This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Yallourn Uniting Church gathered on Sunday 20th May 2017 at Yallourn North, Pentecost Day.
Ezekiel 37:1-14; Romans 8:22-27; John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15
Many of you will be aware I hope (because we didn’t read it this morning) of the story found in Ezekiel 37 where the prophet speaks at God’s command to a valley of desiccated bones. In Ezekiel’s first-person account the hand of The LORD comes upon Ezekiel (Ezekiel 37:1) and he is lead to the place of revelation. This is not a story of resurrection, rather it is the story of the renewal of a whole nation by the Spirit of God. Can God raise the dead: of course God can, there is no question of it and we saw that in Jesus. Not only can God raise the Messiah but through Jesus we have seen God raise otherwise ordinary people such as the unnamed daughter of Jairus, the unnamed son of the widow of Nain, and Lazarus the brother of Mary and Martha. The question asked of Ezekiel is whether God can renew a devastated people, an entire nation cut down such that there is nothing left of it, left of them, but dried and dislocated bones on the one hand and shattered exiled slaves on the other. The still alive ones have been taken far away, the only occupants of the land are the dead in the form of bones in disarray. “What can God do here”, asks God, “God alone knows”, answers Ezekiel. The story of the bones coming together and being re-fleshed is the first stage of the sign, and the lifeless corpses being inspired with breath and spirit and rising to their feet is the second stage. It’s a great image of renewal because there is both reconnection and resuscitation going on; what has been lost is returned and restored, and the new thing goes on toward the future. It’s as great an image for the Church as it was for the people of Israel: and that is the point made by all who preach on Ezekiel be they priest, pastor, professor, or rabbi.
But today there’s something more to be had, because today is Pentecost Day. So, recalling all of the above, and mindful of the restorative and revitalising power of The Spirit of God consider this: God chose to act through a man’s voice.
In our key reading for Pentecost, Acts 2:1-21, we read the story of The Spirit’s intrusion into room full of believers expectant in the message and person of Jesus Christ. The Spirit comes as and when the Spirit wants to come, and like the Risen One The Spirit has no need of a door. When The Spirit of Holiness comes, when the wind of purification blows through, when Ruach haQodesh fills the room, it is ordinary women and men who are empowered to speak the news of God’s revelation. Ezekiel prophesied to bones and again to corpses, which is an allegory of God’s word coming to the exiled Judahites in far distant Mesopotamia. Peter and the ten, and the other one hundred and nine, prophesy to the nations within Judaism; to Judeans for sure but also to Mesopotamians, and to Mediterranean Europeans and to Africans and to Arabians and to Asians with words of reconnection and renewal. In the scriptural accounts the Spirit moves when men and women of God speak at God’s command.
In John 16:4b-15 we read of the night of Jesus’ betrayal and arrest and of his promise that his going would prompt the coming of the Helper, capital-H. The word paraclete in Greek also carries the meanings of Comforter, Counsellor, and Advocate; capital-C, capital-C, capital-A. When such a one comes, one we rightly identify on Pentecost Day as God the Holy Spirit, the work of the Spirit will be to convict the world. The Spirit comes with power, we saw that in Acts 2, and with miracles, (also Acts 2), but importantly for Jesus it seems, since this is the bit he specifically mentions, the Spirit comes with challenge. The Spirit confronts the Church with a call to repentance; not just confession of guilt since our last sorrowful prayer, or our rites asking for forgiveness, but of completely reassessing our lives regarding our vocation. The sin Jesus speaks of here is not random acts of human naughty, but of the unforgiveable sin, the decision to not believe Jesus who is The Word of God. The righteousness Jesus speaks of here is not our random lack of human good behaviour, but of the broken relationship between each woman or man and the whole of Creation. The judgement Jesus speaks of here is not an eternity in Hell from the point of human death for everyone other than baptised-by-full-immersion Evangelicals, but of God’s verdict regarding the entirety of Creation and what it has become since Adam. Our Christian testimony by deed and word is all of the above, guided by the Holy Spirit, who alone speaks truth to us and to the world through us (John 16:13). Therefore, we are not to be despondent that Jesus has died and ascended out of human sight (John 16:6), rather we rejoice that his Spirit is with us, empowering us in loving acts of worship of God and the service of Creation.
So that’s much more than a one-off event of preaching in Swahili and fire above our heads! Pentecost, the coming and dwelling of the Spirit within and amongst us is a now and forever event, continuous present-tense. The Spirit is with us and always will be, and one indication of this is our continual proclamation of the gospel of belief in Jesus and reconciliation with each other, and our continuous immersion in the blood-and-dust world, the world in-the-wrong respecting who Jesus is and who the Church is and what justice is, as ambassadors of loving grace. More than Swahili in Jerusalem, the Spirit descending gifts us to speak the language of justice in Yallourn and compassion in Moe.
So, Swahili is optional, Strayan is preferable; and God’s character made word and flesh is mandated.
And then, in Romans 8:22-27, we read how we who have the first portion of the Spirit’s pouring out are aboard with the Spirit’s work of interceding for Creation to the Father who loves it. The Father who loves “it”, it being both the Spirit who intercedes and the Creation who is loved by the Spirit as it cries out in labour pains. We who are creatures, and therefore part of Creation, and bearers of the first portion of the Spirit and therefore part of what God is doing in love, are intermediaries of sorts. We are that part of Creation which is in tune with the Spirit’s work, and we are the first portion of the world for God, even as we have the first portion of God in the world. In Romans 8:25 we read that hope is only hope when the hoped-for thing remains unseen; if you see it it is not hope it is existence. No, instead we have hope because we have seen and been the first portion of God’s acts of blessing in the world, our hope, our trust-fuelled desire is that more is coming. And this more is not just more of the same, but a more which is taller and brighter and louder and more pungent than what we have received from God even now. No wonder we are groaning with Creation, “bring it on LORD” is our desperate and ecstatic cry.
Such a cry of exaltation and exhortation takes us beyond words, beyond Strayan and Swahili words, beyond even the prayer languages of Shalom. The Spirit is groaning like a woman in labour, like a man trying to shift a stubborn boulder or wheel-nut, like a child trying to convince dad of the need for this lolly or toy because dad is our only hope in a world where mum always and only says no. Groan! Desperate groan! Wrenching groan! Nh-mn-ll-fr-st-rh! Groan beyond words, where only consonants thrust through gritted teeth and bulging eyes can express it. This is the desperation of the Spirit for the Kingdom of God to come on Earth as it is in Heaven. This is the desperation of the Church for the Kingdom of God to come to Earth such that the God of the Kingdom will walk with us in Eden once more, an Eden to which are readmitted by the grace of God. An Eden which is the restored Creation for which all of Creation is already groaning and moaning in grief and necessity and labour pains.
Pentecost is about the gift of God of the Spirit to the Church. It is, and we cannot forget that it is. But there is so much more to today than that our forebears and founders spoke in languages not their own and that 3000 people were won for Christ by a single sermon. That’s an everyday occurrence in some parts of the world even today. What should be an everyday occurrence in all parts of the world, especially today, is the gift of God of the Church to the world. God gives the Church the Spirit, and therein gives the world the Church, a Church empowered and emboldened by the Spirit to make the world aware of who God is and what God desires. Who God is is Saviour and Lord; what God desires is trust, reconciliation, and passion for renewal.
That is what Pentecost is about. That is what God can do with a valley of dried bones and a Brown Coal Mine.