The Fifth Sunday in Lent, 2 April 2017

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

Background: Ancient Israelite Burial Customs

Like their neighbors in Egypt and in Mesopotamian, the ancient Israelites placed great value on the burial of the dead, usually in an area proximate to the burial places of family members. Burial was so important, that it was considered a curse not to be buried. In Deuteronomy 28:26, we see a curse directed at those that did not honor a covenant, “Your corpses will become food for all the birds of the air and for the beasts of the field, with no one to frighten them off.” The prophets, most notably Jeremiah, also used this threat. It is also interesting to note that this custom also obtained for the stranger, being classed as a necessary social custom such as feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. Psalm 88:6, 10-12 reminds us, however, of how death was thought of theologically,

“My couch is among the dead,
like the slain who lie in the grave.
You remember them no more;
they are cut off from your influence.
*Do you work wonders for the dead?
Do the shades arise and praise you?
Is your mercy proclaimed in the grave,
your faithfulness among those who have perished?”

Therefore burial did not say so much about the state of the dead, as to honor and remember them, and remove them from the possibility of being the cause for ritual impurity among the living. Burial usually happened within a day of the death, and the dead were laid clothed, not embalmed, on rock shelves in a rock chamber or a cave. Jesus’ own burial was simple, where his body was bound with linen cloths and myrrh and aloes.

First Reading: 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.

Our pericope for today is from a major section of the prophet’s work, which some have entitled, “God’s Transformation of the Covenant People and Return of the Divine Presence (33:1-48:39). The book begins with a section of 24 chapters describing God’s judgment of the people and the departure of the divine presence. Intervening is a section dealing with God’s judgment of the nations, along with words of hope for Israel. Thus we move into the realities of that hope in this vision of the dry bones in which we not only visit the actualities of Israel’s present situation, but also look on to the beginning of things in creation.  Again we will encounter the ruah, spirit of God, an engendering breath that recreates life from bones and dust.

In the second creation story, one individual is created from breath and dust, but in this pericope it is a whole people who are recreated. This view is recounted in the book of Job (10:8-9, 11).

“Your hands have formed me and fashioned me;
will you then turn and destroy me?
Oh, remember that you fashioned me from clay!
Will you then bring me down to dust again?
With skin and flesh you clothed me,
with bones and sinews knit me together.”

What is important in this vision is the presence of the spirit. The world is full of sinew and flesh, but it can only be renewed and live with an outpouring of the spirit. The spirit also comes, as will be seen at Pentecost, with a great noise – a rattling, or as the Septuagint terms it, “an earthquake”. It is all a bit unbelievable, but Ezekiel desires to cut through our present perception of world and God to see and experience something new and different – a change of direction. Walter Brueggemann puts it well:

“The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.”[1]

The purpose of Ezekiel is to release our imagination so that we might see God and our relationship with God in a new way. The trick for the preacher, and for the casual reader will be to apply this prophetic vision to the lives of people today.

Breaking open Ezekiel:
1.          What is dead in your life?
2.          What needs to be renewed or revivified in your life?
3.         What is your relationship with the Spirit?

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.
2      If you, Lord, were to note what is done amiss, *
O Lord, who could stand?
3      For there is forgiveness with you; *
therefore you shall be feared.
4      I wait for the Lord; my soul waits for him; *
in his word is my hope.
5      My soul waits for the Lord,
more than watchmen for the morning, *
more than watchmen for the morning.
6      O Israel, wait for the Lord, *
for with the Lord there is mercy;
7      With him there is plenteous redemption, *
and he shall redeem Israel from all their sins.

"Out of the Depths" - George Rouault
This sixth of the penitential psalms of the church was a favorite of Luther, who penned a hymn, Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir”, based on its text. With an approachable attitude it wrestles with the difficulties of sin and grace. The depths which begin the psalm are representative of the waves of the sea, an Israelite metaphor for death. It is from this despair that the speaker addresses God. What is received from this entirety? Nothing less than forgiveness and hope itself. It becomes the cause for our worship and fear of God. What follows are words that indicate our waiting upon God, our longing for our renewed relationship with God. The final verse notes the abundance of God’s grace, “plenteous redemption.” From this plenty comes redemption from all our sins.

Breaking open the Psalm 130:
1.         What deep needs to you have in your life?
2.         Are you awaiting forgiveness for something?
3.        What will allow you to receive it?

Second Reading: 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.

Study for a self portrait, Francis Bacon
I am always renewed by Robert Jewett’s refreshing translation of Romans, and so I present his translation of our pericope here.

“6) For the mind of the flesh is death, but the mind of the Spirit is life and peace. 7) Because the mind of the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit itself to the law of God, for it isn’t even able. 8) And those who exist in the flesh are unable to please God.

9) But you do not exist in flesh but in Spirit, since indeed God’s Spirit dwells among you (pl.). But if someone does not have Christ’s Spirit, that one is not his. 10) But if Christ is in your midst though the body (be) dead because of sin, the Spirit (is) life because of righteousness. 11) But if the Spirit of “the one who raised Jesus from the dead” dwells in your midst, “the one raising Christ Jesus from the dead” will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit dwelling in your midst.”[2]

The spirit that infects Ezekiel’s vision is also present here in Paul’s argument that sin and death is no longer our lot through redemption in Christ Jesus. We are the dry bones of this pericope, with our minds being remade in the spirit; the flesh is set-aside in this vision. This is the good news of freedom – a freedom already won and granted, not only a thing of hope. It is also the good news of resurrection, seeing our participation not only in the death of Jesus, but in his being raised again as well. Our world tempts us to see only with our minds, but the Spirit brings us a new vision of life.

Breaking open Romans
  1. What parts of your life are described by “flesh” and what parts are described by “spirit”?
  2. In what way does worship change your mind about things?
  3. Does it change the way you approach life?

The Gospel: 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.

"The Raising of Lazarus", Watanabe

The Book of Signs ends in the previous pericope, and Jesus moves back to the Jordan so as to remove himself from the dangers of Jerusalem.  Raymond Brown is of the mind that chapters 11 and 12 are from a different pen, albeit a similar point of view. Regardless, we have crossed into a new territory here. Jesus is leading us to Jerusalem and to his death. Indeed, the incident here becomes an immediate cause of his death as we can see in 11:46f. “But some of them went to the Pharisees and reported what he had done. So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered together the Sanhedrin.” Jesus, however, sees his death as an action on his part. “This is why the Father loves me: because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one has taken it away from me; rather I lay it down of my own accord.” (10:17-18a). John wants his readers to see in Jesus’ deeds a sign of what God intends in the Kingdom. Thus this story with Lazarus prepares us to see the resurrection of Jesus, and the movement of Jesus from Sign to Glory. What has been seen in the prophetic work of Ezekiel, felt in the psalm, underscored by Paul in Romans is indicated in the two verses of this pericope in which life is given again – a sign of Jesus’ ability to give eternal life.

For those who wish to delve deeply into this text, please see Raymond Brown’s commentary on John.[3]

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     Why is it important for Jesus to go to has death rather than being taken to it?
2.     What does this story say about death, from its various viewpoints?
3.    Is there a difference between the responses of Mary and Martha?

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

"The Angelic Host", Gustav Dore
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 © 2017, Michael T. Hiller

[1]Brueggemann, W. (2001) Prophetic Imagination: Revised Edition, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, Kindle Edition, page 3.
[2]Jewett, R. (2007) Romans – A Commentary, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, page 474.
[3]Brown, R. (1966) The Anchor Bible – The Gospel According to John (i-xii) Introduction, Translation, and Notes. Doubleday & Company, Inc. Garden City.


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