Faithfully Yours (Ezekiel 37:1-14; Acts 2;1-21; John 16:4b-15)
Happy Pentecost! Today we celebrate the coming of God’s spirit in a new way. The story of the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle has been, shall we say, actively in the news here of late. There’s something in us that sort of resonates to love stories and stories about the British monarchy. Witness the popularity of such books and television programs as “The Crown,” and “Victoria.” Here we have a combination of the two. As Americans, we seem especially to love stories, in which, a little bit of a monkey wrench (or as our British cousins would say, a spanner) is thrown into the machinery of tradition. We lived for two years in Scotland and twenty one in Nova Scotia, much closer to “royal things,” than we are now, and so, Maxine and I have been interested in things British. The sermon title, “Faithfully Yours,” comes from a remembrance of mine from our time living in Scotland where I pursued doctoral studies at St. Andrews, which is not where Harry met Meghan, but where William met Kate, as it happened.
I remember that, in all the correspondence that we had with the folks at the university, we would get letters signed “Faithfully Yours, or sometimes, “Yours, Faithfully.” I thought it quaint. I came to find out that this closing for a letter was what someone would say when there was no emotional attachment to the party on the other end, but there was an arrangement in which goods or services were promised. It claimed that the person who had written the letter was pledging the faithfulness of themselves and their company or university or institution to perform as promised. It was a kind of covenant sign-off. “Faithfully Yours.”
One of the leading affirmations of the Bible is that God’s faithfulness, God’s trustworthiness, which, to a Hebrew would represent God’s “trueness,” is now and always will be just as it was at the very beginning, when, according to the storyteller of Genesis 1, “the spirit of God hovered (or moved) over the face of the waters. Some things are unchanging. Faithfully.
God is not material as you and I are, but is spiritual being itself, ready to bring all things we see in our world “to life.” The Hebrew word “spirit” also means “wind” and “breath.” Without God’s enlivening spirit or breath, there is no life. On the other hand, we humans are made of flesh and blood, but we also share in a spiritual nature that makes us yearn for relationship with one another, the environment, and God. The story-teller of Genesis called this, being made in God’s image. We are not God, but we bear a family resemblance.
When, as often, we are untrue to this image of God in which we are made, we deny our yearning for relationship and mutual dependence on others, and place our own selves at the centre of the universe. Our self-centredness, then, makes us yearn to dominate or even destroy others, and, many times even to do it. We decide that our way of understanding reality is the only one that counts, and human tragedy and wreckage ensue.
One significant example of this wreckage and tragedy was the time, over two and a half millennia ago, that God’s people in the little nation of Judah were bundled off into exile because, from one perspective, they forgot that their goal and purpose was to be a conduit of God’s grace for the world, not the political power in the world. We can read about the situation of the people in the Prophet Ezekiel. He lived through the whole wretched mess. His culture was destroyed and enslaved by an empire that cared little or nothing for it other than as an “asset” to be exploited. Ezekiel had warned that trouble was coming, but when it did, he had the hard job of, first, believing, and then proclaiming that God was not finished with this people, and that there was an important future for the, alienated though they were at present.
One story is the Vision of a Valley of Dry Bones, which we read again this morning. As far as his eye could see, all Ezekiel could make out were dry, dead bones. He was told that these bones represented his people. They thought that everything was over, and Ezekiel wasn’t far from believing that himself.
Ezekiel was commanded to preach to these dead bones, and, as silly as it sounded, when he did, those bones all came together, and flesh came back on them and they looked just like people, except that they had no spirit or breath in them (remember it’s the same word in Hebrew). They were still dead. It was only when the spirit came into them that they became alive. God teaches this lesson:
You will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil…(Ezekiel 37:13-14a).
The first thing that God’s spirit brings to people is life. Without God’s spirit we can go on in our own little graves, our own little ruts, neither alive nor lively in any real way. God’s Spirit brings life. Pentecost is really about this kind of miracle.
Pentecost is the last act of the Easter drama. It’s when the people of God discover that although, as we said last week, Jesus moved on, that God didn’t leave us, and, in a way, Jesus didn’t leave us. For us today this says, the Easter drama prepares us for new life in new situations in our world. God’s presence with us is faithful, as at the beginning and in the future. It is personal . Faithfully yours.
Now, although, the promise of Pentecost is that, when God’s spirit is present people come alive, it’s about more. God brings us home, to a place where we are accepted and whole. When God says, “I will put my spirit within you,” God isn’t talking about just indwelling individuals. The “you” into which God’s spirit is put is plural, it’s corporate. God’s spirit lives in the community. God is faithful. God is yours. God is faithfully yours together.
The next thing that God’s Spirit brings comes out of the word of Jesus a long time ago. Jesus said (my translation is a little different than almost all of them): “But when the spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you along the road in all truth.” Earlier on I said that, to a Hebrew, the word “truth” would have to do with reliability, dependability, and a correspondence to the way things really are. The spirit guides us in what is real (truth). But there’s even more to this. Earlier on in John chapter 14, Jesus had spoken to a group of his disciples who were puzzled with the fact of his leaving them. He had said that, since they knew him, they knew the way he had to be going. And, they had confessed that, although maybe they ought to have known, they didn’t. So Jesus said that he was the true and living way to God. If you want truth, don’t look for facts and figures or a system, look to a person. The biblical way of defining truth is, again, not a water-tight series of propositions that are logically inescapable – that’s a view that depends as much on the 18th century philosophy as anything. In the Bible, something is true if it describes reality and holds us up in its midst. It is what is trustworthy. Jesus says that truth is not only something that’s trustworthy, it’s some one who is.
Jesus promised that the true spirit of God (that is Jesus’ own spirit) will guide disciples along the road within the sphere of what it means to be like Jesus, who said, “I am the truth.” The promise is that, as we walk along the path of life, we will discover that God’s spirit is there guiding us, and that we can rely on that same spirit in the future. The promise is that this divine spirit will simply help us to be more like Jesus. Yes, the spirit of God in Christ brings us life, brings us home, and guides us along the true way, the way that describes reality and holds us up in its midst. No matter what. God was, is and is to come. God is faithful. Faithfully yours.
Now, the Gospel words tell of Jesus saying that, not long after him, the time will come when this spirit, this wind from God, this breath of God, will come to guide Jesus’ own along the true road of being like him. In our lesson from Acts 2 that promise becomes a reality. After Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, the disciples were, quite naturally, worried and afraid of what might happen to them. They hadn’t worried as much when Jesus was “there” before his death. They had learned not to worry as he came to be with them in his resurrected state, but now, he was well and truly gone. They were on their own. As they were meeting together in that same upper room that had become a bit of a hide-out in the last days, the disciples were praying together, and suddenly, there was the sound something like a rushing mighty wind, and a vision of something like tongues of flame that fell from heaven. Now, if that doesn’t put you off nothing will. What happened as a result was so much life that it looked and sounded to those around like chaos, as if these folk just had a bit too much to drink. But the more they listened the more this very diverse crowd heard something amazing. Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesopotamians, Judeans, Cappadocians, Asians, Phrygians, Pamphilites, Egyptians, Libyans, Romans, Cretans, and Arabs, someone from almost every place, just about – they, each one, heard and understood what was being said in the languages their mothers had spoken to them at home. Peter, who knew he was just talking as he would normally, I imagine, was as confused as anybody. When he looked for images to find meaning in what was happening, it was natural that he turn to his Bible. He intuited that what Joel the prophet had said hundreds of years before about the spirit of God being poured out on a very inclusive group of people was happening in that very moment, so that everybody who heard and understood could call on God’s name and be put on the right path of life. Joel had said that this would happen “later on.” Since God in Christ is “faithfully yours,” As it was at the beginning of the church, it is still today. Peter and Joel’s “Later on” became “now” for those people. And later on is still now for us. When God’s people operate in the power of the spirit, they are brought to discernment and understanding of others, even amidst great diversity. God signs the letter, “Faithfully Yours.”
The folk who were hearing the good news in their own languages thought they were in Jerusalem for an old Jewish festival. That day, God’s spirit cracked open the old and poured into it the new vision that, when God in Jesus is proclaimed and heard, old barriers of age, class, and gender are surmounted, and new possibilities of calling on God’s name are made available. “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved,” Peter said. Being saved means finding rich, abundant life today. Pentecost brings discernment and understanding of diverse people and diverse ways of seeing things. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.
The Prophet Joel’s “later on” is still “now.” Pentecost is still the time to celebrate that God’s spirit brings new life and new possibilities. God’s spirit guides us along the road of being like Jesus in the world. God’s spirit breaks down old barriers and helps us to discern the beauty of others, of understanding and being understood. God still signs “Faithfully Yours.”
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.