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.

Our Thankfulness Requires a Rest. Reflections on Psalm 46

Sermon:          Our Thankfulness Requires a Rest
Scripture:        Psalm 46
Preacher:        Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location:         First Presbyterian Church, DeLand
Date:               November 20, 2016, Christ the King Sunday, Proper 29

You may listen to the message by clicking here.

Psalm 46

1God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
2Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
3though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.           Selah

4There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High.
5God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns.
6The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts.
7The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.        Selah

8Come, behold the works of the Lord; see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
9He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire.
10“Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.”
11The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.            Selah[1]

Today is the very last Sunday on the Christian calendar.  It is known as Christ the King Sunday and it culminates the divine drama that has unfolded before us since the first Sunday in Advent last November. Advent is the time on the calendar we prepare for the inbreaking of God into our world on Christmas and Advent begins next week. We then make our way through the through the season of Epiphany when people finally begin to recognize who Jesus is.  It’s at this point we begin our long walk through Lent as we learn about the sacrifice required to reunite all of God’s people back to one another and to the Lord God Himself.  The dark days of Lent culminate with the empty tomb on Easter morning and Christ’s resurrection. Following the time of celebrating Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, the Church remembers her birthday on Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was given to the people.  In the summer months, we enter a long stretch of time called “Ordinary Time” when Christians look at the life of Jesus, the Covenant people of Israel and what it means to live in the world as a Christ-follower.  So today, we end our Church year with a celebration that the child born of Mary lived, died, rose, and ascended to God and is now reigning in the heavenly realms literally holding the whole wide world in his hands. It’s a day we celebrate that Christ reigns supreme!  And the people said, Selah! “Selah?” you ask?  Hold onto that for a moment; we will get to it in a minute.

Today’s lectionary text is one that many of us have heard before whether we knew where it came from or not.  It was the basis for Martin Luther’s famous hymn, A Mighty Fortress is Our God, and it is also known for one of the most memorized scripture verses in the Bible:  Be still and know that I am God (vs. 10).

What did this Psalm, or song, mean for those in Israel who first heard it?  Let’s get into their ancient-thinking heads a moment and then see how it connects with us today.

First and foremost, the song’s very opening line tells us that for the ancient Jew, this was a song that affirmed the heart of their faith. The Creator God is a God of solace, fortitude and safety for the people. The psalm leads with this because it serves as the reminder for what is to follow in verses 2 through 3 as well as in verses 4 through 9.

Verses 2 and 3 speak of the calamities of a world falling apart.  In their ancient understanding, the mountains were The Pillars of the Earth holding the heavens in their place.  Should The Pillars of the Earth fall, what hope do they have for survival?  The water was the place of chaos and uncertainty.  Water was destructive, swallowed ships and was the source of sea creatures who were large and foreboding. The sea was a dangerous place and the way the psalmist describes events in verses 2 and 3, it sounds very much to what today’s Christians hear in the New Testament book of Revelation.  These are apocalyptic words which describe the destruction of everything they knew and loved.

If you look in your Bible you will see a word that might be italicized and it stands alone at the end of verse 3.  It’s the word, Selah.  It occurs some 71 times in the psalms and it is one of those ancient Hebrew words that has never been fully translated.  So why is it there?  Scholars believe that Selah is a musical notation that simply means to stop and pause.  It serves as an “amen” of sorts that functions like a musical rest note in the middle of the psalm.  What is it that we are to stop, pause and reflect about? Selah points us back to the very first affirmation of our text today which declares, “God is our refuge a very present help in time of trouble” – a promise that repeats a variation of God’s protection at the end of each stanza in the song.

The psalmist has the people sing that even though the end of the world seems near, although Mother Nature seems to be collapsing in on herself, we are not to have fear because God is our place of refuge and is our source of strength.

And all the people of God say, “Selah!”

Stop.  Reflect on what verses 1 through 3 mean to you.

Then the song continues with verse 4.  We read of a river that flows from the city of God, Zion, Jerusalem.  The stream from Zion is a metaphor for God’s refreshing goodness and these waters will flow even bringing comfort and solace even though the chaos waters of life outside of the city gates feel like they will overwhelm us.  We read how God is in the midst of Jerusalem and even though the world seems falling apart, Zion will not be moved.

Verses 6 through 9 go on to describe to the ancient Jew how there are wars all around them.  Nations are rising up against the people of God.  Rulers will rule who will do whatever they can to overthrow the power of God and the holy city of Zion. And then once more we are given the assurance in verse 7 that Yahweh himself is with us and the God of Jacob will be our protection.

And then there is that word again – Selah.  Once again we are asked to pause and let the reality of verses 4 through 7 sink into the depths of our being.  Yahweh is with us so there is nothing to fear from our political or national leaders, because ultimately, they are not in control of our, nor the world’s, destiny.

And all the people of God say, “Selah!”

Stop.  Reflect on what verses 4 through 7 mean to you.

The final stanza of our song goes on to do two things. First, verses 8 and 9 go on to reaffirm the power and majesty of God and how God is the One who is in ultimate control of the Earth. It affirms that God is greater than any President, Congress, Politburo, dictator or queen and king. Second, verse 10 is a verse that contains two imperatives directing the people to, “Be still” and it demands that we are “to know” God and that God alone is to be worshipped.

These demands are set off with the only quotation marks in our song; it’s a writer’s technique inviting us to slow down, pay attention and ask, “To whom are the quoted words directed towards?” One particular group these words are declared to are the Jews themselves.  They are, in the midst of all the chaos they are undergoing, told to pause, stop, and remember Whose they are in the midst of the chaos: They are the Lord God’s; they are the beloved of the Most High Creator God! In the midst of life’s swirliness, you and I are also beckoned to drop what we are doing and remember Whose we are and that the One who loves us will never let us go.

The other group verse 10 is directed towards are the kings, rulers, presidents and nations of the world. The cultural leaders are being forcefully reminded to literally cease and desist what they are doing and know God is God and that the Almighty is in control.  The ancient Jews heard this as more than just “quiet yourselves for some meditation;” the power of the Hebrew is a command to drop whatever it is your holding onto and pay attention! Like a police officer encountering someone with a weapon, the demand is made to “Drop it right there!”

And all the people of God say together, “Selah!”

Stop a moment.  Reflect on what verses 10 and 11 mean to you.

Beloved, we begin “The Holiday Season” this week.  There are two very distinct and very different agendas that are paralleling one another and each of us is asked to choose which agenda we will participate in. One path is marked out by our compass-less culture demanding we be rampant consumers of food, goods, and stuff.  The other path follows the Church calendar and invites us to slow down and walk through this compass-less world and look at it, experience it, and revel in it with the eyes of God.  Let’s remember that “the holidays” literally meant “the holy days” long before Black Friday and Cyber Monday ever were thought about.

My prayer this week as we each approach Thanksgiving and the holidays that we will write into our daily routine those Selah moments whereby we stop and reflect upon all God has done, is doing, and will do in each of our lives.  For those of you who find Thanksgiving and holidays hard, my prayer is your Selah-moments will help you to redeem your sense of loss or sadness.  For those of you who love this time of year, my prayer is your Selah-moments will be a time to reflect upon the blessings you have been given.  For all of us, my prayer is that this Thanksgiving, we each will be still, that we will cease and desist all our worrying, fretting, scampering, cooking, napping and shopping to silence our hearts so that we can hear the heartbeat of God.

Selah

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

© 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.

[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.