Sermon for Williamstown
Pentecost, 24th of May, 2015
John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15
Today we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit to Jesus’ disciples at Pentecost, the event that we remember as the birth-day of the church. Today is a day of loud and joyful celebration, coloured red for the Spirit in the liturgical calendar, as we envisage a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and divided tongues, as of fire. We have balloons, streamers and candles here in the nave; the children, I believe, are currently decorating cupcakes for after the service; and we will have deeply unhealthy fizzy raspberry soft drink to accompany them. Today is a happy day.
In all our celebrations today, it’s important not to forget the situation to which the Spirit came. As I’ve said on previous Pentecosts, the miracle of the story we hear from the Book of Acts is not simply that the disciples began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. The miracle was that they began to speak at all. From staying upstairs in a room, presumably hiding from those who had killed Jesus, the disciples take a public stand, with Peter raising his voice and addressing the ‘men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem’. We’re told that that day three thousand people joined the original disciples; and the small group of Jesus’ followers who had witnessed his death and then hidden in fear began their mission. The coming of the Spirit changed their lives; the fearful became brave; the despairing became hopeful; and the church was born.
Today’s other two readings tell similar stories of the effect of the coming of the Spirit. One of the central events described in the Hebrew Scriptures, as important to the life and faith of the Jewish people as the Exodus from Egypt, is the Babylonian Exile. We hear about it again and again in the psalms and the writings of the prophets. As you probably all know, because I keep referring to it, in 587 BC the Babylonians destroyed the city of Jerusalem, including the Temple. They deported much of Jerusalem’s population to Babylon, leaving behind the poorest and the weakest to try and survive in the city’s desolated ruins. The defeat of Jerusalem, the end of the Davidic monarchy and the destruction of the Temple were seen by both the exiles and those who remained as signs of the defeat of Yahweh by the gods of Babylon.
Not unnaturally, this led the exiles to despair, and it’s that despair that today’s vision from the prophet Ezekiel answers. Far from Jerusalem, living and dying outside the land of Israel, the exiles felt that God has abandoned them. They cried out, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ But in his vision God shows Ezekiel, one of those deported from Jerusalem to Babylon, that even the driest of bones can live.
The hand of the Lord comes upon Ezekiel and the spirit of the Lord takes him to a valley filled with bones. These bones are really, really dead: ‘they were very dry’. There’s no way that these bones could revive by themselves. The dead are dead. And yet God asks Ezekiel: ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’ Ezekiel may be in exile, separated from the Promised Land, but he still recognises the power and knowledge of God: ‘O Lord God, you know’.
God gives Ezekiel a task, to prophecy to the dead bones. He prophecies that God will bring the bones both to life and to the knowledge of God, and as he does, what he’s prophesying comes true. The bones come together, bone to bone, sinews and flesh appear on them and skin covers them, and although there’s no breath in them God tells Ezekiel to call the four winds to breathe on them. Ezekiel says: ‘10I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.’ The prophecy is fulfilled in the very act of speaking it.
How did this happen? In Hebrew the words for spirit, wind and breath are the same word – ruach. This word is used again and again: ‘Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause ruach to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put ruach in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.’ … Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the ruach, prophesy, mortal, and say to the ruach: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four ruach, O ruach, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the ruach came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.’ The breath of life, which comes with the four winds, is the Spirit: God’s spirit is the key. Without the Spirit, as Ezekiel saw, existence is just flesh and blood: ‘there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them’. But with God’s spirit, there is life. And there is nowhere, no time, and no situation that can keep God’s Spirit away from God’s people.
As God then interprets the event for Ezekiel: the bones are the people of Israel, who will live again when the exile ends. The promise to Abraham will be fulfilled a second time with the return to the Promised Land. And story won’t end with the return to the land. The people will know the Lord, as Ezekiel prophesised to the dry bones that they would. The spirit of God, God’s breath, has entered the bones, just as God breathed life into Adam at the dawn of creation. In the Exile it seemed that God had been defeated, but the Spirit of God is with God’s people in the direst of circumstances.
Today’s gospel reading describes another of those dire circumstances. We are back on the night that Jesus was betrayed, as he gives his disciples his final teaching. He is going to die and, as he says to them, ‘because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts’. Their teacher and friend is going to be executed. Yet Jesus comforts them with the promise of the coming of the Spirit: ‘it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you’. This will be God’s Spirit as Advocate, Paraclete, the one who walks alongside the disciples offering strength and encouragement. Jesus is leaving, ‘I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer,’ but God is not leaving the disciples alone. The Father will once again enter human history, this time through the Spirit. The Spirit will continue Jesus’ work, sharing his message: ‘He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.’ Jesus is about to depart, but his way will continue. A new time in history will begin; new things will happen; and in Jesus’ physical absence he will be present in the Spirit, the Spirit of truth who will testify on Jesus’ behalf. The disciples will not have to live with Jesus absence, because the Spirit makes him present and continues the task of interpreting him. This remains true for us, as for the disciples to whom Jesus spoke. Two thousand years after Jesus lived and died, the Spirit speaks the presence of Jesus into our hearts. We have not been left alone.
Today we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit and the birth-day of the church. We celebrate with joy. But remember that the Spirit comes to us in our despair, as well as in our joy. God’s Spirit is with us in exile, in fear, in grief. No matter what the situation, the Spirit ensures that we are never left alone. Through the Spirit, God is always with us, even when death and defeat tempt us to believe that God is absent. The Spirit is God’s presence in our hearts, our lives, our church. Today, we celebrate that. Amen.