New Beginnings: Rise Up
Topic: Faith into Action Scripture: Ephesians 2:19–2:22, Ezekiel 37:1–37:14
I take my calling as a pastor very seriously. Sitting around tables of imagination and discernment, leading worship services, preaching the truth of our Lord and Savior, advocating for our awesome staff…all of it. I know how lucky I am to be called by God to serve in such a special place. But, I also know that sometimes my calling as a pastor places me in the needed position to come alongside those within our church family and community who are struggling and hurting. And as I studied and prepared for this message this morning, I began to see this really strong but rare connective tissue between what I was finding in our text and what I've been noticing in several of the folks here and in our neighborhood of BloNo. So this morning, I want to offer a reminder of hope and maybe a sort of uplifting encouragement to a group of people around us that are really having a rough time recently - I'm talking about Cubs fans.
I know this has been a tough season for you all. Believe me, as a Phillies fan, I am well-accustomed to the oft-looming sense of existential dread that baseball can inflict upon the human heart. But as the wise and stout-hearted Samwise Gamgee offered in Tolkien's Two Towers: "In the end, it's only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines, it will shine out the clearer." So, to bolster your spirits, allow this pastor to take you back to better times.
In 2014, the Cubs finished in last place in their division as they had done since 2010. But we all know what would happen in 2016. By the way, do we really think it's a coincidence that my family happens to move here, and then suddenly the Cubs win the World Series for the first time in over 100 years? I'll let you be the judge. But something changed in that Cubs team that vaulted them from worst to first. It wasn't just the win-loss record, either. That year Cubs pitching allowed the fewest runs in baseball. Their defense was tops. And a host of young, electric hitters had the ball flying. But for all that to have come about, something had to change. The front office and coaching staff knew a change was needed. Theo Epstein, the team president, knew they needed to start over and focus on the future. The Cubs manager, Joe Maddon, knew that the players had to Rise Up to the challenge if they were going to do what others called impossible. Maddon was well aware of the pressure that was on that young 2016 team and shared what the message was he offered that squad. He said, "I talked about pressure and expectations as being positives. And they are. Embrace it. Embrace the target. Embrace the pressure. Embrace expectations. Because if you do, you could end up winning the first World Series in 108 years in Chicago." And we all know what happened.
We're in our second week of this message, and our focus is on New Beginnings. Last week we looked at the account of Lazarus and explored the truth that our God actively and powerfully seeks to foster a new beginning for each of us as individuals. This week, we're going outward a bit to focus on a specific group of people. Not the 2016 Cubs, but instead, a group that actually has a whole lot more pressure on them, a group that has far more potential to do something special than any sports team or, really, any other group of human beings. That group is the Church. Now, when I say "Church" I am using the big C term. First Pres is a part of the big C church, and we're absolutely going explore what God's heart for New Beginnings means for us here in Bloomington-Normal, but we always have to remember that God's vision goes way beyond simply our presence. It includes all the people of God who have ever lifted their lives up to the Lord that they might be used to bring God's kingdom to this place. That includes all the Christ-followers today, the faithful throughout the centuries, those first disciples that Jesus called, and the ancient people of God we find in the pages of the Old Testament. And that leads us to our text this morning. If the story of Lazarus was the perfect biblical image of our individual new beginning, then the vision of a certain prophet serves as the ideal image for the new beginning our God fosters and offers to the Church. Just as Jesus literally gave Lazarus a new First Day, here we see God literally call out for the people to Rise Up. We're in Ezekiel 37:1-14.
The prophet Ezekiel had a pretty difficult calling. His primary audience was the Jewish people, and he spoke to them during a time of uncertainty, violence, and upheaval. Lead by King Nebuchadnezzar, and the Babylonian empire had already begun sweeping across the land with unrivaled strength. In fact, at the time of Ezekiel's prophecy, much of the Jewish people had already been forced from their homes and were enduring a great exile. The current situation was bad, but Ezekiel was told by God that it would only get worse.
The people of God, as a nation and as individuals, had fallen away from their faithfulness to the Lord. They had wandered from God, compromised too much, forgotten what should have been written on their hearts. Ezekiel knew that if the people didn't confess, repent, and turn back to God that the Babylonian conquest would ultimately consume the nation of God's people. So, like many of the Old Testament prophets, Ezekiel labored as best as he could to minister to the people. He tried to open their eyes and soften their hearts, to not only warn them of the impending danger but to remind them that there is a better life on the other side of faithfully following God. But, in the end, they would not listen, and, in time, even the great city of Jerusalem would be overtaken and destroyed. One of the visions that God offered to Ezekiel to try and jolt and inspire the people of God was that of the valley of the dry bones.
Ezekiel is brought by God to a wide desert valley that was full of bones. They were scattered all throughout and were completely dry, utterly devoid of any resemblance to their previous lives. God asks the prophet a question: "Can these bones live?" Ezekiel takes the admirable and appropriate posture of humility and replies, "Sovereign Lord, you alone know." The answer should have been obvious, but Ezekiel knew the power of God. Ezekiel could have said "Yes," but the prophet did not presume to know the extent of God's will. And out of that expression of humility, God invites Ezekiel into an incredible work of restoration and resurrection.
The Lord provides the words for the prophet to speak, and, as he does, Ezekiel beholds a sight that marvels even a prophet. As the Lord's promises are spoken, the bones begin to tremble and arrange. God's promises and power are offered through Ezekiel. The promise that breath would again enter these bones, these fallen and forgotten stories. Promises of tendons, flesh, and skin. Impossible promises of new life made possible only by the breath-taking compassion and power of the Most High. The Lord's promise does not cease with this miraculous act but surges forward into the lives of those brought back. God promises to lift the people from their spaces of darkness, death, and hardship and return them to their homes, restored by the one who loves them. God's promise comes with an imploring command. A call to Rise Up and be the people they were created to be in the place that God has prepared for them.
And just as we experienced with Lazarus last week, this display of resurrection power and defining purpose is one intended for us, one that includes us. Ezekiel's vision and prophecy here have consistently provided a sense of conviction, wonder, and assurance for the Church. And even though the vision was offered centuries ago, it applies to us today. When I say "us" I mean here at First Pres and us throughout the world as the followers of Jesus. It's an inspiring message, one that can foster energy and excitement for what God is doing and our role within it. But this is also a message that is intended to be convicting, bracing, and even uncomfortable.
We've heard Mike and the band offer a song that was inspired by our text in Ezekiel. It was by the band Casting Crowns, but there's another song they released more recently called "Right Here," and the main verse of that song goes like this: "Because we wanna see the hearts set free and the tyrants kneel. The walls fall down, and our land be healed. But, church, if we want to see a change in the world out there, it's got to start right here. It's got to start right now. We're the people who are called by His name. If we'll surrender all our pride and turn from our ways. He will hear from Heaven and forgive our sin. He will heal our land, but it starts right here." Friends, that means us too.
The call for the people of God to Rise Up is not past tense. It's a call spoken by Christ today, here and now. The church, us and every other follower of Jesus, we're meant to be a display of God's love. We're supposed to embody the convictions of justice and mercy that our Creator, Savior, and Sustainer offer. Our identity as God's people is not set by the pew we sit in but in our willingness to occupy the spaces where God has called us. It is our lives outside these walls that either reveals us as the followers of Jesus or as a pile of dry bones.
Centuries ago, God spoke a word of inspiration and new life so that a people could Rise Up and share the presence and promise of God in the places where they were called. That was a message of New Beginnings during a time of uncertainty and profound tension, much like today. I believe God wants that kind of transformation for the church now and, specifically, for us here at First Pres. And it starts here. Your heart. Your voice. Your words. Your time. Your habits and how you treat your neighbors. The time you spend in God's Word. The prayers that you pray. The works of justice and compassion you labor for. It's who you are in private and not just who you are inside these walls.
Right now, I believe the world is in desperate need to see people who are known for their resemblance to Jesus. We have that opportunity - that calling. Let's Rise Up.