The Breath of God

Ezekiel 37:1-10 and Acts 2:1-18, 21
Mark Edwards
May 20, 2018
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Today is Confirmation Sunday- a day when we welcome eight new high-school-aged members into our church. Having gone through a series of retreats, having memorized a number passages of scripture, having reflected on the church’s role in their lives, having written a statement of faith, having met with Session, they will soon come before us, profess a public confirmation of their faith and be welcomed into the church as new members.

It is also Pentecost Sunday- a day when we adorn the sanctuary in red, when we read the passage from Acts 2 and when we make promises about the Holy Spirit’s presence in the world and in our lives. When combined with the classic and bizarrely biblical story of Ezekiel in a field of dry bones, bones that God shakes, rattles, and rolls into life, it is a day when we expect great things to happen. If the breath of God can do such things, then the pressure is really on. High speed reverse decomposition; divine tongues of fire blow-torching down from the heavens; the voice of God calling out, “Mortal, can these bones live!?”; uneducated day-laborers bursting forth fluently in foreign languages they don’t know; a vast multitude of ‘ready to do thy bidding’ faithful assembled on an apocalyptic field; instantaneous cross-cultural understanding between Medes, Phrygians, Arabs, and Judeans. If the breath of God can do such things, then the pressure is really on. What might we expect today? What will we see today? Will we see anything quite so… supernaturally fantastic?

I’ve got my robe on, and I feel like now is the time that I should Harry Potter up some “speremus meliora” incantation to really make a show happen…

But that is not really how this works. I’m not in control. God isn’t under my command. I can’t conjure up the divine at will. The breath of God is no ritualistic regularity; it is no genie; it is no magic trick in my pocket. It may rush among us a powerful wind, it may breeze upon us as a gentle puff, it may ripple among us a silent whisper. Or it might not come at all and leave us sitting in the emptiness of our own making. The breath of God. Where is it? Will we see it? Will we feel it? Will it come?

Alex, in your “History with the Church” essay you wrote: “Looking back at the past seven years of my life, I see one thing that has remained consistently in my life. Nassau Presbyterian Church.”

And in your statement of faith you wrote:

I affirm my faith of the Holy Spirit, my sustainment and power in life. The Holy Spirit is God’s force which is the breath in my body and the wind in the sky. The Spirit inspires myself and many others and is the force which drives me to be better. I am part of God because the his Spirit resides within me, and all people. The Holy Spirit explains the inexplicable so that we, created in God’s image may better understand our purpose and direction. God’s Spirit creates life where there is death like Jesus in his tomb. The Holy Spirit will always lead me through the deepest of oceans and the tallest of mountains, so that I may fulfill God’s purpose.

You close by saying that God gives you power, Jesus Christ gives you freedom, and the Holy Spirit gives you life.

Wow. You learned that here? A 14-year-old talking about the indwelling of the Holy Spirit? That might be a miracle. A 14-year-old Presbyterian talking about the indwelling of the Holy Spirit? That definitely is.

From Ezekiel 37: “Mortal, can these bones live? I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.’”

I think I can speak for all of us on staff here at NPC when I say that we’ve all had experiences and histories with the breath of God. We’ve been encouraged, converted, enlivened, forgiven, freed, and have been given hope by the breath of God. And we want others to see it, feel it, hear it, live it too. And so we talk about it. And talk. And talk. And talk.

Grace, you wrote honestly when you said

What I dislike about church is probably that it does feel long sometimes and I don’t always connect with what the pastors are saying. This might be partially due to the fact that I have swim practice beforehand and then have to come to church right after when I am tired. This makes me more likely to zone out, and then once I have zoned for part of the sermon, it is hard to bring myself back in and understand what is going on.

Grace, we’ve all been there, and some are probably there right now. But then you wrote in your Statement of Faith the following:

I believe the Holy Spirit is what calls us together to celebrate what Jesus has done for us, to thank God, and to pray to God. It is what allows us to view what is good in life, what allows us to learn from our mistakes, and what gives us appreciation for what we have and what is around us.

You made it clear that you do understand what is going on here. And when you wrote, “Once we had a guest speaker that spoke about his time in jail and his story. I don’t remember exactly what his message was, but I do remember walking out of that sermon saying to myself that I wanted to do something helping others’ lives who had gone jail,” you show us all that you really understand what is going on.

From Ezekiel 37: “O dry bones hear the word of the Lord… I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.”

Rory, you wrote:

I have been a part of the church for as long as I can remember. I started by coming to church school every sunday when I was very young. I made friends in sunday school, and I learned about Jesus and God. Although, I don’t think I understood or really believed any of it.

A lot of us have been there too, and that is pretty understandable. I mean, a valley of dead bones? Do we need to get scientific about that for a second? And yet, you wrote:

Appalachia Service Project was the most life changing trip for me. I went into it being more scared of anything else I had ever done in my life, but I loved it. It was a highlight of my summer and something that changed me as a person. In these more recent years at the church, the last one specifically, I feel that I have grown as a christian a lot. I am understanding Jesus and God way more than I did in the past. I am starting to grow my own sense of faith, and I now believe and trust in God and Jesus. I have nothing else but the church, to thank for this.

Rory, let’s be real for a minute. Norm’s house? It was dry bones. Dirty dry bones. That were rotten. And uninsulated. And without plumbing. And cigarette butts. And beer cans. And that really big snake. And yet, you all… You all brought those bones back to life.

From Ezekiel 37: “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.”

Alex, you were in that house. Camille, too. Camille, you wrote:

I also believe that prayer is how you talk to God, however I have never heard a direct reply. Instead, I see God in working through people who interact with me. […] My fondest memory so far has to be going on the ASP trip and bonding with the other teens as well as helping Norm and repairing his house.

Camille, rest assured that you were the direct reply to Norm’s prayers. Because, see, this is what the Holy Spirit does. It takes you and uses you to reveal God to other people, even if you don’t know that it is happening at the time. While you were working on his floor and painting his trim, remember how hot it was in there at times? That was the breath of God you were huffing and puffing out. But when we give ourselves in service to others in Christ’s name, God is faithful and the breath of God brings faith to life.

From Ezekiel 37: “Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.”

James, some more honest words:

I never wanted to go to church on Sunday mornings. I didn’t understand what the point of it was. It was always so boring and long. And I never fully understood who Jesus was. Last year, my cousin approached me with the idea of going to Tennessee for a week to work on homes with the Appalachian Service Project. My initial response was, ‘No way, why would I spend a whole week of my summer doing that?’ After many hours of convincing, I finally agreed to do it with no idea of what I was really getting myself into. During that week of hard work in Tennessee, I had a lot of time to reflect on my life and the reason I was there.

[Christian, are you here? Cause what comes next is your fault. John and Jacq, you too.]

James, you wrote:

I got to know Jesus by giving up my time to help someone else. He gave me the strength to be there to do good work for the homeowner, Bob. While I got to know Jesus that week, I also realized he had always been there for me even though I didn’t recognize him.

From Ezekiel 37: “Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves.”

James, I think it is safe to say that Bob has been in some graves. A former meth addict. A daughter who’s a meth addict. Time in jail for violent offenses if I remember correctly. Bob had a tattoo of a web on his right forearm, a tattoo of a spider around his left elbow, and a tattoo of spider in a web on his right bicep. He’s seen some graves. And yet now he’s adopting his granddaughter, painting the house, and growing the biggest organic cabbages in the neighborhood. The breath of God gives life.

And the breath of God teaches us the language of God, who is Jesus Christ. We might look at the Pentecost story and think it incredible. But James here learned the language of Christ from a power drill, a pile of Mountain Dew cans, and time in community working on Bob’s roof. The breath of God was blowing in those Tennessee hills. And James’s life is different. And so is Bob’s. And so is Jacq’s and John’s, and mine…

From Ezekiel 37: “Mortal, can these bones live? I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.’”

The Breath of God. Have we started to see it? Have we started to feel it? Can we, in fact, really live without it? Allison, as you say:

I think this is the question that has really fueled my journey so far. It’s so easy to feel like religion is unnecessary when everything is going well, and it’s so easy to feel like God isn’t there when everything falls apart. But what about when life is just okay? […] That’s where I’ve found God the most because sometimes it’s easy to feel sort of empty.

It is easy to feel empty. And I imagine that is how the disciples felt just before Pentecost. They’ve resorted to throwing dice to try and figure out who their next club member is gong to be. They are, to some degree, compensating for their emptiness by securing a well-rounded social network.

“Two summers ago,” you wrote “my first time going to NorthBay, a speaker there made an analogy that really stuck with me. If you imagine life like a well, social media, friends and material objects only temporarily fill it, and when you try and get more water, you’ll find it empty. But the speaker’s idea was that God could be the thing in your life that will eternally fill it.”

From Ezekiel 37: “Suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them.”

Without the breath of God we are simply bodies and minds who are, well, empty. The beauty of the breath of God is that it fills us and guides us away from emptiness.

Hugo, you see this when you say:

The holy spirit guides and raises me to be good and do the right things. Church is my home away from home in that it is my safe haven. Church is my place of freedom. Church is where my sins are forgiven, church is where my prayers are answered, church is what connects me to the holy spirit. […]

Hugo, this is beautiful. But if the church is these things, then it is because the breath of God is here.

Annie, you say, “I am taking this journey of confirmation because I want to discover a God who is:

  • Loving
  • Forgiving
  • Peaceful
  • Gender-neutral
  • Accepting of all genders, races, ethnicities, sexualities, financial situations, pronouns, religions, beliefs, family structures, mental and physical illnesses, and mental and physical disabilities
  • Understanding
  • Present when anyone wants Them to be there
  • Present when nobody wants Them to be there
  • At the marches with all of us
  • Fighting for us, with us
  • Just so, so good.

Annie, I think we all want to meet that God. And if we have, we all want to see and feel that God again. And we need the breath of God, the spirit of God to do so. So may it blow on us all, may it teach us the language of Christ’s love, and may it prove to us the existence of the loving, redeeming, sacrificing triune God.

I’ve been teaching a philosophy class this past semester, so I have to make a comment here about proofs for the existence of God. Much of medieval theology was deeply concerned with offering proofs for the existence of God. These philosophical, logical, and even mathematical proofs sought to coherently establish the being and existence of an all-powerful, good God.

And while these are fun fodder for a philosophy class, sometimes we need something beyond our own ideas to move us past doubt and uncertainty. Sometimes we need to be drawn out of our own ideas about God and skepticisms toward eternal love, and out of our own hostilities to sanctifying peace. But what such traditional arguments overlook is that God seems interested in proving to us the existence and depth and power of the reconciling triune love.

From Ezekiel 37: “I will cause breath[a] to enter you, and you shall live… and you shall know that I am the Lord” (emphasis added).

Do we really want proof that the breath of God is real? Do we really want evidence what the breath of God can do? Then we will likely be lead to a valley of dry bones. We will likely be brought to a place where death, disintegration, and despair are so heavy that only a miracle of God can bring life. WWII Nazi resister, Corrie ten Boom, and her family were brought to such a place: it was a concentration camp called Ravensbruck. Of her time there, Corrie writes in The Hiding Place, “Life in Ravensbruck took place on two separate levels, mutually impossible. One, the observable, external life, grew every day more horrible. The other, the life we lived with God, grew daily better, truth upon truth, glory upon glory.”[1]

“So it was,” she was able to say time and time again, “we were not poor, but rich. Rich in this new evidence of the care of Him who was God even of Ravensbruck.” In that camp of death, the breath of God brought life of the spirit. And after the War, Corrie took another death camp, one at Darmstadt, and together with members of the German Lutheran Church, turned it into a group home for reconciliation, rehabilitation, and gardening.[2] “Perhaps only when human effort had done its best and failed, would God’s power alone be free to work.”[3]

Or as Ezekiel puts it: Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’”

There are many graves and valleys with dry bones in our world today. And many places desperately need the breath of God. We think of Sante Fe, Texas, with ten new graves of teens your age, gunned down by a maniacal fellow student obsessed with death and domination. And we ask, “How long, oh Lord.” How long will this insanity go on? How long before it happens here? We pray that it does not. And we pray that God will guide prophets to our wastelands and that the breath of God would give life.

We give thanks today for you eight confirmands, who are proof to all of us that the breath of God is real and active in this place. And we pray together: Come breath of God. Fill us all and give us life eternal. Do this to us, that we may know that you are Lord. Amen.

[1] Corrie ten Boom, The Hiding Place, 35th Anniversary Edition (Grand Rapids: Chosen Books, 2006), 206.

[2] ten Boom, 11, 249 and 263.

[3] ten Boom, 138.

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