God’s Word and the Holy Spirit
Sermon: Sunday, 18th April, 2021 Ezekiel 37
I remember many years ago a woman saying to me about her particular village: ‘The people here will never come to church. They’re just not interested.’ I felt sad to hear her say that, because there was a real sense of hopelessness about it. Her statement left no room for God to be at work. As she looked out across her village, and remembered better days in the distant past, she felt hopeless.
Perhaps we can all relate to that in one way or another. We might know in our heads that with God all things are possible, but do we really believe that God is able to radically change our communities in Scotland today? Or do we just think, we were once the land of the book, and now we’re the land without it. Do we really believe God can change the hearts of friends, family, neighbours and colleagues? We know that only 1-2 % of people in our country attend a Bible believing church. We’re such a minority. Shouldn’t we just give up, and live like everyone else? Wouldn’t that be easier? Will Scotland ever experience the power of God again? Will we in our own churches and individual lives?
When we only see things from a human perspective, we can get sucked into a vortex of hopelessness. Ezekiel is a prophet of the LORD, raised up to speak to the Israelites who are captive in Babylon. It is likely that these exiles had heard the news of the destruction of Jerusalem; things looked very bleak indeed for them. They have now given up hope of ever returning to Jerusalem. From a human point of view, this seems impossible: They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ (Verse 11)
In this wonderful passage, God comes through his prophet Ezekiel, to remind the people of his power. He comes to the people in their despair, and through this vision he reminds them that God specialises in taking hopeless situations and turning them around. He is the God who can breathe new life into that which is dead.
Ezekiel is given, by the Spirit of God, an extraordinary vision of a valley full of scattered human bones, bleached white under the eastern sun. This valley was most likely once a battlefield, and now, after a humiliating defeat, has turned into a graveyard. The defeat inflicted has been so great, that the dead have not even been buried. In Biblical times, this was a situation which spoke of God’s curse upon covenant breakers: ‘Your carcasses will be food for all the birds and the wild animals, and there will be no one to frighten them away.’ (Deuteronomy 28:26)
We don’t have to guess who these dead bones represent, because we are told in verse 11: Then he said to me: ‘Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel.’ Next in the vision, God leads Ezekiel throughout the valley: ‘He led me back and forth among them.’ (Verse 12) Surely, this must have underlined to Ezekiel just how hopeless this situation was. It is a scene of death, of lifelessness and hopelessness. The bones are not just dry, but very dry!
Perhaps Ezekiel thought that God was about to tell him that these bones were the house of Israel, and what did they expect having forsaken the Lord and chased after false gods? Perhaps he thought the vision would end here. The Israelites are beyond help now. The Lord has given up on them. There is no possibility of change. But as we know, that’s not the end of the vision – far from it. The Lord asks Ezekiel a question: He asked me, ‘Son of man, can these bones live?’ (Verse 3) What would you have said?
Had the question been asked by the king of Babylon or by an Israelite slave, perhaps Ezekiel would have answered, ‘Of course not’. However, it’s God who is asking the question, and Ezekiel is aware of God’s wisdom and power and so replies: ‘Sovereign Lord, you alone know.’
God himself takes the initiative to transform this seemingly hopeless situation and he does so in two stages, and by giving the Ezekiel two instructions. These two instructions are the means by which God will transform this scene of a hopeless and dead people into a living, Spirit-filled army, ready to live for the glory of God. In stage one, Ezekiel address the bones with the Word of the Lord, and these bones assemble together, but remain lifeless. In stage two, Ezekiel is told to prophecy to the ‘wind’ and as he does so, the bodies become a living army. A miracle has taken place.
Let’s be clear about what is happening here. A total transformation has taken place, and this change has come about in two stages: through the preaching of God’s Word, and also by depending on the Spirit of God in prayer. It’s not like life came into the dead bones because of Ezekiel, but it was ultimately because of the Spirit of God.
Now fast-forward to 2021 and let’s be equally clear. If we are to see people becoming Christians today and if we are to see those who are already believers maturing in the faith, we need the exact same two stages; we need the preaching of God’s Word, the Bible, and we need to continually be crying out to God in prayer for his Holy Spirit to bring new life.
What does Paul tell us in Romans 10:17? ‘Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.’ True and lasting change comes about through God’s Word.
‘Therefore, I want you to know that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.’ (1 Corinthians 2:3) Paul reminds us in this passage that if people can truly say that Jesus is their Lord and Saviour, this is the work of God’s Spirit. Without God’s Spirit working, this change cannot ever take place.
I believe that we need to recapture our belief in the power of preaching God’s Word in church, and the power of sharing God’s Word with a friend around the kitchen table, and in family worship or in any other way. And I also believe we need to recapture a sense of total dependency on God’s Holy Spirit by praying to him to bring about change.
1. God always uses his own Word to bring about new life
“Here is a vitally important principle of all real spiritual life and progress. What God uses to bring about new life is always his own Word.” (David Jackman)
Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord!’ (Verse 4) Ezekiel needed to understand afresh the power of the words the Lord had entrusted him with. The Word of God itself contains the life-giving power to totally change this situation.
Remember the words of Martin Luther when he was asked to explain the massive spiritual change in 10,000s of lives across Europe: ‘Explain what is taking place here in Europe? Explain the Reformation.’
He gave this famous answer: ‘I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word. Otherwise, I did nothing. And then I slept. And the Word so greatly weakened the Papacy that never a prince and never an emperor inflicted such damage upon it. I did nothing. The Word did it all.’
The applications for our church and for our own growth ought to be obvious: the Word will do it all. Really? So, you want me to bring my friend or neighbour along to church to hear preaching? Yes.
And you want me to ask my friend to read a Bible passage with me at home, and chat about it? Yes.
And you want Bible-teaching to have a central place in my family life at home from Monday to Saturday? And with my children? Yes.
Why? Because transformation comes from God’s Word.
You cannot have spiritual growth without reading you Bibles prayerfully and applying what you read to your lives. Maybe you are a backslidden Christian, and your heart has hardened over the years, because you have been starving yourself of spiritual food. What do you need to do? It’s not complicated. Straight away, you need to get to reading God’s Word every day.
Think of the phenomenal change which took place on the day of Pentecost. 3000 people came to faith that day. In it happened through the preaching of God’s Word. Yes, it is really important that we are good Christian examples before those we live amongst. That’s a powerful thing too. But if you want to see those you know becoming Christians, remember that faith comes by hearing God’s Word.
Remember, there’s a second stage in this passage. Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’ (Verse 9) And this leads us to our 2nd and final point.
2. Without the Holy Spirit, there can be no spiritual life
Why does Ezekiel need to pray to the Spirit, or the wind, before new life begins to emerge? It is so that Ezekiel will know this resurrection is not being accomplished by his power but by the power of God and the power of God alone. Without the Spirit of life, the army will remain as corpses.
Notice how God’s Word and God’s Spirit combine here to bring newness of life. This is the pattern all the way through God’s Word. This is why the early church were not only devoted to the apostles teaching, but also to prayer. This is why our church leaders are constantly encouraging you to come to church regularly, and to try and come to the prayer meeting too. And if you really can’t come, then we’d urge you to find innovative ways of praying both on your own and with other Christians too.
“Ezekiel’s second task is to evoke the life-giving spirit, in what really is an expression of believing prayer, in the name of the Lord, on the basis of the promise which God has already revealed.” (David Jackman)
‘So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.’ (1 Corinth 3:7) It is God who makes things grow; we can only sow the seed. It is God’s Spirit who convicts people of their sin and to see their need of Christ. It is God’s Spirit who reveals the beauty of Jesus to people. It is God’s Spirit who awakens our conscience and leads us to repent. That being the case, never give up praying for the lost people you know, and even those you don’t know, as we pray for the work of mission both locally and world-wide. Is prayer a waste of time? Not if the pattern in this chapter remains today, and it does.
So, let’s get back to thinking about Scotland in 2021. Sometimes we feel like the lady who said, ‘The people here will never come to church’. But that’s just hopelessness speaking. God comes to us today with a Word of enormous encouragement, reminding us that yes, he is able to change the seemingly impossible. We see the dead sun-scorched bones all around us in society. There are so many around us who are spiritually dead. So, what are we to do?
We are to follow the example of Ezekiel, proclaiming the Word of God, as we depend on the Spirit of God in prayer. Will you do that? The Word and the Spirit of God is what Scotland needs most. It’s what the church in Ephesus needed most back in Paul’s day when he writes; ‘Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.’ (Ephesians 6:17-18)
Next time you look at those in the shops, or at the school gate, or in your street, or at work, take a more penetrating look and think to yourself, God really can make dry bones live. Jesus has promised to build his church. Pray for opportunities to share God’s Word with people, whether at home or at church, and do this prayerfully. If we do this as a church, we should expect spiritual resurrection to take place, in God’s time and in God way. May the Lord help us to value his Word more and more, and to share it with others, believing that the gospel is the power of God, for the salvation of all who believe.