As Lent nears its end, the faithful hear rumors of resurrection to a new life in the Spirit.
The Fifth Sunday of Lent comes just before the climax of Palm Sunday and the Passion. It focuses on the hope for the resurrection (Ezekiel’s dry bones and Lazarus from the tomb) and the life in the Spirit to which it leads.
The first reading is from the prophet Ezekiel, his famous prophecy of the dry bones that return to life.
As is often the case with Ezekiel, God uses something that has gotten the prophet’s attention – especially something that will annoy or anger him – to fashion a word of prophecy about
’s condition and destiny. In this case, Ezekiel overhears the grumbling
and cynical comments of his fellow exiles in Israel : “Our bones
are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely” (verse 11, NRSV). The prophet’s inspired vision takes off from
this despairing indictment about the dry bones. Babylon
Ezekiel had a dual mission:
(1) to condemn the over-confident sinners still in
(in most of Ezekiel 4-24) and Jerusalem
(2) to inspire endurance and hope among those recently exiled to
. Babylon (most of chapters 33-48)
The hope is presented, however, in very large terms (in contrast to Jeremiah’s pragmatic advice to the same exiles in
the entire house of Israel, now seemingly so utterly dead, can have a new and vigorous life.
Few visible objects evoke dead-and-gone as forcefully as dried bones lying in a dry valley. The word of God to Ezekiel emphasizes the bleakness of these bones, in order then to visualize their astonishing restoration to life. Bone by bone they reconnect, sinew appears to string them together, flesh appears to empower them, and skin comes to protect the new body.
But bones, flesh, and skin are not yet a living being. The essential requirement is spirit – the word is ruah in Hebrew, translated “breath” in verses 6-10 by the NRSV. Spirit is the vitalizing power; it makes a body a living being. In
case, for this prophecy, the living will spring up from the dead. Israel
slaughtered and consumed as carrion, leaving bones to litter the
landscape, will live again. That
is the power of God’s spirit – when the time for its action comes. Israel
The Psalm is that marvelous expression of hope that begins, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord” (NRSV).
This is a profound statement in itself. It communicates that the speaker has fallen into severe conditions, verging on the finality of death.
A whole story could be behind this, and in some other psalms such a story is told (for example, Psalm 32, another one of the seven “penitential” psalms). The speaker here does not deny that sin may have contributed to the distress, but does affirm that God does not always hold sin ruthlessly to account. “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand?” (verse 3).
However, this very same opening statement declares that in the worst condition of distress, the speaker does cry out to the Lord.
When all else is lost, that is what the suffering servant does – calls upon the Lord, the servant’s only true hope. To be delivered “out of the depths” is equivalent to returning to life from a death sentence.
It is this hope for resurrection that the speaker utters toward the One who does forgive sins (verse 4).
The Epistle reading poses a sharp contrast between the domain of “flesh” and the domain of “the Spirit.”
Those included in the new life in Christ Jesus have the possibility of living in the Spirit rather than in the bondage to the law of sin and death (verse 2). The punch line of this new life, stated at the very end of our reading, is the resurrection yet to come through the Spirit. “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 own mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you” (verse 11).
The present situation of believers is a time of living by the Spirit rather than by the flesh (our old human nature). “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace” (verse 6).
The Greek here that translators have paraphrased “to set the mind on” is a single term, phronēma. This word means something like “habit of thought,” or “inclination of the mind/self.” The only place in the New Testament this term is used is Romans 8. The disciplining of one’s thought and mental orientation so that it is exclusively on the Spirit is part of the growth of life-in-Christ appropriate to the season of Lent.
Such habit of mind is the work and pleasure of living between the law of death and the glorification that is coming (see verse 30 later in this chapter).
The Gospel reading is the story of the raising of Lazarus. This is the last of the “signs” that Jesus does in John’s Gospel, the one that precipitates the decision of the authorities to put Jesus to death (John -53; see also 12:9-10).
The story deliberately interweaves Jesus’ failure to prevent Lazarus’ death with God’s own intention to raise Lazarus from the dead.
The two sisters, Martha and Mary, send word to Jesus that his dear friend is on the verge of death. Jesus delays two days longer before starting to Bethany where Lazarus lives – making sure Lazarus was dead more than three days before Jesus finally gets to him (verse 17). Jesus explains to the disciples that this illness is not (ultimately) fatal, but is an occasion for showing God’s glory (same motif as with the man born blind, 9:3). Lazarus dies while Jesus, far away, discusses his case.
Before Jesus gets to
the disciples ask naïve questions that prompt Jesus to speak more bluntly. “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so
that you may believe.” Clearly the point
of the journey was not to save Lazarus.
To make the trip at all, however, is dangerous because of the hostility
of the Judean leaders. This prompts
Thomas the Twin to say, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (verses
14-16, NRSV). Bethany
Both of the women lament (read “complain”) that Jesus did not get there in time, and these laments are occasions for Jesus to make enigmatic responses to what is really going on.
Martha comes first, and when Jesus says, “Your brother will rise again,” Martha agrees somewhat stoically, believing as Pharisees and early Jesus followers did in the resurrection of the righteous in God’s final judgment. This gives Jesus occasion to make one of the major declarations of this Gospel. “I am the resurrection.... Those who believes in me, even though they die, will live... Do you believe this?” (verses 25-26). And Martha affirms that she believes Jesus is the Messiah and Son of God, “the one coming into the world.”
Mary is next. She too laments that Jesus did not get there in time to prevent Lazarus’ death. Mary always seems to precipitate very strong emotional responses rather than theological reflections. She weeps. The Judean friends who have come to the household weep with her. Finally, having been taken to the tomb, Jesus joins in their weeping. (Providing what I learned as a child is the shortest verse in the Bible, “Jesus wept” [, King James Version].) And at this the Judeans – and these are some of the friendly ones – express the complaint for the last time: “He opened the eyes of the blind man. Could he not have prevented this man’s death?” (verse 37).
The time has come to get to the heart of God’s action here: the miracle. Jesus goes to the tomb and tells them to open it. To Martha’s practical objection about hygiene, Jesus reminds her of her earlier affirmation of faith. The tomb is opened, Jesus yells a command, “Lazarus, come out!” and the dead man, almost a mummy in his grave wrappings, stumbles out to be set loose from the garments of death, to return to life for the greater glory of God.
The Judean friends, seeing the resurrection and the life, believe in Jesus (verse 45).