“The Breath of God” (Ezekiel 37:1-14)
Our text today is the Old Testament lesson from Ezekiel 37:1-14, in particular verse 5: “Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live."
There's a popular TV series called CSI. That stands for Crime Scene Investigation. Actually, there's not only one series. The original is set in Las Vegas, followed by CSI: Miami and CSI: New York. It's intriguing the way each episode unfolds. First, you see a crime scene. For the rest of the hour, you get to see how the investigators gather and inspect the evidence to find out who committed the crime. It gets pretty technical and scientific sometimes, but they manage to keep your interest with lots of drama and some cool special effects.
Ezekiel's vision would have made a great episode of CSI: Jerusalem. Ezekiel shows up in the middle of a valley. He looks around and all he sees are a bunch of dried up skeletons. How did these bones get here? What happened to all these people? Did someone slaughter them? Did they die in a famine? Was there a battle here? Is the remains of a defeated army? I think it's time to make a call to the Jerusalem Police Department and have them send out their detectives.
Actually, no investigation was needed to find out what these piles of bones were all about. God solved the mystery for Ezekiel. He said, “These bones are the whole house of Israel.” It was the sin of the people of Israel that brought them to their current condition. They were in exile, away from their homeland. They were as good as dead. Thus the Lord quotes them as saying, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are clean cut off.” The sinful disobedience of the people had cut them off from the life and the love of God. They were without hope. They were as spiritually alive as a pile of dried up bones.
That sounds like you and me sometimes. Depending on what's going on in your life, it sometimes feels as though your bones are dried up. Your strength has been sapped. You feel like giving up. You feel dead. Lifeless. Without faith. Without hope. In particular, you become aware of sin in your life and you begin to wonder if God is truly on your side any longer. You have done things and said things and thought things that suggest you are not on his side. And if you and I do not repent of our sins and turn to Jesus for forgiveness, we, too, will be “clean cut off” from God.
Don't you sometimes wish that a big wind could just come through and blow all the garbage out of your life ... especially all the sinful garbage? When you feel dried up and hopeless, don't you wish there was a cool, refreshing breeze that could blow through you and enliven you?
There was a wind ... a breath ... in Ezekiel's vision. It blew upon the dry bones and they came to life. Tendons and muscles grew on them. Skin covered over the muscles. Breath entered into their lungs and they stood up on their feet. This was the power of the Holy Spirit coming upon these dead bones and bringing life.
In the Scriptures, the word for “spirit” can mean wind, breath, or spirit. In the original languages, you have to look at the context to figure out whether to translate the word as wind, breath, or spirit. Also, you have to try to determine whether “spirit” refers to the spirit of a person or to the Spirit of God? Either way, it's clear that the breath in Ezekiel's vision is the “breath” of God ... the Holy Spirit.
However, the Holy Spirit is not just a breath, or a power, or a force. He is God, the third person of the Holy Trinity. We confess in the Creed that he “proceeds from the Father and the Son.” The Father and the Son send the Holy Spirit to accomplish the work of filling us with the breath of God, the power of God, the life of God.
Recall how Jesus, after the resurrection, gave the Holy Spirit to the disciples, recorded in John 20:22 ... And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” There's the idea of “breath” again, the very “breath” of God delivering God the Holy Spirit.
Breath comes from the mouth ... just like words ... and the Word of God is what delivers the “breath” of God, the Spirit of God to us. The Lord told Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones. Preach to them. Preach so that breath would enter the bones and they would come to life. It's the preaching of the Word of God whereby the Spirit works and brings life.
And do you remember what happened in today's reading from Acts 2, the account of the New Testament Pentecost? And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind ... [there's the idea of “wind” again] ... and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.
Those tongues of fire remind us also of that pillar of fire in the Old Testament temple ... the glory of God ... the visible presence of God. Now here, through these tongues of fire, God reveals that his presence and glory is with his New Testament Church and rests upon each individual believer in Christ. And do you recall the confusion of languages and the scattering of the nations that God caused at the Tower of Babel? God reverses all of this here on Pentecost. Now all were hearing about Jesus in their own language. And no matter what nation they were from, they were not scattered, but they were gathered into the Church.
The breath of God ... the Spirit of God ... brings life. He brought life to the people of Israel in their state of exile. Our text says, Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the LORD." God brought the people back to the Promised Land after 70 years of exile in Babylon. They rebuilt the temple. They rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem. It was as if they had been raised from dead.
The breath of God ... the Spirit of God ... brings life to all people in their sinful condition. The Word of the Lord comes to you and says, “God loves you. He sent his Son to die for you. You are forgiven of all your sins. You have been reconciled to God.” Through that Word, the Spirit blows over us and within us to work repentance and faith in the heart, a faith that enables us to believe and confess that “Jesus is Lord.”
The breath of God ... the Spirit of God ... brings life to the Church on this side of the veil as we wait for the resurrection on the Last Day. That resurrection will not be a figurative one, as it was for the Israelites returning from exile. On that day, God will literally open our graves and raise us up and bring us into the Promised Land of Heaven, where we shall live in the unveiled presence of God forever.
The life that the Spirit brings us also brings renewal even now. Psalm 104:30 says When you send forth your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground. And that is why we also prayed as we did in today's Introit, Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love.
We need the daily and ongoing renewal of the Holy Spirit. Through Word and Sacrament, the breath of God blows over us and within us. The Holy Spirit does indeed fill the hearts of the faithful here at Messiah Lutheran Church. My prayer ... and I hope this is your prayer, too ... is that he will fill us even more, that he will renew us, that he will kindle in us the fire of his love. As on that first New Testament Pentecost, with those tongues of fire upon the believers, may we know God's presence here. And as many were gathered into the Church that day, without barriers of language or ethnicity, may we also proclaim the love of Jesus with nothing limiting our witness.