Sermon: Dry Bones and the Holy Spirit

Have you ever felt really dry in your faith life?

Have you ever felt that you were just going through the motions, turning up at church but not really getting into it, trying to read the Bible but your mind kept wandering? Forgetting to pray?

I think most of us have been through those dry times, those wilderness times. If we don’t have the Holy Spirit with us, we are like dry bones.

We would be like the skeleton of King Richard the Third, which was found a few years ago by archaeologists. They could tell who he was from the particular shape of his twisted spine, and how he died from the nicks on the bones, but the scholars couldn’t tell what he thought, what he did, what was important to him, from looking at the bones left behind after his death. Our dry bones can be a bit like that too, without the Holy Spirit. We need this extra dimension to be truly alive!

For some of us, being born again, being filled with the Holy Spirit, is a sudden and wonderful thing, a bit like what happened to the disciples in the acts reading. It was really obvious that something wonderful, something supernatural was happening. Not only were there tongues of fire on their heads,- a bit like Kevin’s hat – but they could speak in languages so that everyone there could understand! It was a really spectacular thing!

I didn’t have tongues of fire appear on my head when I prayed to be filled with the holy spirit. I was at an Alpha Holy Spirit weekend, and I had heard all about this Holy Spirit thing. I had met people who seemed to have an extra dimension to their faith, and mine seemed a bit dry, a bit lacking. I had been quite comfortable as an Anglican, going to church, but to be honest I probably got as much out of the morning tea afterwards as from the services. But I knew other Christians who seemed to be alive in another dimension, as if my life was on a black and white TV, and theirs was in a 3d movie! I started to want what they had.

When I was asked what I wanted to pray for at the Alpha weekend, I asked to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Hoping, wondering if something would happen, if it was at all possible.

Then I felt a prickling feeling that took over and I fell to the floor, a huge feeling of warmth sweeping through me, and I couldn’t stop crying. The Holy Spirit was filling me up!

I’ve never forgotten that day. Many of you may have had a similar experience, a feeling of knowing the real supernatural power of the spirit flowing through you.

But there are many other ways the Holy Spirit can inhabit us. It doesn’t need to be sudden and spectacular. It permeates gently, coming in where we invite it.

It’s a bit like making candied orange peel.

First you have to rescue the peel from lunchboxes and plates – it’s bitter, leftover, but it’s got potential. Then you boil it in water to get rid of the bitterness, and scrape off the pith, then boil it in a sugar syrup. You let it steep in the syrup. Then you make a stronger syrup and repeat the process several times, until the peel is translucent, every cell filled with the sweet syrup, but still also tasting of itself. That’s why candied peel is so delicious!

Our lives can be like that too. We can be rescues from the scrap heap, bitter but full of potential, boiled and scraped, then immersed in the sweet syrup of the Holy Spirit. Heated then steeped many times until we are translucent too, with God’s love shining out of us.

With the real peel of course, you can then dip it in chocolate. I don’t think we can extend our metaphor that far…

One hazard of becoming born again in a sudden and spectacular way is that we can disregard the experience of those who have been steeped slowly in the Spirit for a long time, until they are completely transformed. In some Pentecostal circles, people refer to those who have been ‘born again’ as ‘becoming a Christian’, and see those whose journey is slower and less direct as somehow not Christians. Please be careful not to judge people that way – judge yourself, fine, but other people’s souls are God’s business.

Let’s go back to the reading from Ezekiel. The dry bones came together, were covered again with flesh and skin, but it was only when the Spirit blew life into them that they could come back to life and make a large army! What does an army do? Sit around and polish its guns? Well, sometimes. But an army is for action, for freeing others from injustice! If we have the Holy Spirit enlivening our dry bones, what are we for? Polishing our equipment so we look the part, or doing something useful for the kingdom of God!

The Lord said to Ezekiel, my Spirit will give you breath!

What is breath for? Living, singing, speaking!

Speaking God’s truth to all those who will listen.

That brings us to the Acts reading – the disciples were speaking in whatever languages the Holy Spirit gave them. And all the assembled crowd, from all those hard to pronounce places – well done Helen – could understand!

This is a message for us. We are to speak God’s truth, God’s message in a language that others can understand. Not churchy speak. Not jargon. Words like charismatic, salvation, justification, Alpha, these are technical terms. If we want to be understood we need to use the language God gives us, even if it might not be how we normally speak.

My husband and oldest son have been known to talk computer-speak. The words are all English words, they all have a clear meaning, but the way they put them together makes no sense to a non-computer speaker like me.

Do you know what I mean? I am seeing people nodding…

What Peter had to say to the crowd was interesting, in that it was not a recounting of the Gospel message. Rather it was about prophecy. Remember, the crowd were Jewish, some born Jews, some choosing to follow the Jewish religion. They were in Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost. So Peter spoke in terms they understood. He went back to familiar prophecy from the book of Joel.

The Jews valued prophecy, they were aware of when it might be fulfilled, and to hear Joel’s words spoken in their context would have been very exciting! They were part of history, something was being fulfilled with them in the story!

Do you notice how God says ‘I will give my Spirit to everyone? Sons, daughters, young men, old men, men and women. Everyone. Not just Jewish people. Not just popular people, not just slim or attractive people. Not just intelligent people. Everyone. The unpopular, the plain, the dull-witted, the refugee, the outcasts, the successful, the failure. Everyone.

As a church we must be aware that the Holy Spirit is for everyone. This is a challenge to us when we talk of our faith to those who don’t know God yet. But we don’t need to go in dry, the Holy Spirit will give us the words to speak.

When we welcome newcomers and visitors to our service, again, may we be aware of the language we use, that the message is for everyone, and we mustn’t let the delivery of it put people off.

My friends, we can trust the Holy Spirit. As we heard in John’s gospel, it only speaks truth, and it will guide us into full truth. Isn’t it amazing that God does this? That God speaks to us and through us in this way? I feel so excited to realise that I am part of this wonderful kingdom, where God flows through all of us, and the Holy Spirit is part of our lives.

Often images of the Holy Spirit are gentle and peaceful, but I want to leave you with the image of the flames above the disciples’ heads. What do flames do? They need fuel, oxygen and heat to start, or so Nigel Latta told us in last week’s episode of his programme where he blows stuff up and sets it on fire. I have boys, of course we watch it!

What is our fuel? Our lives. What is our oxygen? The power of the Holy Spirit. And what is our heat source? The love of God.

May you burn brightly for the kingdom this Pentecost, and keep burning.

Let’s finish by singing along with this great song, Send the Fire!

 

Foundations and forgiveness

Sermon Whitby 23 February 2014

Lev 19:1-2, 9-18, Matt 5:38-48

When we read the Leviticus reading, so much of it leads to the reaction – “of course, of course I will not defraud my neighbour or steal, as for leaving some of the harvest around the edges, well, that’s just being generous with what we don’t really need isn’t it? ” It’s a bit like giving our loose change to the collectors. Our needs are met so we can afford to be generous to those less well-off, without putting ourselves out.It’s interesting that these attitudes are so ingrained that we take them for granted. Sometimes you might see commentaries that we now live in a post-Christian society. Some may twitch at that, seeing it as an admission that the church no longer holds the same power and place in society that it did in days of Christendom, when the political and religious power was aligned. But let’s look at the term – post – something means after it. And it also means affected by it. Just as ‘post-apocalyptic’ means ‘after the effects of an apocalypse’ – and I have to admit that this is one of my favourite sorts of movies – so post- Christian should mean ‘having been a affected by Christianity’.

And why can we claim that our society is post-christian? When we go back to the laws of Leviticus, they are so ingrained in the judaeo-christian legal system that all countries which have had this background at any time in their historical past have inherited laws based on these principles.A secular person living around the corner here in Whitby, who has nothing to do with church, will know that it is the decent thing not to steal, or not to be partial in judging between the rich and the poor. If there is ever a hint of bias because of someone’s background, it soon shows up in the newspapers and on talkback radio.Yes, post Christian is not a bad thing. It means that the God-given ethical standards for life have had a real and permanent impact on the world! That’s cause for rejoicing!

Where our society is in need of change though is in the larger picture. We may all know that ethically it’s wrong to steal, and that we should tell the dairy man if he gives us too much change. But how about on a larger scale? On TV this week there was a documentary about the growing gap between rich and poor, and one of the problems mentioned was those who avoid paying their taxes. It was a huge sum – 5 billion dollars! Our country is being cheated and robbed of this money. Maybe they don’t see it as stealing because it’s not personal, it’s business, it’s economic principles, or many other excuses. But when one group flourishes at the expense of others, it is stealing. This is not the way God wants us to live. Have a think then – are you in a position to influence decisions made about business practices? Are you in charge of a large business? Are you a client of one? We are all connected with the rich and powerful in New Zealand – it’s like a re-invention of feudalism, where the few have power over the may. But we can do something about it. We can pray for God to speak and for people to listen!

Coming down to the next part of the reading, the Israelites are told not to hate any one of their own kin.Is this so well-ingrained in our society as behaving lawfully? I think not.Week after week I meet people who have some sort of disconnect in their family. Maybe the kids all got on well with their parents when they were young adults, but marriage took them into the realm of another family with different ways, and tensions sprang up. This is so common it almost seems the norm. This sort of tension can lead to many problems, including people threatening not to let grandparents see their grandchildren if they don’t behave the way the younger couple want. Is this blackmail? Yes.There are many causes for disconnectedness within families – partly I think to do with the way we join up these days. A hundred years ago or so our new spouse would probably be known to our family of origin, in the same neighbourhood, and there was more homogeneity. You weren’t entering uncharted waters by marrying someone.Nowadays, people meet their partner in so many ways, and often the very difference from their own family is very attractive. This is an area where marriage preparation is so important for future happiness. Unfortunately, by the time many couples marry, if they do at all, they have been together for some years, and many of the underlying tensions and differences between families have not been explored.

God wants us not to hate in our heart anyone of our kin. This is a serious injunction, and one that is needed in so many places.However, when I suggest to my children that it might be better if they didn’t tell me how much they hate their brother/sister, – and I do hear this quite often – they always say, “but they’re so annoying! or, ‘but did you see what he did? Did you hear what she called me?” There is an offence that is being reacted to.This very problem is what Jesus is addressing in the gospel. Jewish law allowed for retaliation. The eye for an eye, and tooth for a tooth was not written to allow for giving back equal injury in a way that was seen as harsh.It was written to limit what had been happening – someone’s eye was poked out, so the other retaliated by wiping out a whole village! A tooth was knocked out, but revenge mean a whole family died. The old law was meant to limit the retaliation, to keep it reasonable, and not to up the ante all the time. This is another problem in family relations – one small offence leads to a greater response, and before you know it there’s a full-scale feud.Jesus comes against this in a radical way. Not only does he criticise the due retaliation, but goes so much further, to state that forgiving those who wrong us is the way to live.

But hang, on, you may say. Did you hear what she said to me? Did you see what he did?We sound just like kids. We want our day in court, we want to be justified in our behaviour. But Jesus asks us to forgive. This is one of the hardest parts about being a Christian. To say in your heart that you forgive and love someone who has hurt you or your family. Have you tried it? no don’;t put your hands up. It’s not the one who is forgiven who is affected, it is the one doing the forgiveness.

Several years ago I was involved in organising an Alpha course, and I was in charge of the catering. I had invited a woman I knew to bring her homestay student to the course, and told her a little about the food. As you may know, the initial dinner is usually a good spread, but the meal with each session is often lighter. In our case, it was soup and rolls for a Sunday tea. The lady brought her student along, and was really embarrassed to find that after she had told him that the food would always be like the first night, he came home complaining of a light and plain meal. She started having a go at me about not publicising this properly.As you can imagine, I felt myself getting defensive. Of course I had done my job properly, I huffed to myself. She was just a silly thing who didn’t read the notice properly.

And then something hit me.I felt one of those holy spirit nudges – you need to forgive her, it said. So I did. I prayed, asking God to help me forgive her, and prayed for her. Immediately I felt a huge burden lift, my scowl relaxed, and I could love her again.The next time I saw her, there was nothing between us – no tension, no distance.You see, she didn’t know what I had been feeling, but I was changed.

This is just a small example of how forgiving someone can transform you.It’s just a little thing – being accused of not organising something properly.It can be easy to judge which people are worthy of our forgiveness and our love. Today’s gospel reading reminds us that God loves everyone, and sends the rain to shine on the good and the evil.

There’s a little poem about that actually :

The rain it raineth every day
Upon the just and unjust fella,
But more upon the just because
The unjust hath the just’s umbrella
.

How can we love our enemies? This is one of those God things. We need the Holy spirit to help us. Perhaps, whenever you are in a tense situation, and you are getting grumpy, take stock and try to discover what God is telling you. Is God giving you an opportunity to forgive someone? Next time you are invited to something but think, I can’t face it, knowing that a certain person will be there – and there’s often one in the extended family – ask the Holy Spirit to help you forgive and love that person. Because if we as Christians cannot truly love those around us, how are we any different from those who don’t know God? God’s love is like a river – if we let it flow out through us, more flows in. We will be blessed by dripping love everywhere.

But hang on, you may say. It’s just too big. I can’t forgive.Many of you may have read the story of Corrie ten Boom, who was held in a concentration camp during the second world war. Her faith kept her strong, but there was much heartache, including witnessing the death of her sister at the hands of a Nazi guard. One day, many years after the war, she was giving a lecture tour about forgiveness, and a man sidled up to her afterwards. ‘I am the guard who shot your sister,’ he said, tentatively holding out his hand to her. Can you forgive me? Corrie recounts that it was the hardest thing in the world to do, to even contemplate touching the evil creature who had killed her beloved sister.But then she saw the man as God saw him – beloved, humbling himself. And she took his hand and forgave him. Such warmth flowed through her that she knew it was of God.

The reading finishes with the phrase, be perfect therefore as your heavenly father is perfect. No pressure! Actually Luke ‘s gospel has the word ‘merciful’ rather than ‘perfect’. The Greek word Matthew uses here is teleios, which means ‘brought to completion, mature, without shortcoming in respect of a certain standard’. Perfect then seems not to sum up the full meaning.Jesus urges us to be complete, mature, up to the required standard. Is this any easier than ‘perfect?’ Probably not. But with God’s help we can do it.

let us pray.

Loving God, you love all your people. Help us to love everyone too with that same love, and help us by your spirit to forgive, even when it’s too hard.