The Emergence of Hope – Sermon – Alex Moir – 28 February 2021

WELCOME

Good morning First Baptist. We welcome you to worship this morning. Be sure to remember your brothers and sisters in Christ throughout the week as you pray for them, and as the Holy Spirit brings their faces to your mind. Be sure to also connect with them in the ways that are possible. And if you have any questions or would like to talk to someone, please don’t hesitate to contact the church through the church telephone and leave a message. (519-733-4144)

Call to Worship

“But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.” 

— Isaiah 40:31

Prayer

How we depend upon this promise, Our Father, during a time when our energy is pushed beyond the brink and the demands of work and family seem, at times, unreasonable.  As we spend time in worship equip us in such a way that responding to the challenges of life may find us turning to You … that we may soar in our service to You and those around us.  We pray in the name of the One who served so well … even Jesus.  Amen.

Song

Today's Message

Scripture Reading: Ezekiel 37:1-14

The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”

I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath[a] enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’”

So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.

11 Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’”

Our visit with our hero Ezekiel today finds him being led to a strange place … “The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me out … in the middle of a valley; and it was full of bones.”  In spite of this being a rather shocking sight, most of us have experienced something like this when we’ve had the occasion to visit a former battlefield … whether the D-Day landing site of Normandy, the place of the pivotal Civil War battlefield in Gettysburg or even closer to us on the grounds where the Battle of the Thames was fought.  If, when visiting these locations, we can get lost in the moment, we might just sense some of the horror of that former day … the screams of the wounded and dying; the earth shaking from artillery fire; bullets whizzing past in the heat of battle; the senseless loss of young life. 

But Yahweh’s purpose in accompanying his prophetic protégé through this ancient battlefield transcends the general topic of the horrors of war.  With the backdrop of the recent destruction of Jerusalem, his purpose is very specific … “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel …” we read in v. 11.  We discussed a little last week about the meaning of the fall of this great city around 586 B.C. (or B.C.E. if you prefer).  The exiles in Babylon had hoped that there might be a return to their home country at some point … Ezekiel had prophesied as much.  But with the holy city in ruins and the Temple destroyed what would there be left to inhabit?  In the second half of v. 11 we read what must have been a now familiar refrain heard from the lips of the exiles … “Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.”  At very least at this point the exiles felt that two avenues of escape had been taken from them.  They felt stuck … the image of life back home again was getting dimmer and dimmer.

And here is another spot in this story which may intersect our own lives.  This isn’t just a history lesson about the sad state of “the house of Israel” many centuries ago.  We’ve all felt this “cut off” feeling ourselves.  It might have to do with a simpler way life that we yearn for, as Wynonna and Naomi Judd sang;

Grandpa, tell me ’bout the good old days;
Sometimes it feels like … this world’s gone crazy.
Grandpa, take me back to yesterday,
when the line between right and wrong
didn’t seem so hazy. 

Sometimes we feel cut off from the nurture of family, due to distance or unkind words. Perhaps it’s from the familiarity of a job, when a decision in a board room half a world away closes the business which has defined our work life and renders our role obsolete.  Or finally, it could have to do with our current COVID situation where we’ve been cut off from human contact, worship and work.  We may have been spared the house of Israel’s experience of being separated from our heritage by a foreign occupying power … but we have known the “cut off” feeling nonetheless.

As we witnessed in last week’s scripture (see 34:11) the response to this situation which we see in today’s passage represents the loving Father applying pastoral care to his suffering people … and it begins with Yahweh addressing the grief of His people.  In verse 2 of our passage Ezekiel informs us that the Spirit of the Lord ” … led me back and forth among them …”, the bones in the valley.  When something precious in our lives, whether people, livelihood or opportunity, is taken from us we go through a period of loss or grief … and it is important that we recognize it and willingly go back and forth through it for a time.  Author Frederick Buechner, when referring to funerals, describes it this way;

Celebrate the life by all means
but face up to the death of that life.
Weep all the tears you have in you to weep
because whatever may happen next, if anything does,
this has happened.
Something precious and irreplaceable has come to an end
and something in you has come to an end with it.
(p. 51, Buechner, Whistling in the Dark)

Embracing the grief is followed by a dramatic act of healing in v 6.  The recovery will be characterized by Yahweh returning wholeness to His people, as dramatic as the return of tendons, flesh and skin to the dry bones of the battlefield.  But it’s not simply the body that is renewed.  The very essence of their personhood will be restored as well;

I will put breath in you,
and you will come to life.

The word for breath here, the Hebrew noun pronounced ruach can, indeed, mean “breath” or even “wind” … but it means “spirit” as well.  As breath characterizes what is a living body, so the Spirit indicates life of a different and more vital type … something that we need so much at those times when we feel cut off.  One of the early leaders of the Pietist movement, August Francke, in describing his conversion, gives us a glimpse of the life the Spirit brings;

I saw my past life unfold before me …
My sins came before me so distinctly that I could have counted them.
Then all my doubts vanished as if by magic …
All sadness and all anxiety were lifted from me,
and my soul was invaded by a torrent of joy.

The second step in the recovery process for this people feeling “cut off” can be found in v. 12 …

O my people,
I am going to open your graves
and bring you up from them.

Apparently one of the great fears of the Hebrew people, now that their escape from Babylon appears to be “cut off”, was the prospect of being buried in a foreign land.  So much of their belief system revolved around “place” that they wondered how Yahweh would find them at the end of their days, when being “found” was so important.  We may feel more assured in this area, due to the teaching of Jesus and the New Testament where the parameters of the after life are more fully explained … but what about the instances here on earth when we feel “cut off” from God due to our mistakes and faithlessness?  Sometimes we might feel that we have buried ourselves, with graves of our own making.  Will He be able to find us? An old song from the Christian worship book reminds us of the care we can count on …

Though I forget Him and wander away,
still He doth love me wherever I stray.
Back to His dear loving arms would I flee,
when I remember that Jesus loves me.
(Philip Bliss)

At times when we have done something unthinkable, we rely on the care of the one true God whose love, as Paul assures us in Romans 8, cannot be separated from us.

Finally, Yahweh gives Hebrew nation the ultimate assurance in v. 14 …

I will put my Spirit in you
and you will live,
and I will settle you in your own land.

It is helpful to be reminded that no one could have predicted the unfolding of world events that resulted in the Hebrew people being encouraged to leave their exile and return to their land … but it surely happened.  In the year 538 the Persian army (today’s Iran) led by King Cyrus defeated the Babylonian army, thereby assuming the role of most powerful nation at that time.  One of Cyrus’ policies was a type of self determination of people groups … which resulted in the exiles returning to the southern kingdom of Judah, over time (see Ezra and Nehemiah).  It brings to mind a wonderful saying that we find in somewhat different form at least twice in scripture … Is anything too hard for the Lord (Genesis 18:14)? and For nothing is impossible with God (Luke 1:37).

I was witness to this type of experience first hand, as pastor of a small group of “exiles” all who had moved out of comfortable, established churches to be part of a church plant.  We had been assured that the land around our tiny portable worship facility would be developed and that our new building would not seem isolated … but double-digit mortgage rates and vacant lots surrounding us seemed to suggest otherwise.  Then came something that no one saw coming.  With not one other structure standing even close to our temporary quarters, some digging began right across the street … and it wasn’t long before the Golden Arches were constructed, proving to us that, if McDonald’s was about to build a restaurant in our neighbourhood, that growth would come.  Our faith in the process that led us all to share the Good News in that part of our city was affirmed.

The last part of v. 14 affirms what we should all know and never forget, even in our “cut-offness” …

“Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken,
and I have done it”, declares the Lord.

I say amen to that … and I’ve seen it happen dozens of times, in individual lives and churches, through a lifetime of ministry.  I invite you to embrace this joyful assurance … 

Prayer

Our gracious Father, we are so grateful for how often You have reconnected us with the things which nurture and encourage us.  With our own eyes we have seen the growth of grace in individual lives … with our own ears we have heard the sincere language of faith from those who could only speak of mistrust and doubt.  We have been privileged to see Your “breath” bring new life … and now we can no longer doubt Your power.

If we’re truly honest, our God, we admit to You that there have been times … when the full weight of world events or human ways have brought us to despair about Your possibilities.  As we have heard about developments no one could have predicted we have been encouraged anew to simply believe … and live our lives in anticipation.

Finally, gracious Father we come before You on behalf of those who, due to extreme discouragement, would not approach You on their own.  We are relieved that, though they may have given up on You, that You have not abandoned them.  Through the miracle of Your Spirit continue to bless all of us with your holy concern for our lives … and Your guidance even when we may not ask for it.  We pray all these things in confidence … remembering the very words of Jesus, discouraging us from worry “because your Heavenly Father knows that you need these things.”  We pray in His strong name … amen.  

Song

Benediction

“May the Just One set me straight, may the Kind One correct me.” 

Psalm 141:5