FIFTH SUNDAY IN LENT
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty God, your Son came into the world to free us all from sin and death. Breathe upon us the power of your Spirit, that we may be raised to new life in Christ and serve you in righteousness all our days, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
I frequently hear stories about how God has answered prayer. I am thankful for these testimonies of faith. I am glad for people who recognize Jesus’ gracious presence in their lives, meeting their deepest needs and giving them guidance. But there are other stories as well that need to be told. These are the stories of unanswered prayers. Sometimes God leaves us in the lurch. At least many of the psalmists seemed to think so. Mary and Martha felt much the same way when Jesus arrived too late to heal their brother Lazarus of his fatal disease. “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” Read under that, “Where the hell were you, Jesus?” Jesus doesn’t seem to have much of an answer. For reasons he never quite explains, Jesus remained a full two days where he was after hearing that Lazarus was deathly ill. That turned out to be two days too late. Of course, we need not dwell overly long on this. We know the ending, after all. Lazarus is raised from death and they all live happily ever after.
Except that they don’t. The way John tells it, the raising of Lazarus turned out to be the last nail in Jesus’ coffin. Alarmed by the following Jesus has gotten through news of this remarkable sign, the religious authorities decide that Jesus must be put to death. It’s a matter of national security. If the leaders of Israel don’t deal with the “Jesus problem,” the Romans will-and it won’t be pretty. Moreover, it turns out that Lazarus will likely be part of the collateral damage. The people are unlikely to forget what Jesus has done as long as Lazarus is walking around. So the authorities decide to take him out as well.
Clearly, there is no happy ending for anyone in this story, but the good news of Jesus Christ is about more than happy endings. It is about the Son sent into the world that the world might be saved. The world must know how deeply the Father loves the Son. Only so will the world come to understand how deeply the Father loves it-enough to send that beloved Son into the heart of its hostility. Jesus deals in life-giving signs-wine to gladden a wedding celebration; health to a crippled body, bread to a hungry crowd, sight to a man born blind and now life to a man in the grip of death. Yet Jesus is met at every turn by death threats and violence. His signs are ignored, resisted and crushed. The cross is just the end result of his obedience to the life giving ways of the Father.
But God will not let death have the last word. God raises Jesus up and the life giving signs just keep coming fast and furious. The Gospel of John concludes by telling us that “there were also many other things that Jesus did; where every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” John 21:25. Like Mary, Martha and Lazarus we are all caught up in this drama of the Son who is sent. We have our parts to play, but we don’t get to write the script. We cannot expect that Jesus will arrive at the most convenient time from our own self-interested perspective. But whenever he comes on the scene, it is the right time, God’s time, time for the unfolding of salvation as the Father’s love for the Son spills over into our lives making of them signs of the glory that is the Father’s passionate love for the world.
This engaging story has helped to inspire hymns, spirituals, folk songs and at least one rip roaring fun camp song I recall from my youth. It begins with the prophet Ezekiel being “brought by the Spirit of the Lord” to a valley (or plain according to some manuscripts) that is full of bones. Vss. 1-2. The bones are dry and, as we will see, disconnected. They are in such a state of scatter that it would have been impossible to recognize any individual form among them. Though described as a vision, the field of dismembered bones could well describe the conditions of any place around Jerusalem a decade after the Babylonian destruction of that city. The battle raged fiercely around the city for some time and the Babylonian troops showed little mercy for the hapless citizens of this troublesome and rebellious little kingdom when its last defenses failed. The scene calls to mind discovery of mass graves throughout the former Yugoslavia following the genocidal wars of the 1990s. Though the significance of the vision is not explained to the prophet until after it is complete, Ezekiel must have known that these were not the bones of strangers.
The Lord addresses the question to Ezekiel: “Can these bones live?” Vs. 3. From a purely human standpoint (the only standpoint Ezekiel can possibly have), the answer is “no.” Death is final. Ezekiel can have no basis for any other response. But the question is not posed by another mortal. This is not a conversation between peers. God is the questioner and Ezekiel knows that God possesses knowledge, power and wisdom far beyond the limits of his own understanding. Thus, while Ezekiel cannot conceive of how the dead bones might live again, he cannot rightly deny this possibility either. So he responds in the only possible way: “O Lord God, thou knowest.” Vs. 3
The prophet is instructed to prophesy to the bones, a seemingly futile task. Yet perhaps it seemed no more daunting to Ezekiel than his original call to preach “to a nation of rebels, who have rebelled against me; they and their fathers have transgressed against me to this day.” Ezekiel 2:3. Speaking to a people unwilling to listen (Ezekiel 3:7) is just about as fruitless as speaking to dead bones. But perhaps that is the point. As we shall see, these “dead bones” are the “whole house of Israel.” Vs. 11. It will be Ezekiel’s job to preach hope into the broken and demoralized Babylonian exiles eking out an existence in the midst of a hostile culture. Compared to this task, preaching to bones might have seemed a welcome diversion.
The Lord makes a remarkable promise to the bones: “I will cause breath to enter into you, and you shall live.” Vs. 5. There is a playfulness in this message that gets lost in translation. As I have noted before, the Hebrew word for “breath” (ruach) is also the word for “spirit.” This confluence of the speaker, the word and the life giving spirit cannot help but call to mind the opening of the creation story in Genesis 1:1-5 and the creation of Adam in Genesis 2:7. With this allusion, the Lord answers implicitly his own question. “Yes, the bones can live because I speak them into existence and breathe into them my life giving spirit.” It is significant, I think, that God places this life giving word into the mouth of his prophet to speak. Vss. 4-5. The prophet then literally preaches the bones back to life again.
In verses 11-14 the Lord explains the vision to Ezekiel. The “bones” are the exiled people of Judah living in Babylon. They are lamenting their fate saying, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are clean cut off.” Vs. 11. But the Lord says otherwise: “Behold, I will open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you home into the land of Israel.” Vs. 12. Clearly, the “bones” are a metaphor for the exiles and the “grave” is a metaphor for Babylon, the land of captivity. But does Ezekiel mean to say more than this? In verse 13 the prophet goes on to say in the voice of the Lord: “And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people.” This might only be a common case of Hebrew parallelism, repeating in a different word sequence substantially the same thought expressed in a previous sentence. Then again, the prophet might be intimating more. The final chapters of Ezekiel paint a portrait of restoration for Jerusalem, the temple and the land of Israel that clearly stretches the parameters of existence as we know it. See Ezekiel 40-48. The river flowing from the restored temple passes through the land of Israel, turns the oceans from salt water to fresh and brings to life the arid places. Ezekiel 47:1-12. Is it too much of a stretch to expect that people of Israel who have died prior to this glorious new age will be raised up to share in it also?
Of course there is no way of settling this question decisively. I am not convinced that there is enough here to state unequivocally that Ezekiel foresaw a resurrection of the dead. Nonetheless, he believed that Israel’s return to Palestine would inaugurate a sweeping transformation of the land into an Eden like state where God is rightly worshiped. Where creation ceases to rebel against its Creator and allows God to be God, can there be any limitation on God’s power to breathe life into it? Obviously, this profound renewal of the land did not occur upon the Jews’ return from exile. We are therefore forced to conclude either that the prophet’s vision failed, or that it awaits fulfilment at a time and in a manor Ezekiel could not yet see. Naturally, I stand on the latter conclusion. Whatever limits there might have been on Ezekiel’s understanding of the word he proclaimed, it is after all the Lord’s word. Ezekiel would be the first to admit that one’s own necessarily limited understanding of that word cannot contain or limit the word.
This psalm is one of seven “penitential psalms” (the others being Psalm 6; Psalm 32; Psalm 38; Psalm 51; Psalm 102; and Psalm 143) so named by Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator, a statesman, writer and scholar of the sixth century. It is characterized by Hebrew Scripture scholars as a “lament” containing all of the essential elements of its type:
- Initial Appeal to Yahweh, vss. 1-2.
- Portrayal of inward distress, vss. 3-4
- Expression of confidence, vss. 5-6
- Witness of praise to the community, vss. 7-8.
See Anderson, Bernard W., Out of the Depths, The Psalms Speak for us Today, (c. 1983 by Bernard W. Anderson, pub. by The Westminster Press) p. 97. The Hebrew word “mimmaamkym” “From out of the depths” is a term that is equated with “sheol” or the abode of the dead. For the Israelite there was no “after life.” The concept of resurrection from death came only much later in Israel’s thinking. Consequently, death was the end of any meaningful life. To be in sheol was to be separated from the realm of life and therefore from the Lord of Life. There is no praise of Israel’s God in sheol. Consequently, the psalmist must have been in very deep distress, though we cannot tell what his or her specific complaints were.
According to Anderson, supra, the “word ‘depths’ [mimmaamkym] reverberates with mythical overtones of the abyss of watery chaos, the realm of the powers of confusion, darkness and death that are arrayed against the sovereign power of God.” Ibid. Perhaps, but the point seems to be that the psalmist feels as utterly distant from God who is “enthroned upon the cherubim” (Psalm 99:1) as any creature can be. This distance is due, in part at least, to the psalmist’s sin. Though clearly in some sort of deep trouble, the psalmist knows that s/he is in no position to claim God’s help and salvation. Nevertheless, the psalmist is able to “hope in the Lord” and encourages all Israel to do the same because, “there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared.” Vs. 4. It is worth repeating here that the New Testament did not invent forgiveness. God has always been and always will be forgiving toward his people Israel and toward his people engrafted into the covenant with Israel through baptism into Jesus Christ. If that were not the case, if God did in fact “mark iniquities” (vs. 3), there would be no point in prayers such as this.
The psalmist is resolved to “wait for the Lord.” Vs. 5. S/he knows that answers to prayer are not instantaneous. Prayer requires a willingness to wait and watch for the answer. Jesus also told his disciples “Ask, and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” Matthew 7:7-8. Thus, asking is only the beginning. One must then seek the answer and be willing to knock on what appears to be a closed door.
“My soul waits for the Lord more than the watchmen for the morning.” Vs. 6. This is a striking image. In Jerusalem, watchmen took their post after sunset to keep a look out for approaching enemies. They were the ancient world’s equivalent of early warning systems. It was a tedious job on a long winter’s night and one can well imagine the watchman, who had no clock or wrist watch, scrutinizing the horizon for signs of the sunrise signaling that his lonely vigil was finally coming to an end.
In verses 7-8 the focus changes from the psalmist’s personal prayer to an admonition directed to all Israel to hope in the Lord. As we saw in Psalm 51, Israel frequently took ancient prayers of individuals and adapted them for use in public worship as prayers for the whole people. In this case, an Israelite who lived after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem may well have found in this individual’s plea for personal help a reflection of Israel’s post exilic distress. Having lost the line of David, the Temple, and her land, Israel was likewise “crying out from the depths.” Like the individual, Israel turned to the Word of the Lord and God’s promises for comfort and hope, knowing that with her God was forgiveness. Vs. 4.
I am not sure what can be done with this randomly selected section of Paul’s extended argument ripped out of its context and sandwiched in between some very substantial readings for this Sunday. It is worth pointing out, however, that when Paul is speaking of “the flesh” (“sarkos” in the Greek), he is not talking about bodily appetites (i.e., sexual attraction). He is instead speaking of life as lived under bondage to sin. Sin, as I noted in my post of March 9th, is failure to trust God to be God and placing ourselves in the center of existence. Thus, where the self remains center stage, a life of severe asceticism is no less fleshly than a life of hedonistic abandon. In the case of the former, the objective is “self” purification; in the latter, “self” indulgence. Either way, it is all about “self” and that makes it sin.
So, too, life in the Spirit is not to be understood as an escape from bodily existence. Again, “flesh” is not synonymous with “body.” Rather, life in the Spirit is one of knowing the heart of God through one’s relationship with Jesus. When God is known as the one who does not withhold from us the life of his own Son, it is possible to trust God to be God and live joyfully, hopefully and obediently within our creaturely limits.
More could be said here, but not without resort to the context of Paul’s larger argument. That will have to await another day.
This incredible story begins in Galilee where Jesus has gone to escape hostility in Judea. There he receives word from Mary and Martha that their brother, Lazarus, is ill. “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister Lazarus. So when he heard that he was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.” Vss. 5-6. These two sentences strike the reader as a non sequitur. The New Revised Standard Version attempts to soften these sentences a bit by translating them as follows: “Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.” I don’t see any basis for this “softening” in the Greek text. Furthermore, I am convinced that the “harder” reading should stand because it alerts us to the very point to be made through the story, namely, that everything occurring in the gospel happens in order that Jesus might be glorified. So says R. H. Lightfoot and I agree. Lightfoot, R. H., St. John’s Gospel-A Commentary (c. 1956 by Clarendon Press, pub. Oxford University Press) p. 215-220.
From the standpoint of our twenty-first century, ego centric, narcissistic mentality that cannot see any good beyond individual self-fulfillment, it appears inexplicable that Jesus would refrain from taking a short trip to Bethany to save the life of one whom he loved. But Jesus points out that the illness is “not unto death,” but “for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by means of it.” Vs. 4. If one accepts the proposition (as John would have us do) that the greatest good for all the world (Mary, Martha and Lazarus included) is the glorification of the Son, then love compels Jesus to remain where he is if that will further such glorification. Whether this decision on Jesus’ part was to allow nature to take its course with Lazarus or whether Jesus’ presence in Galilee was required for some other undisclosed reason is beside the point. Salvation for the whole world is revealed through the unfolding of the Son’s life lived in obedience to the will of his Father. Lazarus is part of all this drama as are Mary and Martha. But the story revolves around Jesus and their stories find meaning and fulfilment only as they are incorporated into his.
After an interval of two days, Jesus’ announces his intention to return to Judea and his disciples are incredulous. Had not Jesus only recently and narrowly escaped death at the hands of his enemies there? Why should he want to return? Jesus points out that he wishes to go to Lazarus who “has fallen asleep.” Vs. 11. The disciples, taking Jesus literally, interpret this to mean that Lazarus is on the way to recovery. In fact, he has died. Vs. 14.
Upon his approach to Bethany, Jesus first encounters Martha who greets Jesus with a seeming reproach: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Vs. 21. But she follows up with a confession of faith: “And even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” Vs. 22. She further confesses, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world.” Vs. 27. Martha does not need the sign of Lazarus’ rising.
Mary is another story. She also reproaches Jesus for his absence in their time of need, but she makes no confession of faith. She and the people who are consoling her simply weep. It is at this point that Jesus “was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” Vs. 33. The Greek word translated as “deeply moved in spirit” can mean either deep grief or anger. Commentators go wild attempting to get into the head of Jesus here. Was Jesus irked or grieved at the obvious failure of Mary and her supporters to grasp, as did Martha, that he is the resurrection and the life? Is this grief or anger directed against death and bereavement generally? Was Jesus simply sharing the sorrow of Mary at this point? On the whole, I believe that the first explanation fits best with the narrative. Jesus is grieved/angered that Mary and her friends do not recognize that he is the resurrection and the life. The sorrow inflicted upon them by this blindness is what induces his weeping, not simply the death of Lazarus. It is for their sake, the sake of these “people standing by” that Jesus performs the “sign” of Lazarus’ raising. Vs. 42. Many of those bystanders did, in fact, believe. Vs. 45.
But the story does not end with the reading. When we read further, we learn that some of the bystanders reported this sign to the religious authorities. Fearing that Jesus’ rising popularity and the expectations surrounding him might provoke aggression from Rome, the authorities determine to kill Jesus. John 11: 46-53. Thus, this life giving sign comes at a great cost to Jesus. Lazarus’ raising from the tomb places Jesus on his trajectory toward the tomb. Throughout John’s gospel Jesus continues to give life through increasingly profound and decisive signs even as he draws ever closer to death. Moreover, plans are made to do away with Lazarus as well. John 12:9-11. The sign, therefore, is not to be taken as a “happy ending.” It is anything but. It further emphasizes the observation made in Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus: “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.” John 3:19. Though Jesus’ sign cannot deter the gathering darkness nor even benefit Lazarus more than briefly, it nevertheless demonstrates that even death must retreat in the face of Jesus. Though surely not a “resurrection,” Lazarus’ raising points beyond itself to the final triumph over the power of death that Jesus will accomplish.