Bones, water and hope - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

Bones, water and hope

Ezekiel 37: 1-14

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1 The hand of the Lord was upon me, and carried me out in the spirit of the Lord, and set me down in the midst of the valley which was full of bones,

And caused me to pass by them round about: and, behold, there were very many in the open valley; and, lo, they were very dry.

And he said unto me, Son of man, can these bones live? And I answered, O Lord God, thou knowest.

Again he said unto me, Prophesy upon these bones, and say unto them, O ye dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.

Thus saith the Lord God unto these bones; Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and ye shall live:

And I will lay sinews upon you, and will bring up flesh upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and ye shall live; and ye shall know that I am the Lord.

So I prophesied as I was commanded: and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold a shaking, and the bones came together, bone to his bone.

And when I beheld, lo, the sinews and the flesh came up upon them, and the skin covered them above: but there was no breath in them.

Then said he unto me, Prophesy unto the wind, prophesy, son of man, and say to the wind, Thus saith the Lord God; Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.

10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood up upon their feet, an exceeding great army.

11 Then he said unto me, Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel: behold, they say, Our bones are dried, and our hope is lost: we are cut off for our parts.

12 Therefore prophesy and say unto them, Thus saith the Lord God; Behold, O my people, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel.

13 And ye shall know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves, O my people, and brought you up out of your graves,

14 And shall put my spirit in you, and ye shall live, and I shall place you in your own land: then shall ye know that I the Lord have spoken it, and performed it, saith the Lord.

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At first sight the three biblical readings that we have heard this morning might appear to have little in common.  But as chance would have it, all three passages are of immense significance for me, personally - and, if I can crave your indulgence for a moment, I would like to tell you why.

The first time I was ever asked to read a lesson in a church service was 37 years ago, on Easter Eve 1982.  I was 23 years old, and still very new to all this church-going malarkey.  And the vicar at the University Church that I had started attending, asked me if I would read the passage from Ezekiel that we heard as our Old Testament reading this morning, during the Easter Vigil ceremony. 

I was very apprehensive - I had never read in public before, let alone in front of a packed congregation of experienced churchgoers, at the most significant service of the Church's year.  On the night itself, the church was in pitch darkness, and the atmosphere electric.  And as I read those extraordinary ancient words, describing how a valley full of dry bones came to life - a vision that spoke authentically of the absolute finality of death, but then of how new life was restored even there, such is the power of the life-giving word of God - I was utterly captivated, and profoundly affected by it.

Fast forward 17 years, to 21st March 1999, twenty years ago this year.  I was in the United States, attending a service in an African-American church in Alexandria, Virginia.  If you were to ask me to identify the single best sermon I have ever heard preached anywhere - it was the address that I heard that Sunday morning. 

I was told that the preacher at that service, the Revd Carla Thompson, was a former New York cop, and I could believe it - I certainly wouldn't have messed with her.  She spoke with the most extraordinary inner authority.  And she had a very unusual and idiosyncratic style of preaching - one that I wouldn't begin to know how to emulate, nor could I even attempt it.  And she preached on that same lesson from Ezekiel about the valley of dry bones. 

I have no idea how she did it - all I know is that somehow she transported us right there: we were standing in the midst of that valley of dry bones; we felt the desolation and despair and the finality of death, personally - and then, astonishingly, all around us, gradually, stage by stage, we saw those dead, dry, desiccated bones come to life again, against all the odds.  We glimpsed the absolutely life-changing power of the love of God, to bring hope into the situations of darkest despair; we saw the restoration of real human life from dust and bone.  And I was riveted - I was nailed to the pew.  It was utterly extraordinary.

And what of our second reading, from the Book of Acts?  In April 2016, a group of us from St Bride's undertook a pilgrimage through mainland Greece, following in the steps of St Paul.  And the reading from Acts that we heard this morning was our starting point.  Our reading tells how St Paul, who was in what we now know as modern Turkey, has a vision in which a man from Macedonia pleads with him to come and help his people.  So, in response to that vision, Paul set sail from Asia Minor to the seaport of Neapolis, on the coast of mainland Greece.

And it was in Neapolis, the modern city of Kavala, that our pilgrimage began.  We heard in our reading how St Paul travelled from there to a place by a river outside the ancient city of Philippi, where he baptised a woman called Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth, together with her household - an event that was of immense significance in Christian history, because hers is generally regarded as the first Christian baptism on European soil. 

And on our first full day in Greece we travelled to that very site, which now bears her name - Lydia - and there, next to the river in which she had been baptised, we celebrated the Eucharist together in the open air, and renewed our own baptismal vows.  It was extraordinary to know that we were standing where St Paul himself had stood, and to find ourselves directly connecting with that event from two thousand years earlier - an event that was also about the gift of new life - the new life that is ours through baptism.   

And our Gospel reading today is also of profound significance for me, although in a rather different way.  Let me first set the scene: it is the Last Supper that Jesus shared with his disciples.  The meal is over, and Jesus is explaining to his followers that he is about to depart from them, but is urging them to keep heart.  He has just been asked a question by a man named Judas (whom the Gospel writer is keen to point out was not Judas Iscariot, who has already left, having been dispatched into the darkness by Jesus to undertake his act of betrayal). 

And the question Jesus has been asked is this: 'How is it that you will reveal yourself to us and not to the world?'  And in essence, Jesus's reply is: 'If you love me, keep my word; the Holy Spirit will come to you.  I am giving you my peace; do not let your hearts be troubled.  Do not be afraid.'

I have already described some life-changing experiences from my own past journey of faith, linked with our first two readings this morning.  The significance of our third, Gospel reading for me is much more to do with the present.  Because the longer I am in ministry, the more powerfully and directly those words of Jesus speak to me in the here and now.  Particularly when we remember that Jesus utters them at the very moment when his own inexorable journey into darkness has already begun: he has packed off Judas to 'do what he has to do' - to betray him.  He knows that his own arrest, abandonment, humiliation, torture, crucifixion, and death are what lie ahead of him.  His own situation could not be any bleaker than it is. 

And yet his message to his disciples is, 'Do not let your hearts be troubled; do not be afraid.'  Do not be afraid.  Know my peace in your hearts.  Because whatever happens to you, the Holy Spirit will be with you, and I will come to you.  These are no hollow words of facile encouragement - 'always look on the bright side of life' kind of nonsense - they cannot be.  Because they are spoken by one who not only knows all about the heart of darkness; but by one who is himself about to descend into that very same harsh and desolate reality.

If there is a single theme that links our three readings this morning, it is to do with the new life that comes of hope.  Hope always has to compete with the temptation to despair.  But beyond our tears, and our anguish, and our fear, there is always the healing love of God.  A love that can gently draw new life out of the most desolate and desiccated of situations; a love that brings us new life through the waters of baptism; a love that shines the brightest of lights into the darkest part of our fear, and tells us: 'You are not alone; and however much this might feel like an absolute dead end, it is not the end of the story.' 

It cannot be.  Because however deep the darkness might seem, the light of Christ is always the stronger.

And thanks be to God for that.

Amen.

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