The Fifth Sunday in Lent, 29 March 2020

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

During this Lententide, I shall devote this segment of the blog to quotations that might give depth and a reflective quality for the readings for this day. This is from Robin Jensen’s Baptismal Imagery in Early Christianity.

Baptism as Dying and Rising

“Although it diverges in significant ways from the paradigmatic events of John’s baptism of Jesus or the Holy Spirit’s Pentecostal descent upon the apostles, the theme of baptismal death and rebirth appears in the earliest strands of Christian teaching and is, arguably, the most transformative dimension of early Christian initiation. Through the rite of baptism, an individual dies and is reborn; this relates to his or her cleansing and incorporation insofar as it depends on setting aside the old, sinful self and joining a new ‘birth family.’ Such rebirth also relies on the gift of the Holy Spirit, which is expressed in the claim that it is a spiritual rather than simply a bodily renewal.

Two key New Testament passages are crucial for understanding this aspect of baptism, but relate to somewhat different dimensions of it. On the one hand, the Pauline claim in Romans 6:5 that a Christian participates in Christ’s death and resurrection through the ritual of baptism sets the ritual in a paschal context. On the other hand, the Johannine declaration that one must be born again ‘from above’ in both water and the spirit (John 3:3-5) introduces the idea of spiritual rebirth. Both passages suggest that baptism is a new birth in this world as well as in the next and bears the promise of resurrection for both present and future. Yet whole the former is directly linked with Christ’s death and resurrection; the latter appears within a discussion of mortal birth from a mother’s womb.”[1]

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.

This is one of four visions in Ezekiel, each beginning with the words, “The hand of YHWH was on me.” In this we can see Ezekiel as an ecstatic prophet, filled with the Spirit (the word ru’ah, “spirit,” “breath,” or “wind” is found ten times in this text), and speaking the words to the community in exile. The first ten verses in our reading relate the vision, while verses 11-14 provide an explanation about the vision. The overwhelming image is that of bones – dried bones, perished, the life thread cut. The fact that Ezekiel wanders amongst them in defiance of the taboo against touching the alerts us to the special nature of this vision. There are roots of resurrection here. We see it as well in Isaiah 66:14 and Job 21:24, although here it is a resurrection of the whole body – Israel. What is also interesting is the noise, “and suddenly there was a noise, a rattling” and the noise that accompanies the coming of the Spirit in the Pentecost pericope.

From the scene of the aftermath of a battle, perhaps a common sight in this time, we are suddenly apprised of the real nature of the scene – Israel redivivus. The Spirit accompanied by and in the preaching of the prophet of God’s will for the here and now is laid upon the people. This is future directed prophecy that asks that the vision of life and the future be shared by all who had witnessed exile from their homeland.

Breaking open Ezekiel:

1.        When has the reality of death overcome you?
2.        What part of your life is “dead”?
3.        What part has been resurrected?

Psalm 130 De profundis

1      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.

It is an interesting first line from the psalm (elided in our translation), “A song of ascents,” which immediately takes us in an opposite direction – “Out of the depths…” The depths here evoke a vision of the sea, which was for ancient Hebrews a symbol of death. The psalmist faces death and the consequence of his sin. The psalmist asks God to look over what we are doing and what we have done. The image of God watching us is matched in verse four with the psalmist watching for God, “more than watchmen for the morning.” And if God should note our sins, we in turn wait for the God who brings mercy and redemption.

Breaking open Psalm 130:
  1. When have you been rescued from depression?
  2. Are your misdeeds ever a cause for depression?
  3. How often do you forgive yourself?

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.

This is a compelling reading to accompany the Spirit that moves Ezekiel in the first reading for today. Here Paul contrasts life in the flesh with life in the Spirit. Indeed the Spirit is life and peace. Paul sees life that is only caught up in the flesh as unpleasing to God, and perhaps useless to life itself. He, however, sees the Christians at Rome as of another nature – living in the Spirit. He sees the Spirit as an essential part of the resurrection itself – “the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead.” We too shall be partakers of that Spirit.

Breaking open Romans:
  1. What part of your life is flesh?
  2. Where is the spirit in your life?
  3. How do you give the Spirit to others?

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.

With this pericope we are at the last part of the Book of Signs, and the final events of Jesus ministry before the entry into Jerusalem. The signs have been telling – good wine at a wedding, healing of a paralytic, feeding a crowd, healing a blind man, and now Lazarus. With this fifth Sunday in Lent, we begin to anticipate Easter. But first there is anticipation of Jesus’ death.

Paragraph 1 (11:1-6)
We are clued in immediately with the story of a family dinner, and the anointing of Jesus. It is a family memory and alters us to the friendship that is shared amongst the siblings and Jesus. All the characters, and the destiny are set in place. Lazarus has died. The reason is made clear, “That the Son of God may be glorified.” The stage is finally set with Lazarus’ illness, and Jesus’ pause.

Paragraph 2 (11:7-16)
Jesus is determined to return to Judea, and the disciples attempt to dissuade him. John has us bounce back and forth between life and death both in the persons of Jesus and of Lazarus. We are constantly reminded of what awaits Jesus in Jerusalem. There is time, however, for a bit of a parable – a parable on light and dark. The disciples are constrained to continue with him (the light) so that they might avoid their own darkness. There is also a play on sleep and death, which the disciples misunderstand. Jesus sees the situation as ripe for making clear his ministry and what this coming sign will be all about.

Paragraph 3 (11:17-27)
John moves us slowly from where Jesus had paused to the tomb where Lazarus is buried. There is a personal drama here in a conversation between Jesus and Martha (Mary chooses already to confine herself). It is more than chit-chat; it is a deep conversation on the notion of resurrection and what is expected of the Messiah. Martha seems more adept and understanding than are the disciples, and it is she who makes a statement of belief, “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Messiah.” Jesus equates belief with life itself.

Paragraph 4 (11:28-37)

Finally Jesus comes into Bethan, and Mary rushes to greet him. It is in this scene that we see some details of the incarnation, the fleshiness of Jesus. At Mary’s mild chide, and witnessing the grief both she and her neighbors exhibit, Jesus cries. The community’s reaction to this falls on both sides of the fence, “he loved”, “could he not have?” Jesus’ reaction to his and their grief is described in a verb that will be used at his own crucifixion. 

Paragraph 5 (11:38-45)

Again Jesus is troubled as he approaches the tomb. And the tension is increased with Martha’s objection to opening the tomb. The stench is witness to the reality and difficulty of death. Jesus intervenes with another description of the glory of God that will be witnessed in this act, “that they might believe.” The conversation with the Father precedes the comman, “Come out!” The unwrapping of Lazarus has always seemed to me to be a symbol and reality of freedom and release. The release is not only for Lazarus, but for those who had witnessed this act. Some believed.

Breaking open Gospel:
1.        Have you ever known a Lazarus?
2.        What are your questions for Jesus, such as Martha’s?
3.        What are your challenges for Jesus, such as Mary’s?

General Idea:              Finding the Spirit in Life and in Death

Instance 1:                   From a battlefield of dead (Israel) the Spirit calls forth life (First Reading)

Instance 2:                   In our own personal encounter with death, God is still present (Psalm)

Instance 3:                   The Spirit who raised Jesus raises us as well (Second Reading)

Instance 4:                   Lazarus as a sign of things to come (Gospel)

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.

All questions and commentary copyright © 2020, Michael T. Hiller


[1]            Jensen, R. (2012), Baptismal Imagery in Early Christianity – Ritual, Visual, and               Theological Dimensions, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, Kindle Edition, page 8.


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