For many years I have heard preachers say and I myself on various occasions have said “we need revival in America.” And it is possible that this is coming to me at this point because God has led me to begin a series on revival at Westlake beginning this Sunday. But a question came to my mind as I was praying over various passages to be used in the series. The question is this, what is revival? What does it look like? How will I know if it is happening, will I know? So I consulted a dictionary to get a working definition. First I looked in at 1828 Webster’s dictionary and it defined revival as “Return, recall or recovery to life from death or apparent death.” Then I looked at dictionary.com and the definition listed there is “restoration to life, consciousness, vigor, strength; an awakening, in a church or community, of interest in and care for matters relating to personal religion.” I find it interesting that in over a century’s time the definition for revival has changed very little, especially when so many words today mean something entirely different than they did even 50 years ago. What stuck out to me was in the dictionary.com definition it identified where the revival occurs when it says, “an awakening, in a church.” One thing we need to realize is this, the only people who can be revived or those who were alive in the first place. If you have never been alive, how can you die in order to be revived? The obvious answer to that is that you can’t. Therefore, our prayer for America should primarily be that they would be made alive, which is only possible by faith in the Gospel, that is believing in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ as the only means of forgiveness for sins and the only way into heaven. However, I believe in order for this to happen the church needs to experience a true revival.
There is a promise from God to the nation of Israel. Let me say this before I get into it, I believe we must be very careful when applying a promise specific to Israel to the church. We can learn lessons from it and apply those lessons, but the church itself cannot claim a promise given to Israel, because they are not the same. Now onto the rest of the story. It is found in Ezekiel 37, it is known as the vision of the valley of dry bones. God gives the prophet Ezekiel a vision to encourage Ezekiel on how He is going to deal with Israel and to prove that God has not left Israel. This was important because at the time of Ezekiel’s writing he was among the Israelite captives in Babylon (Eze. 1:1). Because of Israel’s sin they were sent into captivity at the hands of the Babylonians for 70 years. I imagine that the Israelites after many years had given up hope of ever going back to their land. National moral was probably at an all-time low. But this vision is given by God to Ezekiel and he is able to share it with the captives. The vision is of an entire valley filled with dry bones and all of the sudden there was a “whole lot of shaking going on” (a tip of the cap to Jerry Lee Lewis fans). The bones began to stand up, form back into bodies, then the tendons, ligaments, and muscles reattached. The final piece was for God to breath life back into their bodies and they became living beings again. This vision symbolized that God would again restore the nation of Israel one day, they hadn’t been forgotten or left by God. This sparked great hope for the captives. The interesting thing is in this vision, God never tells them when it is going to happen, simply that it would happen. And that was enough to give them hope.
I see a few good lessons for the church in this passage. First of all, revival only comes in God’s timing. I don’t know a single pastor who isn’t concerned about the spiritual condition of his church. It is the source of countless hours of prayer, the source of concern, and the source and at times desperation. Most pastors want to see the sanctuary full on Sundays, not to boost their ego but rather because we know that church is a place where transformation takes place, and we want to see our people transformed by the power of God. But we pastors also realize each Sunday that bringing the people to church is not easy. In a what I would argue is a post-Christian society, people are more skeptical of organized religion than ever before. The rise of those who do not associate themselves with any organized religion is on the rise. I do not believe people are “against God” as much as I believe they are against the church for various reasons (I realize we could probably argue this point). Therefore, we must realize that revival is in God’s time. We must remain faithful and be obedient in all points, but the results are in God’s hands.
Another lesson I see in this story is that revival will be done God’s way. Remember, the Israelites were in captivity at the time of this message. Not only was the captivity part of God’s punishment for their rejection of Him, but it was also for their purification. The bible tells us in Proverbs 3 that when God disciplines it is always out of love with the intent of restoration. Much like the journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, Israel had to go through the desert to get to paradise. If the church is to experience revival, there will first have to be a time of purification. Simply put the things that shouldn’t be in the church are going to have to be purged from the church. Then and only then will it be ready for revival.
Finally, if the church is going to experience revival it is going to take God breathing life into the church. In this day and age too many churches rely on the latest and greatest programs coming from Lifeway, Rick Warren, or whoever else. I can remember as I was getting into the ministry Rick Warren’s book, “The Purpose Driven Life” had just come out and churches of all denominations were jumping on it and trying to recreate Saddleback in their cities and towns. More recently there has been “Simple Church” by Thom Rainer and “Transformational Discipleship” by Ed Stetzer ad Philip Nation. Please don’t misunderstand me, these men and their books/programs are not the problem. The problem is the church is taking a book or a program and almost in robot fashion implementing the suggestions and expecting the same results. This is dependence of man-made innovation (even well informed research projects) rather than the Spirit of God. Again, please hear me I am not again the books or even the programs. In fact I have used principles from Simple Church and Transformational Discipleship and continue to use them. But they were prayed over, carefully chosen aspects, and adapted to the context God has placed me in to minister. The bones in Ezekiel 37 were able to stand by themselves, but they didn’t come alive until God breathed into them. The church building is able to stand and function without God, but the church is not alive and making a difference if God is not breathing His breath into it. I don’t want a building where people are conformed to certain stereotypes or standards, I want to be where people are being transformed by the power of God.
May we as the church be revived by the Spirit of God so that then we can go out and preach the Gospel to the world and they may be made alive.