Pentecost Sunday is usually a vibrant celebration in the Christian calendar. The gift of the Holy Spirit, as some call it “the birthday of the church” is cause for celebration. Vibrant reds, upbeat music, and the story of the great power of the Holy Spirit blowing through the disciples and giving them the energy and wisdom to become the Apostles in the faith. Pentecost is all of that to be sure, but it is also more. As I have repeatedly said, today is the second-highest holy day of the year, and yet we wouldn’t know it in how we’ve been raised. Ask anyone on the street what the major holy days that Christians celebrate in order of importance, and you’re likely to get Christmas, Easter, and Thanksgiving. Pentecost isn’t even on the radar, because it is tied to Easter and moves around. It has roots in the Jewish feast of Shauvot, as this was the festival the disciples had gathered together when the winds came up. Yet, celebrations of Pentecost date back to the earliest days of Christianity. Even Paul writes about, if briefly, it in his first letter to the Corinthians. In Eastern Orthodox traditions, Pentecost is explicitly ranked as the second-highest feast next to Easter.
As I mentioned last week, it barely gets a mentioned, especially since this year it comes up against the highest holiday in the Canadian Calendar: Victoria Day. Oddly enough, in the UK, Whitsunday is the Holiday tied directly to Pentecost, and happens around a similar time. Having Victoria Day overshadow Pentecost is not necessarily a bad thing, because unlike other feast days in the Christian calendar, it hasn’t been commercialized.
Over time, Pentecost has become the best-kept secret of our faith… so secret in fact, that we have all but forgotten about it. As such our faith has become withered and pale, without passion or enthusiasm. Like withered bones, the remnants of the mainline church lie scattered across a valley… without much signs of life.
Hardly an inspiring image is it? But then again, it’s entirely Biblical.
When it comes to Pentecost Sunday, when we do pay attention to it, we are most familiar with the story from the Second Chapter of Acts, where the disciples are gathered together, some ten days after the Ascension of Jesus. In a stunning display, these simple people from Galilee have an experience that transforms them from the clueless followers of a poor backwater preacher, into a group of people who will change the world. That’s the kind of powerful story we want to hear…
…but there is this other story… Ezekiel… Maybe you’ve heard of him. Yes… the one who saw the wheel a-rollin’ up in the middle of the air. That one. A prophet, who like Jeremiah, personally witnessed the invasion and destruction of his homeland some six hundred years before the birth of Christ. An ordinary person who had every reason to believe that Israel’s faith was dead and buried, with nothing but bones and crumbling rock.
I have to be honest, I think this is a Biblical story, a Pentecost story, that we can connect to better than the tongues of fire in Acts… because perhaps we see it a bit more in that the church isn’t quite the same as many of us remember. The glory days have passed us by. We see and feel more like dry bones than disciples filled with the Holy Spirit. That sense of despair is all too familiar, as people of faith, perhaps we can be encouraged that we’ve been here before.
Yet, as Ezekiel tells the story, it begins with a question: “Can these bones live?” –But it isn’t Ezekiel who asks it, but God. Ezekiel wisely turns that question back to God, and says “I can’t answer that, but you can.” God then tells Ezekiel to speak to the dry bones, suddenly the Holy Spirit is unleashed, restoring the bones to flesh, and ultimately breathing the Spirit of life into them. This is the story that inspired the Spiritual:
“Dem Bones Dem Bones, dem dry bones, come hear the word of the Lord!!”
–Now you know where it came from.
Where once there was a field of nothing but devastation and lifelessness, there is this image of the Spirit unleashed, and new life explodes in ways beyond what one thought possible.
Come hear the word of the Lord! Ezekiel’s vision, and his message is even more powerful than we realize. The image that Ezekiel uses is a powerful metaphor for the people of God at the lowest point in their history. When Ezekiel proclaimed this, Babylon had won. Jerusalem and its glorious temple had been reduced to rubble, and a large amount of the population had been forced into exile, either as captives in a strange land to the east, or scattered to the four winds. It seemed to many that their story was over.
Yet Ezekiel’s vision looked beyond that, to a hope that their future remained in God’s hands, and even when it seemed that the despair of dry bones had consumed them, there was this vision that something new was coming.
It is a vision of hope that Ezekiel sought to work for, and yet he knew that he would never see it himself. The people of Israel would see new life, there was hope for the future, and God would breathe new life into a people whom the world saw as dead and dried up.
Ezekiel’s message to the people: don’t give up. These bones can live. These bones will live. God’s Holy Spirit is working in ways that we never thought possible. What it all looks like when we come out the other side, that’s up to God, but we need to trust that God is indeed working, that the Holy Spirit is still blowing, and that God has a part for us to play.