27th May 2012

 

“The breath of God’s life”.

(Ezekiel 37:1-14).

Most people who visit Portugal for their holidays head for the city of Lisbon or the beaches of the Algarve. But there are many other places of interest in Portugal and one of these is the historic city of Évora, situated about 100 kilometres south of Lisbon. It features medieval city walls, a beautiful cathedral, an ancient University, and a well-preserved Roman temple. But the most-visited “attraction” – if I may call it that – is the “Capela dos Ossos”, the 16th century Chapel of Bones, situated in the basement of the Church of St. Francis.

Now, there are ossuary chapels all over Catholic Europe; in most of them the bones are simply strewn around or locked away in cabinets. But the chapel in Évora is different. Once visitors have passed the cheerful inscription at the entrance, which reads, “Our bones which are here await yours”, they enter three rooms in which bones and skulls of all shapes and sizes have been arranged in decorative patterns around the walls and even the ceiling – it has been estimated that, in total, they would make up about 5000 skeletons. The impression is more bizarre or even artistic than macabre, but the monks who built the chapel had a serious intention: their aim was to make people think of the brevity of life, and their need to turn to God.

The Choeung Ek Genocide Museum near Phnom Penh in Cambodia must feel very different. This memorial to the appalling “killing fields” of the Pol Pot regime consists of a field of roughly-excavated mass graves and an open memorial tower filled with thousands of human bones and skulls. It is estimated that the graves contain the remains of over 20,000 victims, many of whom had been tortured before they were bludgeoned or shot. I’ve never been to Cambodia, but a visit to Choeung Ek must be even worse than a visit to Auschwitz: a reminder of just how cruel people can be. I am sure that the hundreds of people who visit the museum each day come back shocked and humbled. That tower of bones must be a truly awful sight.

Ezekiel’s vision – and we must remember that it was just a vision – is perhaps closer to Choeung Ek than Évora. For I imagine him standing on the brim of a desert valley looking down at the bones of thousands of men. We are not told how the bones have got there: has there been a famine or a deadly plague, or is this scene the aftermath of a bloody battle? It doesn’t matter now, for vultures have picked off the flesh, wild animals have gnawed at the bones and dropped them in a vast skeletal tangle. This is a picture of futility and decay worthy of a dinosaurs’ graveyard decaying in the shifting sands: these bones once belonged to living people, but now they are lying lifeless and bleached by the sun. Indeed, they hardly look human at all.

But Ezekiel is told by God to do a strange thing, in fact something that is utterly ridiculous: “Talk to these bones”, says God, “Speak my words to them and tell them that they are going to live”. You could hardly imagine anything more foolish, could you? Yet Ezekiel obeys, apparently without a qualm, and an amazing thing happens, worthy of the best special effects that the movie industry could devise (and don’t even think of mentioning the skeletons in “Jason and the Argonauts”): there is a rattling noise, the bones move and join together, they are clothed with flesh, and they stand up. It is a hugely impressive sight. But, as yet, these reconstituted soldiers are no more alive than China’s terracotta army: the prophet has to speak again and this time they are touched by God’s breath and come to life. What an amazing dream to have, and what meanings it contains!

As we start to examine this vision, we need to notice the context in which it was given (and I am not entering into a discussion as to whether it really emanated from God or not; I certainly believe it did). Ezekiel is prophesying at a time when Israel is at one of the lowest ebbs in its existence; its army has been defeated, its capital city of Jerusalem (including the Temple) razed to the ground, its land laid waste and many of its people dispersed and exiled to Babylon. Humanly speaking it seems as if the nation, so proud of its heritage from the time of Abraham, has come to the end of its road. The only future can be a foreign takeover of the land they once believed had been given to them by God, the end of their distinctive national faith, and an assimilation of their people into the nations round about. There is no reason to hope that things could ever change.

But God says, “No”. He has not given up on his people: there is still life to be had and, in the face of all odds, revival can still take place. Indeed, God longs to rebuild a nation which not only appears to be hopelessly dead but to have suffered complete disintegration. And the tool for this to happen is to be his word, spoken by the prophet. There must be a parallel here to the creation story in Genesis, where God first speaks to bring the universe into being and then breathes life into Adam. Of course we are in the realm of myth and symbol, yet there is a great truth to be recognised: God is the life-giver, and it is through the breath of his Word and his Spirit that life is bestowed. Indeed, the two words “Breath” and “Spirit” are but one in Hebrew.

And so we come to the day of Pentecost, when the Spirit of God came in power among the gathered disciples. Now it is easy to get side-tracked by the manifestations of the Spirit that were witnessed that day: the tongues of something that looked like fire hovering over the disciples’ heads, the noise that sounded like a mighty gale (but which never even twitched the curtains), and the ability to speak (or, possibly, to be heard) in languages which they had never learned. And, I have to be honest, some earnest Christians are put off from seeking a Pentecostal blessing because they are worried about the noise, the turmoil, the disorder, the apparent loss of control which it may cause. Yet it could not be denied that something was happening amongst those disciples, for it was plainly visible to all - even to those who mocked and said that they were drunk at a most unseemly hour of the morning. The rumpus and sheer activity of the church on Pentecost morning offer us a total contrast to the deathly silence and stillness of that bone-filled valley – and, sometimes, to the well-behaved and dignified Christian Church of today.

Of course, Pentecost took place two thousand years ago and Ezekiel had his vision something like 600 years before that. So what might God have to say to us through this story today? I would like to suggest two possible answers, one for our communities and one for the Church.

Thinking first of our communities, we all know that the nation is going through a time of recession; indeed, the economy is shrinking rather than growing. I am sure that we’ve all seen those pictures of boarded-up streets, derelict factories, empty shops and bleak wastelands in some of our northern cities, places where industry has died and the hope of employment has evaporated for ever. And, even here in Ipswich, there are areas which seem to have had the life sucked out of them; admittedly some are being renewed, such as the Crane’s factory site and parts of the Waterfront; but just round the corner from this church we have the dilapidation of Upper Orwell Street and the poverty of the Rope Walk Estate. We may drive through these areas to come here; or we may never visit them at all. But the challenge that God might be bringing to us is, “What divinely-inspired words can we speak to these communities to bring them new life?”

Now this is not an easy question to answer. Indeed, some of us might say that it is not the churches’ responsibility at all, that it is the duty of the local authorities and relevant Government departments to bring about community regeneration. Some of us might also ask what the local residents are doing to improve their own area, or insist that we should not stick our noses in as busy-body outsiders. Yet, on the other hand, we know how important it is for communities to speak up against unnoticing councils, to bring their concerns to landlords and property developers, to highlight issues in the local press, to enable discouraged people to have a voice. You might well call that prophecy.

As a church I think we – and I include myself in this – tend to have something of a “commuter mentality”: we drive in to activities and services in this building without really identifying with the neighbourhood in which it is set. Although I was thrilled by the way we rose to support the Winter Night Shelter Project, I was hugely disappointed by our lack of interest in the local “Wash Watch” community group. This came to a halt at the beginning of the year, largely because it could not find a leader. Yet words of life need to be spoken into this community, and on behalf of it; and the churches may well be the only organisations that can do that. I know this is not direct evangelism in the style of Peter’s proclamation at the first Pentecost – and there certainly is a need for that to happen as well – but it most certainly is a way of bringing God’s life into a decaying and dilapidated part of town. Our Ipswich “dry bones” are made up of crumbling bricks, peeling chipboard, flaking paint and weeds.

However, Ezekiel’s message was primarily spoken to God’s own people which, in these days, we may well wish to identify as the “new Israel” or the Church. And there is a huge disparity between what God and Israel are saying (and, yes, I know that bones can’t talk; but they do here!). For Israel says, “Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off”. But God has a very different message: “My people (how tender that sounds!), I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to your land”. Here is a promise of resurrection when all the evidence says extinction.

I want to be very frank with you this morning. As a church, we are an ageing congregation; we are losing faithful members far more rapidly than we are gaining new ones. Of course there are many reasons for this, which I don’t propose to go into this morning. But, from the point of view of finances, demography and statistics, the picture looks bleak; and there are some people here who have said to me, “We are a dying church, we won’t be here in ten – or even five! – years time”. Even now, we are finding it increasingly difficult to staff our activities as the supply of available volunteers has basically been exhausted.

Dare we pray that God will reverse that trend? Dare we think that, if someone walks down Tacket Street in 20 years time, they will see something more tangible than a Victorian-gothic carpet warehouse or a hi-tech office block with a blue plaque on it commemorating our former existence? Dare we hope that, a few years down the line, we discover we shouldn’t have taken out the back pews because we are running short of seating space? Dare we imagine that the tide of secularism will be reversed and people come flocking back to God?

Well, that does seem a tall order; and I don’t want to be unrealistic about the way things stand. In these days it is tough being a church, especially the sort of church we are: the tide of faith seems to have run out a very long way, leaving us stranded high-and-dry on the beach. Yet the story of Ezekiel’s vision shows us that revival can occur even in the most disheartening of situations, that awakening can still come even when it appears that life has irrevocably come to its end. That must be the Pentecost message for this church, and for many other churches in Britain today.

But what must happen for this to come about? Clearly, at the very least, fresh life from God’s Spirit must be breathed into his people – which means we have to be open to whatever he might wish to say to us, rather than clinging to traditions, however fine and noble. It also means that we must be people who make the time and effort to listen very carefully to what God is saying to us: just possibly through me as Minister, but far more importantly through the Bible, for it was God’s words that brought life to those dry bones. That means we need to be serious in reading it, serious in asking the Spirit to illuminate it, serious about engaging with its meaning and putting it into practice. Radical churches – which people take notice of – are churches in which everyone listens to God and allows his Spirit’s life to flourish.

Some of what I’ve said this morning might have sounded critical, dispiriting, puzzling or just plain annoying. Perhaps that is inevitable. Because, on this day of Pentecost of all days, I believe God is asking us to think extremely carefully about how his Spirit might come among us, might speak to us, might breathe upon us, in a new and refreshing way. For that’s what we need, if our church is to be more than a chapel of old bones and the community around us is to pulsate with God’s new life.