Pastoral Relief and Retreat

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Wethersfield, CT, United States
I am Pastor at Poquonock Community Church, Congregational (CCCC) in Windsor, CT. My wife Jama and I live in Wetherfield, CT. We'd like to invite you to Terre Haute -- High Ground -- That's what Jama and I call the retreat space on our property. We offer free intentional get-away retreats. We'll feed you and house you and give you space to be with the Lord. All are welcome; no questions asked. This blog is my daily devotional journal. I write it because it is so easy to go for weeks without ever taking the time to be alone with God. Writing helps me develop a discipline I need.

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Sunday, April 10, 2011

Lord's Day Message: Dry Bones


The hand of the LORD was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. And he led me around among them, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold, they were very dry. And he said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” And I answered, “O Lord GOD, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon 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.”
            So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I prophesied, there was a sound, and behold, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. And I looked, and behold, 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, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.” So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army.
            Then he said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the LORD.”
(Ezekiel 37:1-14 ESV)

The story of Ezekiel in the Valley of Dry Bones is a tale so familiar to most church people that preachers often avoid exegeting it because they really don’t think there’s much more they can mine from it.  It has a kind of Grimm’s Fairy Tales feel to it, and probably because my son had an impressionist version of the story tattooed on his left arm several years ago, it is hard for me not to think of it in cartoon terms.

We’ve been learning over the past several weeks about how God uses small things.  My purpose in doing this series was to help get us thinking about this small church and how God may want to use it.   But I have also discovered along the way that these studies make an excellent pre-game pep talk to any believer contemplating whether God may want to use him or her.   So far we’ve seen how God used a Stick of Wood, A Cracked Pot, A Small Stone, and A Loaf of Bread.  The story of Ezekiel is about how God can use something as inconsequential as the breath that fills your lungs every day to work his purposes.

The Book of Ezekiel describes itself as the words of the Ezekiel ben-Buzi, a priest living in exile in the city of Babylon, he prophesied from the time he was 25 until he was 52, roughly between 593 and 571 BC.  So Ezekiel was a very real person living in a very real moment in the history of Israel. 

When Israel fell to king Nebuchadnezzar, and the Babylonians overran Jerusalem after a long siege that ended in 586 BC, Ezekiel was considered an important enough person in Israel that he was taken away into exile in order to get him away from the people he was prophesying to.  He is considered a prophet of the Southern Kingdom of Judah, and prophesied to or about Jerusalem, the city where he was born. 

Now, the various surviving ancient manuscripts of the Book of Ezekiel differ markedly from each other, and it is clear that the book has been subjected to extensive editing.   So, while Ezekiel himself wrote much of the prophetic material, and may have been responsible for some of this revision, there is general agreement that the book as we have it today is the product of a highly-educated priestly circle that owed their allegiance to Ezekiel and were closely associated with the Temple in the generations just following Ezekiel’s death.

What the book is about can really be boiled down to one sentence.  Over and over again, Ezekiel uses the phrase, “then they shall know that I am the Lord.”    The phrase occurs nine times in Exodus, once each in Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Joshua, and Jeremiah, twice in 1 Kings, five times in Isaiah, and an incredible 72 times throughout the Book of Ezekiel.  Not only is this what each of the seven visions concludes with, but the phrase appears throughout the writing as Ezekiel and the editors who followed him wrestled with what had happened to the once prosperous and proud nation of Israel.  

In many very real ways the prophecy of Ezekiel is also about the fall of the Western Church in the late 20th century.  Many pastors and concerned lay people have been left reeling over the past 10 years in particular, trying to figure out what has happened to the church.  When church attendance peaked here in the United States back in the 1960s and has been in decline ever since.  In England the decline began much earlier, around 1898.  As recently as 1990, church reporting figures claimed that, on average 40 percent of America attended church.  But that figure had been static since the 1960s, and by most accounts was an over-zealous fabrication, a sort of collective denial on the part of the church in the West of what was happening.  Today, at best, 18% of America goes to church on a given week.  That figure is higher than the reality here in New England and on the West Coast and lower than the real numbers in the Southeastern US and up through the center of the nation.  But regionally, here in the Six States of New England, the church has already collapsed, taken over, not by some new Babylonian Empire, but the busy disinterest of people who no longer believe that Church, as we know it, has any meaning or place for their lives.

So Ezekiel has something very important to say to us here today.  You who sit here week after week represent the remnant of God’s people in Concord, NH.  You are not the last.  A remnant never is.  A remnant is what remains after the collapse; after the brightest and best have been carried away into captivity.  And you know where to find them.  They are at Borders and Starbucks.  They are doing hard service to the god of this world down at Curves and Planet Fitness.  Many of them are simply imprisoned, chained to computers and multimedia centers in their living rooms, bedrooms, and man caves.

What Ezekiel saw in his vision is what you and I need to see.  He saw something impossible.  That’s why the vision has that mythic, cartoon quality to it.  We look at it and say it cannot happen.  But for a person or a group of people to do takes requires just three things to happen: First, God has to get you where he wants you.  That is, he has to get you believing God can do the impossible.  Next, God has to teach or show you what the impossible thing is he wants to do.  And finally, God has to do the impossible thing through you. 

I know.  It sounds like I’m totally skipping over the main objection.  If the thing is impossible to do, how are you, even with God’s help, going to pull it off?  Well, let’s look and see.

How God gets us where he wants us
Ezekiel lays out for us in the first paragraph of chapter 37 how God gets us where he wants us.  It is very predictable, and the process transplants to modern life just fine.  This is nearly always how God takes a person or a church from where they are to where He wants them to be in order to do the impossible.

There are seven steps in the process:
The hand of the LORD was upon me, (pressure)
and he brought me out in the Spirit of the LORD (extrusion)
and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. (Placement)
And he led me around among them, (direction)
and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, (vision)
and behold, they were very dry.
And he said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” (challenge)
And I answered, “O Lord GOD, you know.” (submission)

When God wants you to do the impossible it will always begin with a feeling of pressure.  Next you will sense that you have been forced out under pressure.  Notice that Ezekiel never says where he had been before the Spirit of the Lord came upon him.  All we discover is where God placed him.  The next thing that happens is that God gives direction to the person or people involved.  Then he generates vision – the ability to see what he is up to – in his people.  The penultimate moment comes when God issues a challenge, often in the form of a question.  And finally -- and this is absolutely key to the process – God’s people have to submit to God’s complete sovereignty in what is about to happen.

God is positioning you in order to possess you.  For, if you will submit to God’s sovereignty, you will find that doing the impossible isn’t about the particular task.  Doing the impossible is about submitting to God.  Someone once asked Thomas Edison if it hadn’t been frustrating when he failed over 2000 times to produce a working incandescent light bulb.  “I didn’t fail”, said Edison, “I merely discovered over 2000 ways not to make a light bulb.”  Just as Edison continued to allow scientific enquiry to position him for discovery, so God may position you over and over.  You will think, “Ah!  This is it!  NOW God is going to do the impossible thing.”  And then you find he was merely positioning you for the next time.   His ultimate concern is developing obedient love in you, not developing your ability.

But if Ezekiel has never said, “O Lord God, YOU know,” God could never have gone on to show him the impossible task.  And here it is:

The Impossible Task
Then he said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them,
O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD.   

There is Ezekiel’s Impossible task.  SPEAK to DRY BONES in such a way that they will hear. 

This is the moment of greatest temptation.  What we want to say is, “But God… they’re DEAD.”  You can’t speak to dry bones.  There’s no one there.  And as long as you believe there is no one listening, you’ll never do the impossible.  As long as all YOU see is that there are only twenty people in church on a good week, you’ll never see the great thing God may do with you.  As long as all you see is that out of that twenty people most are over 70 years of age and as long as you believe that there’s nothing more God is going to do with people in their 70s or 80s or 90s, there will never be a miracle at Immanuel Community Church.

But if God says to you, “Son of man, can these bones live?” and your immediate answer is “O Lord, YOU know.”  Then God can begin teaching you. 

Notice Ezekiel’s answer is not an overconfident, “Of course they can live!”  He’s not locking God into an outcome.  Does Immanuel Community Church have a future as a gathered church?  If you say either, “Woe is us, we’re old and tired and there isn’t much more God is going to do with us,” OR “Sure he does.  All we have to do is stick together!”  You’re sunk.  Either way, you’re not submitting to God’s will, and you’re not ready to be taught by him.  You are only ready to be taught by him when you say, “O Lord, YOU know.”

I cannot tell you who God has planned as your next permanent pastor.  But I can tell you that the person you are looking for is someone God has taught move where God places them, and is someone who has been trained to submit to God’s sovereignty.  People have asked me why I go through the exercise of coming down here week after week and being interim pastor in a seeming Valley of Dry Bones.  They say, “Isn’t it depressing sitting there knowing you’re preaching to this nearly empty church?”  And I always say, “Oh… but God is teaching me so much through these people.”  And besides, I’m not preaching to an empty church.  Even if only one person showed up… if I were here alone… I’d be preaching to the principalities and powers in heavenly places.  And God has a plan.  I just don’t know what it is.”

You have an interim pastor who has said to God, “O Lord, YOU know.”  The person you call as your settled pastor will be a person who has already said to God, “O Lord, YOU know.”

The Teachable Moment
Now come three teachable moments.  God has positioned Ezekiel and he has brought him to the place where Ezekiel is ready to learn.  Ezekiel has submitted to God’s sovereign authority, and is listening:

(God teaches)
Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones:
Behold, I will cause breath to enter you,
and you shall live.
And I will lay sinews upon 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.”

(Ezekiel obeys)
            So I prophesied as I was commanded.
And as I prophesied, there was a sound,
and behold, a rattling,
and the bones came together, bone to its bone.
And I looked,
and behold, there were sinews on them,
and flesh had come upon them,
and skin had covered them.

But there was no breath in them.

(God teaches)
Then he said to me,
“Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath,
Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.”
(Ezekiel obeys)
So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army.

(God teaches)
            Then he said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.’
Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD:
Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people.
And I will bring you into the land of Israel.
And you shall know that I am the LORD,
when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people.
And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live,
and I will place you in your own land.

But wait… it doesn’t seem to be finished!  God has taught the third time.  Where is Ezekiel obeying?   Where is the part where the graves are actually opened and the house of Israel actually comes together?  Where is the part where Israel actually repents and begins to know that he is the Lord?  Where is the part where God puts his Spirit upon them and they rise up and Israel is redeemed and revived as a mighty nation, as a host before the Lord?

WHERE’S THE FULFILLMENT, GOD?

The Fulfillment
The fulfillment is IN the silence.  Do you believe that God is able to raise up a mighty church in Concord, NH? 

People: O Lord God, YOU know.

Do you believe that God can use a church of 20 people to do it?

People: O Lord God, YOU know.

Do you believe that God can use people in their 70s and 80s and 90s in a mighty way?

People: O Lord God, YOU know.

Do you believe that God is able to breathe life into what looks like a dead church?

People: O Lord God, YOU know.

Do you believe that God is able to use YOU, personally, whatever your circumstances, right now, for a mighty purpose?

People: O Lord God, YOU know.

Do you believe that God has a future and a hope for the ministry of Immanuel Community Church?

People: O Lord God, YOU know.

Do you believe that Jesus Christ brought you here, to this moment, in order to work his will in you and through you?

People: O Lord God, YOU know.

Then you shall know that I am the LORD.

I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the LORD.” (fulfillment)

Amen. 

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