23 May 2021

When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf.- John 15:26

In Nigeria, the call to go into ministry is more than a call to do God’s work.  It is a call to, sometimes literally, give your life for Christ.  Islamic extremists have been attacking churches and either killing or kidnapping priests and pastors.  These attacks have fueled tensions between Christians and Muslims in the region even though Muslim extremists are mostly to blame.  On January 15th of this year, John Gbakaan, the priest at St. Anthony Catholic Church in Gulu, was abducted as he was on his way to his mother’s house.  His kidnappers demanded 5 million naira (US$13,200) in ransom money.  The Diocese of Minna refused to pay, reasoning that if they paid the ransom it would only encourage them to abduct more clergy in the future.  Two days later, his body was found.  The most concerning fact that Nigerian Christians are concerned about is that no one has been arrested for this crime.  And this is not an isolated incident.  Patrick Egwu of the Christian century writes, “A priest’s itinerary can be easily monitored and tracked, and this makes them soft targets for attacks.  And unlike Nigerian politicians, clergy don’t travel with armed security.”  Martin Anusi of the Catholic Diocese of Awka noted, “If a priest is kidnapped while carrying out his pastoral assignment, the diocese will do everything possible to pray for you – but no ransom would be paid for your release.  If they kill you, that would be part of our life and vocation as a priest” (The Christian Century, Patrick Egwu, 4.7.2021, 28).  In Nigeria, Christian leaders can relate to the fear that the disciples had when they fulfilled the mission that Christ gave them.  They lived in constant fear that they would be arrested by authorities, or worse.  But they did not let that fear stop them from pursuing what they felt called to do.

The Book of the Law in Leviticus commands the Israelites to take a Sabbath year every seven years, and a Jubilee year every seven times seven years.  Maybe that is why many people take a year off by retiring and then decide to come out of retirement after just a year.  Not only could they not say no, they knew that they had taken their Jubilee year.  Do you take a rest every seven years?  Sabbaticals occur once every seven years in some professions so that employees can have six to eight weeks of spiritual enrichment and time off outside of their usual vacation time.  This is a time where books have been written, trips of a lifetime have been made, fresh ideas have been born, and, most of all, spiritual nourishment is given.  In Leviticus 25, this is what The Lord commands Moses to tell the people: “When you enter the land that I am giving you, the land shall observe a Sabbath for the Lord. Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in their yield; but in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of complete rest for the land, a Sabbath for the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard.  You shall count off seven weeksof years, seven times seven years, so that the period of seven weeks of years gives forty-nine years. And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family.” (Leviticus 25:2-4, 8, 10).

Easter is a season of fifty days.  Ascension Day occurs on the fortieth day of Easter.  Today is the Day of Pentecost, which is the fiftieth day.  The Year of Jubilee signified a fresh start.  Pentecost is also a fresh start for us as a church.  Nayiri Karjian, General Minister of the Living Water Association of the United Church of Christ, shared three questions to consider at the stage of transition that we find ourselves in: “What is lost?  What is left?  What are the possibilities?”  We lost the life as we knew it, but we find ourselves left with additional family time, shorter commutes, and use of technology.  But the possibilities, she notes, include finding new ways to use our time, doing church differently including participating in much more when we can participate remotely, such as our hybrid Bible studies every Wednesday night, and seeking how the Spirit may lead us to do new things.  She writes, “The world we knew before the coronavirus will not return.  Our faith is about resurrection and new beginnings” (5.13.21, Streams of Connection).

The prophet Ezekiel was set down by God in the middle of a valley of dry bones.  Notably, Ezekiel stated that it was the spirit of God that brought him there.  The valley likely sparked two feelings in the prophet when he was placed there; first, because contact with corpses rendered a person unclean, he was likely a bit apprehensive, wondering why God had placed him there.  Second, there seems to be no hope of life for the people who had died there; in fact, it was the very opposite of life.  Mark F. Rooker, Professor of Old Testament at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in North Carolina, suggests that “the implication of the scene was that there was no hope of the nation’s people returning to life and living again in her homeland” (Holman OT Commentary, 17.263).  Yet, Ezekiel still had enough faith to believe that God knew the answer, indicating that it was not completely out of the question, however unlikely it was.  He said, “O Lord God, you know” (Ezekiel 37:3).  And he prophesized as the Lord commanded him.  God breathed life into each body that was formed from those bones, so that they might live.  Further, God explained to Ezekiel what it meant: The people of Israel had lost hope, saying, “Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off completely [from God]” (Ezekiel 37:11).  God tells Ezekiel that this is not true, and that God will bring them home, so that there is reason to find hope.  God concluded, “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken and will act” (Ezekiel 37:14).

Do you feel that your bones are dried up?  You have lost all incentive to do anything because you are just tired of what the world brings you.  You may not be far from home, but you feel far from God.  Maybe you do feel far from home, because home is where your heart is, and your heart is in heaven with your loved one.  Justin Moore sings about this feeling in his country song: “Every day I drive to work across Flint River bridge, A hundred yards from the spot where me and grandpa fished. There’s a piece of his old fruit stand on the side of Sawmill Road; He’d be there peelin’ peaches if it was twenty years ago.  If heaven wasn’t so far away I’d pack up the kids and go for the day, introduce them to their grandpa; Watch ’em laugh at the way he talks…” Maybe we are far from where we feel is home because our loved ones are far away.  Maybe we feel far from where we should be, or where we want to be.  Regardless of the why, we all have lost incentive at times.  We all have lost hope.  We try to find it, and we find ourselves staring at a valley of dry bones.  Perhaps it even feels like our bones.  The past year has not been conducive to giving hope.

Yet Paul writes in Romans, “But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.  Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:25-26).  The Spirit meets us where we are when we do not know what to say.  The Spirit gives us words when we do not have words of our own.  The prophet Ezekiel was given the words to speak in order to allow the dry bones to have life.  He did not have to come up with them on his own.  We do not have to come up with them either.  Dr. Rooker tells us, “The Spirit gives life and is at work in believers’ lives.  But the Spirit’s work does not stop there.  We are in constant need of the Spirit’s power to live the Christian life.  As Paul admonished the Christian church: ‘Are you so foolish?  After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?’ (Gal. 3:3).  The same Holy Spirit that can give life to dry bones is available to empower believers to live lives of faithful obedience pleasing to the Lord” (Holman OT Commentary, 17.264).

With God’s Spirit, we are confident in this world and protected from all that may harm us spiritually, including anything that may cast doubt, fear, or worry into our hearts and minds.  This Pentecost, we will explore how the Spirit moves us to carry forward God’s mission as God refreshes God’s Spirit within us.

Do you enjoy celebrations?  It is a time to gather again with family to celebrate the special things that happen in our lives.  We celebrate birthdays, graduations, and anniversaries, Christmas, Easter, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.  Perhaps we even celebrate our summer holidays with a picnic on Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and Labor Day.  Have you ever had a celebration on Pentecost?  It seems like just another day in the church.  We had Christmas, when Jesus was born.  We had Easter, when Jesus died, and was raised up from the dead.  What is so special about Pentecost?  It occurs ten days after Ascension Day, and it is the last day of Easter.  It marked the day that the disciples would no longer witness regular appearances of Jesus in the world.  Jesus had told them this, yet he also told them to wait in Jerusalem: “See, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Acts 24:49).  The day that the disciples received this power was Pentecost.  It was the beginning of the age of the Spirit, which is an age where we still find ourselves in today.  It is a time to celebrate when the disciples received that Spirit.  What is lost, and what is left?  We still have our Christian family.  Leviticus commanded the people to take a rest from the land so that we would not forget, amid the work of everyday life, who we are guided by and who we seek.  It was time to find oneself among family, refocus, and renew oneself.  Now that we are finding hope that the worst of the pandemic is behind us, it is also time to come to our family, both biological families and Christian families, to refocus and renew.  What do you rely on to keep yourself going?  The answer today can hopefully be on God’s spirit, who moves us, encourages us, and gives us the power that we need, even when we are being chased by the world and overcome by violence.  John Gbakaan did not expect to be the victim of crime, but he fulfilled his call in a dangerous environment, without quitting and succumbing to fear, because he believed that there was life in the bones that he preached to.  He believed in the power of God to make something happen in a troubled land.  Will you believe with him?  Will you believe with Ezekiel?  Lutheran Pastor Benjamin J. Dueholm challenges us to remember the day when this movement was new: “They were a new movement but, like adults in the middle of life’s responsibilities, they forgot their own birthday” (Christian Century, 5.5.2021,21).  Do not forget Christianity’s birthday.  Let us believe in the power of the Spirit to make things new.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Scripture Readings:

Ezekiel 37:1-14
37:1 The hand of the LORD came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones.
37:2 He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.
37:3 He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord GOD, you know.”
37:4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD.
37:5 Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.
37:6 I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the LORD.”
37:7 So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone.
37:8 I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them.
37:9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.”
37:10 I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
37:11 Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’
37:12 Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel.
37:13 And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people.
37:14 I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken and will act,” says the LORD.

John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
15:26 “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf.
15:27 You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.
16:4b “I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you.
16:5 But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’
16:6 But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts.
16:7 Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.
16:8 And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment:
16:9 about sin, because they do not believe in me;
16:10 about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer;
16:11 about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.
16:12 “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.
16:13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.
16:14 He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.
16:15 All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

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