God Is Still Speaking
Pentecost 2019 Ezekiel 37:1-14 Acts 2
Most of us carry some mental image of the Good Old Days.
Professionally we might remember the time when we felt creative and energized when everyone was working together … those were the days.
In our relationship with our spouse, we may hold dear memories of our honeymoon or setting up our first home – of a time when life together felt magical.
Churches, too, believe they had a Golden Age – and many Christians look longingly to the Pentecost described in Acts 2.
That is easy to understand when we read how through the power of the Holy Spirit.
a mere sermon by the Apostle Peter brought 3,000 people into the new church, just a touch of the apostles could heal people, and even prison cells could not hold disciples arrested from preaching Jesus’ Resurrection.
The problem is that every Golden Age always appears to us to be in the past, often blinding us to the joys and opportunities of the present.
What was once a thrilling career now feels mundane, and every idea now feels like we’ve already tried that and it didn’t work.
What had been our partner’s charming personality quirks become relentless annoyances.
And at church we preach, we pray but it never seems to measure up to the Golden Age of Acts 2 … so we wonder where the power of the Holy Spirit is for Christians today.
In the United Church of Christ, we often say that God is still speaking.
God is not just past tense in Scriptural accounts of long ago.
Through scripture, mediated by the Holy Spirit, we hear the fresh voice of God today.
The still speaking God continues to challenge us, continues to have plans for us … so let us never dare to believe that our best days are behind us.
Pentecost was not a one-time in-breaking of the Holy Spirit, but rather part of God’s on-going promise to be with His people in all times and in all circumstances.
To get the context of all this, let’s start with the famous passage where the prophet Ezekiel prophesized to the valley of dry bones.
At that time, the people of Israel felt utterly defeated.
They had been powerful and united during the Golden Age of King David but were now humiliated – the nation conquered, and its people exiled and scattered – ten of their tribes disappearing completely from history.
The once great temple built in the Golden Age of King Solomon lay in ruins.
The future looked bleak when God spoke hope through Ezekiel, who was looking across a valley littered with the bones of the nation’s defeated army.
Ezekiel 37: 5 This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life.
Ruah, the Hebrew word we translate as “breath” is the same as “wind” or “spirit”, the same Spirit that hovered over the chaos to create our world, the same Spirit that God breathed into the earth to create human life, and the same Spirit that blew upon the dispirited disciples in Pentecost.
God will bring new life to whatever seems hopeless … at this the lowest point in Israel’s history, and also in your own life that seems beyond hope.
Through divine intervention, Ezra and Nehemiah were allowed to leave Babylon and rebuild the temple – but the people still grieved the ten of the tribes of Israel that had disappeared when the Assyrians had forcibly dispersed them among other conquered nations.
So even after the temple was rebuilt it did not look like what people imagined of Golden Age of the past.
Some people just couldn’t get beyond memories of past glories and so were blinded to what God was up to in their lifetime: something new, something different, but still something divinely magnificent.
Now fast forward five hundred years or so.
Angels announced the birth of the Messiah.
A few grasped his radically new message that through him the Kingdom of God had come near and had come for all people, a new Kingdom that broke down barriers between people in ways that disrupted the social order of the day.
But most were still captive to old visions of the Golden Age of the warrior king and so could not begin to hear what Jesus was teaching.
When the Messiah’s message challenged the entrenched powers and principalities, they did what these powers always do: they executed him.
His disciples fled, hid and worried about each knock on the door.
It was at that lowest of the low point that the resurrected Jesus gathered his remaining disciples.
We shouldn’t be surprised that their first question was: (Acts 1:6) Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom of Israel?
But Jesus didn’t promise to turn back to a fantasy past and “Make Israel Great Again”.
Rather, he commissions them to go forward into the new world to continue what he had begun.
But, huddled in fear of their own arrest and crucifixion, they couldn’t imagine how this could be.
Then, in the very next chapter of Acts, the Spirit of God descends upon them.
Acts 2:2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house.
The first gift of the Holy Spirit was to break-down language barriers that separated people and led to isolation and suspicion of each other.
Luke – the author of Acts – never wastes words … so after he said that people had gathered there from every nation under heaven, why did he then single out for mention some specific ones?
For example, why did he include the Medes, Elamites, and Parthenians?
The Medes were a distinct ethnic group who had been extinct for over five hundred years!
How could Luke say they were in Jerusalem on Pentecost?
Didn’t Luke know his history?
Well, for one thing, the Medic, and Elamite regions were home to descendants of the ten lost tribes of Israel.
And those descendants had turned against Israel and triggered repeated conflicts.
So, Luke makes a point of how on this day Ezekiel’s prophesy that the kingdom would be restored is being answered.
Here at Pentecost God brings together remnants of contentious lost tribes and restores their ability to speak to each other.
Did God’s next step look at all like what they expected?
They had been looking for the restoration of the rich and powerful Davidic kingdom, but instead, they are drawn into a community built on servanthood, sacrifice, and forgiveness.
In the same way, we can be blinded to the movement of the still speaking God if we freezeframe God’s values and plans with a particular event, in an ancient culture, reported by an out of context scripture rather than seeing these as points along a trajectory where God is revealing His values and unfolding His purposes over time.
Let me explain by giving you an example that is unrelated to Pentecost.
At first blush, it might seem that through the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 5 God was cementing in place a role of the husband as being head of the household and dominant over his wife.
But let’s consider the cultural context in which Paul lived.
In his culture, no one could comprehend anything different than the dominant husband and subservient wife.
A woman’s status was just above that of a male house slave – that was just the way it was, nothing could be more obvious if you were born in that culture.
So that was the raw material within which God was then speaking through the apostle.
We’ve all heard someone lift the sentence of scripture where Paul says a woman is to submit to her husband, and get stuck right there in that ancient culture trying to turn that into a scriptural truth for all time rather than recognizing that this was just a point along a longer trajectory of liberation along which God was at work.
God was pushing the boundaries of those cultural assumptions.
Apostle Paul was saying that in the Christian household while a woman must submit to her husband, the husband must love his wife … he did not own her like property.
For that time and place that was a radical, challenging message.
God’s value of inclusiveness, justice, and equality never wavers, it’s just the issues of the particular setting in which Christ is at work that changes.
At the first Pentecost, the Holy Spirit didn’t just speak to Jews.
God was on the move through Cornelius and Paul to carry the fledgling Jesus movement into the Gentile world … to people reviled by the Jews.
So, Pentecost is not a one time, long ago memory of the church.
God is still speaking, calling His people to break down any barriers that our culture and churches have erected between people.
Republican, Democrat; Gay, straight; Man, woman; Immigrant, natural citizen.
God doesn’t create junk … every person is equally loved by God, every person is here for a divinely-appointed reason.
Some of us grew up with a sense of shame that stuck to us no matter what we did or how much we achieved.
Shame is based on a lie that we are not worthy.
Not that we’ve done something wrong, but that we are wrong.
When we feel we are not worthy, we live with an internal narrative of criticism and we exhaust ourselves either trying to please everyone or lashing out at everyone – trying to build ourselves up by putting others down.
Being overweight, divorced, watching our bodies age, struggling with addiction, seeing our children falter all feed our shame.
Being a sexual minority, we live with self-loathing … much of it perpetuated by churches who see God’s voice as frozen in an ancient culture rather than still speaking to break down cultural walls in our world now.
No wonder that LGBTQ youth are five times more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual youth.
Living with shame, we assume that we don’t deserve the best, so the good times of life are a fluke.
So, when things go wrong, we feel that God has abandoned us.
If you’ve lost a job you may feel devastated.
But the still speaking God still has a plan for you.
Will Willimon is a Methodist bishop who tells of a church he once served that had a food pantry.
There was a businessman in that church who had spent his life in an upper-level management position in a large corporation.
Without warning, things at the company reorganized and he was fired.
His whole purpose for getting up each morning had been taken from him and he became depressed.
Out of concern for him, Willimon asked him to help out a couple of mornings a week at the church’s food pantry.
He was reluctant at first.
Maybe he thought this was quite a comedown for one who had been in a high position of power, but he eventually consented.
While working there, he met a divorced mother of three who was trying to make ends meet on meager wages as a domestic worker.
She happened to tell him about her frustrations with the electric company.
She had paid her bill late, but the company turned off her electricity and now they demanded the unmanageably large deposit of $50 to restore the power.
She had called the electric company half a dozen times but as was told that no one could help her … they just recited something about “company policy.”
The retired executive said he would call for her.
When he inquired into her bill, he was shocked at the way he was treated, and eventually demanded to talk to the manager, who happened to be an old friend.
The manager agreed to help and she got her power restored.
Hearing about this led him to another poor person who asked him to call a loan company about a problem she had with her loan.
He did so and he got action.
A new area of ministry opened up for this man, and a new purpose took form.
In giving he received.
He learned what a gift it is to be able to talk on the phone, to cut through red tape, and to speak up.
He said, “I never knew what it is like to be unable to figure out all the levels of red tape and organizational smoke screen.
“Having spent my life in business, I knew how to cut through the garbage and get these people what they needed.”
God is still speaking to anyone who is listening, to anyone not blinded to present blessings and future promises because they are wedded to the past.
That could be to churches who remember the Golden Ages of filled sanctuaries, or it could be to you personally.
God is still speaking to anyone who understands that no matter who you are or where you’ve been on your life’s journey God loves you and has unimaginable plans and blessings for you.