A Sermon in the Shadow of COVID-19

          The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the Fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

Ezekiel 37:1-14 {1} “The hand of the LORD was upon me, and He brought me out by the Spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of the valley; and it was full of bones. {2} And He caused me to pass among them round about, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley; and lo, they were very dry. {3} And He said to me, ‘Son of man, can these bones live?’ And I answered, ‘O Lord GOD, Thou knowest.’ {4} Again He said to me, ‘Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, ‘O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD.’’ {5} Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones, ‘Behold, I will cause breath to enter you that you may come to life. {6} And I will put sinews on you, make flesh grow back on you, cover you with skin, and put breath in you that you may come alive; and you will know that I am the LORD.’ {7} So I prophesied as I was commanded; and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold, a rattling; and the bones came together, bone to its bone. {8} And I looked, and behold, sinews were on them, and flesh grew, and skin covered them; but there was no breath in them. {9} 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 come to life.’ {10} So I prophesied as He commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they came to life, and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army. {11} 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 has perished. We are completely cut off.’ {12} Therefore prophesy, and say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD, Behold, I will open your graves and cause you to come up out of your graves, My people; and I will bring you into the land of Israel. {13} Then you will know that I am the LORD, when I have opened your graves and caused you to come up out of your graves, My people. {14} And I will put My Spirit within you, and you will come to life, and I will place you on your own land. Then you will know that I, the LORD, have spoken and done it,’ declares the LORD.’

          The three reading for this 5th Sunday in Lent are timely, to say the least.  I didn’t pick them. The church calendar assigned them.  The Epistle lesson, Romans 8:1-11 should put the Christian in mind of the Old Testament reading Ezekiel 37 and the valley of dry bones. Verses 10 & 11. “If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, yet the spirit is alive because of righteousness. But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.”

          The raising of Lazarus in the assigned Gospel reading provides not only a display of our Lord power over death and drying bones, but also a foreshadows what would soon happen to Him a few days later. Our God is the God of the living ones not the dead ones.

          As for the Old Testament lesson, Ezekiel 37, the primary text for this sermon listen again to portions of the reading. {5} “Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones, ‘Behold, I will cause breath to enter you that you may come to life. . . [I will] put breath in you that you may come alive; and you will know that I am the LORD’. . . 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 come to life.’ So I prophesied as He commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they came to life.”

          Eight times the English word “breathe” or “breath” is used in the Old Testament lesson. Of those eight, the word “life” is tied directly connected to the word “breath” or “breathe’ four times.  The one cannot be without the other. Life is the result of breath and only the living breathe.

          The physical act of breathing consists of two phases. The first phase, interestingly enough, is called “inspiration” or “inhaling.”  “Inspiration” –  think of God breathing life into Adam. The Bible speaks of itself as being God breathed/inspired. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.”

          Phase one: We inhale, our diaphragms contract and move downward so that the space in our chest cavity increases. The lungs expand, air is pulled in, and oxygen flows into our blood. Phase two is called “expiration” or “exhaling.” When people died of natural causes, we use to say “they expired.”

          Under the second phase of breathing, carbon dioxide flows from the blood into the lungs, then is forced out when we exhale. The average person takes about 25,000 breaths per day.

          That’s the problem isn’t it? That’s why you’re listening to a recording of a sermon and not sitting in pews listening to a man preach. A viral infection named “COVID-19″ is spreading across the globe.  COVID-19 brings about an acute respiratory distress syndrome that proves deadly to particular segments of the population.  In it’s most destructive state, a ventilator must be used to breath oxygen into the body of the dying person to sustain life.          Now to the Old Testament lesson.  In 722 B.C. the Northern Kingdom, Judah fell.  God gave the Southern Kingdom, Israel and Jerusalem a little more time to repent before He brought about their fall at the hands of the Babylonians. That brings us to the prophet Ezekiel, think 600 B.C.

          God gave the prophet Ezekiel a vision that illustrates how important God’s breath and breathing is spiritually and physically to God’s people. In the vision God’s breath of life resurrects the whole of Israel’s army, the army that had been wiped out by the Bablonians.

          In the days of Ezekiel, Israel was breathing in all the wrong things; the gods of Baal, the immorality of the pagans, greed, tyranny, exploitation of the poor, and every other corrupt thing.

          It was only because of their status as captives and slaves, that they cried out to God, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope has perished. We are completely cut off.”   They believed God had cast them aside, cut them off. Having learned their lesson for now, the Lord God sends Ezekiel who to remind His children that He is the one who breathes life into the dead.

          God commands Ezekiel, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, `O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. . . Behold, I will cause breath to enter you that you may come to life. . . then “there was a noise, and behold, a rattling; and the bones came together, bone to bone. . . Prophesy to the breath, prophesy son of man, and say to the breath, ‘Come from the four winds, O breath and breathe on these slain, that they come to life.’”

          The Lord God wants nothing about this vision to remain a mystery, to either Israelites of old or us.  He explains it (11-14). “‘Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel . . I will open your graves and cause you to come up out of your graves, My people; . . . you will know that I am the LORD . . . I will put My Spirit within you, and you will come to life . . . I, the LORD, have spoken and done it.’”

          In the English translations of Ezekiel 37:1-14 the word “Spirit” occurs twice, the word “wind” once, and the word “breath” eight times.  The Hebrew word for spirit is ru`ah.  The Hebrew word for wind is ru`ah.  The Hebrew word for breath or breathe is ru`ah.  That means that the word ru`ah occurs eleven times in fourteen 14 verses.  In Genesis 1, God’s Ru`ah (Spirit) is found hovering over the waters of the earth.  Even a word that stirs movement and life in you if you say it correctly.

          Being made alive by the breath/Spirit of God is like being animated by a wind. Like being moved along on a wind.  Wind is not dead. It is living and active and moving.  Through the mouth of the prophet, the breath/wind/Spirit of God goes out over the valley of death and into the dry bones of the dead. His breath restores them to life. It is a taste of Easter in the midst of Lent.

          This is the same wind that blew through creation, is the same wind Jesus talked to Nicodemus about in Baptism. John 3:5&8; “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. . . The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

          Being born of the Spirit does not mean we are flighty, unpredictable, or unreliable.  It means we are animated by God Himself. As Christians we live and move by and in Him.

          The wind, breath, and Spirit of Ezekiel 37 is the same breath and Spirit of   John 20:21-22, “Jesus said to them [His disciples], ‘Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, I also send you.’ And when He had said this He breathed on them and said, `Receive the Holy Spirit.’”

          On the day of Pentecost, in Acts 2 we read, “Suddenly there came from heaven a noise, like a violent rushing wind, [the same noise Ezekiel heard 600 years earlier in that valley of death.] . . like a violent rushing wind, and it filled the whole house . . . And they were filled with the Holy Spirit.”

          I want you all to take note in all the verses I just quoted and in Ezekiel 37, God is the one doing the breathing. He is doing the work.  “I will cause breath [ruakh] to enter you, and you shall live” (v 5). “I will put my Spirit [rukhi] within you, and you shall live” (v 14).

          Now ee take in a lot of pollutants into our lungs and our bodies make their own pollutants. Some of those pollutants are poisonous if found in too great a concentration. That same is true for the Christian life.

          As Christians we don’t breathe as we should.  The breathing of all too many Christians and Christian churches these days is shallow and barely life sustaining. They confuse entertainment with medicine for the soul.  We all inhale all sorts of beliefs, ideas, philosophies, passions, lifestyles, and every kind of sin that harms the body, soul, and mind. We don’t breathe in God’s pure Word. We breathe in something else.

          Remember that 2 Timothy text I just quoted. What is the purpose of God’s breathed written Word? It’s “for teaching, reproof, correction, training in righteousness.”

          At risk of over doing the analogy, I want you to you to picture Christian church as Christ’s ventilator, pushing the breath of God, the God inspired Word into your spiritual lungs, giving, and sustaining your Christian faith.

          It is through the Word and Sacraments that God breathes into us the Holy Spirit, a right understanding, and life everlasting.  It is also the place where we breathe out the pollutants and poisons that threaten our life. We do that when we confess our sins and our heavenly Father forgives our sins through the mouth of the pastor in holy Absolution and in the remission of sins in the Lord’s Supper.

          And why does He do that?  Because on the Cross of Good Friday Jesus said ‘Iit is finished,” “gave up His Spirit,” and “breathed His last.”  God expired there on the cross in our place. Then on Easter Morning, He breathe the eternal breath, rose from the dead, and put His breath in us. He has done for us what He did for Lazarus.

          John 11:45 Jesus “cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come forth.’ The man who had died came forth.”  Each and every time God sends me into this pulpit, and each and every time I put the water and the Spirit on the head person at that fount, God is telling me to do the same thing that He commanded Ezekiel to do.  “‘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 come to life.’ So I prophesied as He commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they came to life.”

          God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit breathes into us life giving Wind of the person and work of Christ and the Holy Spirit. Again Romans 8:10 & 11. “If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, yet the spirit is alive because of righteousness. But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.”

          In Christ there is a breath and a life for the weary and heavy-laden, for the crushed in spirit, and for the despised and lowly.  In Jesus there is the breath of life that extends even beyond the grave and into the forever.

          Breathing is a big deal and the breath that gives life flows from the ministry of the Church. In the hearing of God’s Word, even in the form of this recording, you’re breathing in the Word and when this crisis passes, return to church and  breathe easy.

Amen.

May the peace that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Breathe, Oh Breath of Life!

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