5th Sunday in Lent

March 17, 2002
See Also: 

Lenten Candle Liturgy
John Cobb on redemption
Biblical Preaching on the Death of Jesus (Cobb)

Reading 1: 
Ezekiel 37:1-14
Reading 2: 
Psalm 130
Reading 3: 
Romans 8:6-11
Reading 4: 
John 11:1-45
By Keith McPaul

Ezekiel 37: 1-14
Psalm 130

Psalm 130 was a favorite of Martin Luther who made connections between its words and the words of the Gospels and of Paul. In 1523 Martin Luther wrote one of his greatest hymns: "Out of the depths I cry to thee, Lord God. O hear my prayer." The Psalm speaks to and from the depths of the human condition, of the universal sinfulness of humanity and of the merciful, saving love of God. Can there be any greater depth that a people can descend to than what is described in the Ezekiel reading? The Israelites were no longer simply rebellious; they were as if they were dead, without even a hint of life. Life in exile was as empty of meaning and hope as the dry bones were of life. Only the first creator of life can become the source of new life in the place of death. The twofold command to Ezekiel mirrors the two-stage creation of Adam in Genesis 2:7, first the material for, then the breath of life. Ezekiel interprets the vision in verse 11-14, where it is made clear that he is not speaking about the resuscitation of individuals, but the resurrection of the people of Israel as a Nation. Christians also think of resurrection not in terms of resuscitation or reincarnation, but as a consequence of a new and surprising work of God. Resurrection life is God's purpose for Israel, the fulfillment of which is brought about by the risen Messiah of Israel and shared with all those united with him through faith.

The imagery of a valley "full of bones" seems to be too horrible to comprehend. Unfortunately in my lifetime there have been many examples of valleys full of bones. We see the shocking sights of the graves during the holocaust, the graves in the 'killing fields' of Cambodia, the graves in Bosnia, and so it goes on. "Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord", is a cry that echoes around the world today. The Israelites celebrate that their God brought them "out of the valley of the shadow of death" and we pray that all people in the depths of despair can come to full resurrected life in God.

Romans 8: 6-11
Marjorie Suchocki in The Whispered Word, says that when preaching we should identify the symbols of the Christian faith within the text on which we are going to preach. She identifies the great symbols of the Christian faith as: "the nature of God; the human condition; what God has done for us in Christ; God's continuing presence with us through the spirit; and God's goals for us in this life and in the everlasting life that is our end." In these brief six verses from Romans, Paul has managed to cover all of Marjorie's symbols!

The central 'character' in Romans 8 is the Holy Spirit, and the word Spirit occurs more often than in any other chapter in the New Testament (twenty-one times), "...the Spirit of God... the Spirit of Christ", "the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead ...the Spirit that dwells within you." The Spirit is the living presence and power of Jesus, moulding our living closer to the pattern of Jesus Christ. The Spirit is a bridge between the daily life of the Christian and the hope ahead. Hope came to us with the death and resurrection of Jesus, and becomes real for us through the Holy Spirit who dwells within us.

Paul uses two words in Greek, both of which could be translated as 'body', yet they are very different. Sarx and soma are both sinful and mortal. Sarx stands for our fallen nature and is fundamentally hostile to God, what some call the demonic. The soma of the believer is being renewed by the Spirit and will be completely restored in the resurrection. Paul is very disparaging about those who are living 'according to the flesh'. In other places he makes it clearer that he is not necessarily talking about 'evil', but about people whose horizons are limited to this world and whose focus is on self; people who are primarily interested in self-preservation and self-gratification. This could easily become a definition of 'sin'. A self-indulgent existence might seem to be living life to the full, but is a mindset that excludes God and as Paul says, leads to death. Gill Sumner says that if are turned in on ourselves, the reality of Easter and resurrection life will pass us by. If we are using Lent to develop minds focused on God, the life of the risen Christ will already be at work in our lives.

For the Process perspective on sin and forgiveness I find Marjorie Suchocki’s book God-Christ-Church invaluable. In Process terms we talk of sarx as the sin of the demonic, or original sin. We are born into structures that shape our existence and mould our identities. 'Original sin' captivates the psyche, distorting our perceptions, makes us self-centered. Without help we perpetuate this way of seeing the world. God has provided a way of helping us, but it is not as simple as just calling for liberation in the name of God. We must identify the 'demons', not only 'out there', but also within us, within our own psyche. God already knows who we are, in all our demonically good intentions. God deals with our evil every moment within the divine life, and still returns to us an aim towards our transformative good. This aim towards the good is our release from the binding past, and our hope for a new future where the values of the past can be reversed. We can see this as God's forgiveness, which breaks the chain of the sins of the past. If we are open to the to the reign of God, or as Paul would say, to the Spirit of God, we cannot rest on a past forgiveness; rather we are called to live daily from forgiveness of sins and towards transformation. This is why we pray, "Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us." We have to acknowledge that the Spirit is within us every minute, otherwise we are not going to be in a position to hear the lure of God. See how well Paul has managed to cover Marjorie's five key symbols.

John 11: 1-45
People often ask why Jesus wept at the death of Lazarus when he knew that he would be raised again in a few minutes. Was this just a display of Jesus' humanity, and showing normal human emotion and concern for friends? Was he showing irritation at the weeping and wailing as showing unbelief? Or can the death of Lazarus be seen as symbolic of the Jewish religion, which Jesus deeply loves and openly mourns? John Parr says that the "image of the grieving Jesus is worth cherishing, not least because this gospel can give the impression that Jesus' divinity is always at the expense of his humanity. Yet it is surely here, in the grief that expresses his vulnerability - his readiness to be affected by the world that god loves - that his humanity reveals the true nature of divinity."

Is this story a 'dry run' for Jesus' own death and resurrection? The story unfolds under the rubric, "This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God's glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it." Jesus will die in Jerusalem and his death will reveal the glory of God; the Son of God will be glorified by means of it, and the children of God scattered abroad will gathered into one. Throughout John's Gospel Jesus tries to convince the Jews of the true meaning of the Kingdom of God. The raising of Lazarus seems to be one last attempt at convincing them. However, throughout the story the Jews show unbelief, they focus on the dead Lazarus rather than on the living Jesus. In the end they have convinced even Mary to join them in their tears. This is the Mary who sat at Jesus' feet to be taught, rather than prepare the meal; this is the Mary who did not just 'meet' Jesus as Martha did, but fell at his feet. The unbelieving attitude of the Jews was dangerously infectious.

One message from this story is that death cannot be prevented, death must take place; but death is not to be seen as the final indignity that deprives people of the love and presence of God. Faith in Jesus does not prevent us from dying in this world, but is a promise that the life of faith continues when we die. A 'life-in-the-world-to-come' is not promised as a reward for faith in Jesus; for the life of faith already is that other life. Jesus tells Mary that death must be faced, and it will seem unbearable, but there is comfort, " Did I not tell you that if you believed, you see the glory of God." We can see this story as a parable, which sees the power of God to overcome death by life, where 'death' is represented by unbelief and sorrow as well as mortality, and 'life' by faith in Jesus the Christ. Jesus mourns, but this messiah does not ride roughshod over the sorrows of the world. He can only save the world by entering into the agonies and letting himself be touched by them.

"The story of the raising of Lazarus, with its unforgettable image of Jesus weeping by the tomb, presents a different picture of God. This vulnerability is part of the story of self-expression of God in human experience, the Word made flesh. "The highest Christology is that which sees such solidarity between God and the world - in its sorrows as well as its joys."

God of Jesus, your strength lies in your ability
To take the world's suffering into yourself
Without being diminished by it.
Open our eyes to your life-giving power.