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September 20th, 2010

You don’t create wind.  You catch it.

Ezekiel 37:1-14

September 19, 2010

Refusing to be Ordinary

I refuse to be an ordinary Christian.  I don’t want to “just get by” with the bare minimum.  I don’t want the Lord to say when I die, “Well, you made it by grace, but there wasn’t much effort on your part after I rescued you from what could have been.  Not a lot of gratitude there, Bob.”

What does it look like when you refuse to be ordinary as a Christian?  I have to tell you, I don’t know.  I feel like I fall so far short, like I’m still groping along in the dark.  What’s humbling is that I know people watch me and listen to me looking for clues to what it looks like.  I’m still trying to figure out so much myself.

For the last few weeks, we’ve been talking about what it means to “refuse to be ordinary” as a believer.  It means serving the forgotten.  Chris Van Allsburg gave us an example of that.  It means loving the Scriptures.  It means living the call – seeing life itself as not just something to “get through” but as a call from God.  Karie Siciliano told us about her calling to “change with grace” in a business that is more than a business – it’s an opportunity to give others an opportunity.

It means praying the ridiculous, and Mark Anderson talked about his calling to lead men in prayer.  It means speaking the unexpected, words of insistent hope when they don’t make sense because God is faithful.  It means trusting the shepherd to do his work in a world where “we hate us” because, as Taylor McDaniel reminded us last week, we love our freedoms but hate what we do with them.  But we choose to love the world because we trust the shepherd.

Today, let’s take another step.  Refusing to be ordinary as a Christian means “following the Spirit.”  Once again, I have invited a guest to share the sermon time.  This is my daughter, Cara.

We would be unwise to talk about the Holy Spirit without mentioning our sisters and brothers in Christ who are Spirit specialists.  A whole branch of the Christian church is described as either Pentecostal (after the day of Pentecost) or charismatic (“charisma” means gift, referring to the gifts of the Holy Spirit described in the Bible).  An estimated one-fourth of the world’s two billion Christians are either Pentecostal or charismatic.  That’s about 500 million Christians in the world who are affiliated with churches that are “Spirit specialists.”

When my children left the nest, I encouraged them to seek our churches that were not necessarily like the one they grew up in.  I wanted them to expand their horizon of what it means to be Christian.  I thought they might choose a more liturgical church or maybe a more liberal church.  It never occurred to me that one of my kids might end up attending a charismatic church.

So here with me today is my favorite “Cara-smatic.”  I thought we’d start out today by asking Cara what she’s learned from the Charismatic church about following the Spirit. 

Cara, tell us first how you came to be a part of a charismatic fellowship in Columbia.  (Answer:  I attended a church that was contemporary in worship, and didn’t realize at first it was a charismatic fellowship.  I chose the church because of the friends I knew who attended there.  There were no “warning signs” at first that it was strange, and I remembered what you told me about being open to new experiences.)

Were there any uncomfortable moments early on?  (Answer: They had an open singing time where everyone was to sing any song the Spirit led them to sing for 5 minutes.  Singing is definitely not my comfort zone anyway!  When I stopped focusing on what other people were doing and how awkward it was, it became a very powerful form of worship.)

Could you share a surprising moment of grace you experienced in that body?  (Answer:  In a small group, a guest with the gift of prophecy who had never met me gave me a “word of prophecy” in which he said that I was still holding on to names and labels that had been placed on me when I was young.  But the only label that should matter is “daughter of God.”  The fact that he did not know me confirmed this as a word from the Holy Spirit that I needed to hear.  His prophetic word matched what I was learning in my counseling program.  The timing was very powerful.)

What would you say most non-Charismatic Christians could learn from their Charismatic sisters and brothers?  (Answer:  “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.  Who am I to limit God by confining him to my comfort zone and comfort level?  Most of the Bible makes me uncomfortable, so God obviously works in ways I don’t understand.)

Front to back

There are literally hundreds of places we could turn in the Bible to gain a deeper understanding of the Holy Spirit.  From cover to cover the Spirit plays a prominent role. 

Genesis 1:1-2 says,

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

Revelation 22:17 says,

And the Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let him who hears say, “Come!” Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life.

Many of us are reading through the Bible this year, so it seemed appropriate to find a text in the section of the Bible we are currently reading that gives some instruction and direction about the Holy Spirit.  Ezekiel 37 was an obvious choice.  The whole of Ezekiel is a very spirit-ual book.

You wouldn’t know how pervasive the Spirit/spirit is in Ezekiel, however, or even in chapter 37, if you only read the English Bible.  The English word “Spirit” occurs only twice in Ezekiel 37:1-14. 

In order for you to appreciate this chapter, I need to teach you Hebrew.  Say this Hebrew word: RU-akh.  (If you are really sophisticated, you can begin a rolled “r” and end with a German-sounding “ach.”)  The Hebrew word RU-akh is translated “spirit” but it’s also rendered by other English words.  RU-akh appears nine times in these same 14 verses.  Let’s see if we can find them. 

The Wind of God

In verse 1, Ezekiel says, “The hand of the LORD was upon me, and he brought me out by the RU-akh (Spirit) of the LORD and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones.”

The word “Spirit” is capitalized in some translations of the Bible and not in others.  What’s clear about this text is (a) the association of the Spirit with Yahweh (the LORD) and (b) the personal connection between Ezekiel and the Spirit.

You wouldn’t argue a full understanding of the Holy Spirit from this passage alone, but it’s certainly consistent with the rest of the Bible to make three statements about the Holy Spirit.  First, the Spirit is distinct from the Father and the Son.  Second, the Spirit is equal to the Father and the Son.  Third, the Spirit is personal – that is, not some kind of immaterial force; not a what, but a who; not an it, but a he; Someone you can talk to, feel with, love, and be led by – as we sang in the hymn, “Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart.”

The Spirit of the LORD leads Ezekiel to the middle of a valley, full of bones.  Ezekiel’s vision is of a battle scene, long after the fact.  Corpses were left unburied as a symbol of defeat and humiliation.  Nature took its course.  Hyenas and carrion enjoyed a feast and time did the rest.  Nothing was left but bones.

Verse 2 makes plain that the bones had been there a long time.  There were many, and they were “very dry.”  Ezekiel gets a tour.

The question the Lord asks Ezekiel in v. 2 seems a little odd.  “Son of Man,” the Spirit asks, “can these bones live?”  Is God testing Ezekiel’s faith?  The obvious human answer to the Lord’s question is no.

Ezekiel has the right response.  “LORD God, you know” (v. 3).  His answer leaves room for God.  This is a great reminder in the midst of any impossible circumstance: leave room for God.

Get ready for some more RU-akh.

The Spirit tells Ezekiel to preach to the bones.  Ezekiel has been a prophet most of his life.  He has preached to people who were spiritually dead, but this is different.  I can’t help but wonder if at this point he looked around (even in a vision) to make sure no one was watching.  It’s strange, indeed, to prophesy to dry bones.

Here’s the message: “Dry bones, listen up!  This is what God says:  RU-akh will enter you.  You will live again.  Flesh and skin will cover you and I will put RU-akh in you so you will know Who I am” (vv. 4-6, paraphrase).

The English translation of RU-akh here is “breath,” and there’s nothing wrong with that translation.  The same Hebrew word means “spirit” and “breath.”  RU-akh is what makes a living being alive. 

Ezekiel does as he is told in vv. 7-8.  He’s preaching to the bones.  What’s interesting is that he hears the result before he sees it.  Maybe his eyes are closed as he prophesies.  All over the valley “the toe bone’s connected to the foot bone, the foot bone’s connected to the leg bone, the leg bone’s connected to the knee bone, the knee bone’s connected to the thigh bone, the thigh bone’s connected to the hip bone, the hip bone’s connected to the back bone, the back bone’s connected to the neck bone, now hear the word of the Lord.”  The rattling noise in the vision must have been thunderous.

After the bones reassemble, Ezekiel then looks and eyes see tendons, flesh, and skin covering the bones.  Now there’s a vast army of prostrate corpses – looking quite normal except that there is no RU-akh.

The Spirit says to Ezekiel, “Prophesy to the RU-akh.  Tell the RU-akh to come from the four RU-akhot (plural form), O RU-akh, and breathe into these bodies so they will live” (vv. 8-9, paraphrase).  Ezekiel speaks to the RU-akh, and the RU-akh enters the bodies.  They breathe and stand – a “vast army” (v. 10).

Verse 11 gives us the background for this vision.  He quotes a 3-line ditty popular among the Israelites after the Babylonian invasion:  “Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.”

God meets you in the middle of your despair. You say, “God, this is impossible!”  He agrees.  “Your bones are dry.”

What’s that got to do with anything? Can these bones live?

Lord God, you alone know.

The meaning of the prophecy now changes the visual image from a valley of dry bones to a cemetery.  God says, “O my people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel” (v. 12).

RU-akh reappears in verse 14.  “I will put my RU-akh (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.”

Options

N. T. Wright’s apologetic overview for the Christian faith, published in 2006, is titled, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense.  Wright says we have options.

He says there are three options in understanding how God and the world intersect.  The first is pantheism: God is everything and everything is God.

The second option is the opposite.  There is no connection at all between God and the world.  It takes the form of either atheism (there is no God) or deism (God made the world but doesn’t interfere). 

Option three is the Christian option.  God and the world are separate, but they touch.  They overlap.  They interlock.

When you read the Bible, there are dramatic, visible periods when God shows up – creation, the exodus, Jesus, and the early church.  Since the beginning of the world, the Bible itself tells of only isolated incidents of the miraculous.  Most of the time, most of us – including God’s most faithful followers – feel like we’re left on our own to make decisions, find answers, and get some help through tough times.

That’s where RU-akh shows up.  The connection between our spirit and the Spirit of God is the primary touch point of the God-world overlap in ordinary time.  Fortunately, we’re not left without witness to what God thinks.  We have the Bible.  But we still wrestle with exactly what the Bible is saying and how it applies to our particular situations.  The Spirit applies God’s Word to our spirits.

Following

The Greek equivalent to the Hebrew word RU-akh is pneuma.  It’s a somewhat milder word.  RU-akh can describe violent wind or snorting.  Pneuma is more often used of a gentle breeze.  Both describe the moving of invisible air – wind, breath, spirit, Spirit.

Jesus uses pneuma in John 3 the way Ezekiel uses RU-akh in chapter 37.  Having said that you must be born of water and of the Spirit to enter the kingdom of God, Jesus adds in v. 8, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

Here’s the thing about wind.  You don’t create wind.  You catch it.  It’s unpredictable, invisible, mysterious in its origin and direction.

What does it look like to follow the Spirit?

First, it looks like yielding.  Following the Spirit means an openness to the unexpected.  Ezekiel didn’t expect the valley of dry bones.  Cara didn’t expect the charismatic church or the word of prophecy.  If I’m going to follow the Spirit it must be on his terms. 

Second, it looks like listening.  The Spirit-spirit connection implies an awareness of how he is trying to get our attention.  One was he does so is through others.  Ezekiel heard from the Spirit and then others needed to hear the Spirit through him.  The Spirit’s messages are often mediated;  The humility of following the Spirit means a willingness to listen to others.

Finally, following the Spirit looks like waiting.  We flew kites at our All Church Retreat in Blowing Rock this weekend.  The problem was, the weather was too perfect.  Blue sky, no clouds.  Perfect day, no wind.  Not a good day for kite flying.

As Jesus said, wind is mystery.  Perhaps the most important key to following the Spirit is the willingness to wait until his breezes blow, until he’s ready to act.

But waiting, listening, and yielding are precisely what it looks like to be an extraordinary Christian.  Amen.

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