Editor's note: for needed context be sure to see Kim's first sermon on this topic, "Loving Our Work," available here.
Today I want to ask a question: How are we empowered for this work? How should we as Christians approach this work that God has given to us? If God, indeed, cares about the work that we are all engaging in, how does the gospel address how we go about doing this work?
I want to start by talking about a theologian by the name of Rudolf Bultmann. He was an influential theologian in the nineteenth century and he began a certain theological program called "demythologizing" the text. This perspective resulted from the Enlightenment, when people began to have a more scientific understanding of the world. People no longer saw the world as being riddled with spirits, and they began to see the science behind the natural world we live in. As modern people they began to look at the Bible and say, "Look, in light of recent or more recent Enlightenment thinking and our understanding of the world we really can't take seriously all these miracles. People just don't rise from the dead. People don't walk on water. You don't turn loaves and fish into feeding thousands of people."
So Bultmann began to say, "Well, it's not really that these things happened historically." He was creating a rift between matters of faith and matters of history. So that we can say, yes, in fact Jesus he appeared to walk on water to communicate in our hearts the divinity of Christ. But we know historically he was probably walking on the shore and it just looked like he was walking on the water. Bultmann was just trying to reconcile our modern understanding with this kind of deistic or kind of faith-filled understanding of the Scripture. He began this massive theological program of looking at the Bible and demythologizing the text.
This obviously was very problematic for a lot of theologians and there was a significant pushback. Evangelicals in America were significant in pushing back this demythologizing of the text and returning to the Bible as the Word of God and we have to believe its word for face value. So when it says Jesus rose from the dead it means he rose from the dead. In large part I think evangelicals and fundamentalists, in the proper sense of that word, really won that battle of restoring again the importance of reading the text faithfully and not just trying to demythologize the text.
But the battle that was won in Scripture, at least theologically, is a battle in some ways that is being lost in our functional lives. We have our formal theology that says, yes, Jesus rose from the dead, but we have a functional theology that actually doesn't quite believe that. Another way of saying this is that we have demythologized our lives. We have demythologized our world. In worship there is a sense of the presence of God, that we're worshiping him in awe and proclaiming that he is utterly sovereign and that he is at work powerfully in our lives and in the world, but somehow when we go on Monday morning to work that all vanishes.
This is for all the parents out there. Perhaps you've heard of this thing called object permanence, a fun game you can play with your children. So when you hide your face from them they literally think you've disappeared, because they haven't developed that sense that you are actually physically present even when you can't see your face. So the game of peek-a-boo is so entertaining for kids because it's like magic for them. One minute you're there and one minute you're not. For us who have developed this sense of object permanence it intrigues us that they find such a delight in that. But in their minds it hasn't formed that even when they don't see you you're still there.
In many respects, we are spiritual infants—because we don't have spiritual object permanence. In other words, when we're not singing songs, when we're not together in a church setting amongst the people of God it's almost like God is playing peek-a-boo with us. It's like he vanishes.
You go to work Monday morning he's not there anymore. "I don't see you, God. So you must not be here." All these great things that we learn in the Scripture must not apply to where I am in the workplace. We create this huge division between our religious world and our secular world. But the Bible teaches, from Genesis to Revelation, that God is sovereign over all things. God is as much present in your office, in your cubicle, on the road, at home as much as he is in these elements that we're about to take.
Who can help counteract this spiritual object permanence? Well, it's the work of the Spirit. We're going to look at this text in Ezekiel again, being found pretty much right in the middle between creation and new creation. We're going to see a very instructive text that helps us understand how the people of God are to approach living in the reality of exile, living in the reality of a broken and fallen world.
Read Ezekiel 37:1-14
The reality of the Spirit
When you look at this passage, in these fourteen verses the word that is repeated over and over again, and you miss this a little bit in the translation, is the word spirit that is translated here wind, Spirit, breath. It's the same Hebrew word ruach, which is that word that sounds like what it is. It's breath. It's spirit. If you were to hear this in the original Hebrew you would hear that word, that aspiration of the Spirit found within this whole short fourteen verses. So you see here that the main focus of this section, these fourteen verses, isn't Ezekiel; it's really the Spirit.
When you think about the work of the Spirit, he's kind of the guy that works in the background, right? He's the one who doesn't necessarily always come to the foreground of Scripture, but he's always at work. You see that in the bookends, because in Genesis 1:2 it says, "The earth was void and formless, and the Spirit was hovering over the waters." There is a sense that in the formlessness of this created order the Spirit was now poised to do something spectacular. Then you go to the very other end of Scripture in Revelation 22, one of the last verses in the Scriptures, it's "The Spirit and the bride say, 'Come.'" It's interesting when you look at the bookends the Spirit is very much in view. You see here what's instrumental in this period in between the bookends is the powerful work of the Spirit to accomplish the work of redemption in our lives. But oftentimes we lose sight of the reality of God's Spirit in our lives, when the Spirit is very much present in all that we do.
The Spirit leads us to death
The first thing I want to point out here is something that's really strange. When you look at this passage at the very beginning, verses 1-2, when the Spirit gives this vision to Ezekiel, the Spirit, " … brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones." Now, when we see this and hear this we had to understand what the Spirit is leading him to is a mass grave. Think of this in terms of the images of the Holocaust where you see massive skeletons piled up. This is a grotesque scene. Notice that the Spirit brings him there. Then in verse 2 the Spirit does something even more strange. He says, "He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry." God, why are you showing me this? It's not like God is just showing him a glimpse. He says, "No, I place you at the very middle of this valley so all you can see whatever direction you turn are these mass graves." Then he says I want you to go back and forth. That's really strange. The Spirit has literally led Ezekiel to death.
But oftentimes we don't think about this—that the work of the Spirit is to lead us to death. I want to be very clear that the Spirit is not causing the death. He's making you look at death in the world. He's not causing the sin and the evil. He's making you look at it. Oftentimes that's the last thing we want to do. We want to avoid the brokenness and the evil and the sin in our lives. One of the important things that the Spirit does is he leads us to death. He leads us to death, and he says I want you to look and think about this. I want you to stare at this intently. If you've been a Christian for any length of time, one of the things that's common in the testimony of every Christian is this resurrection story where God has taken some significant pain in our lives, some real brokenness that we've experienced, whether it's brokenness that's been enacted upon us or the result of our own stupidity, foolishness, or pride. We see the way that God takes the brokenness of our world and our lives and then he begins to create something beautiful. We're able to look back on our lives and share stories of these painful times in our lives, but God did this amazing work, and you thankful that you went through that period of loss because it brought you into this closer understanding of the love of God. But when we begin to apply this and you see this consistently through the Bible, these wonderful phrases like "Death … "—Paul says this in 2 Corinthians—"Death is at work in us so that life can be at work in you." So we as Christians can understand that principle that death is at work in us so that life can be at work in you.
But where we've demythologized our world is when we enter back into our workplaces Monday through Friday. You see death all the time, brokenness of various sorts—relational brokenness, toxic work environments. How many of you are in toxic work environments? You see your own motivations being skewed. You're seeing, how we find our identity in our work instead of it being the expression of our identity. We see brokenness in the actual industry that we're a part of, how a lot of it is so inefficient and driven by greed and personal gain and not necessarily seeking the flourishing of other people and other industries.
When you see the brokenness in our workplaces what's typically our response? We complain. The first thing that comes up in all our minds is, I need to find a new job. For whatever reasons we don't realize the Spirit is at work to help us see the brokenness. But we've demythologized our world. We don't see, yes, God is trying to show you brokenness in the workplace because he's trying to show you that he cares about this stuff. But when we don't connect God with our work it just becomes complaining. You know complaining is one of the things that God hates most. God tolerates a lot of things, but for whatever reason, especially in the stories of the exodus, the one thing that God does not seem to tolerate very well is this idea of complaining and grumbling. Why is that? Because it's an utter offense. It's basically saying, "God, you don't exist in this world." Whenever we complain God is offended because it's basically our expression of our functional theology saying, "God, you're not here." It's that object permanence. It's not there.
You start to connect the Spirit actually being present and he is the one that's leading you to understand the brokenness. He wants you to see these things that you're complaining about, because he wants you to be a part of the renewal of these things. The people of God can often lose their saltiness in the world, in a manner of speaking, because we become part of the complaints and the reason for the complaints rather than being part of seeing what God is doing in our world and in our workplaces.
I want all of us to think about some of the brokenness we're experiencing in our workplaces right now, and we need to hear that question Can these dry bones live? That word dry is so critical because the idea is not. The answer to that question is, "Of course these dry bones can't live. These are utterly dry." The Spirit wants us to say, to think about these questions seriously, because Ezekiel's response was similar to I think the way we would respond, which is, give the right polite answer. "Sovereign Lord, only you know." In his heart he's saying Of course not. No one can change my boss. No one can change my work situation. These things are so solidified in decades and generations of problems, the healthcare system can never be fixed, the political structure they're utterly hopeless, the gridlock in our political system is so discouraging and disheartening. There are so many things where we just feel like of course these dry bones can't live. But we need to hear the question that God asks his people. Can these dry bones live? I want you to connect your formal and your functional theology here with this question.
The Spirit raises us in power
Then we're brought to this second point—that the Spirit raises us in power. When we start to see the work of the Spirit consistently you see this idea of the power that God brings via the Spirit. You see this clearly in the call of Ezekiel as a prophet of God. I mean Ezekiel's call was just a bad calling to receive, and you see this from the very beginning of his life when he receives his call for ministry. Right after he's received the vision of the Lord and received his calling to be the Lord's prophet Ezekiel 1:28 reads:
This was the appearance the likeness of the glory of the Lord. When I saw it, I fell face down, and I heard the voice of one speaking. He said to me, "Son of man, stand up on your feet and I will speak to you." As soon as the Spirit came into me and raised me to my feet, and I heard him speaking to me.
So in the call of Ezekiel he sees the glory of the Lord and he falls face down. He's overwhelmed. And then what happens? The Spirit of the Lord comes within him. And what does he do? He raises him to his feet.
The hand of the Lord was on me, and he said to me, "Get up and go out to the plain, and there I will speak to you." So I got up and I went out to the plain. And the glory of the Lord was standing there, like the glory I had seen by the Kebar River [referring back to 1:28], and I fell facedown. Then the Spirit came into me and raised me to my feet.
So you see in the experience of Ezekiel as a prophet what the Spirit is always doing in his life is when he's falling face down overwhelmed in these cases by the glory and the sense of God's calling in his life, what the Spirit does is saying, "Get back up on your feet. You don't have time here to be on the ground." The Spirit's power is at work to lift the people of God to their feet to mobilize them. You see something really incredible happen here when the power of the Lord comes upon Ezekiel he says to Ezekiel, "I want you to prophesy." The power starts to come not only in him but through him. You see something very interesting in this particular prophetic work that notice here how God commands Ezekiel.
First of all, notice what he calls him. What does he say? What's the title that he gives to Ezekiel? "Son of man," I want you to prophesy.
Then there's a two-stage miracle that happens here. The first stage is the bones assemble together. They connect. You know, those dry bones, the bones connect, and the ligaments and the sinews, and then lastly the skin begins to form. It must have been a pretty frightening sight to see that, these bones rattling together. I wish the visuals were here to see how extremely frightening this would have been, especially in the midst of a mass grave. It's not like one skeleton that's forming. That was stage one.
But then there was a second stage. What does he tell Ezekiel to do? To prophesy, son of man. Prophesy, human. "Breathe into them." Then he prophesies and then the Spirit, the breath of God enters into these bones. Does that echo something that you've heard and seen before? It goes back to Genesis 2 of the creation of humanity, and there you see the same thing. God creates humanity from the dust of the earth. Then what does he do? He breathes life into them. But there is a major difference here between creation and what's happening here in Ezekiel, and now this work of restoration is happening through the agency of humanity, through a human being. God could have easily said, "Ezekiel, watch what I'm going to do." But instead he says, "Son of man, I want you to prophesy. I want you to say these words, and then from your mouth will come the power to see resurrection happen from the dead."
So you see in this period of time between creation and new creation God, for whatever reasons in his sovereign understanding of how all this will unfold, says human beings are essential in the restoration of all these things. "I'm not going to restore in spite of them but through them." Because that's critical to what renewal is about because we ourselves have to be reminded of who God is and the great power that exists in his being and in his Spirit.
We have to begin to see how the power of God is not only within us. That Spirit is at work throughout all of creation. That for whatever reasons our understanding of the work of the Spirit often becomes just limited to the people of God and fancy words like sanctification. Abraham Kuyper, a Dutch theologian at the turn of the twentieth century, said that we've tethered the Holy Spirit to the cross. Meaning that the Holy Spirit is certainly instrumental in the application of what Christ has accomplished for us on the cross, but he's saying oftentimes we don't realize the Spirit does a lot more than simply bring us to Jesus and help us understand what he's done and apply that work into our personal lives. The Spirit is actually at work in all of creation because all of creation is in view in restoration.
Vincent Bacote is a theologian who at Wheaton College. He writes in his book The Spirit in Public Theology, "A central purpose of the Spirit's cosmic work is to be immanent in creation and to promote the progress and development of the created order towards its proper telos." Vincent Bacote writes in this book that we have to think of the Spirit's work in terms of a cosmic work. He calls it cosmic pneumatology. It is a fancy way of saying that the Spirit's work is cosmic in nature and not just personal, and that the work of the Spirit, as we saw in Genesis 1, did not stop because of Genesis 3. Meaning sin did not stop the activity of the Spirit, which was hovering over the waters in the void and formlessness of the world, that the Spirit of God continues to move all of creation even in spite of humanity's rebellion towards that telos, that end, of New Jerusalem.
We need to demythologize our world. We need to see that the Spirit is, in fact, present in your workplaces. The Spirit is in every inch of creation because it all belongs to Christ. It all belongs to God.
You see here so clearly this idea that the Spirit is at work all around us. People don't name the Spirit in the way that we would in terms of the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of Christ. But certainly whether you're a Christian or non-Christian we can understand and experience the impact of the Spirit. We can recognize something that is God-like. We can say "Olé" to something that is magnificent. Whether it's a particular product that you create, or a management structure, or the way of interacting with your coworkers and the way that you bring a certain kind of atmosphere to your workplace—there is in some sense the divine in all that we do in the world because the presence of the Holy Spirit is not confined to the walls of the church, that "the earth is the Lord's and everything in it."
We need to begin to see in the same way how the Spirit is present in our world transforms the way we view our work. That it doesn't rest upon you. That God will be faithful to finish what he's begun. The pressure is not upon you to succeed. That God will build his company. God will build these industries. He will build civil society. He will build economic structures. He will build political structures. He needs people that are faithful to him and will be faithfully present wherever they are, and that they'll begin to see how he is at work to lead us to brokenness and to raise us in power.
The Spirit strengthens us in community
I don't want to give the impression here, and the text certainly doesn't allow for this interpretation, for us to think "I need to do this." This is like this Christian version of spiritual empowerment. You can do and change the world. It's clear here when Ezekiel is looking at this vision what he sees at the very end is in verse 10, " … breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army." That the glorious picture that God was leading Ezekiel to was the dry bones became a vast army. Another way of translating this is "of army strength." It's the kind of transformation that God has in view here is not the one leader that is able to transform a whole industry. He's not trying to raise the Steve Jobs of the world. What he is trying to do is raise up community, that together because of the work of the Spirit, is able to create large scale transformation. You see, throughout history behind powerful people that have been attributed with great change in our society is always a community of people that often don't get any of the credit, but always change happens through community.
I want to say specifically in terms of keeping this perspective of seeing God at work in our work, you need community because our default is to demythologize our world. As soon as you go back Monday morning hopefully you'll have some of this in your brain. But I know us well enough to say two weeks from now it's going to go back into that same pattern of all those complaints. I can't stand this person. I hope they put me on a different project. What we need is the church, the people. What you do week in and week out, again, it's not merely for our personal sense of well-being. But as you sing these songs, as you're proclaiming the sovereignty of God in all things, think about your workplace. Think about the people that you work with. Think about the project you're on. I'm not saying be distracted by all the things you need to do when you're at church, as much as connect the reality of God and his power, his redemptive power to the place where you work. Visualize your cubicle. Visualize your boss. Visualize that performance review that you might be having in a few weeks. Begin to settle your heart in the security of what Christ has done. The Spirit that is at work within you is one with the very Spirit of Christ. If you know Christ, you know the Spirit, because you realize that the Spirit that was at work in Ezekiel was the same Spirit that was in Christ, the Spirit that led him to death. This is the most dramatic death in all of human history—the Spirit that raised him in power physically and the Spirit that would strengthen the community as a result of Christ giving himself and the gift of his Spirit to the church in Acts 2.
You see, the Spirit has always been at work, and it climaxes in the person and work of Christ. Now all that is Christ and all that he has done comes to us via the Holy Spirit, and so what is vaguely named as demons or as muses, we know through Scripture that these things are glimpses of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is doing far more than just inspiring us to do good works. He is actually present to renew all things. We need the church to remind us week in and week out. You come in with a demythologized world, but as you partake in all the elements of the worship service you're being mythologized again.
You're seeing again the reality and the power of the resurrected Christ and the gift of his Spirit that Christ has left behind to empower us for the work that he calls us to do, so that when we go into our workplaces people are able to hopefully get those glimpses and say, "There is God. What you did is so divine." They might not use that language, of course, but they will hopefully be able to recognize this is really good work. In our hearts we know we attribute it to God's grace in the work of his Spirit. That Spirit is always moving all around us. He is like the wind. We can't determine when the Spirit works and when he stops. But we should be people eager and hungry to see the power of the Spirit at work in our lives and in our world, and engage in that discussion with him. In the same way that in those humorous stories he's talking to these vague spirits. God has revealed to us a Person behind the spirit so that the Spirit is not some mystical power, some unknown force, but we know that this Spirit is a Person and this Person has a characteristic of who Christ is.
So as we enter into this world, as we leave from this time of being together, I do hope that the community, what you do as a church, won't be just a weekend thing. I hope that your life of faith and work will continue week in and week out as you participate in the worship service, as you gather together to be encouraged, to be re-mythologized, and then go back into the world, sent back into the world, in order to renew all the places in our world that are broken.
David H. Kim is the Executive Director of the Center for Faith & Work and the Pastor of Faith and Work for Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, New York