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The resurrection of Lazarus and the resurrection of the house of Israel have something important to teach the Church.
One of the many motifs for Halloween is a human skeleton.
You can buy a costume which is usually all black except for the outline of skeletal bones done in white.
As we heard from the prophet Ezekiel today, he looked out over a field of bones—just bones.
No bone was connected to its adjoining bone.
It was a pile of dry bones—very dry bones.
As he was looking, the Lord asked him a question—
“Son of man, can these bones live?”
That’s a tough question, don’t you think?
Our experience tells us NO, these bones are dead and will stay that way.
But, when God asks that question, you know something is up.
Ezekiel, being the smart boy he was, said, “Lord, you know.”
This question—can these bones live?—has been asked many times since the time of Ezekiel.
It is asked in different fashion concerning different things having to do with the church, but it is essentially the same question brought about by much the same conditions.
As I meet with pastors from here in Stockton, and with others from across the country, there is a certain level of bewilderment at this time—especially as we are coming out of the COVID pandemic.
After churches were shut down due to the panic of the pandemic, many people began to discover they could get along just fine without their regular Sunday routine.
When the churches re-opened, less than half the original congregation returned.
Due to the way we do church in this country, that has proven to be devastating to the financial condition of many congregations.
The question that is now being asked is “WHAT’S NEXT?”
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
HOW DO WE PROCEED?
Churches, though, were in their death throes long before the pandemic.
Membership across almost all denominations has been in a steady decline for decades.
Since I became a part of John Calvin Presbytery, we have closed down three churches, and 11 still remain without a pastor.
I attended a Nazarene conference a few years ago and the keynote speaker pointed out that they had established 1600 new churches in the previous year.
After the applause and cheering died down he said, “But that is not all.
We also closed down 1599 churches during the same period—for a net gain of one.”
Church as we know it is dying.
A cursory glance at church history shows this to be the case approximately every 500 years.
500 years after Pentecost, which is the birthday of the church, major changes in teaching and belief brought about significant change.
Then there was the establishment of the Holy Roman Empire which united church and state for a more rigorous control of the populace.
Then, the Reformation occurred about 500 years after that as the church of that time was dying a miserable death.
That was 500 years ago.
Are we in the midst of another major shift affecting the church?
Many would say that our churches today are dry bones with no life in them.
Can these bones live?
God only knows.
The Lord told Ezekiel to prophesy to those dead dry bones, and when he did, he heard a rattling of bones.
So I prophesied as I was commanded.
And as I prophesied, there was a sound,
and the bones came together,
bone to its bone.
This passage from the prophet Ezekiel has been used extensively as an explanation of almost every revival which brought change to the church.
There are a multitude of sermons available from the Pentecostal revival of the early 20th century and many more from the Charismatic Movement of the ‘70s, which use this passage from Ezekiel.
The sermons were all used to try to explain why people were leaving their established churches for this new form of worship.
Such is not the case this time.
People are simply leaving what they consider to be a dead form and not establishing anything new or different.
And then we hear of something like the revival happening at Asbury college in Kentucky.
Young people were in a chapel service when something happened that made the service go non-stop for two weeks before shutting down.
People from around the country and from our own community rushed out to Wilmore, KY to see and maybe experience what was said to be a significant moving of the Holy spirit.
The same thing occurred in 1970 on the same campus, only at that time there was already national revival happening.
It, too, was among the youth of the day.
What is it about youthfulness which allows for revival?
What is it about old age which doesn’t much experience revival?
The answer to those two questions can be found in a statement Jesus made when questioned about the difference in His ministry from that of John the Baptist.
Neither is new wine put into old wineskins.
If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled
and the skins are destroyed.
But new wine is put into fresh wineskins,
and so both are preserved.”
John’s ministry lasted only for a short time, but it had a tremendous effect on the people of his time.
Jesus comes along during this time, and His ministry also has a powerful impact.
But His ministry was different from that of John, and some people noticed that difference and wondered why.
This verse from Matthew’s gospel has also been used much like the passage from Ezekiel to explain the various revivals.
Why do the revivals need explanation?
If it is something that God is doing among His people, don’t you think it should be apparent that it is the Lord?
We know from the Bible and from history that such is just not the case.
Revivals need explanation because the seven deadly words rule whatever existing structure there is.
We’ve never done it that way!
I know of numerous pastors who have lost their position because they tried to ride the new wave and bring the experience into their church.
But the challenge of change was more than some people were willing to accept.
Who is at fault when this happens?
I am not sure that finding fault is the correct assessment.
Understanding the dynamics of life would help to avoid the disasters which have followed unwise attempts to bring change.
The young body, the young mind is pliable, amenable to being shaped differently—which is the very essence of growth.
Growth requires change.
Growth is change from what was to what is to what will be.
When what is lasts for an extended period of time, changing to what will be is more difficult.
The comfort zone becomes the place of security.
Some would say that our comfort zone is a prison, keeping us locked out of new and fresh experiences.
While that may be accurate at a certain level, I’m not sure it should be applied as an accusation.
Jesus did not condemn the old wineskin for being old and brittle.
He simply pointed out that there is a proper method for the handling of wine and wineskins.
The apostle Paul was used by the Lord to bring the fulness of the gospel to those outside the confines of their traditional Judaism.
The original apostles were not quick to accept what Jesus had told them about the universality of the gospel, nor were they quick to accept Paul’s willingness to bring in the Gentiles.
Old wineskins simply were not able to accommodate the new wine of God’s acceptance of all people.
Jesus had hinted at this idea of change when He was talking to the woman at the well.
Jesus said to her,
“Woman, believe me,
the hour is coming
when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem
will you worship the Father.
But the hour is coming, and is now here,
when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth,
for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.”
Jn 4:21, 23
Jesus essentially said that the rules and rigors which define worship were about to change.
Place, style and format were no longer to be the guidelines, but spirit and truth were to lead in worship of the Father.
Every revival of which I am aware has brought about this same thing.
There has been a change in worship style and format.
Those churches which flowed with the change saw growth in numbers, while those who did not saw a decline.
The church at large is at that place again.
Change is coming.
What does that change look like?
What does it involve?
How can we be ready for change which may shock us out of our comfort zone?
I do not know the answer to those questions.
I do know this and I pass it along to you.
The Book of Hebrews was written to a people going through tremendous change and upheaval to their ordinary life of worship.
After explaining much of these changes to the readers, the author says that we should look to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith.
There is only one constant in all of church history and that is found in the book of Hebrews.
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.
Even though He is constant, that does not mean that change is out of order.
Jesus brought change to the world, and He continues to do so in our time.
We are also told that in bringing that change, Jesus had to step out of the order of His day, and that we should do likewise.
So Jesus also suffered outside the gate
in order to sanctify the people through his own blood.
Therefore let us go to him outside the camp
and bear the reproach he endured.
Change is inevitable, but it always happens outside the accepted order of things.
Whatever changes are coming our way may we be flexible enough to embrace them and therefore be able to find ourselves comfortable and at home with the Lord.