When the New Wine Arrives
A sermon by Garry Deverell, 8 June 2003
Texts: Acts 2.1-21; Ezekiel 37.1-14; Psalm 104.24-35b


God knows there’s not a lot of reason for partying at present. Internationally, we’ve been witnessing unprecedented levels of new violence. Independence movements in Timor, Papua, Aceh and Chechnya have been brutally suppressed, as have the political aspirations of ordinary Zimbabweans, Kurds and Palestinians. Alongside all that, Islamic extremists have been waging a campaign of terror in Kenya, Pakistan, the Philippines, Indonesia, and the US. And the ‘democratic West’ has been responding with paranoia and propaganda. Blair and Bush told us that Saddam possessed vast warehouses of chemical and biological weapons. He did not. But that’s how the slaughter in Iraq was justified.

There’s not a lot of reason for joy on the environmental front either. The world’s biggest polluter, the United States, refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on Greenhouse gas emissions, as did its handmaiden, the Howard government. Last month’s World Summit on Water Resources was a sham; nothing of substance emerged whatsoever. Meanwhile, Western multinationals continue to dig up and cut down the natural resources of the two-thirds world in order to provide for the insatiable greed of people like you and me. And they are allowed to do so because of the investment agreements poor countries have signed with their major creditors, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Alaska is still recovering from the Exon oil spill of 14 years ago. Apart from the massive damage to the marine environment, the communities affected are reeling from industry failure, job losses, an escalation in drug and alcohol abuse, and huge increases in the rates of divorce and domestic violence. And all that is happening again in communities along the Portuguese, Spanish and French coasts, as they are devastated by oil from the sunken Prestige. Meanwhile, here in Australia, in the middle of the longest drought on record, forest industries are still allowed to log our most important water catchment areas.

Domestically one has reason to be depressed as well. We live in a community which seems content to continually re-elect John Howard and his cronies: the man whose idea of compassion is to lock up asylum-seekers when they arrive seeking refuge; whose idea of reconciliation with Aboriginal people is to legislate for the removal of those hard-one rights to ancestral land and country granted us by the Mabo and Wik decisions in the High Court; whose idea of community service is to subsidise private health and education, while public education and health services are being forced to beg for small change. A few weeks ago I was told that I would have to wait two years, yes, two years, for a basic consultation with an orthopaedic surgeon. If I’d been privately insured, I was told, I could have had an appointment within a week. So . . . God knows there are plenty of reasons right now as to why we would not decide to throw a party, unless, of course, as a sad and cynical mechanism for drowning our sorrows.

Yet it is in circumstances like this, exactly like this, that God decides to throw a party. That much is apparent from our lections tonight. In the passage from Ezekiel the prophet is taken, in a vision, to the scene of Israel’s most horrific memory: to the field where the rag-tag remains of its security forces made their last stand against the ‘shock and awe’ supremacy of the Babylonian military machine. Historically we know that every single fighting man was slaughtered, while the noble families of Jerusalem were carted off into an exile that lasted nigh on one hundred years. For the exiled community, for Ezekiel’s community, it seemed that the very end of the world had come. Everything they had ever believed in, all they had ever worked for, now lay buried with these skeletons in a land far away. But then, in the middle of their despair, in that land far away, the Spirit of God came to visit. “Mortal,’ she said, “can these bones live?”—can life and hope return to this exiled community?

When the Spirit comes, it is with questions like this one, questions designed to interrupt our despair. Back in 1993 I was very, very depressed, and not just about Jeff Kennett! Lil and I had come to Melbourne from Hobart the year before in order to take up studies toward ordination with the Baptist Union of Tasmania. Late in 1992 I wrote two articles for the denominational paper—one questioning our usual approach to homosexuality, and the other calling for the church to support the indigenous land rights legislation that was before the Tasmanian parliament at the time. A few months later I was called to Launceston and told that there was no place for me as a pastor in the Tasmanian Baptist scene, and that I had best look elsewhere. I did look elsewhere, Victoria in fact, and the regime at that time also made it clear that it was extremely unlikely that I would find a place. I was devastated. I’d heard the call to pastoral ministry as a young teenager, and I’d been nurtured in that calling by a number of ministerial mentors. I’d gone to University, to the Baptist Union, and then to Whitley College to hone the skills needed to make that calling become real. But it never did. It seemed that my church had rejected me, at least in that role, and I even began to wonder if God might have given me the flick as well. Of course, the questions came thick and fast. What had I been doing for the last twelve years? What was it all for? Who was I if I wasn’t a minister? I lived those questions for a full 18 months and, I can tell you, it wasn’t fun.

What changed all that was a tangible experience of the Spirit. She came to me one night in a dream to interrupt my despair. In the dream I saw myself lying in bed, early in the morning, not wanting to get out and face the day. The blinds were closed to shut out the sun. (A perfect picture of how I felt at the time). And then this woman I knew walked into the room, which was a little surprising, because she was not the kind of woman who would enter someone’s house uninvited, and certainly not their bedroom! I was so stunned that I couldn’t speak. I just watched as she approached the end of the bed and stood there. I noticed that she was weeping, that she had tears in her eyes. I knew she was weeping for me. Then she stretched out her hand and said, with a trembling tenderness and compassion in her voice, “It’s time to live. Don’t be afraid.” And she was gone.

Now, of course, one could psychoanalyse that dream, and I did at the time. But if you believe, with Christians everywhere, that the Spirit of God took flesh in Jesus of Nazareth, then you can also believe that the ordinary experience of an extraordinary dream is a message from God. That’s how I took it then, and that’s how I take in now. In the midst of my own particular despair, my own particular experience of existential ruin (self-indulgent as it was), the Spirit came to reinvest my body and my spirit with life. It was as if the speech of God took flesh in that woman who stood over my bed, prophesying that my paralysed body would live. Somehow that dream gave me something I could never have generated for myself, a breath of hope from elsewhere which was capable of saving me, quite literally saving me. And that is what in fact happened. Not overnight, obviously. Please don’t get that impression. The gift had been offered, but I still had to discipline myself to receive it. Yet this dream was the turning point, the moment of conversion when God made possible that which had seemed, until then, absolutely impossible.

If the day of Pentecost means anything, it means this. It is the day when the Spirit comes to interrupt and call into question the inevitability of our despair. When the Spirit came to the early church, things weren’t actually as calm and cheerfully hopeful as chapter 1 of Acts seems to suggest, you know. Most scholars agree that the sequence of events you find there—Jesus’ promise of the Spirit before he ascends into heaven, the peaceful and patient waiting in Jerusalem, the choosing of a new apostle—was constructed well after the fact, and reflects an idealisation of the early community by Luke, whose own church community was experiencing a great deal of doubt and turmoil. Indeed, it is widely acknowledged that Luke crafted both the Ascension and Pentecost story in order to address the theological and pastoral problems of his church: namely, their experience of God’s absence during a time of mutual hostility between the richer and the poorer members of the community. The ascension story is told in order to assure the church that Jesus continues to be with us in the Spirit, even though he has gone in the body. And the Pentecost story is told to assure the community that even though things look bad—there is a factional brawl going on, and people seem unable even to speak a common language—that the inevitability of schism and dissolution is far from inevitable. When the Spirit comes, says Luke to his church, the factions are united under the call of God to a new mission and responsibility. Young and old, women and men, rich and poor, are joined together in a common vision; they are purged by fire and given a new breath to sustain them in a unified and corporeal mission. “We are the body of Christ; his Spirit is with us” says the liturgy. And that is exactly what Luke was trying to tell his fractured community.

The Psalmist says: ”When you send forth your spirit, O Lord, you renew the face of the earth.” And Paul says that even when we are groaning like a woman in labour, groaning in that consciousness that what be long for has not yet been born, that the Spirit groans with us, crying out to God for us in a language too deep for words. For the Spirit is God’s assurance that Christ remains with us even as we wait for Christ’s Kingdom, which has not yet arrived in its fullness. She is therefore like new wine that the bridegroom sends on ahead of himself, a little taste of the wedding party he promises to host when he arrives. So there is truth in what the scoffers said at the first Pentecost: the disciples were indeed drunk on new wine, the new wine of the Spirit. Life was difficult, for sure, but the party had begun nevertheless. So . . . despair is not inevitable. When the Spirit comes, even the impossible is rendered possible once more. When the Spirit comes, even a small, damaged, and ridiculously diverse crew of refugees like ourselves can begin to dream a common vision and join together in a common mission. This I believe, and to this I testify. The gift has been given at Pentecost. But it is up to us to receive the gift with our faith and our action. “Can these bones live?” If we have faith, you betcha!