April 10, 2011
As the season of Lent nears its end, the minds of the faithful awaken to resurrection to a new life in the Spirit.
The Fifth Sunday of Lent is just before the climax of Palm Sunday and the Passion. It focuses on the hope for the resurrection (Ezekiel’s dry bones and Lazarus from the tomb) and the life in the Spirit to which it leads. (Translations are from the New Jerusalem Bible, unless stated otherwise.)
The first reading is from the prophet Ezekiel, his famous prophecy of the dry bones that return to life.
As is often the case with Ezekiel, God uses something that has gotten the prophet’s attention—especially something that will annoy or anger him—to fashion a word of prophecy about Israel’s condition and destiny. In this case, Ezekiel overhears the grumbling and cynical comments of his fellow exiles in Babylon: “Our bones are dry, our hope has gone; we are done for” (verse 11, NJB). The prophet’s inspired vision takes off from this despairing indictment about the dry bones.
Ezekiel had a dual mission: (1) to condemn the over-confident sinners still in Jerusalem (in most of Ezekiel 4-24) and (2) to inspire some endurance and hope among the recent exiles in Babylon. The hope is presented, however, in very large terms (in contrast to Jeremiah’s pragmatic advice to the same exiles in Jeremiah 29): the entire house of Israel, now seemingly so utterly dead, can have a new and vigorous life.
Few visible objects evoke dead-and-gone as forcefully as dried bones lying in a dry valley. The word of God to Ezekiel emphasizes the bleakness of these bones, in order then to visualize the astonishing restoration to life. Bone by bone they reconnect, sinew appears to string them together, flesh appears to empower them, and skin comes to protect the new body.
But bones, flesh, and skin are not yet a living being. The essential requirement is spirit (translated “breath” in verses 6-10 by both the NJB and the NRSV)—ruah. Spirit is the vitalizing power; it makes a body a living being. In Israel’s case, for this prophecy, the living will come back from the dead.
An Israel slaughtered and consumed as carrion, leaving bones to litter the landscape, will live again. That is the power of God’s spirit—when its time for action comes.
The Psalm is that marvelous expression of hope that begins, “Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord” (King James Version)—or modernized, “From the depths I call to you, Yahweh” (NJB).
This is a profound statement in itself. It communicates that the speaker has fallen into severe conditions, verging on the finality of death. A whole story could be behind this, and in some other psalms such a story is told (for example, Psalm 32, another one of the seven “penitential” psalms). The speaker here does not deny that sin may have contributed to the distress, but does affirm that God does not always hold sin ruthlessly to account. “If you kept a record of our sins, Lord, who could stand their ground?” (verse 3, NJB).
The very same opening statement, however, declares that in the worst condition of distress, the speaker cries out to the Lord. When all else is lost, that is what the suffering servant does—calls upon the Lord, the servant’s only true hope. To be delivered “out of the depths” is equivalent to returning to life from a death sentence.
It is this hope for resurrection that the speaker utters toward the One who does forgive sins (verse 4).
The Epistle reading poses a sharp contrast between the domain of “flesh” and the domain of “the Spirit.” (The New Jerusalem Bible expresses the contrast as “human nature” versus “the spirit.”) Those included in the new life in Christ Jesus have the possibility of living in the Spirit rather than in the bondage to the law of sin and death (verse 2). The punch line of this new life, stated at the very end of our reading, is the resurrection yet to come through the Spirit. “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead has made his home in you, then he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your own mortal bodies through his Spirit living in you” (verse 11, NJB).
The present situation of believers—between acceptance of God’s grace in Christ and the consummation of the Spirit’s work in resurrection—is a time of living by the Spirit rather than by the flesh (our old human nature). “And human nature [flesh] has nothing to look forward to but death, while the spirit looks forward to life and peace” (verse 6). The Greek here paraphrased “look forward to” is the noun phronēma, which means something like “habit of thought,” or “inclination of the mind/self,” a term used only in Romans 8 in the New Testament. The disciplining of one’s thought and mental orientation so that it is exclusively on the Spirit is part of the growth of life-in-Christ appropriate to the season of Lent.
Such habit of mind is the work and pleasure of living between the law of death and the glorification that is coming (see verse 30 later in this chapter).
The Gospel reading is the story of the resurrection of Lazarus. This is the last of the “signs” that Jesus does in John’s Gospel, the one that precipitates the decision of the authorities to put Jesus to death (John 11:47-53; see also 12:9-10).
The story deliberately interweaves Jesus’ failure to prevent Lazarus’ death with God’s own intention to raise Lazarus from the dead. The two sisters, Martha and Mary, send word to Jesus that his dear friend is on the verge of death. Jesus delays two days longer before starting to Bethany where Lazarus lives—making sure Lazarus was dead more than three days before Jesus finally gets to him (verse 17). Jesus explains to the disciples that this illness is not (ultimately) fatal, but is an occasion for showing God’s glory (same motif as with the man born blind, 9:3). Lazarus dies while Jesus, far away, discusses his case.
Before Jesus gets to Bethany the disciples ask naïve questions that prompt Jesus to speak more bluntly. “Lazarus is dead; and for your sake I am glad I was not there because now you will believe.” Clearly the point of the journey was not to save Lazarus. To make the trip at all, however, is dangerous because of the hostility of the Jewish leaders. This prompts Thomas the Twin to say, “Let us also go to die with him” (verses 14-16).
Both of the women lament (read “complain”) that Jesus did not get there in time, and these laments are occasions for Jesus to make enigmatic responses to what is really going on. Martha comes first, and when Jesus says, “Your brother will rise again,” Martha agrees somewhat stoically, believing as Pharisees and early Jesus followers did in the resurrection of the righteous in God’s final judgment. This gives Jesus occasion to make one of the major declarations of this Gospel. “I am the resurrection. Anyone who believes in me, even though that person dies, will live…. Do you believe this?” (verses 25-26). And Martha affirms that she believes Jesus is the Messiah and Son of God, “the one who was to come into this world.”
Mary’s turn is next, and she too laments that Jesus did not get there in time to prevent Lazarus’ death. Mary seems to precipitate very strong emotional responses rather than theological reflections. She weeps. The Jewish friends who have come to the household weep with her. Finally, having been taken to the tomb, Jesus joins in their weeping. (Providing what I learned as a child is the shortest verse in the Bible, “Jesus wept” [11:35, King James Version].) And at this “the Jews”—and these are some of the friendly ones—express the complaint for the last time: “He opened the eyes of the blind man. Could he not have prevented this man’s death?” (verse 37).
The time has come to get to the heart of God’s action here: the miracle. Jesus goes to the tomb and tells them to open it. To Martha’s practical objection about hygiene, Jesus reminds her of her earlier affirmation of faith. The tomb is opened, Jesus yells a command, “Lazarus, come out!” and the dead man, almost a mummy in his grave wrappings, stumbles out to be set loose from the garments of death, to return to life for the greater glory of God.
The Jewish friends, seeing the resurrection and the life, believe in Jesus (verse 45).