Recently I was watching the Eurovision Song Contest and the UK contestant, Engelbert Humperdink, put me in mind of this passage from Ezekiel. I thought he was dead until it was announced that he was going to represent us in this year’s competition. Of course, he isn’t dead, but on the other hand he didn’t look very lively either. At one point, during the interval when people were supposed to be voting, the presenter went up to him and said, ‘How are you, Engelbert?’ to which he replied, ‘Pardon?’ And if he didn’t seem quite with it in the interval, he didn’t seem quite with it during the performance, either. He looked a bit like dry bones that have had life breathed back into them so that they can have one last go at reliving their former glory. But this is not the 1960s and Engelbert is no longer at the top of his form.
In the prophecy, God says to Ezekiel, ‘Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely...” But I say, “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.”’
The valley of the dry bones evokes memories of some of the worst disasters of Israel’s history, and in particular the Battle of Megiddo when the good king Josiah bravely took his Judean army and blocked the pass at the head of the Jezreel Valley near the city of Megiddo to prevent the Egyptian army from going to the assistance of the Assyrians. It was a foolhardy miscalculation. Josiah was shot full of arrows and was taken back by his bodyguards to Jerusalem to die while his hapless soldiers doubtless fled - or tried to flee - into the valley, only to be cut down and their bones left to bleach in the sun. It was a national disaster from which the tiny kingdom of Judah never really recovered. Twenty years later Jerusalem was besieged and destroyed and her citizens taken away into exile like Ezekiel, or forced to flee like Jeremiah and become refugees.
What if the clock could be turned back, however? What if the army sacrificed in that foolish engagement could be made to live again? Would history have turned out differently? The prophets thought it would because they always argued that the kings of Judah and Israel had relied too much on their own wits, and on human measures of success, instead of turning to God for guidance and relying on his grace.
But Ezekiel is not just talking about soldiers cut down in their prime. He is thinking about a nation which has lost its way and given up hope, which has been drained of spiritual life and substance, which has become like the living dead. And so he imagines God breathing new life into the nation in a vivid re-enactment of the creation story, where God breathed life into the very first human beings.
Does this prophecy also have something to say to the Methodist Church, and to our church? Does it sometimes feel as though our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost, and we are cut off completely; or, at least, that our influence is waning and our numbers are decreasing, and young people - especially - are choosing to turn away from us and seek life and inspiration elsewhere?
If so, then perhaps Pentecost Sunday is the right time to remind ourselves that the Battle of Meggido and the fall of Jerusalem were not the end of the story. Ezekiel’s peculiar prophecies made it into our Bible because his words were borne out by events. God did seem to bring the nation up from the grave and put a new spirit within her.The people did live again in the Promised Land and worship God in Jerusalem. Ezekiel’s prophecies came true!
Can God breathe new life into us when we feel tired and dispirited? You bet he can! And that’s certainly what happened on the Day of Pentecost, when Jesus’ dispirited followers - who were still in hiding for fear of the Temple authorities after the death of their leader - were transformed and filled with new life and energy,just like the dry bones. They felt God’s reviving breath come upon them like a mighty wind, as hot and intense as tongues of burning flame.
Actually, what happened next reminds me once again of the Eurovision Song Contest. Just as the gift of the Spirit enabled the apostles to speak to people in their own native language so the gift if music is supposed to bring people from different nations together in a shared appreciation of excellence.
How far from that ideal the modern competition has come! Today, instead of uniting the people of Europe in shared enjoyment and appreciation of two or three excellent songs, which then battle it out for first place, the contest has degenerated into a game of ‘you rub my back and I’ll scratch yours’ in which neighbouring countries, or countries with a shared heritage, simply vote for one another and it’s hard for any particular song to stand out.
A reasonably good song, like the Italian entry, can get very few votes because the Italians have few friends, and a very bad song - like the Albanian one - can do quite well because people in lots of Balkan countries, and Albanian exiles in Italy and elsewhere, were willing to vote for it. And virtually any entry from the UK - regardless of what it is - is guaranteed to get almost no votes, because we have hardly any friends at all. For a long time last night only plucky little Belgium had voted for us, and they had only given us one vote.
This divisive approach to the Eurovision Song Contest is deeply disappointing. The show was always tacky. There were always daft entries and mutual misunderstandings like the Moldovan song, supposedly performed last night in English but which proclaimed that the singer’s sweetheart was his trumpet! In recent years, however, the show has degenerated into the worst kind of nationalism instead of celebrating the power of music, and even light music at that, to bring people together and overcome our differences.
The story of Pentecost reminds that something far more substantial is needed if we really want to be able to make a difference to our world and overcome the differences in our world. And that something is the coming of the Spirit which Joel had foretold, and which Peter says was made manifest at 9 o’clock that morning.
If we want our Church to live again - locally and nationally - we need to open ourselves to that same Spirit, and we need to be prepared for, and open to, the difference that the Spirit will make. Young people and odd people will share a common vision and people from different cultures and races will understand one another, because all will be united in their love and devotion to Jesus. And, as John’s Gospel reminded us this morning and the Acts of the Apostles have reminded us tonight, God’s Spirit will come not just to give us a warm feeling inside, or to look after us and make us stronger, but to give us the words and to inspire the actions that we will need if we are to testify for God and Jesus in a hostile and alien world. Our sweetheart may not be a trumpet, but we can become sounding boards for God.