5th Sunday in Lent

March 9, 2008
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 Rick Marshall

Discussing the text
The story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead is the most direct foreshadowing of Jesus’ resurrection in the gospel of John. Yet, there are many other foreshadowings of the resurrection. It seems that the whole narrative in John leading up to Jesus’ resurrection is designed as an increasingly intensified series of foreshadowings. This process begins with the first story of Jesus changing the water into wine. A close look at that story reveals a mysterious transforming power at the very heart of things. It is a quiet act, unnoticed by almost everyone except for the reader, yet allowing the wedding feast (i.e. life) to go on. A focus on that kind of power is then followed through story after story, so that, by the time we get to the very dramatic story of Jesus’ resurrection, we understand the basic principle of God’s transforming power, and we see that that power is always working to bring new life out of all of our experiences of death.  Lent can be a season designed to foreshadow this power of God. If handled effectively, Lent can prepare us for the Easter event in such a way that we won’t be taken off guard by it or surprised by it, or feel that we have to explain its oddity. It is obviously a deep mystery, but this divine power is at work everywhere at all times. The gospel story in John is a description of the ordinariness of the power that creates the moment-to-moment unfolding of our lives. It describes the rhythm of loss and gain, letting go and receiving, going down and coming up, death and life. The resurrection of Jesus is not in a separate category from all of our experiences, but supremely exemplifies how God works in our lives.

The story of Lazarus is a long drama and complicated. Yet it provides the setting for Jesus’ statement: “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” On its own, the statement is abstract. Embedded in the narrative, however, it resonates with the characters, the conflict and the process of resolution. The resurrection becomes the resolution of the conflict. Jesus’ question hangs in the air: Do you believe this? In other words, do you trust this power? The answer to this question is the answer to life, to a future.

The story of the Valley of Dry Bones from Ezekiel is a gold mine for images of God’s vivifying, creating power. Here, that Divine power is connected to hope. The problem is clearly stated: “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are clean cut off.” This statement ranks with the image of Sarah’s empty womb as a powerful expression of a dead end to human possibilities. We can do nothing on our own to bring new options. The future is out of our reach. We can’t manufacture a way into the future. New life must come from somewhere else. “Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you home….” As the psalms often affirm: My help comes from the Lord. The story looks to God for the initiative for a new future.

Both of these narratives (there are many others) present the primary biblical case for trust in God.

Process Theology and the text
Resurrection power is not supernatural, that is, God intervening from a place outside the natural order. It is--from a Process view and, I believe, from a biblical view--the basic dynamic of death being transformed into new life and it happens all around us all the time. It is God working from “within.” It is a natural process. But to say that it is natural doesn’t mean we fully understand it. There is something deeply mysterious about the creative transforming power of God. Jesus said that unless a seed fall into the ground and die there will be no new life. Simple but profound. Process theology understands the world in such a way that supernaturalism isn’t required. In a mechanistic world, God operates from the outside. If the world is a machine, then God is the engineer who manipulates and controls the world from “outside.” Supernatural means “above nature,” or “outside nature”. Process sees the world functioning more like an organism where God relates to the world much the same way that we are related to our own bodies. There is an organic relationship between our bodies and our minds; one depends upon the other, but one is not simply the sum of the other.

The story of Lazarus being raised from the dead is deeply mysterious, yet is a prime example of how God’s power works in the world. By the time we reach the story of the resurrection of Jesus in John we say “Of course, that’s how God’s power works in the world.” To say that we worship resurrection power means that we name it, open ourselves more fully to its influence and simply entrust our lives to that power. God’s power is most fully manifested in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. He pointed to it and embodied it. We can worship that power and, like Jesus, trust it.

Preaching the text
We are confronted with two great narratives this Sunday. Their greatness presents problems for the preacher in how to adequately approach the texts and give them a fair hearing. In other words, how can we allow them to speak clearly without getting in their way? They are so familiar and deal with such profound issues, it would be easy for a sermon to become maudlin or abstract or diffuse. The narratives are so strong that they require some delicacy in subjecting them to sermon form. Structurally, they are like a great cathedral that inspires awe in its beauty. We enter it, so to speak, and look up. It arches and rises and lifts us to the heavens, it seems. The light coming through the stained glass windows plays against the texture of the walls, the pews, the vestment, our faces, ever-changing. There is something solid and durable, yet fleeting. Perhaps our experience of the cathedral is what changes as we move through its space.  Preaching on these stories is like taking a shard from the stained glass and trying to tell others how majestic is the cathedral. Yet, the whole is implied in the shard. That, I suppose, is the preacher’s task, to speak of the whole using a fragment. The stories have a wholeness to them that must first inspire awe and respect.

The story of Lazarus requires its larger context. Preachers would do well, if preaching on this text, to describe the thread of John’s story up to that point, and then how it points beyond itself to the end of the story. Like many of the other stories in John, at the heart of the action is a transformation that is mysterious and life-altering. A sermon could simply breathe life into the narrative by telling it imaginatively. The dramatic action comes at the end of the story: “Lazarus, come out…. Unbind him and let him go.” Some sermons focus on Lazarus and the call to come out. The idea of unbinding makes sense if challenging a world that binds. How to we get bound by that which drags us down? And so on. But Lazarus is a passive character in the story. The active character is Jesus who calls upon the power of resurrection on Lazarus’ behalf. What a vision, Jesus standing at the opening of the grave, invoking the power of God. It calls to mind Moses, standing at the edge of the Red Sea, invoking the power of God to close off the threat to life posed by the Egyptian Army, opening a new future.

The story of the valley of dry bones is such a visual, poetic description of God’s life-giving power, that it can be used to give the sermon poetic dimension. There is such a mystery to God’s power that straight analysis won’t take us very far in understanding that power. It is just as difficult as subjecting love to analysis. Appreciating the majesty, mystery, and pervasiveness of God’s transforming power requires a poetic voice. Images of Death Valley come to my mind. I’ve been there many times. The purple layered mountains and a muted blue sky over a quiet landscape of baked lake bed and rock and skeletal bushes. The wind comes through unimpeded, scouring the life out of any sign of hope. I image early settlers of California coming to the edge of this great basin of death and turning back in hopelessness. The horrible beauty of this place staggers the imagining of anything beyond it. Utter bleakness cuts off any hope of human conquest. The settlers knew that verdant valleys were beyond, and the Pacific Ocean, and a possible new life for them. But how to get from where they were to where they wanted to be. That’s the problem, getting beyond the dryness, the bleakness. Hope often comes in the form of wetness. A well. Spittle in the soil. Rain. Dry bones suggest there was life before and now there is only death. The bones stand as a reminder of what once was but is no more. Much can be made of the symbolic power of bones. No more flesh, no more blood, no more heart or soul. The preacher could work to set the mood of hopelessness that the narrative gives shape to. The breath of God is a surprise, unpredictable. Who know from whence it comes or whither it goes?

The focus of a sermon could be on how these stories demonstrate that the basis of hope in life is the creating, transforming power of God.

Children and the text
Talk about how a seed turns into a plant. A packet of seeds could be shown. Ask the children what they could do with the seeds. Plant them of course. Talk about the process of planting them. What do you need? Soil. What do you do with the seed? Stick in the soil. Then what? You water it. Then what? You watch it. Describe a green plant just coming out of the ground. Describe it growing larger and leafing out and maybe producing seeds or fruit or vegetables. Look at the seed, and then look at the plant. How does a seed turn into a plant? Who makes the plant grow? Us? Jesus talks about planting seeds and how the mystery of God works, creating new life.

Rick Marshall is co-pastor of Brea Congregational United Church of Christ in Brea, California, a church he has served for more than 24 years. He has contributed many resources to the Process & Faith website, including A Process-Relational Guide to Grief, Death, and Funerals.