good. And the roadies who change and tune guitar strings before each show and the technicians who designed and created the amplifiers and pedals and cords and microphones that allow the band to be heard and to play at their best. Instead, the music just feels like a miracle that envelopes us and lifts us to new heights. So it is with the work of the Holy Spirit. The end result often feels magical and perfect, but the reality is that God uses people to create those moments. The spirit may lift it higher, but the people create the music to begin with. The Spirit works with us!

Second, the Spirit brings life. Stuart Briscoe writes this about life, “The Greek language, in which the New Testament was written, has two words for life. One (bios) means ‘mere biological existence’; the other (zoe) means ‘life in all its fullness.’ What we are being offered is fullness of life, which not even death itself can destroy. We are not being offered an endless extension of our biological existence but rather a transformation of that existence.” The life that God brings about for us is beyond the life we know. It is a transformation. When Ezekiel prophesies to the dry bones, life comes upon them. They are transformed. When the Spirit comes at Pentecost, there is transformation as well. And the transformation led to a fullness. Everyone present heard the gospel of Jesus being preached in their own language. And it transformed them. It says later in chapter 2 that about 3,000 people became followers of Jesus on Pentecost. The Spirit brings life out of darkness and death. That is something our world desperately needs right now. After all the death and despair we’ve faced over the past 14+ months, we need new life. We need spring to burst forth after the long winter. The Spirit is our best hope for that. May we pray for that and be prepared to be the conduit for the Spirit to pour life into our church, our community, and our world. And may it transform us. The Spirit brings life.

And finally, the Spirit gives us a place to belong. I’ll be honest, I questioned the wording of this third point. I thought about saying that the Spirit unites us, which it does. But I felt that it was really more than that. The Spirit unites us in such a way that we find a home with one another. We find a place to belong. We see that in the Pentecost story. The Spirit made it so that everyone who was there with the disciples that day could hear the gospel in their own language. Now, most of the people their probably could passably communicate in either Aramaic, which was the language primarily spoken by the Jews, or Greek, which was the trade language under Roman rule. But the Spirit allowed everyone to hear in their native tongue, the language they grew up with, the language that would have felt like home to them. It would have made them feel at home, like they belonged. I think that is what draws people to church as well. They want to have a place to belong. And when the church is at its best, it is exactly that. A place where everyone can find belonging and a family.

That is where I think the church needs to put its focus over the next few years as we rebuild post-COVID. We need to focus on being a place of love and acceptance, a place where anyone can find belonging and a family. We all need that more than ever. After all the pain and loss from COVID and the division created by our political system and social media, many of us feel more disconnected than ever. The church, through the Spirit, has an opportunity to speak into that and be something different from the world around us. We have a chance to be an island of love and hope in the midst of a sea of division and strife. But we must allow the Spirit to work through us, we must be transformed by the Spirit to new life, and we must seek to be a family in the Spirit where all can belong. That is the kind of life changing and world changing work that the church is called to engage in through the Holy Spirit. That is the call of Pentecost. May we be reawakened like those dry bones in the valley of Ezekiel’s vision and may we become what Jesus intended for us to be. I wanna end this sermon with a blessing from Jan Richardson in her book Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons entitled “What the Fire Gives.”

May this be a prayer for us this week.

WHAT THE FIRE GIVES

A Blessing for Pentecost Day

You had thought that fire

only consumed,

only devoured,

only took for itself,

leaving merely ash

and memory

of something

you had believed,

if not permanent,

would be long enough,

enduring enough,

to be nearly

eternal.

So when you felt

the scorch on your lips,

the searing in your heart,

you could not

at first believe

that flame could be

so generous,

that when it came to you—

you, in your sackcloth

and sorrow—

it did not come

to consume,

to take still more

than everything.

What surprised you most

were not the syllables

that spilled from

your scalded,

astonished mouth—

though that was miracle

enough,

to have words

burn through

what had been numb,

to find your tongue

aflame with a language

you did not know

you knew—

no, what came

as greatest gift

was to be so heard

in the place

of your deepest

silence,

to be so seen

within the blazing,

to be met

with such completeness

by what the fire gives.