Ezekiel 37:1-14 & Luke 11:5-13

Bones and Breath

Last week, Susie started us thinking about our gift-giving God, and that great gift that has been given to us, Jesus. I particularly liked the image of trying to hug someone who isn’t a hugger, and it all gets a bit awkward, and how sometimes that describes how we react to God’s gifts to us. We’re a bit stiff, and reluctant to receive it because it’s a bit scary, and it would mean that we have to open up and be vulnerable. The tragedy is, of course, that the gift that we refuse is the very thing that will take away our fears, meet our needs, and bring us life in all its fulness. If you weren’t around last week, do ask Margi Marchbank about getting a CD or DVD of it.

This week, we’re going on to think about another of God’s gifts to us, the Holy Spirit. Now hold on a minute, you might say, we’ve only just had Pentecost, haven’t we done the Holy Spirit for this year! Well, I think it’s a bit like puppies and Christmas. You’ve heard the slogan, “A dog is for life not just for Christmas”. So, to paraphrase, “The Holy Spirit is for life, not just for Pentecost”

Ezekiel was a prophet, but he is unusual in the prophets of the Old Testament because the whole of his book was written in exile in Babylon. In the first chapter of Ezekiel’s book we read this,

“On the fifth of the month – it was the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin – the word of the Lord came to Ezekiel the priest, the son of Buzi, by the river Kebar in the land of the Babylonians. There the hand of the Lord was on him.”

Having lived in the Promised Land for centuries, the unfaithfulness of God’s people had ended up with them being defeated and many of them, including their King, have been transported off to the capital city of their conquerors. They are in Babylon. At this stage the Temple in Jerusalem is still standing, it is still a Jewish city. Despite the defeat to the Babylonians, the people of God are still being unfaithful, and the first section of Ezekiel’s book is taken up with warnings of destruction if they do not change their ways.

Then in chapter 33 we read this, “In the twelfth year of our exile, in the tenth month on the fifth day, a man who had escaped from Jerusalem came to me and said “The city has fallen!”

From that chapter on, the tone of Ezekiel’s prophecies changes, he begins to prophecy restoration and renewal for God’s people. And it was one of these prophecies that we have heard this morning. It is the famous prophecy over the valley of dry bones. Particularly for our purposes this morning it is important to note the bookends to this account. It starts with the Spirit of God and it ends with the Spirit of God.

“The hand of the Lord was on me, and brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of the valley.”

“I will put my Spirit in you and you will live”

In between the bookends we have the story of the bones and the breath. The bones are dry and lifeless. Stripped of all meat by the creatures of the desert they are dead and burned white by the sun. These are not freshly dead corpses that need reanimating, these are ancient skeletons that seem to be beyond hope. So much for the bones.

And so to the breath. The breath that brings life. In the creation account in Genesis 2 we read this,
“Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being”

There is no breath without breathing. That might sound obvious, but just think about it for a moment. There is no breath without breathing. When you cannot catch your breath it is because your breathing is not working properly. There is no breath without breathing. The first breath of all was only possible because of the eternal breathing of God, breathing life into humanity.

When Ezekiel declared God’s word over the bones the first thing that happened was that they came together and their flesh was restored, but they did not live. There was no breath in them. They needed to be breathing. And so Ezekiel called the breath to enter the bodies. It was breathed into them and they caught their first breath. They were now truly alive and ready to go. The story of the bones and the breath ends with a marching army – not of zombies, not of animated skeletons, but of newly alive human beings.

In this story the bones were the people of God, traumatised and dried out of all hope by defeat and exile. And the breath? The breath is the Holy Spirit, that God promised to put in them so that they could live.

I wonder what the bones are in your story, in the story of our church, in the story of our community. I wonder where things have got dried up and feel hopeless. Sometimes I get the sense of this when people talk to me about what Wellington used to be like. Sometimes we get the sense of this when we realise that there are fewer and fewer Christians in this country. We hear about churches shrinking and struggling. Perhaps there are things in our own lives. Loved ones we’ve been praying for for a long time, but seem no closer to Jesus than when we started praying. Hopes and dreams we had for ministry and life that have collapsed around us. For all our stories of bones there is the offer of the story of the breath. God says, “I will put my Spirit in you and you will live.”

Jesus reinforces the universality of this offer in his teaching. The breath of the Spirit is not just for the keenies or the especially holy. The gift of the Spirit is for everyone.
Recently we have been exploring the Lord’s prayer and how that prayer can help shape all our prayer, can deepen our conversations with God. When Jesus taught his disciples that prayer for the first time he went on to give some more teaching about prayer, which Luke recorded and which we have heard read this morning.

I think that we have to be a bit careful with these parables to understand what Jesus is saying and what he is not saying. In the first one we have this story of somebody knocking on their neighbours door to ask for bread and the neighbour being a bit grumpy about it all and needing to be persuaded and nagged into helping out. We need to be clear that Jesus is not saying that God is a bit grumpy and needs to be nagged into helping. What he is saying is that if are willing to put ourselves through the trouble of potentially falling out with someone who doesn’t really want to help us in order to get what we need, how much more sense does it make to go to someone who does want to help us and to meet our needs, namely God.

The same point is made in the last examples. If human beings, despite their failings, in general know how to give good gifts, how much more will God, who is perfect give you good things. And what is the climax of Jesus’ teaching on prayer? Where does he end up? He ends up with the Holy Spirit. And who is it that can expect to receive the Holy Spirit? Anyone who asks. Not the keenies, not the super spirituals, not the special Christians. Anyone who asks the Father.

Later on in this series we’re going to be thinking about the gifts of the Holy Spirit – things that the presence of the Holy Spirit enables us to do and to be, but before we do that it is really important that we get our heads around the idea of the gift of the Holy Spirit. If we’re not careful we get so caught up in what we think and believe, both positively and negatively about the gifts that we lose sight of the wonder of the gift. Because, without us receiving the gift fully and appreciating the riches that it brings us, we will never enjoy, exercise or appreciate the gifts properly.

The Holy Spirit is a person, not a means to an end. The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity, sent by the Father to live in us. Just as the Father breathed physical life into humanity and into each one of us, so the Father breathes the Holy Spirit into us when we come to new life in Christ. Our acceptance of the gift of Jesus, which Susie talked about last week, means that we also receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The question that remains for us is what are we going to do with this gift. There is nothing more tragic than an unopened gift. It is true that opening this gift, truly receiving it can feel as risky and vulnerable as receiving the gift of Jesus, but it is a gift that brings life and hope, joy and life into our lives. Will we receive it?

Would you please stand. Hold in your mind a story of bones. It might be part of your story. It might be the story of a loved one. It might be the story of a community, a church, a country. See the dry bones of that story. We’re going to speak the story of the breath into those bones.

Breath of God, Holy Spirit we receive you this morning. Breathe over these bones and bring them to life. Put flesh and tendons on them, restore them to the semblance of life. Breathe into them and give them breath that they may truly live. Holy Spirit, breathe life. Breath of life, come sweeping through us. Thank you for Jesus’ promise, “how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.” Amen


  • Ann Robertshaw wrote:

    Just read your sermon Bones and Breath and
    found it inspirational from start to finish on this Friday afternoon. Thank you Tim

  • Thank you Ann, glad you found it helpful.

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