The Fifth Sunday in Lent, 6 April 2014

Ezekiel 37:1-14
Psalm 130
Romans 8:6-11
St. John 11:1-45

William Blake "Ezekiel's Vision"

Background: Ezekiel
Ezekiel, the son of a priestly family, most likely spent most of his prophetic career outside of Palestine, most likely in Babylon where he was deported along with other Judean elites in the sixth century BCE.  His early period in Jerusalem was probably during the religious reforms of King Josiah.  Therefore his theology and his prophetic utterances are framed by these larger than life events: the recovery of a people’s religious culture, and its removal to a foreign land.  He was active from around 593 through 571 BCE.   His message was grounded in the classic prophetic tradition, that of speaking God’s word to the here and now, rather than peering off into the future.

The social and cultural context of his pronouncements and his writing are in large measure described by the vassalage of Judah to the Assyrian Empire, which had decimated its northern neighbor, the Kingdom of Israel, and then later by a vassalage and conquest by the Babylonians in the sixth century.  It is no accident that the Josian reforms occur in conjunction with the death of Ashurbanipal, the Assyrian ruler.  Numerous vassal states took the opportunity to shake off the chains of oppression by the Assyrians, and Judah was no stranger to this effort.  Like Jeremiah, Ezekiel is caught in a net of political and geopolitical intrigue and discussion.  His visions and ecstatic pronouncements seem tied to the events of a tumultuous time. 

Ezekiel 37:1-14

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, "Mortal, can these bones live?" I answered, "O Lord GOD, you know." Then he said to me, "Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord."

So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, "Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live." I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

Then he said to me, "Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, `Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.' Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act," says the Lord.

This reading is one of four vision narratives found in the Book of Ezekiel.  The third in the series follows the second (chapters 8-11), which anticipates the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.  This third vision is a call to life from death, a logical following from the “death” of the Temple, the heart of the cultic life of Jerusalem.  It is divided into two parts.  The first verses (1-10) are the narrative that Ezekiel wishes to relate, which is followed by the final verses of the pericope (11-14), which form an explanation to the narrative.  This vision is written in the context of separation from both land and temple.  In that regard it is a hopeful narrative, looking forward to the bones of Israel being resuscitated into a newly unified nation.  Such images, the dry bones made new, were not unique to Ezekiel, but are also found in Isaiah, and Job.  In addition, the hearers of these verses would have not been unfamiliar with the gruesome devastation of ancient near eastern battlefields, full of the corpses of soldiers.  The other aspect that makes this a profound vision is the taboo of contact with the dead.  Thus accompanying Ezekiel through this field of dry bones is rife with the danger of ritual contamination.

What Ezekiel sees is a reversal of the situation at hand, at several levels.  What has died, namely Israel, will be brought back to life again.  What was depopulated and despoiled, will be made new in a new city of Jerusalem that is described by the prophet in chapters 40-48.  Although this reading is chosen to underscore the Gospel reading and the Raising of Lazarus, we should not be so willing to put these thoughts of resurrection into the mind of Ezekiel.  Although in a future influenced by Persian thought such ideas will be entertained by Judaism, they are not done so at the time of Ezekiel.  His visions are of a much more practical nature – the restoration of the Jewish community, not as a group of exiles by the Euphrates, but rather on Mt. Zion.

Breaking open Ezekiel:
  1. What gave cause to Ezekiel to think that Israel was dead?
  2. What in the world is dead to you?  Is your parish dead?
  3. How can these things come to life?
Psalm 130 De profundis

Out of the depths have I called to you, O LORD;
LORD, hear my voice; *
let your ears consider well the voice of my supplication.

If you, LORD, were to note what is done amiss, *
O Lord, who could stand?

For there is forgiveness with you; *
therefore you shall be feared.

I wait for the LORD; my soul waits for him; *
in his word is my hope.

My soul waits for the LORD,
more than watchmen for the morning, *
more than watchmen for the morning.

O Israel, wait for the LORD, *
for with the LORD there is mercy;

With him there is plenteous redemption, *
and he shall redeem Israel from all their sins.

This penitential psalm is almost psychological in nature.  Here the psalmist, calling from the “depths”, recalls the sins of Israel.  The term, “the depths” would have reminded the Jewish reader of the waters of the great sea – in other words, would have reminded her or him that the psalmist was speaking from the context of death.  Thus this psalm becomes one of the great confessional pieces in the Hebrew Scriptures.  There are two attitudes that inform the reader.  The first is the notion of forgiveness – “For there is forgiveness with you, therefore you shall be feared.”  The second attitude is one of expectation and hope.  Waiting on the Lord’s forgiveness of the people, the psalmist stands like a watchman, searching for God’s coming with redemption and mercy.

Breaking open Psalm 130:
  1. In what are the depths of our emotions met by the forgiveness that God grants?
  2. For what does forgiveness allow you to hope?
  3. In what ways is Lent like Advent?

Romans 8:6-11

To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God's law-- indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

Implicit in the reading from Ezekiel is the presence of the Spirit: “Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live."  The activity of Spirit known first in the acts of creation, continue in the Salvation History of God’s people, and now in Romans, Paul continues to observe and proclaim that presence.  Here he contrasts the life in the Spirit with that of the flesh.  For Paul there are two comparisons, the Spirit = life, and the flesh = death.  What he wants to convince the Romans of is their participation in the Spirit, because they are in Christ.  Beverly Roberts Gaventa, in her commentary on Romans[1] makes for an interesting perspective on Paul’s contrast.  She attempts to mute Paul’s disaffection for the flesh (sarx) by proposing his real intent.  It is the biological descent that is represented in the “flesh” (see Romans 1:3, or 9:5), not the body itself.  Likewise the contrasting Spirit is a way of thinking as well.  Perhaps an appropriate metaphor is to refer again to Ezekiel where the contrasts are desiccated, dry, bleached as opposed to meaty, juicy, sinewed bones.  It is life (spirit) vs. death (flesh).  These are resolved in Christ and our adoption as sons and daughters.

Breaking open Romans:
  1. What parts of your life are pure flesh?
  2. What parts of your life are pure spirit?
  3. What reconciles the two?

St. John 11:1-45

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, "Lord, he whom you love is ill." But when Jesus heard it, he said, "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." 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.

Then after this he said to the disciples, "Let us go to Judea again." The disciples said to him, "Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?" Jesus answered, "Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them." After saying this, he told them, "Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him." The disciples said to him, "Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right." Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, "Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him." Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, "Let us also go, that we may die with him."
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him." Jesus said to her, "Your brother will rise again." Martha said to him, "I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day." Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?" She said to him, "Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world."

When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, "The Teacher is here and is calling for you." And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, "Where have you laid him?" They said to him, "Lord, come and see." Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, "See how he loved him!" But some of them said, "Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?"

Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, "Take away the stone." Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, "Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days." Jesus said to her, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?" So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, "Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me." When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out!" The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, "Unbind him, and let him go."

Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

Both liturgically and chronologically here in John we are on the cusp of the Passion, or as Fr. Raymond Brown puts it, “Part Four: Jesus Moves Toward the Hour of Death and Glory (chs. xi-xii).[2]  His subsequent comment is even more telling: “Jesus Gives Men Life; Men Condemn Jesus to Death”.[3]  It is very odd that the section that impels Jesus to Jerusalem and ultimately to death should begin with a Gospel of hope in the raising of Lazarus.  In a way, John makes Jesus, and ultimately us, his readers as well, consider what the next step might be.  Jesus is caught between the horns of a dilemma.  In proposing to go to Judea again, as the disciples make him realize, Jesus may confront death at the hand of those who hate him.  Jesus chooses to face death, but first to face it in the situation with his friend Lazarus and his sisters.  Upon the news of Lazarus’ illness, Jesus chooses to remain a few days longer, but explains the purpose, “This sickness is not to end in death, rather it is for God’s glory.”  This is similar thinking to what had happened in last Sunday’s Gospel when the disciples question whether or not the blind man’s disability was due to sin.  Jesus quickly signals that it is to be as a sign of God’s presence – an opportunity for proclamation.

In a way, the setting and circumstances of this reading are exaggerated.  Jesus delays coming to his stricken friend, the disciples continue to misunderstand Jesus’ intent, by the time Jesus arrives Lazarus is already four days in the tomb (just one after three!), the expectations of both Mary and Martha, and finally the shout that interrupts Lazarus’ “sleep” and propels him from the tomb.  What John lays down here are patterns and templates for understanding the coming days.  Yet for all of this exaggeration and stretched out telling, the miracle itself is a model of brevity, “The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, "Unbind him, and let him go."  It is not only this miracle that John uses to teach us, but the role of prayer.  Jesus prayer is prayer meant to be overheard – prayer is here proclamation and explanation, “that they might believe that you sent me.”  And here John gives the purpose in the telling of the story.

What are we to learn?  What parts are we to gather together in order to make wholeness of the things?  John is hoping that we are going to remember Nicodemus (Lent II) and Jesus teaching about being “born from above”.  Thus to make the point clear as we follow Jesus to Calvary, Jesus’ interaction with Lazarus is a sign of being born from above.  Preachers and readers may want to pay attention to the fifth chapter of John, especially verses 28-29, where Jesus expounds on what his work is, “An hour is coming in which all those in the tombs will hear his voice and will come forth – those who have done what is right unto the resurrection of life.”  The story of Lazarus completes the teaching Jesus does in chapter five.  But here in chapter 11, Jesus boldly proclaims, “I am the resurrection and the life.”

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. In what sense might you agree with the disciples’ proposition that the man’s blindness was caused by sin?
  2. How would you describe his parents’ attitude?
  3. What role do the Pharisees play?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2014, Michael T. Hiller

[1]Gaventa, B., and Peterson, D., (2010). The New Interpreter’s Bible One-Volume Commentary,    Abingdon Press, Nashville, eBook, location 29998.
[2]Brown, R., (1966), The Anchor Bible The Gospel According to John (i-xii), Doubleday and Company, Garden City, New York, p. iii.
[3]Brown, p. 419


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