Do you follow football? I know some people do. I don't, personally, but it's actually quite difficult to be totally ignorant of it! For instance, I do know that last week, Chelsea were playing Bayern Munich in the final of the UEFA cup, and Chelsea won on penalties. And I remember another UEFA cup final some years ago, which also starred Bayern Munich, who were playing, I think it was Manchester United. Anyway, Bayern Munich were winning and winning, and the poor Manchester United fans were quite despairing, and then suddenly, in the final moments of the game, Manchester United scored twice to win, quite unexpectedly. Somehow the spirit had come back into the team, and they were able to turn certain defeat into victory.
Also last Saturday it was the final of the Heineken Cup, and because Ulster were in the final, Robert treated himself to a ticket and went, but Ulster were never going to win, and were, in the end, very soundly thrashed. Robert said that the Ulster fans were leaving in droves before the match had even finished. The spirit had gone out of them.
It was like that for the field of bones in Ezekiel's vision. No spirit. Not even any flesh.
Can you imagine a field of bones? We’ve all seen skeletons on television, of course, and some of us may have visited ossuaries on the continent, which are usually memorials to soldiers who fell in the first world war, and they put the bones of soldiers who have got separated from their identity into the ossuaries to honour them. And the older ones among us may remember seeing pictures of a huge pile of bones in Cambodia after the Pol Pot atrocities of the 1970s.
I think Ezekiel, in his vision, must have seen something like that. A huge pile of skulls and bones…. “Son of man, can these bones live?”
And, at God’s command, Ezekiel prophesied to the bones, and then he saw the skeletons fitting themselves together like a jigsaw puzzle, and then internal organs and tendons and muscle and fat and skin growing on the bare skeletons. I’m sure I’ve seen some kind of computer animation like that on television, haven’t you? But for Ezekiel, it must have been totally weird, unless he was in one of those dream-states where it’s all rational.
But once the skeletons had come together and grown bodies, things were still not right.
It must have been a bit like those television programmes where they take someone's skull and build it up with clay to show you what they might have looked like – they never look very like anything, because they are not alive. There is no life in their eyes, no spirit.
And when they first started doing those CGI programmes about dinosaurs, the models were never very alive or realistic, although they've improved in recent years. But the early programmes had no life in them.
And that’s what Ezekiel saw in his vision – there were just so many plastic models lying there, no life, no spirit. Ezekiel had to preach to them again, and they eventually came to life as a vast army.
And then Ezekiel was told the interpretation of his vision – it was a prophecy of what God was going to do for Israel, which at the time seemed dead and buried. God was going to bring Israel back to life, to breathe new life into the nation, and put His Spirit into them.
Of course, the reason why this has been chosen as the Old Testament reading for today is that it is Pentecost. The day we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit. The birth of the Church.
It was, of course, a Jewish festival. Even today it is still celebrated – they call it Shavuot, and according to a Jewish friend of mine, what you do is eat cheesecake – don't know why you should do that, but it is apparently the tradition to do so. The festival celebrated the coming of the Torah, the Law of Moses so it was a very appropriate day for the Holy Spirit to come.
But I wonder what it would have been like, up there in the upper room. They'd been told to wait, but they had no idea what they were waiting for. They had said a final goodbye to Jesus; they knew that if and when they would see him again, it would be very different. And they had been told that the Holy Spirit would come. I wonder what they thought that meant. Perhaps some gave up and went home, in despair. But a good 120 of them waited and waited, and when the day of Pentecost was fully come, the Spirit came.
It must have been a pretty dramatic visitation. The tongues of flame, the rushing mighty wind. And the immediate explosion of praise, and when they ran out of words those other words, words of praise that, in this instance, turned out to be words in "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." Thus the bystanders. They might not have seen the tongues of flame, or heard the rushing mighty wind, but they certainly saw the results.
Some were puzzled – were these people drunk, or what? So Peter, glorious, wonderful Peter, who never used to be able to open his mouth without putting his foot in it – they used to say he only opened his mouth to change feet – Peter jumps up and lets out this terrific bellow which shuts everybody up, sharpish. "No, no, no, no, no, no, no," he goes, "we're not on the sauce – come off it, it's only nine a.m., what do you take us for?" And he goes on to explain that this is what Joel was talking about, this is what they'd all been expecting. And, as you know, he preached so powerfully, and God's presence was so overwhelming, that three thousand people got converted that day alone!
Thus the story. We know it so well, don’t we? Every year, this passage from the book of Acts is read. We could probably quote a great deal of it off by heart, and the bits we can’t quote – all those nationalities, I can never remember them without looking – we know what they say, even if we don’t know the words!
One way of seeing it is that it’s the Church’s birthday. The day we celebrate the anniversary of the explosive growth from a tiny handful of believers – barely over a hundred – to several thousand, and on down the millennia to the worldwide organisations and denominations that is the Church today. But there again, that’s just history, rather like we celebrate our own birthdays.
Pentecost is more than that. I think that much of it is one of those things that doesn’t go into words very well – what is officially called a “mystery” – the Church’s word for something that words can never fully explain.
After all – a mighty wind, and what looked like tongues of fire? We know the damage that both wind and fire can do; we've seen it all too often. 1987 was a long time ago now, but I still remember clearly the devastation caused both by a fire at King's Cross Underground Station and a huge gale that destroyed vast swathes of woodland. Even today you can still see traces of the damage it caused, if you know where to look.
But the wind and flame from God were not sent to destroy, but to cleanse, to heal, and to empower. Some of the empowerment was pretty spectacular – the speaking in other languages, the healings, the preaching that brought thousands to Christ in one go.... some of it, of course, would have been less so. And then there were the other side-effects – the changes in people’s character to become more the people God meant them to be. The fruit of the Spirit – Paul, in his various letters, reminds us both of the various gifts he saw in use (the tongues, the prophecies, the healings and so on) and the fruits he saw develop in people’s characters: "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control".
But above all, the Spirit gives life. Jesus said “I am come that you may have life, and have it abundantly!” In Ezekiel's vision, the Spirit of God breathed into the dry bones and both clothed them with flesh and then brought them to life.
For Ezekiel, it was a vision that God would breathe new life into the people of Israel.
This year is so horrendously difficult for us all, having to leave the churches that have been home to us for so many years. We don't know what the future holds, nor where or how we shall celebrate next Pentecost. Except I think I shall eat cheesecake – I like that idea!
But seriously, God is still God. The Holy Spirit still gives life. It's so sad, and scary and horrid – but God hasn't gone away. And the Spirit that inspired Peter's preaching that sunny morning in Jerusalem will lead us and guide us and give us life. God knows where we are needed and wanted, and will lead us there. Amen.