Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages.
Whichever way you cut it, Pentecost is a weird festival at which to preach. Unless, of course, you’re a charismatic, in which case you know exactly what it’s all about, and all you have to tiptoe quietly past is the flames on people’s heads. Preachers will have to think carefully about what they believe happened then, and what that says about what might happen now.
Good charismatics will know, though, that our emphasis ought not to be on weird phenomena, but on the fruit of those phenomena in the lives of individual disciples and of the church. Here Ezekiel can help us a bit, because this passage is clearly about the renewal of God’s people. In context it dates from the time of Israel’s exile, and the passage contains elements of two Hebrew literary forms. The first, which paradoxically comes towards the end of the passage, is that of corporate lament. ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone’, the people are saying as they languish in exile, despairing of ever seeing home again. These sentiments are echoed regularly elsewhere in Ezekiel. So the prophetic oracle of salvation which forms the remainder of the passage is a response to the misery of the people, and picks up exactly the symbolism of bones, which in Hebrew thought represents the very core of our being, rather as we might say in cold weather that we are ‘frozen to the bone’.
But the key symbol here is that based on the Hebrew word ruach which translates as either wind, breath or spirit. The word is emphasised by its repeated use, and the swapping between the latter two meanings. This is a passage all about God’s Spirit, and his ability to bring new life out of dead and hopeless situations.
The OT is of course full of promises about and comings of the Spirit, but they are usually only temporary as God equips people at odd times for specific tasks. But as we move through the story there are greater hints of permanence, which is of course the key to Pentecost, where the Spirit is given to anoint individuals and grow the church. Peter on the day of Pentecost makes the link with Joel 2, but several other OT passages are seen to be fulfilled at the same time.
As a church leader I am particularly interested in the two-stage process by which the bones come to life. I know that it is relatively easy to get skeletons walking around. Churches need structure and systems, admin, visions and goals, all the stuff of which business management is made. But the next step is for those skeletons to become living organisms, and that can only happen through the Spirit of God, who, of course, as at Pentecost, is given as a result of God’s promise and the people’s prayer. Great leadership and spectacular admin can take a church so far, but only prayer can invite the Spirit of God to bring it fully to life.
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