This is the story of Pentecost, as recorded in Acts chapter 2. Listen for the Word of the Lord.
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked,
“Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs – in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”
All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’” (Act 2:1-21)
Breathtaking only begins to describe two of the images associated with the Holy Spirit – a mighty, rushing wind and dancing tongues of fire.
Those jaw-dropping, heart-stopping manifestations that burst onto the scene when the Spirit comes upon the Lord’s disciples at Pentecost are anchored with deep scriptural roots.
The spiritual flames of Pentecost reminisce the Old Testament’s “pillar of fire shining forth in the night” that leads God’s people during their exodus from slavery, and they also recall the burning bush from which God speaks to Moses atop Mount Sinai.
The fierce wind of Pentecost nods to the Spirit’s share in Creation. “In the beginning,” according to the opening verses of Genesis, “the earth was a formless void, and darkness covered the face of the deep, until a ferocious wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”
Don’t think for one minute that the Holy Spirit was sitting idly by until Pentecost rolled around!
In more gentle terms, the dove likewise signals the present arrival of the Spirit. According to the gospels of Mark and John, during the Lord’s baptism, the Spirit descends upon Jesus like a dove. Therefore, water, as a baptismal sign of new life and rebirth, also is closely associated with the Spirit.
And then comes breath – the Holy Spirit as the breath of life.
According to the Gospel of John, on the night of his resurrection, Jesus appears to the apostles cowering behind the locked door of the upper room, breathes upon the confused, frightened lot, and declares,
“Receive the Holy Spirit! Forgive the sins of others, and your sins, too, will be forgiven.”
Thus, the overarching story of the Bible moves from the creating work of God, to the rescuing work of the Christ, and then to the re-creating work of the Spirit. It is, after all, the Holy Spirit who works on and in us, bringing to bear all the benefits of Jesus’s work and transforming us into new creations.
The Old Testament prophet Ezekiel, generations before Jesus walked the earth, predicted in stark terms how the Holy Spirit works to raise the dead and make all things new.
I’m are reading to you from Ezekiel 37. Listen once again for the resurrecting Word of the Lord:
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. He led me all around them. There were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.
He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord GOD, you know.”
Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them:
‘O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 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. You shall know that I am the LORD.’”
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. 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.
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.’”
I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. 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.’ 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. And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and bring you up from your graves, O my people.
‘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.’” (Ezekiel 37:1-14)
The carpet of bones covered the valley floor in a deep pile of death.
And the Lord takes Ezekiel on a back-and-forth tour through this chilling maze of fallen humanity – the bleached-out remains of thousands and thousands of hapless Israelites slaughtered by a conquering enemy.
The Lord had freed his people from Egyptian slavery and vowed to lead them to a Promised Land – a place to call home overflowing with milk, honey, and every kind of goodness and blessing. And the Lord made good on that promise!
But now, everything that the Lord had provided lay in the ruinous hands of a hostile foreign power – the warring Babylonians.
The ghastly vision that filled Ezekiel’s eyes and broke his heart looked and felt like the last stop – as much as things did for those who managed to survive the invasion and now find themselves living far from home in scattered exile: cut off, hopeless, as good as dead – spiritual skeletons of their former selves.
Gazing out across so much death and destruction, the Lord asks Ezekiel a seemingly impossible question: “Son of man, can these bones live?” Clearly, it’s hard for Ezekiel to answer with a full-throated “yes.”
His response is more like a shoulder-shrug. If life will return to these dry bones, only God knows how it’ll happen. And so, God fills-in the question-blank for the puzzled Ezekiel.
“These bones will live,” God says, “but only through ‘breath’ that re-animates and enlivens them.”
This “breath” is no ordinary puff of air.
No, this life-giving breath is the Holy Spirit – a deep lungful of the Spirit of the Lord is what raises the dead!
If the bleached skeletons of God’s people are to live again, then God’s Spirit will have to be the One who re-animates them.
If broken lives and relationships, shattered hopes and dreams are to somehow rise from the dead, then God’s Spirit alone will have to enliven them.
If there is to be resurrection, then there needs to be prophets like Ezekiel – breathers of God’s Word – who exhale the promise of abundant life into the throes of death.
And so, Ezekiel breathes word of God’s promises, and Spirit of God goes to work upon the killing fields.
Bones shake and rattle in a noisy moment of miracle.
Muscles form and flex; skin grafts and covers, and suddenly the sight of a now-living multitude fills Ezekiel’s eyes in awe and amazement.
Yet something’s still missing. These bodies still somehow remain lifeless even though they live.
And deep within our hearts, we all know something of lifeless living.
We all know of relationships, for instance, that are only skin deep:
Family members exchanging pleasantries while itching for any convenient excuse to bolt for the door.
Neighbors never moving beyond talk about the weather, even as dark storm clouds fester high above the tall fence lines that separate them.
Folks gathering to sing praise songs and lift up prayers but then going their separate ways immediately after the pastor offers the benediction.
There is life, yes, but it’s not very real. Through it all, a stench of relational deadness hangs heavy in the air and chokes the living out of life.
That deadness lingers in the mother who sits at her kitchen table after the children have left for school. She’s barely able to muster a goodbye smile, and now that the kids have gone, she gives into the absolute exhaustion that sweeps over her every morning. There are dishes to do, and clothes to wash, and errands to run, but it will be no small feat if she’s able to stay awake and doesn’t give into the overwhelming temptation to just crawl back into bed.
That deadness lingers in the husband who sits in front of the television hour after hour. He and his spouse haven’t spoken more than a few words to one another in weeks. In lonely silence, they each pine for the long-gone days of dating when they could spend hour after hour talking about big, wide-eyed ideas for the future. These days, though, their faces lack expression, and trails of tears have drained the sparkle from their eyes.
That deadness lingers in the awkward and self-conscious teen-ager who’s been so bullied and teased at school, so abused and ignored at home, that thoughts turn to suicide – inner pain so intense that death appears to be the only option for relief. For this kid, death feels like the only way to live.
Our world remains full of such dry, lifeless souls – physically alive but zombied by their brokenness.
Some of them are in our families and circles of friends; others are in our workplaces, classrooms, and neighborhoods; still others right now might be within arm’s reach.
The dusty ashy-ness of death covers lots of people in lots of places where fullness of life no longer thrives.
So, can those bones live?
Yes, says the Lord, by the power of the Holy Spirit!
Will resurrection only happen after our earthly bodies die?
No, says the Lord, by the power of the Holy Spirit!
Which is good news for those without hope, for those who feel separated from God, for those who are alienated from the people with whom they want to be close.
Death may chase us, surround us, and fill us, but God is in the business of restoring hope by raising the dead to life and breathing new life into people, relationships and even entire communities.
That is why the Apostle’s Creed declares that we “believe in the Holy Spirit.”
We believe that only the breath of God’s Holy Spirit in Jesus Christ raises the dead to life.
We believe that only the breath of God’s Holy Spirit in Jesus Christ kindles faith in the most hardened of hearts.
We believe that only the breath of God’s Holy Spirit in Jesus Christ resuscitates hope in the most precious of God’s promises: that God always wills life and NEVER wills death – in this world and in the next.
So, please be open to those Spirit-led opportunities to rip up the carpet of bones that covers the valley floors of our days in a thick pile of death, and in its place lay down a plush covering of life that is most assured.
For that is the Easter promise of the Lord by his Spirit – the same Spirit who abides in you, breathing new life into your abilities to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8), as you love and serve God, as you love and serve friend, neighbor and stranger (Matthew 22:37-39).
Keep that in mind – and let the Spirit be the Spirit – as the graduation speakers encourage another generation to go out and change the world.
God in Christ already has changed the world.
It’s now up to you and me – with the help of the Spirit – to reveal that changed world in what we think, what we say, and what we do.
May it be so.
Amen, and amen!
Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message on Pentecost Sunday, May 23, 2021. Commentary, scholarship and reflection by Katheryn Pfisterer Darr, Scott Hoezee, and L.T. Johnson inform the message.