THE SPIRIT RESTORES AND RENEWS
A couple of weeks ago, I was in New Norcia to attend a retreat for Uniting Church ministers in WA. I saw this car as I was walking to the visitors’ centre there. It was an old beauty, a Rolls Royce, and that was probably the first time I saw an old Rolls Royce like that.
I know nothing about car (the only skill I have regarding car is to call the RAC whenever I’m in trouble). But I can see the amount of work, energy, time, money, and love that had been put into this old car to make it as nice as it is now. Since the only thing I know about car is how to drive it, I admired the kind of skill and expertise that could transformed an old car like this into something beautiful.
Just like an experienced and skillful mechanic can restore an old car, the Spirit of God is also in the business of restoring old life. Indeed, the word resurrection is actually closer to the word restoration than creation. One commentator of our reading from Ezekiel today says that “Resurrection is not new life ... but renewed life, life forged from death; even the risen Jesus still bore his scars.”
In our reading today from Ezekiel, God also did not start from scratch. It wasn’t creation ex nihilo, creation from nothing. God worked from something that was already there. God made something new out of the old.
In his vision, Ezekiel was taken to a valley filled with human dry bones. The valley may have been an old battlefield or an open grave of mass execution. Since the bones were not buried, one can assume that the bodies were laid bare in the open deliberately to humiliate those dead people or as a warning to others. Not buried, their bodies were exposed to predators both on land and in the air. Even more: the bones were dry. It means that they had been there for a very long time.
Ezekiel indeed lived and worked amongst the exiles who had been taken by the Babylonians after they defeated and destroyed Jerusalem. The city’s former glory was laid in ruin. Its people, both dead and living, were humiliated. The very sign of God’s presence amongst them, the temple in Jerusalem, was destroyed together with the city. Their only hope for restoration was lost.
So the bones represented the people in exile, and those who were left behind, who had lost all hope. After the final destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, they felt that God had finally abandoned them.
But through the eyes and ears and mouth of Ezekiel, God gave a promise of hope. The prophecy that we hear today from Ezekiel bore the message that God had not abandoned God’s people. There was hope because God could start anew. God could transform the old and make it into something new. God could restore the scattered people into a new people, just like God could restore the scattered bones into new living bodies. Here, we hear the language of resurrection whose echoes we hear later in the resurrection of both Lazarus and Jesus: out of the grave, from the stench of death, comes new life.
Hundreds of years later, during Pentecost Day in restored Jerusalem, another kind of restoration occurred: a transformation of a people living in fear to a people filled with courage.
Pentecost Day was originally a Jewish festival to commemorate the giving of God’s Law at Mount Sinai. It was usually celebrated 50 days after the Passover festival, the Jewish commemoration of their ancestors’ Exodus from slavery in Egypt. According to tradition, Moses received the law, the Ten Commandments, in Mount Sinai 50 days after the Exodus from Egypt.
So here in Acts, during that particular Pentecost Day, something as significant as the manifestation of God at Sinai took place. God appeared in tongues of fire just like God appeared in devouring fire in Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:18).
A gift was also given from heaven. This time, the gift was not a law, written in stone; it was the very Spirit of God. And, just like in Mount Sinai, the giving of the law created a new people; there, in Jerusalem, on Pentecost Day, the giving of the Spirit of God marked the birth of a new people.
Indeed, there was a dramatic change in the disciples’ attitude. They first met indoor, in a house but the Spirit took them to the outdoor to preach to the crowd. They first met as a closed and exclusive community, but the Spirit made them into an inclusive community that invited people from all corners of the known world to join them. Previously, they may have been a community living in fear, but the Spirit transformed them into a people filled with passion and courage. And if we still doubt their passion or courage, the accusation of them getting drunk in the morning should make us doubt no more.
Indeed, the Spirit of God, which appeared to them in the form of wind (and fire), was the key to this transformation. It was the same wind that, in Genesis 1, floating above the ocean of chaos, bringing order into creation, making the world into a safe place for all creatures to flourish. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,” says the author of Genesis 1, “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” (Genesis 1:1-2 NRSV)
This aspect of the wind of God was also crucial in Ezekiel’s prophecy. Ezekiel was asked to call for the breath of God to come from the four winds and filled the bodies (Ezekiel 37:9). The word wind is a translation of the Hebrew word ruach. The word appears nine times in Ezekiel’s vision and is also translated as breath or Spirit. So the wind of God is the same with the breath of God or the Spirit of God. But whatever the manifestation or translation of the ruach of God, it was all the same life giving force that came from God. Without this ruach of God, new life would never be made possible.
When Terry Gabrielson of California, USA, retired from his work, he became a volunteer in a local rescue mission. He worked in the kitchen of the mission facility two days a week.
One day, a new resident was admitted into the mission’s drug rehabilitation program. He was assigned to work in the kitchen with Terry as part of his work duty in the mission. This man was loud and confrontational. He was difficult and unpleasant to work with.
Fortunately for Terry, the man was later assigned to work in a different part of the mission facility. Terry lost contact with him for several weeks until, one day, he met him again during the time when he was preparing a morning meal. The man walked up to Terry and asked how he was doing. Terry gave a abrupt and terse reply, “Fine.” But, surprisingly, the man said to Terry that he wanted to pray with him. He then took Terry to a quiet corner in the dining room. He took Terry's hand and started praying the most humble, heartfelt, and gentle prayer that Terry had ever heard. It finally dawned on Terry that the Holy Spirit had been deeply working in the man’s life. Terry was stunned and moved to tears by the man’s transformation. After the prayer, the man gave Terry a hug and left.
Terry finally realised that no addiction, no pain, no regret, nothing was too overwhelming for God’s love to redeem one’s life. When he first met that man, Terry thought that he would never change; that there was only a small chance that he would and cold turn his life around. Terry couldn’t be more wrong. He saw with his own earthly perspective, but heaven has its own way of seeing someone’s life. The Spirit of God can change what seems to be unchangeable.
The Spirit of God is indeed working amongst us to restore broken life, to bring newness, to strengthen and heal. Some times, we can feel the Spirit’s presence in our life like we can feel a strong gush of wind. Other times, we can hardly notice the Spirit’s presence in our life like we often fail to notice our own breath. Whatever is the manifestation of the Spirit in our life, the end result is always the same: a new life, a new direction, a new hope. So, today, let’s be aware of the guidance and movement of the Spirit. Let us open our mind and heart to follow the Spirit, leading us to new possibilities, to new life indeed.
 Margaret Odell, Commentary on Ezekiel 37:1-14, on http://www.workingpreacher.org (April 6 2014).
 Frank L. Crouch, Commentary on Acts 2:1-21, on http://www.workingpreacher.org (May 24 2015).
 Margaret Odell, Commentary on Ezekiel 37:1-14, http://www.workingpreacher.org (April 6 2014).
 Terry W. Gabrielson, Changed by the Spirit, on the Upper Room Daily Devotional (January 24 2015)