Reading Ramblings – March 29, 2020

Reading Ramblings

Date: Fifth Sunday in Lent, COVID-19 2nd Sunday of Lockdown – March 29, 2020

Texts: Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:1-11; John 11:1-53

Context: We’re in the second week of lockdowns from COVID-19. A second week when we are unable to gather together to encourage one another in hope, both in terms of getting through this pandemic as well as in the larger sense of God’s grace and forgiveness to us which leads us to eternal life and freedom from all such suffering. The readings summon us to faith and hope in our God who works when all hope seems to be lost, who restores us from dry bones, from the depths, from condemnation and sin and from our greatest existential fear, death and the grave. The readings for this Sunday are uniformly hopeful, encouraging, upbuilding – the focus we need not only in a normal season of Lent, but certainly during Lent in the midst of contagion.

Ezekiel 37:1-14 – Ezekiel is part of the first wave of hostages taken from Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 598BC. He apparently spends the entire rest of his life, and the entirety of his formal prophetic ministry, in exile. As such, he speaks to God’s people separated from the land God had promised them, and the city and Temple where they could sacrifice to God and worship him. These are a people in shock, in despair. God had allowed his people to be defeated. Allowed them to be disgraced. Allowed them to be carried away into exile. Would they ever see Jerusalem again? Would they ever be allowed to worship at the Temple again? In a few short years, with another wave of exiles they would have their answer. No, there would be no going back for them. For their children, perhaps. But the adults – they would likely die in exile just as the Israelites had died in the wilderness after refusing to enter the Promised Land when God first brought them to the Jordan River (Numbers 13-14). All their worldly hope is lost and gone. All the plans of their leadership through alliances and diplomacy and military might have failed. But what they could not do for themselves, God alone is capable of doing. Their national spirit was inadequate but the Holy Spirit of God is not. God’s people appears to be defeated and at an end, but out of death the Lord can and will bring life. Hope is not lost. They are to look to him exclusively for their hope, and He will not disappoint them. He will bring his people home.

Psalm 130 – This psalm is the 11th of the 15 psalms of ascent (Psalms 120-134) used by pilgrims on the journey to Jerusalem. It is also one of of the seven psalms grouped as the penitential psalms in the 7th century by the Roman statesman and monk Cassiodorus in the late 6th or early 7th century. Luther referred to this psalm as a proper master and doctor of Scripture – meaning it encapsulates the Gospel beautifully. The form of the psalm is an individual speaking, the voice of one speaking on behalf of and to many. The essential plea is for mercy (vs.1-2). Overwhelmed by sin and death (out of the depths) the speaker calls to God, asking for mercy. Some might find this a counterintuitive move – isn’t God the wrathful God waiting to punish our sin? No, the speaker insists (vs.3-4). The Lord is not waiting to pounce on us for our sins – rather the Lord is merciful! Only with God do we find forgiveness for our sins, because we certainly are not quick to forgive ourselves, or find forgiveness from others. Besides, sin is first and foremost always sin against God, therefore his forgiveness is the only real and lasting forgiveness, the only forgiveness that matters in an eternal sense. Therefore, our lives are lives of faith receiving of God’s forgiveness but also looking forward to his approach or arrival, at which point sin will be banished and we won’t have to struggle in the depths any longer (vs.5-6). Finally the speaker exhorts the assembly of the faithful (vs.7-8). They are exhorted to hope in the Lord and his promises. The Lord alone is fully and perfectly faithful. His love is not fickle but steadfast. His redemption is not feeble but more than adequate, and He has promised to redeem his people from all their sins. The psalm leads us from our own condition – despair and being overwhelmed by sin and death in our lives – to the condition made possible by God alone – life in and by the grace and mercy and love of God. But this text is more than symbolic about the fate of God’s people and their homeland. It is also very much a text about resurrection, about life from death, about restoration possible only in God, as we see in the Gospel text. For God’s people the themes of communal restoration and bodily resurrection have long been woven together, and this text is a powerful and striking example of that.

Romans 8:1-11 – How quickly we gloss over verse 1! Yet here is the Gospel! Here is the fullness of Scripture in so very few words! Where once there was only condemnation under the Law, there is now no condemnation – all because of Jesus! Jesus alone did what no human being could do since the Fall. He perfectly obeyed his heavenly Father in every respect. He offered himself as the greatest and final sin offering, and by his blood has freed all those who, by the power of the Holy Spirit, put their faith and trust in him. How do we know this is true for us? The Spirit of God dwells within us. And as Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 12, it is only by the Holy Spirit we can acknowledge Jesus as Lord. This is consistent with what Jesus says in Mark 9. This passage only has meaning for those who know what guilt feels like, who know what it feels like to stand accused and guilty under the Law. As Jesus says in Luke 7:47, the one who thinks they have little to be forgiven of responds in love to God and neighbor far less. But to those who know their guilt, who know their knowledge of their own guilt is inadequate at best, these verses should bring shouts of joy, tears of relief, and transformed lives. Because of Jesus there is life from death, forgiveness rather than condemnation, hope rather than fear!

John 11:1-53 – John does such a masterful job of telling this story it would be a crime to carve it up just to shorten the reading time! Take time to read through this over and over again. Those who think the Bible is nothing but fairy tales should read this passage over and over again. There is nothing fantastical in any of it – until the end. This is no never-never land but rather the brutal reality we each have to face, both in the lives of those we love and our own selves. Death. The grave. Burial cloths. To mourn or be mourned. This is our reality. The past is unchangeable though we often imagine it changed. The future holds the resurrection of the dead but here and now we must bury the dead, or be buried. Here we are in the depths, as the psalmist described it, and we can only cry out to Jesus as Martha and Mary do. If only you could alter the past! If only we were in the future with you already!

Jesus does not offer Martha – or you and I – that. But in the midst of her loss, in the midst of our fear and COVID-19 lockdowns and the specter of death around us, in the midst of all this Jesus stands with Martha and you and I and doesn’t simply make promises for the future. Rather, He promises that right now, in the midst of fear and sickness and even death, here and now, for you and I and Martha Jesus is the resurrection. Our hope embodied and incarnate. He stands with Martha, and the Holy Spirit of God stands with you and I in the midst of self-quarantine and social distancing and nothing can or will separate the Holy Spirit from you and I. Nothing can or will separate or distance the love of God in Jesus Christ for you and I. No power on earth or hell, no plan of Satan can change how God feels about each and every one of us, and the offer made to us in the death and resurrection of the Son of God of life not just someday, off in the future, over the rainbow, but here and now. Life. Hope. Joy. Peace. In and with Christ that’s how it was, that’s how it is, and that’s how it will be forever.

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