The Breath of Life

Read Ezekiel 37.1-14

God’s Spirit breathes in us the breath of life. The Holy Spirit breathes life, truth and unity into our dry bones.

God’s children are refugees, festering in pain and despair. In the midst of their death and dying, God tells Ezekiel to proclaim new life. Flesh will form on the dry bones. Muscles will connect the flesh. Skin will cover and protect from disease. New life. God’s spirit breathes new life in us.

God’s spirit is closely related to the breath which brings life, to the wind that blows. In the Hebrew language, the word “ru’ah” may be translated either as spirit, wind, or breath. This tells us something about God’s spirit. The Spirit is as basic to our lives as the breath that we breathe. The Spirit is as unpredictable as the wind.

What do we believe about the Holy Spirit?

Veterans of WWII who stormed the death camps of Nazi Germany found a similar scene as Ezekiel did.  My stomach churns just watching newsreels of the grotesque visions of bodies piled up in a pit, of dry bones lying around the ground, of survivors that look like living skeletons.

God proclaims deliverance even to the dry bones. Even when we face the most difficult struggles in our lives. Even when our bodies grow old and fail to work as they used to. God remains with us. Breathing life into dry bones.

We believe in the Holy Spirit. This Holy Spirit brings life, truth, and unity to our world which is filled with death, deceit and discord. God who is Creator and Redeemed acts as Sustainer, moving within and among us to breathe new life into old and tired bones.

What is the Spirit’s life?

The hope of new life in the Spirit infuses us with abundant life, now and forever. Jesus made it clear that the kingdom of God was more than just wishful thinking about a land by-and-by. It is both a future hope that all things will be made new and a present reality that in the Spirit of Christ, we live as God’s children, heirs of this promise.

What is Spirit’s truth?

It is not something we can easily get a handle on. We see within the church how many different views arise out of reading the same Bible. This was true even in the days of the Apostle Paul. Divisions occur as one individual or group claims to have possession of the truth and breaks off to separate themselves from persons of impure faith.

Holy Spirit truth doesn’t work this way. It’s not revealed only to a select group. It’s often revealed to those we least expect. As the Bible says, “Out of the mouths of babes…” We don’t have a corner on God’s truth and we are best off working together that the Spirit which brings life might also bring us truth.

Finally, what is the Spirit’s unity?

Unity goes against our fleshly nature. We tend to separate and divide, to categorize, and draw distinctions. This is the way of the world and we Christians tend to fit right in.

The Spirit of God is a spirit of unity. The Spirit of truth. The spirit of life. God’s spirit breathes new life into our old and tired bones. Just like the breath of life and the wind of truth, the spirit of unity comes when we least expect. Often times in spite of our selves.

God’s Spirit of life, truth, and unity breathes new life into our tired bones. Those who are dead and dying receive hope that this life is not all there is. Christ died so we might live. abundant and eternal lives. Those confused about who to believe about disturbed about deconstructed relativity can know the truth of God’s Word inspired by the Holy Spirit. Those torn apart by separation and filled with anxiety about competing loyalties and know and grow in a relationship with the One who makes us one.

Crucial Decisions

The Lord sees what we do not see.

Samuel is grieving. King Saul has not turned out to be the great king the people of Israel had hoped he would be. The people of Israel had wanted a king to be like the other nations, one that might protect them from foreign invasions. Prior to Saul, the people of Israel had been ruled by a series of “judges”, or prophets who proclaimed the word of God and gave advice to people. Samuel was one in a long line of these “judges” who were not se much like “judges” as we know of them today as dynamic public figures who shape political opinion.

We read in Chapter 8 of 1 Samuel that the elders of Israel come to Samuel and request a king. By requesting a ruler, the people were looking for a human authority rather than relying on the authority of God. God tells Samuel to meet their request for a king, but to warn them of all the ways in which a king might abuse his authority. The people refuse to listen to the warnings. They see all the benefits of a strong, centralized government led by a powerful, dynamic ruler.

The Lord sees not as we see.

Though Saul enjoys a period of success, he disobeys the Lord by attempting to exercise more authority than he has been granted. In Chapter 15, verse 10, the word of the Lord comes to Samuel, saying, “I repent that I have made Saul king; for he has turned back from following me, and has not performed my commandments.” Saul refuses to step down. A conflict develops between Saul and Samuel, which lasts throughout their days. And Samuel grieves over Saul.  He wondered why the Lord had allow the people to chose Saul in the first place.

Samuel has a crucial decision to make. God’s command is clear and it is only Samuel’s reluctance to carry out the task, to give up his grief over Saul and move ahead to anoint a new leader that creates his struggle. He wants to resist the change, the risk involved in carrying out the task, in making this crucial decision, but he can not. He goes the house of Jesse.  There he must anoint the one God has chosen to be Saul’s succeeding king.

With some crucial decisions, we may have a clear sense of what we ought to do, of what God would have us do, and yet still find it difficult to take that decisive step. With many other decisions, God’s will may not be that clear.

The Lord sees what we do not see.

Even though Samuel is in communion with God, he still does not see things as God sees things. They bring to him Jesse’s oldest boy, Eli’ab. He looks at him and sees a strong, good looking young man. Surely, this is the one to lead Israel. No, says God. You don’t see things like I do. Samuel reviews all of Jesse’s sons save one and the message of the Lord is clear, “This is not the one.”

It is not the first of Jesse’s sons that will lead Israel, but the last. Samuel would have settled on Eli’ab, but God chose David. God sees things not as we see things.

It’s important when making a decision to allow ourselves time for prayer, to listen for God. Not just a quickie prayer, either, not something like, “God, I’m going to do this, I hope that’s okay with you.” Instead, listen carefully for God and struggle with your possibilities. Consult faithful friends. We know from the witness of Scripture that God often speaks through human beings, in accordance with the Scriptures. This, of course, is the best source to speak to us. Search the Scriptures, not to proof-text what you want, but to discern what God wants.

The Lord sees what we do not see. And what the Lord sees is best.

The Woman at the Well

Throughout the gospels, we find Jesus treated woman well, something that was rarely done in his day.

The willingness of Jesus to speak to the woman at the well is both a comfort and a challenge. It’s a comfort if we identify with the Samaritan woman. Are you an outsider? A stranger in a strange land? Do people look down on you as something less than human?

The good news is that Jesus steps over the lines. He crosses boundaries, violates social customs to meet those in need, those sinners most in need of redemption. He treats the Samaritan woman just as he does religious leaders like Nicodemus. He offers them much the same thing. This is both a comfort and a challenge. We are challenged to do likewise. To treat the Samaritan women in our world the same as we treat the Nicodemuses.

This is a challenge because it requires us to see each other not in human terms, no longer from a “human point of view” as Paul writes in 2 Corinthians, but with the eyes of faith.

My Grandma Roberts was a Samaritan woman in her day. A hillbilly, fresh from Eastern Kentucky; moved up with her husband and eight children to find factory work in Indiana after the war. She saw through the eyes of faith. They say she could pick tomatoes as good as any man and she did it, to put food on the table. She was a strong woman and what impressed me most about her, what continues to amaze me is how she met the many challenges she faced looking straight ahead, not bowing down to anyone but God. She refused to see shame because she saw through the eyes of faith.

I believe it is possible to see through the eyes of faith. Maybe not to change all the bad influences in society, but to see things in a different way, to see each other in a new way. No longer from a human point of view, but with the eyes of faith. It is then that we step over the dividing lines with Christ and experience the hope of new life.

Jesus goes up to the Samaritan woman and asks for a drink of water. She’s taken aback. Jesus goes on, “if you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”

Like Nicodemus, she doesn’t understand. How are we to understand? The living water which Jesus speaks of us is a gift of God given to those who thirst. It is not the same as eternal life, but like the water that sustains life, this living water wells up eternally, and satisfies our innermost longings. Both Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman have this kind of thirst. Only the living water which is the free gift of God in Christ could satisfy their thirst.

This living water is not something you can bottle up and carry around with you. It is God’s gift given when we most need it.

We find this living water in the word of God as we read and study the Scriptures. We find this living water as we pray together and alone, out loud and in silence. We find this living water as God’s Spirit moves within and among us, allowing us to see through the eyes of faith.

This living water is not a luxury, but a basic necessity for spiritual life. It sustains us through the difficult moments in our lives. As we grieve the loss of a loved one. As we face separation from our children and parents. As we struggle to face the challenges of daily living.

This living water is offered to everyone. Even a woman of Samaria.

It is no wonder that we read later in chapter four of John, in the epilogue to the story of the woman at the well.

“Many Samaritans from that city believed in him, in Christ, because of the woman’s testimony…”

Nothing would ever be the same. She ran off to share her joy with others. This is the living water.

Nicodemus at Night

John 3.1-10

Why does Nicodemus come to Jesus at night?

Fear of what people might say?  An expert in Jewish law,going to this uneducated teacher.

Did he secretly long to be a follower of Jesus? Hedging his bets, maybe he just wanted to check out this fellow who was causing such a stir.

Nicodemus was a Pharisee. And not just any Pharisee, but “a ruler”, a member of the Sanhedrin who served within the Jewish community to settle issues of religious law and interpretation. These were the leading figures of the faith of Israel, at the center of the religious and social life of the community. As has been the case in the history of religious institutions, the Sanhedrin gained a reputation for being conservative, sticklers for tradition. The gospel writer of John is particularly harsh in his criticism of the Pharisees, calling them hypocrites, claiming that they failed to live up to the standards they set for others.

Nicodemus, a Pharisee, comes to Jesus at night.

“Teacher,” he says, “we know you come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him.”

Truly, truly,” Jesus answers.” I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

The first thing that struck me about this story is that Jesus answers a question that hasn’t even been asked. Nicodemus doesn’t understand. “What do you mean born again? This isn’t possible. Is it?”

“Truly, truly,” Jesus answers again, “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew. ‘The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.”

“How can this be?” asks Nicodemus.

“Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet do not understand this?”

I think Nicodemus wants to understand. Why else would he come to Jesus in the middle of the night

And Jesus says, “You must be born anew.”

What does this mean? Nicodemus doesn’t know, and he’s an expert. 

How are we to understand this notion of being “born anew?” As Christians, we are part of a community that has proclaimed that new life is not only possible, but that it is a gift of God’s spirit through Jesus Christ. This new life does not only affect our inward, private, spiritual selves. God’s gift of new life affects our work and worship, our attitude and our behavior. From prayer to politics, from the pews to the parking lot, and out into our schools, our homes, our work places. God’s Spirit moves within and among us to create new life. Rebirth. Born anew.

There is likely no greater believer in the power of rebirth, of being born anew, than the person recovering from a drug addiction. The second step in the recovery process, after admitting to one’s powerlessness, is to “believe that a power greater than ourselves could and would restore us.”

I have a great deal of respect for persons recovering from addiction and I think we as Christians would do well to both support and learn from the stories of those who have hit “rock bottom” and found there strength and hope. But I hear the voice of Nicodemus crying out in much confusion, “How can this be?”

Yes, Nicodemus, there is new life. There is rebirth. But you’re probably not going to find it sneaking around after dark. New life comes when we step out of the shadow of sin and receive the light of Christ.

God’s spirit, like the wind, blows where it wills. We can’t control it. We can only depend on it. Open ourselves up to it. Run the risk of having our lives changed by it.

Nicodemus lost the opportunity for a new life. His question, “How can this be?” lingers as the text goes on to describe God’s love for all the world.

There is, however, an epilogue to the story of Nicodemus. It’s found in the 19th chapter of John. Jesus has died on a cross. A Roman soldier has pierced his side with a spear.

“After this Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly, for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus and Pilate gave him leave. So he came and took away his body.

Nicodemus also, who had at first come to him by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds weight. They took the body of Jesus, and bound it in linen cloths with the spices…”

Nicodemus, the one who came to Jesus at night. Nicodemus, the Pharisee. Nicodemus, member of the ruling class.

Nicodemus prepares the body of Jesus for burial in the light of day.

Hungry for God

Read Genesis 2,3

Growing up my Grandmother used to read to us from a series of Bible books, complete with color pictures. I remember the Garden of Eden. The rich greens. The bright red of the apple. The glaring look of the serpent. The look of innocence turned to shame in the faces of Adam and Eve. I had the good fortune to grow up on a steady diet of Bible stories. Every night before going to bed I would pluck one of the books off the shelf and settle into the silence to meet the word off God in the voice of my grandmother.

That’s how I like to remember it, anyway. Maybe it wasn’t so idyllic. Maybe it was only like this sometimes. Now things are different, of course. I’m an adult with many and varied responsibilities. I have meetings to attend, books to read, sermons to write, people to visit. I have to travel and speak and listen and sometimes in my quiet desperation I find myself hungry for God.

Adam and Eve had it made. God had made them for each other. They were living in a beautiful garden with plenty of good food to eat. All natural foods. No preservatives. They were at peace with themselves, with their world and with God. They had everything. They were like children snuggling up to Grandma for a bedtime story. What could possible go wrong?

And then, the serpent. The most subtle and beguiling of all God’s creatures. The serpent has long been the symbol of that which we most fear, not for its sheer strength, but for its ability to captivate us, to mesmerize us and strike when we least expect it. This serpent speaks and what he says is not so much a bold-face lie as it is the twist on the truth.

“Did God REALLY say you couldn’t eat of any of the trees?” the serpent asks the woman, though his question is more of a challenge. He’s luring her. “What kind of God would put you in this garden and not let you eat what you wanted?” his question implies.

“No, you’ve got it wrong,” Eve replies, “It’s only this particular tree, and it’s because we’ll die if we eat it. Heck, we’ll die if we even touch it, I think. This tree is bad news. God wants to protect us.”

You can almost see the grin slowly forming on the serpent’s face and those red glaring eyes. “It’s not going to kill you. God is jealous. He doesn’t want what’s best for you. Here, take a bite. See for yourself.”

The serpent doesn’t exactly lie. Instead, he weaves the truth around in such a way that Eve begins to question God. Why did God put us in this garden and tell us not to eat this fruit? What is it about knowledge that could kill us? She looks to the tree and sees a ripe piece of fruit dangling down. Looks good. Smells good. What could be the harm? She eats of it, gives some to Adam and he does the same.

It is here that the twist in the story comes. Adam and Eve do not become “like God” with their new found knowledge. Instead, they feel shame. They sew fig leaves together and hide their nakedness.

Adam and Eve had it made. In this act of disobedience their relationship with God was severed. Cut off. Instead of a long and happy life lived in the presence of all the wonderful gifts in this garden of Paradise, they reached for the one thing that cut them off from God.

It would be nice to look at this story and blame everything on the serpent. Some have. But you can’t lay the blame on the serpent. It wasn’t the serpent who ate the apple. The serpent was just being…well, the serpent.

It would even be somewhat comforting for some of us to lay most of the blame on Eve. After all, she was the one deceived. She ate first. Interestingly, the text doesn’t say what Adam’s response was when Eve brought him the forbidden fruit. The text just says she gave him some and he ate it.

Who does this leave us to blame? Adam and Eve together. Yeah. But who can say if you were in their shoes, you would have done any different? In fact, who here, when faced with the temptation to settle for something less than whole-hearted devotion to God, has not eaten of the fruit?

The taste of original sin is on our lips. How can we wash it out? The first step toward restoring the good thing Adam and Eve had before the Fall is to know that we depend on God in Jesus Christ. Unlike Adam and Eve, Christ resisted the temptation to settle for anything less. This story is a complete reversal. Adam and Eve were in a lush garden paradise. Christ was in the wilderness. Adam and Eve had all they could ever want to eat. Christ had fasted forty days and was very hungry. Adam and Eve gave in to temptation and ate of the fruit. Christ resisted, and remained in communion with God.

Jesus Christ leads us home to the plush garden paradise God created for us. This is more than a children’s fairly tale. It is the Truth that shows us the Way to Life.

The Pioneer of Our Salvation

Read Hebrews 2.10-18

Jesus Christ is the pioneer of our salvation. He is the one who has paved the way for us to follow. He is the one who has suffered much so that we are not left alone to suffer. He is the one who has given us hope, the vision of an everlasting home.

There are many titles used to describe Jesus within the Scriptures, but this is one of my favorites. Pioneer. I was born and raised in Indiana, but I am what I like to call a “displaced Kentuckian.” My grandparents moved to Indiana to find work, but we were never really left behind our hillbilly heritage.

As a child, I would hear stories of great pioneers like Daniel and Rebekkah Boone and I could almost see the rolling hills, feel the red clay soil, hear the lonesome coyote off in the distance and smell the sweet odor of logs burning in the woodstove. I imagined myself a pioneer like Daniel Boone or my own great-great grandfather, Columbus Roberts. Carving out a path through the wilderness for others to follow. Fighting off the dangers and sharing in the victories with my people. Praying to God and trusting that he would lead us home.

We are inspired by our pioneer ancestors. They give us a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose, a feeling of hope. As a child I could almost feel the warmth of that wood stove as I imagined myself sitting beside my ancestors Columbus and Minerva listening to their stories of danger and hardship.

“Tell me about the time that snake bit you, Grandpa.”

“Grandma, what about when that bear tried to get into your pantry?”

Jesus Christ is the pioneer of our salvation. Our God is not a God who sits behind a desk on high and orders angels to do his dirty work.  Christ is the pioneer leader of our salvation. He does not ask of us anything he has not already done. He does not ask us to go where he has not already gone. He has paved the way for us to follow.

Christ also calls us today to be pioneers of faith. We are to stand with our brothers and sisters and not be ashamed. Shame has no part in the Gospel. I think of my grandparents and the shame they felt when they moved to Indiana. How the people there would not accept them, calling them “dumb hillbillies”, scoffed at them when Grandma hauled her eight barefoot kids down the road to pick berries and hunt squirrel for supper.

Shame has no part in the gospel. Christ did not feel shame as he stood among the people, neither should we feel shame as we stand among our brothers and sisters in need. Neither should we feel shame when we are in need. Instead, in Christ, we stand in faith as we travel the road that leads to salvation. Christ is our leader. He is the pioneer of our salvation.

The Freedom of the Gospel

Something’s going on in Galatia that has Paul worried. Shortly after Paul brought the good news of Christ to Galatia, some other visitors arrived with what Paul calls “a different gospel.” We don’t know exactly who these visitors are, but from Paul’s letter, we may assume they are Jewish Christians from Jerusalem who want to introduce Mosaic Law and circumcision into the Gentile churches. Paul, a Jewish Christian himself, nevertheless believes that to introduce the law and circumcision into the Galatian churches would be to deny the freedom offered in the true gospel, that it would not only confuse the Galatians, but pervert the gospel given to us in Christ. What is this freedom of the gospel and how do we fight for, not against it?

First, the freedom of the gospel is freedom from that which enslaves us. Paul refers to these enslaving patterns of our culture as “elemental spirits.” For Paul, a Jew, these “spirits” were slavish devotion to traditions. For the Gentile Galatians, these spirits were former pagan gods Paul later calls “no gods at all,” which laid claim on their lives and held them in bondage.

What are these enslaving spirits for us today?  What are the traditions and false gods that enslave us and how do we respond to them? Apathy? Greed? Vanity? We become slaves to anything that comes along if we are not servants of Christ. As Bob Dylan has written, “You Gotta Serve Somebody.”

The freedom of the gospel is freedom to become even more than servants. It is freedom to become children of God. To become heirs of God’s promise. Because God sent his son into this world, as one of us, we come to share in the promise of salvation with God’s people Israel. As heirs of the promise we share in the responsibility of proclaiming the good news to all people. Not only are we freed to speak and act, we are called upon to do so.

The freedom of the gospel is the freedom to share God’s promise. We are called to share the promise of salvation with our brothers and sisters whether it is popular or unpopular to do so. We are called to speak and act to preserve this freedom just as God has spoken and acted through Christ.

Finally, the freedom of the gospel is the freedom to receive the spirit of God’s son. This freedom enables us to accept the responsibility of being children of God, heirs of God’s promise. Of ourselves, we would prefer to turn back to the enslaving spirits which allow us not to take responsibility for ourselves and for others. Because of this God has sent the spirit of his son into our hearts that we might accept the rights and responsibilities of being children of God, heirs of his promise. Not only are we freed to speak and act, not only are we called upon to do so, but we are empowered by the spirit to act and speak as children of God.

The freedom of the gospel breaks the bonds of slavery to human traditions and false gods which divide us. The freedom of the gospel unites us as one in the One who gave up his freedom to the point of death so that we might be set free.