Immanuel Lutheran Church

Sermon

The Feast of Pentecost

"Bringing New Life to Dry Bones"

Ezekiel 37:1-10

May 24, 2015

Today is Pentecost. If Jesus is the most 'visible' member of the Holy Trinity, then we might say that the Holy Spirit is the 'busiest.' After all, the work of the Holy Spirit is to create faith. How does He do that? Today's OT reading gives us some insight into how this is done.

Ezekiel 37:1-14. The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. And he led me around among them, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold, they were very dry. And he said to me, "Son of man, can these bones live?" And I answered, "O Lord God, you know." Then he said to me, "Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon 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."

So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I prophesied, there was a sound, and behold, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. And I looked, and behold, there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them. But there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, "Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live." So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army.

This is a picture of ancient Israel at the time of the exile. Jerusalem was in ruins, the land was desolate and the people scattered. How would they ever be a nation again? It would happen. When it did, it would be a miracle of God.

This is also a picture of the Church. The church has had its ups and downs since the very beginning. At various times and places, the church has struggled to survive, flourished, floundered and rebuilt. Recent history has given us two examples of the church's struggles with survival in the face or persecution. We can learn from the different responses between the persecution of the church in Nazi Germany and communist China.

The German Christians were concerned with the survival of the church institutions. The Chinese were concerned with the survival of the Word. The Germans compromised with the Nazi to preserve the institutional structure of the church. The Chinese followed the example of the early church and simply went underground.

The German church preserved its institutions and structure but lost its vitality. Prior to the war, the theologians had gutted the faithful of their belief by mocking and questioning everything about the Bible. After the war, people were left angry and bitter by death, devastation and the seeming disappearance of God. Many became especially cynical about the faith. They questioned the love and even existence of God. The church in Germany and Europe has never recovered from the mass defections.

In spite of great persecution, with few Bibles and little educational materials, the church in China grew. At the time of President Nixon's trip to China, we were told that Christianity was all but dead. There were only a few hundred elderly Chinese Christians. The reality was that there were millions of Christians throughout the country. This was seen as a miracle.

Why did the church barely survive in Europe while it not only survived but thrived in China? It's the work of the Holy Spirit. How can this be? The work of the Holy Spirit remains a mystery to us. Jesus told Nicodemas, 'The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." (John 3:8) The Spirit goes where He wills.

In the last 25 years, the Holy Spirit has called and gathered people into the church in places in the world where there had been no churches and congregations. In spite of persecution, the church is surviving and even thriving in Africa. Today there is a small but growing Lutheran church in Congo. How did this come about? A man found a copy of Luther's Small Catechism in French. This was the seed that took hold. 

In spite of Muslim persecution, the underground church has taken root in Iran and even Saudi Arabia. The numbers of Christians are growing in places like Burma, Cambodia and Thailand. Often these groups of Christians form without the effort of outside missionaries or other church groups. It's the Holy Spirit at work breathing life into that which had been spiritually dead.

One of my seminary profs described the work of the Holy Spirit by explaining that the Holy Spirit is like the perfect gentleman who doesn't go where he is no longer welcome and invited. Why do some churches flounder and die? Part of the answer is that the people no longer invite the Lord to be among them. 

They don't pray for the Spirit to grow their faith either individually or collectively. 

They no longer see the church as a spiritual place of hope and healing. 

They no longer pray for the growth of their congregation.

They no longer accept the challenges the Lord places before them.

They no longer support the mission outreach of the church either locally or globally.

When we no longer welcome the presence of the Holy Spirit among us, He will leave. Our prayer is that we remain faithful. In this age of pluralism, skepticism and cynicism, we are an oasis of life and hope in a landscape becoming more and more like a dry and spiritual desert.

As Christians in this congregation, we pray the Holy Spirit will continue to grow our faith. We pray we will actively support the education programs of the congregation for children, youth and adults. We pray we will actively support the mission outreach of the church. We pray we will have a heart for the lost so that we might be messengers of hope. We pray He give us life to the pile of dry bones and breathe into us the spirit of faith.

On this day of Pentecost we rejoice that the Holy Spirit is among us. He comes to us today in the word and in the sacrament. He comes to bring the water of life to our dry, parched souls. He comes to strengthen our faith.

Let us affirm our faith in the work and gifts of the Holy Spirit in the words of Luther's explanation to the Third Article of the Apostles' Creed [LW p. 302]. 'I believe that I cannot by my .....' Amen!


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