(Patrick did another mini-sermon on John)
When Patrick and I came here a few weeks ago, I asked you to imagine yourself in a desert. I want to take you back there now, thinking about a slightly different situation.
It is sunset, and after a blisteringly hot day, the first chill winds of night are blowing through your clothes. Around you, everything is dry and bare, and the breeze lifts up the sand, forming a fluid and ever-moving layer which whips at your ankles. There is no sign of life as far as the eye can see, and the only signs that there ever was any life are the remains of long dead trees, smoothed and polished over time by the wind and the sand.
As night falls, you feel dew dropping too, wholly unexpectedly and unwelcomely - you cannot collect dew in a bottle to drink, but the dampness on your skin adds to the cold. You build a fire to keep you warm, and eventually go to sleep. You sleep soundly until dawn wakes you. Your fire has gone out by now, but that is not the only thing to have changed. The landscape is as different now as night is to day. The dew, cold and unwelcome at the time, has permeated the ground. Overnight, nature, which has been gasping for precious water for so long, has thrived. The dead tree trunks are covered in creepers, and as you stand up, the outline of where you have slept is clear, a silhouette of bare sand against the greenery surrounding it. As you watch, a single tendril invades that bare patch, and soon there are more, until in a reversal of the previous evening, there is nothing to see but life.
We are like those plants, apparently lifeless, our wonders hidden until we can drink in God's love. The vision Ezekiel saw wasn't about physical raising of the dead, although obviously at this time of year it reminds us of Christ's resurrection. It was about the people of Israel, destroyed by Babylon and utterly lost. As it says in the reading, "Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely." The bones rising up and becoming a multitude represents God's spirit reuniting Israel, making it a whole nation once more. When we are cut off from a relationship with God and from his love for us, we wither spiritually. We may still go through the same motions of life, but without God's love, it is just that - going through the motions. The psalmists wrote about this need all over the place. In the psalm we have just read, "I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning." In psalm 42, we hear, "As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God." Psalm 63 is similar: "O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water." I'm sure there are plenty of other examples - I just dipped into the psalms this morning and found those.
There is a difference between us and the bones Ezekiel saw, however. In Ezekiel's vision, God breathed on the bones and they rose up. No action was needed on the part of the bones. With us, God is already breathing his spirit into us, all the time. He has never withheld his love from us - it is always there for the taking. What we need to do is breathe him in, taking his spirit into ourselves completely until we are transformed by it. Just as a deep breath of air enables blood carrying vital oxygen to reach every part of our body, so breathing God in deeply should transform every aspect of our lives.
I believe it is that very completeness of the transformation that sometimes prevents us from drinking God's water of life as deeply as we might. We each have bits of our lives that are doing just fine, thank you very much, and we'd rather not have them transformed. Just as the dew felt cold to the touch, so we can at first shrink back from God's love, afraid of what it might do to us. Indeed, sometimes the process of transformation itself can be painful, especially if it means leaving behind some cherished parts of our prior selves. What we must realise is that those parts of our life that aren't part of God's will are doomed anyway, just as the dead trees in the desert were. If we embrace God's love though, he can use whatever we have for his purposes, just as the trees became covered in creepers.
To use another plant analogy, we have a fuchsia in our garden at home. It was there when we bought the house a few years ago, and we were amazed at its beauty the following summer. It has the most gorgeous red flowers, and keeps going for months and months. When it looked like it had finally died down for the winter, we looked in a gardening book to check what we ought to do, and it said we needed to prune it back viciously, leaving hardly anything. With some trepidation, we did this. For months, I thought I'd killed it - until eventually it flowered again, even more beautifully than the previous year. We need to be ready for God to transform us even if it means he prunes our lives just as thoroughly. We need to have courage and faith to keep believing in his will even during difficult times when we've said goodbye to the old but haven't seen the fruits of the new. Here we can take courage from the Easter story - even Christ needed to suffer to complete God's will. Fortunately, through his one great sacrifice, the sacrifices we have to make are that much smaller.
Also, just like the fuchsia, we can't become complacent after one transformation. [All in one very obvious breath.] We can't take one deep breath of God's spirit and hold it and hold it and hold it, hoping it'll last forever... [Dramatic breath out.] God will need us for many different purposes throughout our lives, and we need to be constantly listening for that call. The process is one of ongoing transformation. Paul wrote about this at the end of 2 Corinthians chapter 3, but Graham Kendrick simplified it down to the bare bones in Shine, Jesus Shine: "Ever changing from glory to glory, mirrored here may our lives tell your story. " ... And that's what happens when we breathe God's love in right down our very roots.
Thanks be to God.