“Can these bones live?”
It was a good question, which put the prophet Ezekiel on the spot. He in turn refused to be drawn, politely ducking the question with the dexterity of a seasoned politician. He simply threw it back at the Lord. “You’re God,” he said, “so You know.”
It was a pertinent question, for sure. And the prophet wasn’t stupid: I guess he must have figured where the question was likely leading. If Israel’s whole calling had been to embody before the watching world the grace of their Saviour God … well that body had now been reduced to dry bones.
Persistent disobedience had resulted in their spiritual death: exile for Israel was the nailing down of their coffin: and Babylon was the cemetery in which their remains had been buried. There wasn’t even any of that symmetry in a cemetery which customarily prevails – no neat little rows of headstones: the bones were just scattered all over the place.
“That’s what’s become of this people,” the prophet Ezekiel was told.
A chaotic spread of dry and dust-bound bones. Devoid of any residual flesh: detached from any skeletal form. Total disintegration.
Dead. Defunct. Done for.
So here’s the question, prophet. “Can these bones live?”
Can a people come back from the dead? Can a church be revived? Can a nation be changed? Can these bones live?
When the Lord does with us what He did with His prophet of old, and walks us through the streets of Aberdeen, takes us on a tour across our national life, and lets us see today what Scotland has become, it’s the same probing question we’re asked. Can these bones live?
Is there any way back for a people who have lost the plot and scorned the King, a nation which has spurned its roots, dispensed with God and celebrates its self-bequeathed autonomy? Because Babylon’s where such living always takes us: and a valley full of dry and scattered bones is where we end. Dead. Defunct. And done for.
There is such a thing as a spiritual ‘law of gravity’: it can be stated like this. When the One who holds all things together is dispensed with, then everything falls apart. This ‘law of gravity’ is easily explained: it’s simply Genesis 1 and 2 in reverse. Remove the Creator from the picture and there’s an often quite speedy reversion back to how things were at the start. Formless, empty, dark.
At the start there was only the ‘formless’. Confusion and chaos. No order, no shape. And the first thing the Lord is seen to be doing is giving definition, creating clear distinction. Indeed, it’s precisely this work of giving ‘definition’ which lies at the heart of the task God gives the man in the ‘naming’ of the animals: he is to learn the importance of making and marking distinctions.
If I seem to labour the point, it’s only because I want you to notice how in this particular facet of God’s creative activity, namely His bringing order in place of the chaos, shape in place of the formless – I want you to notice how there is something inherently and significantly ‘binary’ in this particular facet of His great creative work. The heavens and the earth. The light and the dark. The sea and the land. The animals and humanity. And finally, of course, the man and the woman.
It’s fundamentally binary.
For one of the tell-tale features of this country’s spiraling drift away from our firm historical roots is precisely this removal of the ‘binary’. With that customary sleight of his slippery hand, the devil has cleverly pulled the wool right over our eyes by insisting that equality must mean sameness: justice and fairness, so the devil demands, requires that we drop the distinctions. There’s an obvious flaw and a very basic fallacy in the line he’s persistently pushed – of course there is.
And the flaw, undetected, is the thing which has thoroughly floored us. The binary has been binned – and we’ve spiraled right back to the formless and shapeless and genderless primeval chaos, where animal rights are as weighty as any human rights, where male and female are interchangeable terms, and where pretty much anything goes.
Dispense with the rule of God, pull up your roots in the word of the Lord, turn your back on the Lordship of Jesus, and you pull the plug on the three great basic hallmarks of God’s created world – order, fullness and light. Remove the Creator, and Genesis 1 and 2 then work in reverse, with a dreadful gravitational pull back to the formless, empty darkness of a world bereft of life.
That’s what we’re seeing today. Socially, morally, politically, relationally – just about every way – the fabric of our society is falling apart, reverting back to a culture that’s no better than a quagmire. Formless. Meaningless. Lifeless.
And here’s where it ends: this is what such a people soon become, at least in picture-language. Simply dry and dust-bound bones, scattered without any ceremony across the barren wastes of so much of the western world. Dead. Defunct. Done for.
So we’re back to the question – except now it’s a good deal closer to home: this isn’t Israel in exile, this is now ourselves in turmoil. “Can these bones live?”
“Sovereign LORD, You alone know!”
‘Yes’ is the short answer. Dry and dead and dust-bound bones can live. The Scriptures underline just that from beginning to end: this is the essence of the Bible’s message. Resurrection power is God’s ever-present calling card which trumps all else, and Jesus is Himself the resurrection.
So, yes, of course, these dead bones can live. God hasn’t lost His resurrecting power. His church can be revived. A people can be restored. A nation can be changed.
The Scriptures teach it. Our history teaches it too. Ours has been the story of repeated interventions from on high; it’s a story that’s been punctuated time and time again by huge, great waves of sovereign grace as God has bathed this tiny little nation on the fringes of the continent with mighty, culture-shaping movements of His Spirit. Time after time we have known God at work in reviving, restoring power.
From Ninian to Knox. From Columba on to Cambuslang. From Mungo through to Melville. From Hamilton out to the Hebrides. God has been pleased again and again to raise up Spirit-anointed giants of the faith, and through them He has changed the face of the land.
No nation on earth has quite such a rich and repeated history of God’s reviving grace. No nation on earth has known over such a long time, and to such great effect – and on so many recurring occasions – this grace of the Spirit of God at work in reviving power.
We as the church here in Scotland should know better than any how able God is to erupt right into the heart of a decadent nation and cause dry bones to live. No matter how dry those bones may be. No matter how dead in their decadence that people may have become. No matter how defunct and how done for we presently are.
So, yes, of course these dry bones can live. We may pray to that end. We must pray to that end: we must pray indeed for revival.
But we may not presume upon it. There isn’t any room now for presumption on our part. I know He’s the God of all grace and I know He has resurrecting power. I know there has been that long history of God’s great gracious dealings with our land. I know He’s done it before, again and again; so why, you may think, why may we not anticipate His doing it again?
Well, here are two good reasons why we need to put the brakes on any easy optimism.
First because of that very history. No nation should know better than ourselves the folly of departing from the Lord and spurning all His overtures of grace: there’s a case for saying we’ve had more ‘second chances’ than any other nation on earth! And to that extent we have less cause than any to think that God might look with patience and forbearance on our miss-placed, foolish waywardness.
But, secondly, this may be the first time in our story, in the last thousand years and much more, when as a nation we have openly, brazenly, defiantly, and categorically turned our back on those roots in the Word of God. We have often departed in practice from such a way of life; sure. We have often paid no more than lip service to the Scriptures which we’ve had; agreed. We have often tried building with foolish and futile materials on the foundations which our forbears long-since put in place: granted.
But up until now the Lord and His Word remained our nation’s foundations.
Not so any longer. And when a nation, which so repeatedly, so markedly, over such a great length of time, and to such a transforming extent, has known such remarkable effusions of grace in Spirit-wrought revivals down the years – when such a nation deliberately and defiantly ditches the Word of God and spitefully spurns its rich and expansive heritage of grace, then there are Scriptures suggesting that God might well simply give them over to what they have lusted for and sought.
And Genesis 1 and 2 gets read in reverse.
Is there hope for our nation even yet? Can a future that’s steeped in the grace of God’s presence among us and shaped by His gracious hand upon us – can such a future even yet be secured for our children and their children? Is the prospect of revival realistic? Can these bones live?
Well, yes. Of course they can, by the grace of God. And please God in His mercy they will. But not as a matter of course, far less as a matter of right. Our only recourse is to do what the prophet himself long since did, and get out there – out there, in among the dreadful dusty deadness of a culture gone to seed – to get out there and start speaking for all that we’re worth to those bones, with a ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says…’.
And then as well to get down on our knees, begging, beseeching, crying out with urgency and tears in humble, united, persistent prayer and calling on, pleading with the Spirit of Almighty God to ‘Come, Holy Spirit, come from the four winds and breathe again into these slain, that they may live.’
Can these bones live? Will they? Sovereign LORD, You alone know.
Yours in Christ’s service
It’s a letter I’m writing.
You will think I’m simply stating the obvious – and, of course, I am: but I’m also making a point, because I mean to air an issue which has weighed upon my heart for long enough. The demise in our day of the written letter.
There are reasons behind such a patent and rapid demise, reasons which themselves are symptomatic of a spiritual malaise within society today: and there are consequences, too, of this demise, whose fruit, I want to suggest, is already becoming apparent.
Let me start, though, with a disclaimer, and then with something of a confession.
The disclaimer, first of all. I am not decrying for a moment the ways in which technology has almost overnight transformed the ways we now communicate. I’m not down-playing the many varied positives there are in e-mail correspondence, nor the benefits which Twitter can afford (I use e-mail all the time, of necessity: Twitter, though, I’ve managed to live without). Nor do I mean in any way to denigrate the use of ‘social media’ – Instagram and Facebook and the like, they all can be so helpful in ensuring friends, acquaintances, family can keep themselves in touch with one another.
Then, too, a confession. I confess to a personal interest in this letter-writing theme. In much the same way as a compass needle has a bias to the north (and we’re grateful for the direction it thus gives), so too I am biased. I have known for myself the enduring and powerful impact on a person’s life which a hand-crafted letter can have.
For years (until it got so frayed it simply fell apart) I carried in my wallet a letter which my Gran had written to me as she marked my 18th birthday: a letter in which she referred me to Micah 6.8 – “what does the Lord require of you but that you act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God”: she explained how the challenge and instruction of that verse had served her well throughout her 80 years, and then – as only perhaps a grandparent really can do (and get away with it!) – she gently but firmly impressed on me the call of the Lord to live my life in walking thus with Him.
Years later, almost 40 years later in fact, when my mother died, to her children’s surprise, we discovered she’d kept one letter through the previous 70 years: a letter from her aged grandfather, written to her when she was 13 years old, in which he’d carefully set before this young and impressionable girl the choice she had to make between, as he put it, a life of leisure and a life of service, between a life of self-indulgence or one in which she recognized always the Lordship of Jesus Christ. He ended by letting her know he prayed for her always, and was asking the Lord that she would live a rich and beautiful life.
She did. And the fact that this letter was kept safe by my Mum on her person from the day of receipt to the day that she died is itself an unarguable proof of the hugely significant impact a letter can have in thus shaping a person’s whole living and inspiring the course of her life.
So I confess to a definite bias!
Letter-writing matters insofar as letters are a primary means God uses in the careful, patient sculpting of an individual’s living to the glory of His Name – as important, perhaps, or perhaps (dare I say it!) even more important still than even any Spirit-powered preaching of the Word. After all, the larger part of the New Testament is comprised of just such letters. May that not have been precisely the reason why the Lord in His sovereign providence saw fit to have Paul arrested and stuck in a prison for all that time? How else would He ever have got that compulsive preaching-machine of a man to pause long enough to get all of those letters composed – and that way ensure that the benefit of his apostolic teaching would be permanently bequeathed to each succeeding generation of His church?
And how does the Bible end if not in those seven, so comprehensive letters from our risen Lord, delivered in the packaging of Revelation’s truth?
We do well to give some thought as to why it should be that this letter-writing medium is given such substantial space within the sacred bounds of God’s own holy Word. Is it not precisely because the rich and enriching truth of the gospel is both set out clearly with a great doctrinal clarity, and also, through this medium, applied so very fully with a gracious, pastoral authority?
And is there not a lesson to be learned, too, from our noting that in case after case it’s the letters of the preachers and the pastors of the past which are their most enriching and their most enduring legacy?
It’s the letters, for instance, of John Newton (far more than his sermons or songs) which remain, to this day, so hugely insightful and helpful, so warmly instructive and wise, so pertinent still to the times in which we are living. You could think of the letters which were penned by George Whitefield as well: a great and wonderful preacher, for sure – but, oh, take a read of his letters!
Or nearer to home (at least for those of us here in the north) there are all of those pastoral letters from the pen of Samuel Rutherford: like Paul the apostle himself in some ways, the man was removed from his pastoral charge (in Anwoth) – and for a spell he was confined up here in this ancient granite city. Away from his people, removed from his pulpit, his writing desk became (in the words of an old biographer) “perhaps the most effective and widely resounding pulpit then in Christendom”, and his letters (hundreds of them written from here in Aberdeen) became the means by which his Jesus-centred ministry reached so very far and wide, and (long centuries later on) still speaks with all its eloquence and grace into our lives today.
Letters. Letters addressed to individual people with a range of pastoral needs. Letters addressed to churches facing all sorts of troubles and trials. But letters. Hand-written and carefully crafted letters; what Goethe described as ‘the most significant memorial a person can leave’. Not a hastily-written, typo-filled e-mail.
The demise of the letter is a cause of no little concern. Partly because, as I said at the start, this demise of the written letter is a deeply-worrying symptom of the sickness and malaise within society today: and partly, too, because this demise has repercussions which do not augur well for coming days.
Here, then, are the reasons why we should be troubled and disturbed by this departure from a letter-writing culture in our day.
Number one. We live too fast. We’ve got ourselves trapped in a fast-food, countdown-culture where the clock is always ticking and we need our fixes now. We can’t afford, and (as often as not now) we don’t know how, to wait. Electronic, press-the-button mailing fits that bill. It’s quick, immediate, instant: and we look for an answer straight back. We’re a people who live by the ‘ping’. We mail on-line and we post on-line and we order on-line – and for some we almost live on-line.
But living on-line has seen us go wholly off-track. We’ve lost the grace of waiting. And with that too – maybe as the reason for, or perhaps as the result of – with that too we’ve lost the perspective of eternity. If the here and now is all there is the instant becomes imperative. Writing a letter takes time – and time is at a premium for a here-and-now society.
Number two. We disdain the Word. Grammar and spelling go out of the window with e-mails and tweets and the like. Words become cheap, and we scorn all the ‘rules’ which determine the way words are meant to be cherished and used.
We have forgotten that very basic truth, that “In the beginning was the Word”. Our careless, slovenly handling of the words we choose to use betrays a fundamental faultline in society today. We’re a people who now demean the sacred Scriptures and dismiss, disdain and dishonour the Word Himself.
Number three. We abhor discomfort. Our self-indulgent, pleasure-seeking culture has no truck for that component of hard work in all true art. Tracy Emin’s ‘My Bed’ tells you everything about our culture’s take on art: it’s the very reverse of the great, artistic handiwork of God (and the Scriptures insist it was ‘work’) we call creation. ‘My Bed’: the dark, disheveled chaos of an empty, sordid life of night-time wantonness is left untouched: and that, we’re told, is ‘art’. Not so.
Art involves hard work. Any creativity that is worthy of the name is modeled on and mirrors what the great Creator does. And because there’s an element of art, a low-key creativity, involved in the writing of a letter, just so, along with the craft, there is always hard graft in writing any letter – just try getting a child to write a Christmas ‘thank you’ letter!
A ‘tweet’ is not the same. A hastily scribbled e-mail as we spill out what is at that instant foremost on our hearts – that’s not the same. It’s the counterfeit craft without all the graft: the gospel without any cross.
Number four. We do not think. At least not as much as once we did. Today we feel instead. Listen to the way that people speak. “It didn’t feel right.” “I just felt I should do this.” The culture of the instant goes in tandem with a feeling-driven outlook in the way that we express ourselves. We don’t have the time now to think.
The story goes that Michaelangelo spent three whole months just looking at the solid block of marble from which, in time, he’d sculpt his famous ‘David’. ‘What are you doing?’ he was asked more than once through those early months. ‘I’m working,’ he replied. Thinking, pondering, reflecting.
That’s the primary ‘work’ involved in writing any letter. We reflect on what we want to say: we write it down: we read it through: we reflect on what we’ve said and sometimes then re-write the thing from scratch. Thought has gone in to the writing of any such letter.
And that’s what we’re rapidly losing: both the readiness, and then in consequence the very capacity, to think. We don’t have the time. It’s far too hard work. E-mails, ‘tweets’ and social media posting are all of them far quicker, easier, simpler. And so we don’t write letters any more – because we will not, do not, cannot really think.
Number five. We live in the shallows. We don’t do deep at all. We snack all the time on soundbites.
I’m speaking of society at large: and, of course, I’m generalizing too. But this spreading characteristic of our culture, this reluctance and refusal to dig down deep beneath the surface of a thing, this superficiality is very much the atmosphere we all of us are breathing day by day. And thus we run the risk, within a generation, of becoming now a church comprised of superficial saints: a message without substance and a people without roots. Restless, rootless and unwittingly reckless as well.
Number six. We’ve become less personal. A letter is highly personal, especially a hand-written one. The hand of the writer has moved across the page which we now hold: the pen with which the writer wrote has been but the extension of her hand, as if the writer, through the very ink upon the page, was reaching out her hand and pouring out her heart to the recipient.
Think back to the letter my grandmother wrote: it was her, as much as her letter, I think, whom I was holding to myself through all those years.
And the gospel is ultimately personal. Not virtual. Writing letters signals that – as this one, I hope, makes clear!
Yours in Christ’s service
Some events become almost immediately ‘iconic’.
The assassination of President Kennedy in November 1963. The death of Princess Diana in August 1997. The attack on the twin towers in September 2001.
In each such case, the news of the event had an instant, profound and indelible impact on our minds and hearts. In part it was the shock, the sheer, disruptive ‘unexpectedness’ of this great, catastrophic bombshell which in one quick headline message somehow blew to smithereens the sense we’d fondly fostered that our world (or at least, perhaps, our part of the world) was both predictable and safe.
Most of us carry a picture in our minds of such events: a picture which has captured and expressed so well the huge, horrific impact of that scene – a picture which has stayed with us across the years, as if the seismic nature of the thing had been branded on our memories for life.
The fire at Notre Dame Cathedral will, for many I don’t doubt, prove to be another such event, the graphic, shocking images of which have, almost overnight, bestowed ‘iconic’ status on the massive conflagration that engulfed this towering landmark in the centre of the City of Light and of Love.
And rightly so. It was, and it is, an ‘icon’. A ‘likeness’. A picture portraying an important truth we might have been otherwise struggling to see. An image which powerfully highlights a highly uncomfortable reality. An in-your-face depiction of a far more serious, cultural inferno which is raging in the western world today. A stark prophetic statement of what’s happened, and is happening, in so much of Jesus’ church today.
Iconic, for sure.
It tells in a single image a story which spans long centuries. The story of so much of the western world.
It’s a story which traces the way in which our society was carefully rooted, almost a millennium and a half ago, in the liberating message of the gospel of Christ, and was built on the solid, enduring foundations of Scriptural truth: it’s a story which shows how again and again, in the grace and the mercy of God, our lands and our people were brought back from their proneness to wander, and restored to an anchorage in Christ, and a culture which was shaped by the Word.
In the daring, sovereign providence of God, the church has been, as Paul once said, “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Tim.3.15), that truth which has served both to shape and inform all the major facets of our culture and society.
Our every institution was developed and defined by what the Bible had to teach: our education, health-care, and the principles of law; the character of family life, the contours of political life, all of them were hammered out by blacksmith-like believers on the anvil of the Bible’s truth, that sacred ‘good deposit’ of the Word of God, of which the church has been the God-appointed guardian.
Few buildings today, I suppose, give a better visual expression than the Notre Dame cathedral does to just that central, foundational place which the church as the guardian of truth has played in the shaping of our western world across the last millennium and more.
The building is old, pre-dating the Reformation by centuries, construction on it having started in the mid-12th century. And the building has always been a great, impressive landmark in the centre of the capital of France, its two ‘twin towers’ both rising like a pair of huge colossi, and signifiying the overwhelming stature, strength and majesty of Christ Himself.
From far back in time, as from far away miles, this elevated edifice simply dwarfed surrounding buildings – and as such became a symbol of the strong and central role the church has played, as the bulwark of God’s truth, in shaping our society.
And all of that swiftly, suddenly destroyed. On Palm Sunday Monday (I don’t know what the day after Palm Sunday is called!) this building went up in flames. There was something strangely telling even in the very timing of it all.
For on the Monday of that fateful week, you’ll recall, that week which would climax in the ruthless, cruel rejection of the Son of God – on the Monday of that week there was a solemn acted parable at Jesus’ hands. The fig-tree was cursed for its lack of fruit, and was overnight ‘withered from the roots’.
The fig-tree itself a symbol of God’s people: the curse upon it a frightening indictment of their long, perverse refusal of God’s truth: and its fate a declarative portent of God’s forthcoming judgment on Jerusalem.
That was Palm Sunday Monday. April 15th in our language.
A building which had taken the best part of 200 years to construct, now gutted by fire in less than 200 minutes and ‘withered from the roots’. The roof fell in.
That single graphic image spelling out for all to see the stark and sobering truth which surely stares us in the face. The bedrock of our culture has been set on fire: and now the roof of our society is falling in.
It was an accident, we’re told. I don’t doubt for a moment it was. And all because of renovation work going on. Or so it seems.
How apposite the whole thing is! How pointedly descriptive this iconic conflagration proves to be!
For, of course, the roof falling in on our culture today is nothing but ‘an accident’ – or so they say. No one really planned that all the fabric of our western world should start now to collapse.
It’s just that those who are the ‘architects’ of today’s great ‘renovation’ work within the church, intent upon a vacuous and secular ‘renewal’ which will bring the church right up to date with current trends – ‘revisionists’ they’re termed – it did not cross their mind that to set a match to the truth of God is a dangerous game. That the roof is now falling in .. well, that was just ‘an accident’: it wasn’t meant that way.
Don’t play with fire.
Remember the rather ill-fated ‘renovation’ firm of Aaron & Sons? Nadab and Abihu, joint partners in the business of improving on the house of God, saw fit to offer ‘unauthorised fire before the Lord, contrary to His command’: and the fires which they casually lit grew rapidly into a frightening, holy inferno which consumed them in next to no time at all – and the roof fell in on their venture (you can read their brief ‘business bio’ in Leviticus 10).
Don’t play with fire! Don’t start lighting fires to burn away the bits you think redundant or repugnant in the Word of God!
Perhaps there’s a certain sobering symbolism, too, in the scene being set in Paris. For Paris has long since come to acquire the nickname of ‘the City of Light’ – a designation bound up as much as anything else with the central role the city played in the spread of the so-called ‘Age of Enlightenment’.
And maybe that’s where the cultural blaze which is presently burning to ashes the heart of our communal life in the western world – maybe that’s where it had its beginnings, there in the ‘Age of Enlightenment’: we didn’t fully realize just what widespread devastation would be caused when we started to light the kindling of our arrogant dissection and rejection of the Word of God.
An iconic event for sure. This great and ancient cathedral going up in flames, with the whole world looking on.
But wait. I’m thinking now in a rather different way, of course, but … but is that not just what Pentecost was?
The church of God on fire.
Just like the Lord Himself. The Lord who gave poor Moses such a fright by appearing to him in flames of fire: there was this former child of the palace minding his own little business and frittering away his existence now in a dry and barren wilderness – and the Lord appears to the man in a sudden, shocking moment which becomes itself immediately iconic for succeeding generations of His church.
On fire .. but not consumed!
And maybe that as well is what we’re meant to see, and where we’re meant to let our viewing take us as we see those furious flames of mighty fire within that ancient building. As if the Lord would thereby speak a word of great encouragement and challenge to the followers of Christ, and say – ‘There, My people: look closely! That is what you need again today.’
The rampant fires of the Spirit of God, cleansing, purifying, renewing – burning away all the dross of a compromised, half-hearted faith. And, who knows, too, maybe the fires of persecution through which the fiery Spirit moves; the real and painful ‘renovating’ work, so different from the self-indulgent tinkering we’d prefer.
A church on fire .. but not consumed!
Oh for such flames to engulf Christ’s church again! Oh for a further Pentecost today!
May we pray together in earnest to that end.
Yours in that prayerful expectancy