Date: Fifth Sunday in Lent – April 2, 2017
Texts: Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:1-11; John 11:17-27, 38-53
Context: Palm Sunday is technically the last Sunday in Lent, but it has gradually been absorbed into the larger observance of Holy Week, leaving the fifth Sunday in Lent as the last. As such, the readings culminate the Lenten season of self-examination and repentance. The tone is a climactic anticipation – truly we are dead in our sins and unable to save ourselves! The Old Testament and psalm both heighten this sense of anticipation – where is our rebirth from dry bones? Must we wait on the watchtowers for the dawn? The Epistle lesson from Romans points us ahead – no, we need not wait for new life! We have new life in Christ! Here, now, today. Not perfectly of course, which leads us to doubt if we really have received new life. But Paul assures us we have. I opted for the abridged Gospel lesson, which shows us the new life – life from the dead – that Jesus is capable of giving. Lazarus being raised from the dead foreshadows our resurrection in Christ made possible through his victory over his own grave Easter morning.
Ezekiel 37:1-14 – This vision comes towards the end of a series of the Lord’s commands to Ezekiel to prophecy against various powers. Ezekiel is also commanded to prophecy in chapter 37 but the structure is markedly different from the surrounding chapters. Though the breath of God brings the reconstituted bones to life in this passage, it is not the same as the first breath of life given to Adam in Genesis 2. The interpretation of the vision is provided in vs. 11-14. We can read it symbolically, but there is good reason to also read it literally – if the bones represent the whole house of Israel, all of God’s people, then it encompasses past, present and future. This means those who have already died as well as those who still wait for the Lord’s salvation. The promises in this vision should include not just deliverance from spiritual lifelessness, or hopeless situations in general, but also deliverance from death itself in resurrection.
Psalm 130 – A psalm of hopeful waiting, a song of hope in the midst of struggle and loss. This could mean adversity but it could also mean despair over their sinful condition. The speaker is in dire circumstances, yet is hopeful that the Lord will hear and respond because the speaker is forgiven (v.4). Trusting in forgiveness, the speaker is free to wait for the Lord’s arrival and the speaker’s deliverance. The final three verses exhort the congregation of God’s people to hope in the Lord’s love and redemption, redemption enough for all of Israel and all Israel’s sins.
Romans 8:1-11 – Paul speaks the reality that the incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension, and promised return of the Son of God creates in those who trust in him. The condemnation of the Law against the sin in us is removed. We could not set ourselves free – only God could, and He has. In faith, we are recreated so that we desire the things of God, not simply what we want for ourselves. The problem is that we are only too well aware that we do still have sinful and selfish impulses, and these get the better of us often. It would be tempting to think that the new life we are promised in Christ is either a false promise, or we have not actually received it. But Paul assures us this is not the case. The Spirit of God dwells within those who profess faith in Jesus Christ. How can this be? Because only by the Spirit’s power can such a confession be made. The transformation is not simply begun but actually completed by Christ. Only in our resurrection or his return in glory will this be made obvious at last, though. This is our hope – that we will be freed from our sinful natures just as we will be physically raised from the dead. Ezekiel’s vision is a reality in Christ, and the cries of the psalmist are answered in the Easter dawn.
John 11:17-27, 38-53 – Jesus exercises power over death itself, commanding a man who has been dead for four days to come out of his tomb. Jesus’ power is total – over the elements, over demons, and over death itself. Technically Lazarus is raised from the dead as opposed to resurrected. Lazarus eventually does die again, but in resurrection we will never die again, just as Jesus cannot die again. Death is the one enemy we are powerless against. While we race to figure out how to tweak our genetic code to eliminate death, we are promised eternal life through faith in the resurrected Son of God.
The community of faith is in the business of removing burial clothes. Together we remind one another that we are alive, not dead. As such we are to put off the habits and practices of the dead and live like the living. It wouldn’t be appropriate for Lazarus to continue to wear his burial wrappings. Now that he is alive again his community surrounds him to free him from the inappropriate wrappings and lead him to more appropriate attire. Christian community does this in leading others to conduct themselves like the new creations they have been made in Christ. Biblical injunctions to Godly living are not the means towards life, but the logical behavior of the living. Our behavior has no power to save in and of itself, but through faith, our obedience to God’s revealed way of living glorifies him and benefits those around us. Our actions cannot earn us God’s approval, as they are only appropriate – we don’t congratulate or praise the living for breathing or eating, because those are just the natural behaviors of someone who is alive.
The readings this week point us towards the approaching Holy Week. Jesus takes our death on himself, becoming dry bones so that we might receive the breath of life from God the Holy Spirit. We celebrate with Lazarus in anticipation of Jesus’ own glorious resurrection on Easter morning, and anticipating our own resurrection when our Lord returns.