Scripture: Ezekiel 37:1-14
In Ezekiel chapter 36, which immediately precedes today’s scripture, Ezekiel talks about a future day in which believers will receive the Holy Spirit. God tells the prophet, “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” 1
Notice those words: God will “cause you to walk…” The Holy Spirit, to say the least, changes the way we live. In a nutshell, that’s what this sermon is about. First, the Spirit gives us life in the first place. Second, he gives us power to change. And, third, change isn’t optional.
First, he gives us life in the first place…
I have a dear friend named David, whom I met in “night school”—at what used to be the DeKalb Community College—back in the mid-’90s, when each of us was taking Calculus IV. I went on to get an engineering degree; David went on to get a Ph.D. in math and is now a statistics professor at the University of South Carolina. If you’re a Gamecocks fan, don’t get too excited for him: Before getting his Ph.D., David first got his master’s degree at Clemson.
And he was at Clemson before they became the football juggernaut that they’ve been in recent years. In fact, you may know that Memorial Stadium, where Clemson plays, is nicknamed “Death Valley.” One time, before my beloved alma mater, Georgia Tech, was playing Clemson, David said, “Yeah, it’s not Death Valley anymore. It’s more like ‘Mild Discomfort Valley.’”
Mild Discomfort Valley… I wish it were still “Mild Discomfort Valley”… because it has obviously become Death Valley again…
But we can be sure that this strange vision that the prophet Ezekiel has in Ezekiel chapter 37 takes place not in “Mild Discomfort Valley,” but in Death Valley! The prophet goes out of his way to emphasize that the dead people whose bones are scattered in this valley are really, really dead. We know this because—well, not to be gross, but the bodies have already completely decomposed. All that’s left is bones, and Ezekiel describes these bones as “very dry” in verse 2—meaning they’ve been sitting there in this valley for a long, long time. Maybe for years.
His point in emphasizing this fact is similar to the point that Jesus makes in John chapter 11, before he raises Lazarus from the dead. Remember: Jesus gets word that his friend Lazarus is very sick, and instead of rushing to heal him before Lazarus takes a turn for the worse and dies, Jesus stays right where he is for two more days… before taking the two-day-long journey south to Bethany. Jesus delays because he knows that four days will have elapsed between when Lazarus dies and when Jesus raises him: After four days, nearly everyone will believe that it’s too late for Lazarus to come back to life. All hope is lost… there will be no way for Jesus to rescue his friend from death.
I mean, earlier in the gospels, Jesus raised at least two other people from the dead, but that happened only moments or hours after death, not four days after death. Again… all hope is lost! Or so it seems.
And that’s the point that God wants to make with Ezekiel in this vision: all hope is lost. These people are dead, dead, dead… And for most of the first 36 chapters of Ezekiel leading up to today’s scripture, God hasn’t given the prophet much reason to think that the people of Israel—who are symbolized by these dry bones—deserve to be resuscitated by God. On the contrary, among many other sins, the people of Israel worshiped literal idols in the temple in Jerusalem. They literally practiced child sacrifice to pagan gods. They were greedy. They practiced sexual immorality. They thoroughly broke all ten of the Ten Commandments with reckless abandon and resisted all warnings from prophets like Ezekiel to repent.
And Ezekiel has described how God punished them by sending the Babylonians to conquer them. The Babylonians destroyed the temple in Jerusalem. They took many of the Israelites, like Ezekiel himself, into captivity in Babylon, and left the rest behind in Jerusalem—the ones they didn’t kill, I mean.
Israel is finished as a nation, or so it seemed…
So when God asks Ezekiel, “Can these bones live?” in verse 3, the vast majority of Israelites left would have answered, “No way”; Ezekiel, however, has enough faith not to rule out the possibility; he leaves the question in God’s hands. He says, “O Lord God, you know”—by which he means, “Only you know the answer to that question. If you want these bones to live, Lord, you have the power to make that happen. But why would you give them life again after all the ways they’ve rebelled against you… after all the ways they’ve sinned?”
And of course, as with all the scriptures I’m preaching on in this series, today’s scripture is not simply about ancient Israel and its sin… It’s about us in our modern world and our sin, too!
The apostle Paul says twice in Ephesians chapter 2 that all of humanity, apart from faith in Christ, are “dead in their trespasses”2—by which he means spiritually dead. He also says that we are “children of wrath”—meaning that God is justifiably angry with us, and we deserve punishment and hell. We are as incapable of saving ourselves from this spiritual death as Lazarus was from his death when Jesus called him out of the tomb… or these dead Israelites are when Ezekiel speaks to their bones.
If any of us will be saved from death and hell, it’s going to take an unprecedented miracle from almighty God! If we are going to be saved from our helpless human condition, it’s not going to depend on anything that we can do: it will depend only on God.
Indeed, it depends only on the Holy Spirit doing what the Spirit does in verses 9 and 10 of today’s scripture:
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 may live.” So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army.
And that word for breath is the identical word in Hebrew for “spirit”…
The Spirit alone is the one who gives us new life when we first believe in God’s Son Jesus. It doesn’t depend on anything we do… other than to repent and believe in Christ. Christ has done everything for us. He lived the life of perfect obedience to his heavenly Father that we were unable to live; he died the godforsaken death we deserved to die. It’s only on the basis of Christ’s righteousness that any of us can be saved.
But not so fast…
You might object, “If God’s gift of salvation in Christ doesn’t depend at all on what we do—other than repenting and believing in Christ—then does that mean that God can save… you know—just anyone? Even the really bad people?”
A few years ago, some internet atheist was trying to troll us Christians—to make fun of us for actually believing that Christianity is true. This atheist posted the following meme on social media. It included a photo of David Berkowitz, that infamous serial killer from the ’70s known as the “Son of Sam.” The meme includes a present-day photo of Berkowitz in prison, smiling and holding a Bible. The caption on the photo reads, “My name is David Berkowitz. I was the most feared man in New York City in the ’70s. Known as ‘The Son of Sam,’ I was the serial killer that murdered six people and wounded ten others. Now in prison for life, I found the love of Jesus.
Then in large print, with heavy sarcasm, it reads,“Guess Who’s Getting Into Heaven?”
And you know what I say to that? I say, “I hope so! Praise God, I hope so!”
This atheist obviously was offended—that the gospel of Jesus Christ has the nerve to say that even a former serial killer like Berkowitz—who, I’m sure we all agree, is about the worst sinner that anyone could name—that even someone like him could become part of God’s kingdom, that even someone like him could have all his awful, evil, ugly sins forgiven, and be born again, that even someone like him could be given eternal life—all on the condition that he sincerely repent and believe in the gospel!
Provided he has done that, then I say Amen! I say, “If Jesus can save David Berkowitz, then there’s hope for me! And there’s hope for you!”
If even even someone like him isn’t excluded because of his sins, then I won’t be excluded because of mine. And you won’t be excluded because of yours!
Listen, I can’t look into your heart and know for sure whether you’ve been born again through faith in Christ, but I can say with certainty that if you understand the words that I’m speaking right now, there is absolutely no reason whatsoever that God can’t give you new and eternal life right now. I can say with certainty that no one in this room right now is any more spiritually dead than these “very dry bones” are dead in Ezekiel chapter 37.
The only question is, Do you want to be saved? Do you want new birth by the Holy Spirit? Do you want eternal life? Are you ready to repent and trust in Jesus to save you?
If so, you, too, will be saved!
So Point Number One: when we believe in Jesus, the Holy Spirit works a miracle; he gives spiritually dead people the gift of new and eternal life.
This brings us to Point Number Two: The Holy Spirit gives us power to change.
We all know the expression from Star Wars, “May the force be with you”? In fact, “Star Wars Day” is fast approaching on the calendar. Do you know the date of “Star Wars Day”? Sure you do: It’s May the Fourth—as in “May the Fourth be with you.” I know… that’s a really bad pun. But Star Wars fans apparently love it.
Anyway, in the Star Wars universe, certain people—like Luke Skywalker, like his father, Anakin, like Obi-Wan Kenobi, and like his sister, Princess Leia… they are all born with “the Force.”
And the Holy Spirit, I suppose, is at least a little bit like the Force. George Lucas grew up as a Methodist, of all things; so it stands to reason that his childhood faith played at least a small role in influencing the Star Wars universe that he created.
But… unlike with Luke, Leia, and Obi-Wan—and all these other “Jedis” who have the Force—we Christians aren’t born with the Holy Spirit; as I said earlier, we are “born again” with the Holy Spirit. And unlike with “the Force,” the Holy Spirit isn’t given to only a select few. He’s given to everyone who calls on the name of the Lord Jesus. And unlike with “the Force,” the Holy Spirit is not an impersonal power; the Spirit is very personal. That’s why the Spirit is a “he,” not an “it.” He is God… the Third Person of the Trinity—and he is living within us. That’s why Paul can say, in 1 Corinthians chapter 6, that our bodies are “temples” of the Holy Spirit… Because just as the Spirit of God resided in the Holy of Holies inside the physical temple in Jerusalem, now—because of what Christ accomplished through his atoning death on the cross—the Spirit resides within the hearts of us Christians!
And so… I guess there’s one important thing that the Holy Spirit has in common with “the Force,” and that’s this: we have power. Jesus said, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Acts 1:8.
But make no mistake: While Luke is able to blow up the Death Star by using the Force rather than his eyes, the power we receive from the Holy Spirit is infinitely greater than any power that comes from “the Force”!
It’s not even close!
But in this second point, I just want to focus on three powerful changes that the Holy Spirit makes in our lives.
For Change Number One, let’s look at Romans 8, which has a lot to tell us about the work of the Spirit. For instance, consider verses 15 and 16:
So you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, “Abba, Father.” For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children. 3
The Spirit is not only the means by which we’re adopted by our heavenly Father into his family; he is the means through which we know—really know, deep down—that the very Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is also our loving Father. We experience the Father’s love through the Spirit living within us! Because of the Spirit, we can know God not merely as “Father,” which feels very formal and even stuffy to our modern ears… But no, we know God as “Abba,” the very word by which Jesus himself knows his Father.
This is the Bible’s way of telling us that because of the Spirit, we Christians can enjoy the exact same intimate relationship with our Father that God’s only begotten Son Jesus enjoys with the Father.
Speaking of which, my father died 28 years ago. He died of cancer at 64. We had about a year during which we knew that Dad’s cancer was terminal. I was 25 at the time. My relationship with Dad had been rocky up to that point, and God graciously used this last year to appreciate the precious gift that was my father’s life—I learned not to take him for granted. I saw him nearly every day that last year—in the hospital while he was getting chemo, at home. We went on vacation together twice. I was with him when he died at my parents’ home, under hospice care.
But this experience of facing the end of Dad’s life changed me, and it certainly changed my dad, too. He was a good man, but he wasn’t overly affectionate. But now, for the first time in his life, the words, “I love you” and, “I’m proud of you,” flowed freely and easily from his lips. And a part of me was like, “Who are you and what have you done with my father?” But a much larger part of me loved hearing it. Every time he saw me—or Lisa, or anyone else in the family for that matter—he would make a point of taking us aside and telling us how much he loved us, and how proud he was of us.
One time, during that final year, he explained to me: “I love you, son. You may get tired of hearing it, but I’m not going to get tired of telling you. And I’m going to keep on telling you because it’s true.”
Do you think I got tired of hearing it? Heck, no! I could practically live off of that kind of affirmation… Experiencing my dad’s love for me, his acceptance of me, his affection for me, his pride in me… These emotions were nearly the best things ever!
And so it is with our heavenly Father… If we’re Christians, we don’t simply “know” up here, in our heads, that God loves us… the Bible says that we experience our Father’s love—the same way that Jesus did—in our hearts… we feel our Father’s love… through the Holy Spirit!
That’s one important change…
Change Number Two: Romans chapter 8 also says that the Spirit intercedes for us… that is, the Holy Spirit prays for us… to our heavenly Father… through our own prayers… Paul writes, in Romans 8:26, “And the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words.”
While we all know the experience of unanswered prayer—of not getting what we pray for—precisely what we pray for… Do you know whose prayers for us always get answered with a resounding “yes”? God’s prayers for us. And the Holy Spirit is God, the Third Person of the Trinity, and when he prays to the Father for us, we can be sure that the Father always gives him what he prays for!
In the mystery of the Trinity, in other words, as strange as it sounds, because we have the Holy Spirit living within us, God prays to God… for us!
Just a few days ago, at Young Adult Bible study, one of you asked me about whether it’s okay to risk praying so-called “selfish” prayers. Or how we can know whether or not our prayers are too selfish? And you even told me that you have a friend who’s afraid to pray for any personal need because they’re afraid they’re being selfish. They pray for other people, not for themselves—which I think is awful and unbiblical.
And I said, “You don’t have to worry about praying ‘selfish’ prayers. As Paul says, ‘We don’t know what God wants us to pray for.’ And Jesus teaches us to pray for our ‘daily bread,’ for things we think we need, which includes personal needs.”
So my advice to this person in the young adult study was, “Just pray for what you think you need. The Holy Spirit can sort out what you really need. One pastor said that the Holy Spirit hears the prayer ‘underneath the prayer’—in other words, even if we’re not praying for the right thing, the Spirit hears the deeper prayer; he hears the deeper need that we’re asking our Father to satisfy… and that prayer, the Bible says… that prayer will always gets answered with a resounding yes.
So the Spirit changes our prayer life…
Change Number Three: The Holy Spirit produces within us the “fruit of the Spirit.” Galatians 5:22 and 23:
But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. 4
I’ve said plenty of times before that literally everyone in the world wants one thing more than anything else: They want to be happy… or even better, they want to possess a kind of happiness that no circumstance in their lives can take away from them—that’s precisely what joy is: a happiness that doesn’t depend on circumstances. But look what this verse is saying: the Holy Spirit is transforming our hearts such that we will experience what everyone in the world wants more than anything else: We will experience lasting happiness… We will experience joy! The Spirit is making us joyful people. The Spirit is giving us joy… among these other wonderful virtues.
And listen, I’m well aware that I haven’t even talked about one of the most important things the Holy Spirit does—which is to give us power to fulfill the Great Commission… to make disciples of all nations… to be witnesses for Christ.
But you know what the world needs right now… in order to be convinced of the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ, so that they too will repent and believe in Jesus?
The world—including our little corner of it here in Toccoa, Georgia—desperately needs to see Christians like you and me showing forth the fruit of the Spirit… They need to see that our character has been so transformed by the the Lord that our lives naturally demonstrate the virtues of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. They need to see that being happy in Jesus is better than anything else!
When we bear the fruit of the Spirit in our lives, people will notice… And they will want what we have. Our lives will have a magnetic quality that is attractive to others… that will attract people to us. People will want to be around us! They’ll want what they see in us!
I can’t tell you how many times that Lisa, my wife, has told me that co-workers that she barely knows will come to her and pour out their hearts to her… tell her about some personal problem, some family crisis, some difficulty in their lives… and ask her to pray for them! And these are often people who aren’t religious, who don’t go to church, who aren’t Christians anymore… But they want to talk to Lisa and share with her, and ask her to pray for them.
Why does this often happen to Lisa? What is it that people see within her?
They see Jesus! They see the fruit of the spirit! They want what she has! They want the Jesus they see in her!
Do people want the Jesus they see in you?
Surely that’s the most powerful kind of witnessing that we can do!
And the Holy Spirit makes that possible as he changes us from within!
Now my final point: Change is not optional… for us followers of Christ!
We talked about this briefly on Wednesday night, but one of the potentially most frightening verses in the Sermon on the Mount is Matthew 5:20: Jesus says, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
When Jesus prefaces his words with “for I tell you,” it’s his way of saying, “I need you to pay attention and heed this warning…” And the warning is this: if you are an authentic follower of Jesus—which means you’ve been given new birth by the Spirit, you’ve been given eternal life through faith in Christ—guess what? You must change. You must be in the process of becoming more and more Christlike, more righteous, or, as we Methodists like to say: you must become increasingly holy.
And I know the pushback: “Pastor Brent, you were just saying earlier that there’s nothing you can do to save yourself; it’s all about what Christ does for us and our faith in him. You’re always preaching that you can’t earn salvation or deserve it or pay for it in any way. Aren’t you contradicting yourself now?”
No, I’m not. Saving faith comes first. Think of the criminal next to Jesus on the cross. There was literally nothing he could do to save himself—no way he could earn it or deserve it or pay for it. His arms and legs were nailed to the cross. All he could do was turn to Jesus and trust in him for salvation. He had no good works to show for himself. Yet Jesus said, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” 5
The criminal was saved by faith in Christ alone.
But… if this criminal had been able to come down off the cross… If his wounds healed and he recovered… If he didn’t die of infection… If he had gone on to resume his life and live for many more years… His life would have been characterized by increasing holiness. His life would have borne the fruit of the Spirit. He would have had many good works to show for himself.
And so it is with us…
Jesus’ half-brother James makes the same point as Jesus when he says, “Faith without works is dead.” 6
Being a Christian is not a one-time event that happens when we get baptized, or go through confirmation, or walk down an aisle and make a profession of faith, or pray a sinner’s prayer. It’s a lifelong process of becoming increasingly holy.
Examine yourself! Is that happening? If not, you and I need to talk!
There are people in this room right now listening to these words who have parts of yourself that you don’t want anyone else to see. You’re afraid for other people to see those dark, unregenerate places in your hearts. You’re afraid that you’re going to be “found out,” and people are going to know the awful, ugly truth about you.
Don’t kid yourself: No matter how people seem on the outside, literally everyone in this room has these tender places in their hearts that need to be healed!
Now let me tell you some good news: You can be healed! Those things you struggle with can change and get better! God can make you better, God can transform you, God can heal you… heal you of the devastating effects of sin in your life. You’re not stuck! You don’t always have to be this way, always have to feel this way, always have to fall back into this harmful, destructive pattern of sinfulness.
You’re not stuck with these very dry, dead bones you’re walking around with; the Holy Spirit wants to give you new life! And he promises to do so as you trust in Jesus—not just on the other side of heaven, but right now!
And I just want you to believe that… I want us to believe that… I want us to believe in the power of the Spirit to change us. Amen?