Points for Preaching and Teaching
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless
We have mused and bemused over this story for years now; most of you have tried to preach it every which way you could possibly think of. It may not be necessary, but I like to point out the miracle of “spiritual hearing” in this text — not the generally-assumed miracle of “speaking in tongues” that is so often accentuated. Vv. 6 and 8 clearly indicate that, no matter where you were from or what language you spoke, if you were in the room that day you heard the gospel proclaimed in your native tongue.
(I have, at times, wondered if I’d been there, would Peter have begun his address with, “Now, ya’ll settle down…?”)
For us, seeking to hear the gospel on this day, what exactly will the Spirit need to enable in us so that we might have “ears to hear?”
In Ezekiel, the very bone-chilling (pun alert!) and unlikely scene is a valley of “very dry” bones. The “very dry” is important, because the author wishes to remove all doubt as to the presence of life in this desolate place. There absolutely is none. Not only is there no life, there is — symbolically speaking — no hope for the intended audience of Ezekiel’s message.
The nation of Israel has just been ransacked; the Temple in Jerusalem lies in ruins. The faithful have by and large been carried away to Babylonia in a captivity that will ensure no return to the Jewish homeland for a majority of the people who experienced it. It’s just not a good time!
And, yet…in the midst of this pile of bones, this barricade of desolation, God promises to breathe new life into God’s people. It is an audacious claim and is certainly a vivid vision. The bones rise up, receive new bodies, and are enlivened not only by the breath of life but by the Spirit of God. Hope remains alive in the midst of the most hopeless of scenarios.
Is this vision “true to life,” as you have experienced it? What are the kinds of places that God shows up? If you have been in a place where your own bones felt “very dry” and you have not received the breath of new life, is there anything in this passage that gives you hope (or at least a reasonable expectation of help) for the future?
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
The psalm reminds us of the creative work of the Spirit, echoing the opening passages of Genesis. It was the ruach (“wind, breath, spirit”) of God present in the beginning that brought order to the creation. It is the same ruach that brings renewal to our lives — re-creation, if you will, over and over again!
It can be awfully frustrating to be told, “Just be patient; remember that good things come to those who wait!”
Our lives are not often given to the pace required to wait; for better or worse, we tend not to enjoy struggling in order to get good results, either. We want what we want, and we want it now!
The Christ-life is not something that is produced in us — at least not in its fullness and entirety — instantly. “Being saved” is a process, one that Paul likens here to childbirth. Those of you preachers who are also mothers are allowed to chime in here in manifold witness to the fact that bringing a new life into the world is neither instantaneous nor easy!
But…and we can thank God here…the Spirit helps us in our weakness. Even when we haven’t a clue what we’re supposed to be doing (like praying, for example) — the Spirit teaches, guides, and occasionally takes over when needed.
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
Take a look at the ways that the Spirit is named by Jesus in this passage:
- Advocate (one who takes your side)
- Truth-teller (someone whose words you can always count on)
- Testifier (someone who speaks up for you)
- Prover/Judge (someone who can see what is right and make it plainly known)
- Guide (someone who knows the way and is willing to show it to you)
- Speaker (of the words of God)
- Glorifier (of Christ)
What are some situations in which it would be helpful to remember that the Spirit, who is always with us, can be a resource for us in these ways?
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton
Acts 2:2 – “Suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.”
In the fall of 2004, Hurricane Ivan hit the Gulf Coast with a fury that did not peter out until it reached the North Carolina mountains. I know, I was there. I was leading a retreat for a group of young pastors. It was their first week together. They were from all over the country. It had been a good week, a getting to know you week, but on Thursday night, it became a very interesting week indeed.
It had been raining all day and we knew a hurricane had hit the Gulf, but we were hundreds of miles away in the mountains, for God’s sake. We were safe. After dinner, I went out and sat on the lodge porch and looked at the rain on the lake, trying to do some last minute program adjustment. Suddenly, I realized what was happening right in front of my eyes. I thought, “Look at that, little tornadoes, water sprites, dancing across the lake. And waves. Big waves. Wait a minute, we don’t have waves on the lake.” Then Ivan really hit. Trees bending toward the earth, electricity going out, roofs lifting up. Light pole breaking off 5 feet in the air, power lines dancing around on the ground.
And, in the midst of that, I had an attack of the stupids. Someone came into the lodge kitchen and said there was a tree down across the road that was the only way in and out of the retreat center. For some reason, he and I decided it was vital to get that tree off the road, in the middle of a hurricane. So we got a chain saw and loaded a couple of the young pastors into my old Jeep Cherokee. We drove down until we got to the place where the trees had fallen across the road and began to work.
The wind was blowing, the rain was falling, the trees were slick. We made some progress on one and moved up to the next one. And then; well it’s kind of confusing but I’ve never been so scared in all my life, before or since. The wind started blowing in a particularly hard and swirling manner, and the trees around us began to twist and twirl in the air and to crack and moan and make noises both mournful and threatening, and looking up into the twisting tree tops induced a swirling feeling of vertigo; and suddenly we knew ourselves to be in mortal danger and ran to the seeming safety of the car.
And now I understand what it means to be not only “amazed and astonished,” (vs. 7) but also “bewildered,” (vs. 6) and “perplexed.” (12) This out of control, rushing, “violent” wind as an image for the Holy Spirit is not a comforting image. No way, not at all.
In the movie, “The Princess Bride,” there is an overly confidant schemer and plotter who confidently proclaims various things to be “inconceivable;” yet the very things he dismisses always happen. Eventually his huge and supposedly dimwitted henchman turns to him and says, “I do not think that word means what you think it means.”
Those of us who talk about wanting to feel God’s sweet, sweet spirit in this place, or about being “spiritual but not religious” may need to think about that. It may be that the word “spiritual” does not mean what we think it means, at least not in this context and not all the time.
We read a line like Romans 8:26 about the Spirit helping us “in our weakness,” and think “that’s nice.” We fail to put the text in its context and quickly forget that the prevailing image here is childbirth – “the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains.” Anyone who has witnessed a birth, and especially anyone who has actively given birth, knows that this is not a sweet, gentle, non-violent process. As a man I hesitate to talk about it, but having been present for the birth of both of my sons, I can testify, I can give a witness – it is not a sweet nor gentle process. And I can imagine that there comes a point in every birthing process when the one giving birth yearns for help in weakness.
The bestowal of the Holy Spirit is not for the weak of heart. “Tongues as of fire,” may mean speaking in unknown languages, but it more likely means being pushed out of our comfort zones to speak about Jesus to others in a “language” not our own, uncomfortably and fearfully learning to talk to people with whom we normally would not associate. And it might mean speaking truth to power, addressing issues and concerns some people would rather the church not talk about. The Spirit might prompt you to say things that are so out there, so against the grain of what most people think and believe, that someone is likely to ask you , “What have you been smoking?’ This is, of course, the 21st Century equivalent of accusing you of being drunk at 9 am.
This Holy Spirit business is a dangerous thing. Peter is quoting the prophet Joel when he talks about women and men prophesying, about the young seeing visions and the old dreaming dreams. We all know that visions and dreams and prophecies are dangerous things. They are vertigo inducing and frightening. It is better that we stay safely rocking on the porch, watching God’s mighty wind blow on somebody else, somewhere else.
But, here’s the catch – it doesn’t work to try to stay on the porch. What’s the old expression, “You can run, but you can’t hide.” The Spirit will find you, just like it found the apostles, huddled together in one place. Yes, the Sprit will find you, and it will fill you, and it will give you a tongue as of fire, and it will push you out of your cozy chair and into a wild ride through the world. And really, all one can do is take a deep breath and hang on for dear life.
Amen and amen.