The Message: Live!, Ezekiel 37:1-14 (Where is God in our spiritually dry moments?)

Sermon:          Live! (Where is God in our spiritually dry moments?)
Scripture:       Ezekiel 37:1-14
Preacher:        Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location:        First Presbyterian Church, DeLand
Date:               April 2, 2017, Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year A

This morning’s scripture is one of the classical Biblical texts that conjures up vivid scenes in its writing.  The prophet Ezekiel, like Jeremiah, is given vivid stories and word pictures that convey God’s words to the people scattered in exile.  Exile from the Promised Land occurred when the people of Israel wanted an earthly king like all the other nations in lieu of God being their King; the problem was that once the kings got in place, the nation of Israel began to hit the skids because of corrupt leadership that split the nation into the northern nation of Israel and the southern Kingdom of Judah.  Once the nation was split, they were easy pickings for Persian and Egyptian armies. The Hebrews were scattered and most were taken as exile slaves in what it today’s Iraq.

Ezekiel writes to a people who have lost hope.  They have been overrun and swallowed up into a culture that is not their own, a culture that does not share its same values, ways of life, or understanding of living and worshipping the Divine. As a distinct people of God with their own nation, they were dead.  We pick up in our colorful Story with words of hope and promise from God; indeed, some believe these are the first allusions to resurrection life in the Hebrew scriptures.  As you listen, listen for the three parts of the Story: The prophecy; the reshaping of the people; and the Spirit being breathed upon them giving new life and identity. Listen to the Word of the Lord.

Ezekiel 37:1-14

 37.1The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” 4Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6I 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.” 7So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8I 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.9Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” 10I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. 11Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ 12Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord.[1]

You know what time of year it is?  It is the time of year when people are starting to feel tired.  Spring breaks are over and teachers, professors, and students are grinding it out to get through the end of the school year. Youth sports is at a fever pitch as the cheer teams, cross country and track teams, baseball, volleyball, softball and lacrosse teams are trying to wind up the season.  Parents are exhausted from hauling carpools from one part of the county or state to the other. College football teams are winding up Spring training before they leave for the summer. Snowbirds are packing up their things and are preparing to head back north for reasons unbeknownst to me.  The Church year is winding down and teachers and volunteers are pooped. But Easter is coming and so we must press on forward. These activities are not bad things in and of themselves but can they can leave us feeling tired.  These are the everyday things that can cause us to become tired.  Add to these activities those items you and I cannot control and we begin to feel like a valley of dry bones in our souls.

Last weekend two Stetson students felt so burdened and emotionally dry and spent they took their own lives.

A four-year-old child died in his bed making a parent’s worst nightmare become true.

A sister saint of this church died during her operation.

Marriages are under strain and the phantom of infidelity overshadows relationships.

Diagnoses of life-changing or life-threatening medical conditions intrude into easygoing, carefree routines and our lives are brought up short as though we have been hit in the gut. These are things that have just happened this week in our community.

My soul’s bones feel parched.  Bleached.  Dried out.

Can you relate?

Ezekiel’s vision is a comfort for those of us who are languishing in a spiritual, emotional, physical, or social desert.  They are comforting words to those of us who are struggling to get through the day at a time of year the heat of life begins to sap our strength away.  The comfort is that God will not only hold us together and reconstitute our broken frames but God breathes the same Creative breath and Spirit into us that God breathed at Creation.  God’s breath brings life to our parched and dried out lives.

But how?  I want to know how God does this when everything feels so dry. And as I was standing in the valley of the dry bones of my soul this week, I began to see how God pulls it off. I can tell you how it happened for me but the reality is that you must experience it and figure it out for yourself.  You see, God will reveal and deliver the living, recreating breath when the moments of your life seem to be the driest and darkest; the dry bones will live when we relax, sit still and then receive the love of God through the Spirit. Let’s break that down a bit.

God reveals himself to us not just when things are bad but God fully discloses himself when bad things have turned even worse.  Ezekiel didn’t see corpses in his vision but he saw a condition that was beyond that of death:  He saw the blanched bones of a nation bleached white in the scorching heat.  There were no bodies but bone remnants that had already been picked over by the birds and rotted by weather. In other words, the very hope of the nation of Israel was one step away from being dried up and blown away into total non-existence.  And this is the environment God uses to reveal himself and recreate life from apparent total despair.

Beloved, the words of comfort for our soul’s dry bones is that when all not only seems dead and gone but our very broken soul’s existence feels it is about to be blown away in the dust, that is the environment God shows his divine power most clearly.  It is when we know there is nothing left to do, no one left to count on that we begin to resign ourselves to the inevitability that we cannot do it on our own;  it’s then and only then we have we made the necessary room for the dynamic power of God to show up.  It’s only when there is no more left to us that we create room and space for God to be God.  When everything in life seems to go our way, we are more prone to miss the Presence of the Holy in our lives because of the lack of problems and hardship.  God is surely there in those bright, good times but we are too busy with the bright good times to notice.  It’s only when the valley is empty, where the wind is hot, and the soul is like a dried, bleached bone left in the sun that we are brought to a place of reliance on the re-creative breath of the Spirit.

It’s in the valley of the dry bones of our spirit and soul that the environment is set for us to receive the extravagant love of God.  It is for the love of his covenant people Israel that God wants to restore their spirit and bring them back to life.  It is for the love of his people that God goes to the most barren, dry, hot, parched places and breathes new life into them.  His breath is life!  He tells them to, “Live!”, and that command initiates from the Lord’s love of the people.

Today, we have a tangible example of how God restores our souls.  The Table set before us was given under the direst condition: The very death of the Son of God. It was only when the earthly Jesus totally surrendered all to God that he could say to you and me, “This is my body and my blood which is for you.”  It’s only in Jesus’ darkest hour, in humanity’s most tragic moment, that the Love of God could be seen and experienced so dramatically and brightly.

Is your soul bone dry?  Are there moments when you wonder if God is even around or even cares?  If so, those are the moments you are to pay attention.  Those are the moments God will use to re-form us, reshape us, re-ligament us and re-create us. God will do it in the shared expression of love those placed in our lives who will demonstrate it to us.

The Table reminds us God is most clearly present and visible when life seems to be at its worst and most desperate; it demands that we remember that God is most clearly present in sacrificial love.  When there is darkness, look for the light of Love and there my beloved, you will see dry bones live.

Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Senior Pastor & Teaching Elder
First Presbyterian Church
724 North Woodland Blvd.
DeLand, Florida 32720
pwrisley@drew.edu

© 2017 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, DeLand, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission.   All rights reserved.

[1]The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989, 1995 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

The Church’s Ten-Letter Dirty Word (E-v-a-n-g-e-l-i-s-m)

Sermon: The Church’s Dirty Ten-Letter Word
Scripture: John 1.37-42
Preacher: Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location: First Presbyterian Church, DeLand, FL
Date: January 15, 2017, The Second Sunday of Epiphany

This morning, we are going to begin with the end in mind. I’m going to give you four words which are the answers to what we will be unpacking today. So, if you are the type who likes to write notes, here are the four words you to shape your outline: Know; Embrace; Meet; and Introduce. Now that you have all the answers, let’s jump into the question!

Back in the ancient times, i.e. 1972, the late comedian George Carlin had a famous sketch on the “Seven Bad Words You Can Never Say on Television.” The amazing thing is you still cannot say them on TV! But let me ask you this: Did you know the Church of Jesus Christ has at least three words people would rather not be said in church, particularly from the pulpit?

The first dirty word people don’t like to hear from the pulpit is repent. People wince at that word because it reminds them they are to stop what they are doing and turn around and live in a different way. It means to cease and desist with behaviors that demean the image of God in others as well as in ourselves. Though ‘repent’ is a word people don’t like to say in church, it’s a good word. We need to be able to say it. So, say it with me: Repent. That was not so bad, was it?

The second dirty word people don’t like to hear from the pulpit or in church is the word money, or its pseudonym, Stewardship. People hate it when the church talks about money and stewardship. We shouldn’t talk about it because that’s my personal business, thank you very much! I find it ironic that people will tell their pastors the most intimate details of their lives but when they find out their pastor knows how much they give to the church budget, they go nuts! Money or stewardship is a dirty word in church for most people. Go ahead and say this offensive word: Stewardship. Good, you’re getting the hang of it!

The third dirty word people do not like to hear in church or even think about is the ten-letter word that strikes fear in the masses. It’s the word Evangelism. Evangelism is a dirty word to many in the church because they feel evangelism is manipulative, pushy, or confrontational. Many believe that evangelism means cramming one’s faith beliefs don’t the throats of others and that if they don’t listen to us then they are going to hell. I mean really, who wants to tell someone about Jesus if we think that if they reject what we say we might be responsible for their eternal life?  Evangelism literally means “to Good News someone.”

Friends, we have a distorted understanding of Evangelism and today’s scripture in John can help us sort out the mess of what evangelism is and isn’t as well as provide us a user-friendly model to follow. So, let’s say together the ten-letter dirty word people don’t like to say: Evangelism!

Our text today has John the Baptist talking to the people who are following him and have responded to his call for baptism for the remittance of sins. In verse 1.29, John proclaims to those who are following him, “Look! Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” as he is pointing to Jesus walking by the group. In the group that heard John say this was a man named Andrew and some unnamed disciple. And this brings us to our text today. Listen to the Word of God!

John 1:37-42

37The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. 40One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). 42He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

Looking at our text, I want to lift some observations for us that hopefully will demystify evangelism as well as help each of us see how we can be a witness for Good News. I want us to realize that evangelism is not rocket science nor is it the duty of a select few in the church.

Our Story has John the Baptizer pointing out Jesus to Andrew and to the other unnamed disciple and Andrew and the other immediately began following Jesus. I love what happens next. Jesus notices them following and he takes the initiative to stop what he is doing and asks them the one penetrating question every one of us, indeed, all people wrestle to answer. Jesus asks rather directly: What are you looking for (v. 38)? The first observation is that before we can tell others about what God has done in our life, we need to first understand what we are looking to experience from listening to and searching for in Jesus. It’s vital for each of us to ponder the question Jesus asked Andrew: What are you looking for? Why are you on a quest to know God? Why are you following Jesus? How do you answer that question? Once you can answer why you are following Jesus, then you are ready for evangelism.

This leads us to our second observation: Andrew was not completely sure what he was looking for but Andrew did have a yearning for something deeper in his life. Jesus asks him, “Andy, what are you looking for?” and Andrew has one of the oddest responses in Scripture. Did Andrew ask Jesus if he was the Messiah? No. Did Andrew ask Jesus to perform a miracle? No. Andrew asked, of all things, “Where are you staying?” I’m not sure that would be the one question I would ask the Savior of the world if I had the chance but for Andrew, knowing where Jesus was staying was enough. Andrew was not sure of the full ramifications of what it meant that Jesus was the Lamb of God. He has not witnessed, per John’s Story, any miracle or healing. He has simply experienced the presence of Jesus and that was enough. He couldn’t put words to it but he knew that there was something different about this man which made Andrew want to spend more time with him. Andrew, whom I like to call The Patron Saint of Evangelism, reminds us that we are to embrace the fact we will not have all the answers when we tell people about our experience with Jesus. That, my friends, is very okay!

The third observation about evangelism in our Story is that Jesus met Andrew where Andrew was in his life. Andrew didn’t have all the answers and for Jesus was that was just fine. Andrew at this point did not even have good questions and for Jesus that was just fine, too! Jesus wasn’t pushy or demeaning. He didn’t respond with, “Andrew, c’mon! That’s the dumbest question anyone could ask me!” Jesus met Andrew right where Andrew was and he was still a little perplexed, questioning and wondering.

Andrew and the other disciple went with Jesus and spent the day with him. We have no idea what they talked about. We can presume that since they spent the day together and the text mentions, “it was four o’clock in the afternoon” that Andrew, the other disciple, and Jesus worshiped together for the Jewish prayer hour held at three o’clock. They spent time together. They built a relationship with one another. In this light, when we read in other Gospels how Jesus was walking along the Sea of Galilee and sees Andrew fishing and calls out to him, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of people!”, it is not surprising Andrew dropped what he was doing and followed. Jesus was patient. Relationships take time before a call to discipleship can be offered and answered.

The final observation we note about evangelism from our Story is that Andrew’s style of evangelism was to first go to someone he already knew, i.e. his brother, Simon and all he did was to introduce Simon and Jesus to one another. “Simon, this is Jesus, the one I told you about and Jesus this is my brother, Simon.” Andrew then backs off. Andrew didn’t convert, cajole, shame, or push Simon to believe. He simply introduced the two of them and let Jesus take over. Andrew reminds us we are not responsible for another’s conversion but Jesus is. There is no need to beat, cajole, deride, shame and push people into following Christ! No, all we are asked to do is make a non-threatening introduction and let God take over.

I’ve said it once and I will say it again: This church is one generation away from extinction. Sadly, that’s not only a prediction for our church but for the overall Church of Jesus Christ. The Christian church does not have a healthy understanding of evangelism or the Gospel and a result, people are turned off to the Christian faith, have little or no faith in the institution of Church, or perceive Christians to be hypocritical judges of others who act like theological know-it-alls. We need to overcome the notion that evangelism is a dirty word and a duty exercised by only a few. We first begin learning to know why we are looking for and drawn to Jesus and then follow our scripture Story’s lead by

• responding to Jesus’ question, “What are you looking for?” the best we can;
• embracing the fact that belief in Jesus does not mean we have all the answers and are not expected to give all the answers when we share the winsome Story of the Gospel with others;
• meeting people where they are and then build relationships with them;
• Introducing people in our current networks of relationships to Jesus’ winsome way of life and then back off.

Is that too awfully difficult? Know why we believe; embrace you don’t have all the answers and neither do others; meet people where they are and then develop relationships; introduce them to God but let God do the work of transformation.

This week, I want each of us to ponder the question Jesus asked and discern why we are drawn to him. I want us to ponder who we know or with whom we can build a natural relationship with so that the Spirit can provide an opportunity for us to simply ask the other one question: I’m in a community of folks who are looking to better understand God. Would you like to meet me for worship, Bible Study, feeding the homeless, taking flowers to the homebound….

No beloved, Evangelism is not rocket science. It’s all about knowing, embracing, meeting and introducing. For Christ’s sake, the Church’s sake, won’t you join me in doing it? And all of God’s people said, Amen.

Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Senior Pastor & Teaching Elder
First Presbyterian Church
724 North Woodland Blvd.
DeLand, Florida 32720
pastor@fpcdstaff.org
http://phwrisley.blogspot.com

© 2016 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, DeLand, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission. All rights reserved.