Despite the cold, wet weather this week, we are closing in on the summer season with Memorial Day next weekend. I’m seeing all kinds of articles and advertisements for outdoor activities, especially with the declining COVID cases. With many venues reopening, including movie theatres, we can once again anticipate the summer blockbuster movie season, with all its action, adventure and special effects. Over the decades, many of us have enjoyed the visual and auditory impact of films such as Jaws and the Jurassic Park sagas; Pirates of the Caribbean and Harry Potter, Star Wars and Indiana Jones, among others. Yet, when it comes to special effects, Hollywood is only a poor imitation of the Holy Spirit.
Our Bible begins with the majestic words, “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth…a wind swept over the waters…” From the beginning of all that we have ever known, the wind of the Spirit, the same wind of that roared at Pentecost, has been at work, creating order out of chaos, creating life out of dust. It was the same wind that drove back the flood in the time of Noah, that separated the waters of the sea to let Israel pass through from slavery to freedom (as classically illustrated by Cecil B DeMille) and signaling to Elijah that God’s fearsome power is, sometimes, best heard through a still, small voice.
In this morning’s lesson, the spirit of God does far more than Hollywood special effects can even imagine as Ezekiel calls on the Holy Spirit to animate the dead, dry bones. Although Hollywood can animate skeletons, (check out clips from the 1963’s Jason and the Argonauts film as well as 1992’s Army of Darkness), only the Holy Spirit can bring the dry bones to life. As we turn to our Old Testament text today, we find that it is both historical and allegorical at the same time. The prophet Ezekiel, it is assumed, was among those who went into the Babylonian exile when Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem in a furious rage. Nothing – and no one- was left standing. All hope seemed to have perished in the city of God, along with the population. So, when Ezekiel speaks of dry bones in a valley, he means precisely that — dead soldiers after a slaughter, empty lives after a crashing defeat. When YHWH drops him into this silent and terrifying valley of bones, obviously dead and gone, and asks him, “Can these bones live?” the certain answer must be: “Not a chance!” Yet, Ezekiel does not answer in that way. He says instead, “O YHWH God, you know,” which is a delightfully ambiguous response that could mean “it is your call, not mine.”
We note that God makes no appraisal of Ezekiel’s hedged reply, but instead, in typical divine fashion, calls the prophet to his work. “Prophesy to the bones, and say to them, ‘Thus says YHWH!'” The prophet is then admonished to proclaim an anatomy lesson to the bones, wherein YHWH will provide breath and sinews and flesh and skin such that the bones will leap to life again, until the valley is filled with a standing host, a “vast multitude” of living beings. In short, Israel’s exile to Babylon is far from the last work of the Spirit; the dry bones of defeat and humiliation will become the healthy host of Israel once again. There will be a future and a hope for the scattered people; dry bones will indeed live again.
And truly, in this vision which was beyond imagination, which begins a rattling sound of bone against bone, the bodies joined together as they had been made to do in life, with tendons and muscle, flesh and skin. And with a word, just as in the beginning, the wind of the spirit brought the breath of life into the lifeless, and a new beginning for those who had perished. They stood on their feet and lived again. I will put my spirit within you and you will live,” promises YHWH, and indeed, he has.
Fast forward to our lesson from Acts. The wind of the Spirit is at work again in an amazing fashion. The disciples are still reeling from the death, resurrection and final departure of Jesus at his ascension. Leaderless again, the disciples were all together in one place, still huddled in fear of the authorities, feeling confused and abandoned, not knowing what to do. Then suddenly and in an unexpected manner, the spirit blows in like a violent wind and brings with it, the fire of God. Immediately, the disciples are changed – they are given the power and energy and courage to go out and preach the gospel. And not just preach, but to go forth into the street and do so in a multitude of languages.
The response of the crowd was that of bewilderment and amazement and astonishment, but also of skepticism and derision. While many came to believe, others were filled with disdain and contempt for the message AND the messenger, and passed them off as mere drunks in an early morning blather.
However, as one commentator has noted, “Like a lot of us, I have seen my share of people at wedding receptions, at restaurants, and at beaches who have had too much to drink. I’ve seen people drunk before but honestly, never once have I seen a tipsy person start to speak Russian when he knew no Russian or begin to spout grammatically perfect Japanese despite having never studied it. Drunks say lots of things you’d just as soon not hear; but achieving eloquence in another language quite simply is not one of them. In fact, mostly they lose their ability to speak coherently in their native language!”
These passages come together to teach us some very important points about the spirit of God. First, when the spirit is at work, things change. The disciples changed and began to change the world. They began to preach, and lives were changed, and lives continue to be changed today because of the work of the spirit through modern day disciples – and that means through me and you, too!
Second, the work of the spirit is renewal. God can and will make all things new, bringing energy and power where it has been lost or lacking. God can and will bring new life from old, as he did in the valley of dry bones, as he continues to do in the hearts of all of us today.
And then God will sustain God’s work. As Jesus taught his followers in John, he was going to send forth a powerful Holy Spirit who would be a Comforter and an advocate, one who would come alongside his followers, then and now. The word “comfort” comes from the Latin, comfortis, which literally means “with strength”. But before he could do this, Jesus himself would go away. Call it a kind of Trinitarian tag-team approach. The Father sent the Son to this world to teach, to suffer, to die, and to rise again. Then the Son returned to the Father so that he could send the Holy Spirit to his followers on this earth. The same Spirit which has been active since God brought the world into being. Yet, in the words of the famous entertainer Al Jolson, we “ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”
The Spirit of God has been active and moving in this congregation for the last 156 years. In those decades, the church has been a beacon on this hill for the community of Virginia City. Despite wars, economic downturns and depressions, despite political, social and even religious upheaval, this church has stood – not always occupied with parishioners, not always in great condition, but always open to the moving of the Holy Spirit. The spirit of God has been working in and through this place: to bring renewal, solace, grace and peace to our community. And the Holy Spirit continues to move and renew our body. The Holy Spirit has sustained us through this recent pandemic, and I think we are emerging, just as strong if not even stronger. The spirit has opened us to new venues of outreach and ministry through our technological outreach and fledgling website; through our work with the food pantry, and a myriad of other ways. And I am convinced that the Holy Spirit has even more adventures in store for us. So again, to quote Al Jolson, we “ain’t seen nothin’ yet!” And I can’t wait to see it. Amen!!