A reflection for Pentecost: The breath entered and the army arose

Please read Ezekiel 37: 1-14 & Acts 2: 1-4 and then pray; Spirit of living God fall afresh on me and breathe new life and power into my Christian witness and service, for Jesus’ sake. Amen

Although you may not be familiar with the entire context and contents of Ezekiel’s weighty and powerful prophecy, his vision of the valley of dry bones is in the words of the biblical scholar F.F. Bruce, “the best-known scene in the whole book.” What may be known to some of you is the song Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones, composed by author and songwriter James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) and his brother J. Rosamond Johnson. You will get an opportunity to hear this at the end of this service. Ezekiel 37 is the inspiration behind that song.

On previous occasions when the hand of the Lord had been upon Ezekiel, or when he was caught up or transported in the spirit, he was physically present in the situation he was describing whilst receiving the word of the Lord. However, this night vision of the very dry valley and the scattered bleached bones was a purely symbolical vision. Nevertheless, Ezekiel felt that he was in this valley, such was the power of the vision given by God.

Verses 12-14 of the passage clearly reveal that the scene was symbolical of Israel’s bleak existence in Babylonian exile, and the nations promised resurrection and return home as one people. Presently the people were scattered in many places like the sun-bleached bones in the dry valley of this vision, but their situation would change dramatically through the power of the word of the Lord. The work and intervention of the Lord would be unmistakable. (Read 12-14)

To a nation languishing in exile for a decade or more, this idea of a national resurrection would have seemed impossible, even absurd. There seemed to be no prospect of such a reversal of fortune. The situation was as dry and as forlorn as the valley of death in this disturbing and graphic vision. But then God asks his prophet a question: Son of man, can these bones live? Looking at the terribly bleak scene you would have expected Ezekiel to reply – “Not a chance!” But Ezekiel is more cautious and there is within his reply a trust and a belief that the omniscient and omnipotent God who he serves ultimately controls this dire situation. Ezekiel believes that his God is sovereign over everything. So, the prophet replies; Sovereign Lord – you alone know.

Ezekiel, as ever, is ready to respond to the guidance and power of his sovereign God. God tells his prophet to begin prophesying to the dry bones. He must speak the powerful word of the Lord to them. Dry bones – hear the word of the Lord. Astonishingly, through the irresistible power of the word of the Lord, the bones come together in a noisy fashion. Ezekiel can hear a loud rattling sound. Then the bones are covered with sinews, muscles, and skin. The bodies are back together. Could Israel be brought back home together?

But the re-formed bodies lack one vital thing – and this is where all the emphasis lies in this vision – but there was no breath in them. At this point we still have a dead and lifeless situation – the bodies are going nowhere. The breath must enter them, and so Eziekiel in obedience to God, prophesies to the breath to breathe life into these bodies which had been slain.

So, I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet – a vast army. (10)

Now the movement and the return home can begin, and the only explanation of the resurrection miracle is that the Lord “has done it” through the power of his word and his life-giving Spirit. The word was proclaimed and then the Spirit entered to raise up an army of significant size and strength.

Now we must turn to Pentecost and relate this vision in Ezekiel to the coming of the Spirit upon the waiting disciples. In Acts chapter 1, the message is that the disciples are waiting together as a united group who have witnessed the resurrected Jesus and his ascension. They have been put together as the bones were put together in Ezekiel’s vision and they are praying and waiting – but they still had no breath! They were told by Jesus before he ascended “to wait for the promised gift of the Father” – (Acts 1: 4-5) which was the baptism with the Holy Spirit. Now the word translated “breath” in Ezekiel 37 can also mean “wind” or “spirit”. Just as the Hebrew (OT) word Ruah has 3 meanings – so does the Greek (NT) word Pnuema – the same 3 meanings.

On the great day of Pentecost, as the disciples prayed and waited, suddenly the sound of a mighty Wind came down and filled the room where they were meeting; the divine breath entered them, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit. Wind, breath, Spirit: Once the Spirit had filled the apostles and those gathered with them, the army of the Lord could arise and begin the mission they were commissioned to do together – the mission to take the gospel to all nations. (Acts 1:8)

There is no need for me to apologise for the militaristic language. As Wesley demanded in his hymn; Soldiers of Christ arise and put your armour on! The Church then and now is the army of the Lord and we are summoned to fight against what the apostle Paul describes as “the rulers, the authorities, the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Eph 6:12) Our weapons are not knives, bullets and bombs, which are the weapons of this world, but spiritual weapons “which have divine power to demolish the strongholds of demonic menace.” (2 Corinthians 10:4) These include the power of prayer and the might of God’s word which is the sword of the Holy Spirit. (Ephesians 6: 17-18) This sword of the Spirit can slay any evil, and demons tremble and flee before it. It is an army which prays for and blesses its opponents and persecutors. It is an army which stands with the poor and the voiceless. It is an army which embraces humility, practices mercy, and pursues justice and peace.

Pentecost proclaims loud and clear that the people and army of the Lord, the Church in every age, are the people of the resurrection who carry a gospel of resurrection and hope into the whole world; the Church is now on the move in the power of the Holy Spirit and as the apostle John teaches; “the one who is in you (the Spirit, the Breath) is greater than the one who is in the world.” (1 John 4:4). As soldiers of Christ, in the army of the Lord we have our orders on how to live as children of light, (Ephesians 5: 8-20) and we have our commission to tell the world about the good news of Jesus, his resurrection and his kingdom. And most importantly, we have been given the Holy Spirit to empower us; the breath of divine life to dwell in us; to change us, to equip us with gifts of grace and power, and to fill us with hope and courage. This is what we celebrate at Pentecost. And it is to the great and glorious God of resurrection power and hope we pray faithfully;

Once more, breathe on us breath of God. Send the fire upon us and upon this nation where we live and serve today. Have mercy, and restore the fortunes of your people – the Church who live in exile. Prophesy to the breath; Come Holy Spirit once again, and renew the life of your people within this barren and lifeless land. Raise up a Spirit-filled army of men and women who are passionate for your precious glory, your honour, your praise, your truth, justice, righteousness, and peace.

O High King of heaven, ascended and reigning Lord, have mercy upon our land. Revive and raise up your Church. Send the Holy Spirit to baptise us with power for the sake of the children of this land; for the sake of the least, the lost, the lonely and the broken. May your Kingdom come to this nation. In Jesus name. Amen!

Revd Peter J Clarkson (19.5.2024)