Fifth Sunday in Lent: March 13, 2005.
With the exile of Judah to Babylon and the eventual destruction of Jerusalem, the traditional understanding of the fulfillment of God's promise to Israel came to an end. The armies of Israel's enemies and the hardships that accompanied them to their new homes by the River Chebar taught the people that Zion was not inviolable and that their security could not be measured by the usual standards of human force or mere religious boast. The reason for this destruction was not that Yahweh was untrustworthy and capricious but rather that Judah was faithless. Indeed, throughout the first 24 chapters of the book, the prophet is called to speak of nothing but the consequence of Judah's unfaithfulness in their present experience of exile.
But with the announcement of the destruction of Jerusalem, the prophet is given a new message to speak: words of restoration and hope. There is a review of the failures of Judah's leadership and the promise that God himself will take charge of the flock through the appointment of one to rule like David. And, in addition to reestablishing the monarchy, Yahweh promises to restore the people themselves to new life.
In the Valley of the Dry Bones (37:1-14) it is clear that God alone makes the difference between life and death. The prophet sees a vision of a valley filled with dry, bleached bones. Twice prior to this experience, the prophet has indicated that his visions take place in a valley (3:22-23; 8:4). While it is unlikely that the prophet is describing a specific geographical location, it is quite likely that he was witness to the human destruction that accompanied the journey and time in exile. When God asks Ezekiel whether or not these bones can live, his response might be humorously interpreted as throwing the answer back to God. But it also further illustrates that the cause and occasion for Judah's resurrection as a new community is entirely within the knowledge and power of God. The prophet stands both helpless before and ineffective without Yahweh. Only the breath of God, summoned as the prophet is instructed, will be effective in raising these dead into a huge army. And, indeed, with the clattering of bone on bone, that is precisely what Ezekiel sees.
But there is not yet life where the Spirit of God has not yet blown. Calling forth that breath is a calling forth of the ruah of God--the very breath of life that fills all living things. And the promise becomes clear: God is the difference between life and death, and it is Yahweh's desire to raise and restore Israel yet again.
Although usually identified as a penitential psalm, Psalm 130 is also clearly a song of hope. De profundis of the experience of human sinfulness, Yahweh is implored to listen. The psalmist confesses the magnitude of wrongdoing, which merits only God's condemnation, and yet confidently declares that God's chief purpose and strength is to show mercy.
Verses 5-6 are a personal statement of faith, trust, and commitment; there is no hope besides the Lord. By extension from this personal experience, the psalmist implores all of Israel to share that hope. God's generous redemption means the saving freedom of Israel.
The transformative power of God's Spirit within the life of the believer is at the heart of our Epistle reading. Drawing on the example of Ezekiel, Paul is convinced that "the flesh" is unable to stand in harmony with God's intentions by its own accord. It is only through an infusion of the Spirit, indeed Christ's own power, that humanity may come to obedience before God. There is great joy in these verses, as the apostle reminds his readers that they are no longer enslaved to the flesh but are indeed inspired by Christ.
The promise at the root of this joy is in the resurrection, which the believers share with Christ. Those who were dead in the flesh are now alive in Christ, having breathed in the Spirit of God that is able to call forth new life to our mortal bodies. This is the life of the eschaton already present in the midst of a broken and rebellious world, the sign of God at work among those who believe.
Wind, water, light, and now life ... these four weeks through John's Gospel have moved us ever closer to both the final confrontation which will take Jesus to the cross and the final revelation of the saving mission which is his.
The raising of Lazarus, the last and most profound sign except Jesus' own resurrection, begins with the same misunderstanding that characterized Jesus' other signs. The disciples are convinced at first that Lazarus is only sleeping and does not merit the dangers of a trip to the environs of Jerusalem where Jesus was recently the target of the anger of the Judean leadership. When Jesus explains that Lazarus is dead and that his death will strengthen their faith, the disciples will go only reluctantly, still convinced that their own deaths will be the result.
Likewise, at the beginning of his encounters with Martha and Mary, Jesus is met with the anguished question of his absence when his friend needed his healing powers the most. Martha seemingly hesitates to ask for the greatest miracle of all, her brother's raising, but confesses her belief that it is within the power of Jesus to accomplish. When at last Jesus reveals himself to her as the resurrection and the life, which she seeks for her brother, Martha confesses Jesus as the Christ and in so doing confesses also the proleptic victory of Jesus over death for all believers.
As Mary leads Jesus to the tomb, we are given a glimpse of his own emotional response to the death of his friend; Jesus weeps for this one who loved him and has now suffered death. It is the occasion for disagreement about Jesus among those watching who have come out from Jerusalem. Some see it as a sign of his grief, while others complain about Jesus' poor sense of timing in not coming to help his friend. In any event, the stone is rolled away from the tomb, over the protests of Martha who is concerned that "he stinketh" (KJV), and Jesus addresses the Father in the confidence that his prayer and the act that is to follow will indeed strengthen the faith of all those at hand.
Lazarus is summoned forth from the tomb, a foreshadowing of Jesus' own steps from death into life. And at Jesus' instructions Lazarus is unbound, no longer to be contained by the grave. Lazarus is free, while in the same moment Jesus' fate is sealed. This final demonstration of the power at work in him cannot be allowed to go unaddressed, especially because of the effect it is having on the crowds who have witnessed this miracle.
What time is it? That's easy! Just look at your watch--the most direct and practical way to come up with an answer, and likely the first one we would consider; and why not? Our lives are run by the clock. We pull out our PDAs and our calendars and our day planners in order to order our lives. We are a busy people with jobs to get done, appointments to keep, and expectations about late and on time to live up to. Mary and Martha, I think, would understand this answer to the question. You can hear it in their accusation of Jesus: "Lord, if you had been here ... if you had only been on time ... Lazarus would not have died." Don't you know what time it is?
Or maybe we would answer the question this way: It's time to do what we know needs doing. In addition to running our lives by the clock, we're also used to running our lives by our values and the choices those values lead us toward. One example is an ad slogan from a few years ago: "It's Miller time!" There's one expression of what really demands our attention: our principles. But we also find this answer to the question here in John 11. Early on, Jesus' disciples try to dissuade him from returning to the area around Jerusalem. After all, the last time Jesus was there the Judean leadership attempted to have him stoned to death. Jesus, however, will not be turned aside. So Thomas, whom we usually remember only for his doubting, tells his brothers, "Let us go with him, that we may die with him." In other words, it is time for the courage of our convictions, time to do what we know to be right. It is interesting that at the other end of this story the priests and the Pharisees will make a similar determination, deciding that it's time for Jesus to die rather than to risk the fate of the whole nation.
But there is yet another way to answer this question. Martha is the one who leads us in this direction, though I'm convinced that Martha doesn't truly understand what she said. In a rather caustic response to Jesus' assurance that her brother will rise again, she says (in effect): Yes, I understand that my brother will rise again. But that won't be until the last day, the day when God comes among us to deliver us at last. What good does that do me now? I have lost my brother!
And Jesus replies to her: "I am the resurrection and the life." In other words, "Martha, do you not know what time it is? Here, in my presence, it is already the last day." And then, to make tangible the promise he has spoken, Jesus commands Lazarus to come forth from the stench of the tomb and commands those who had gathered to mourn to unbind him and let him go.
One week later, Jesus himself will enter the tomb, the time of his death about 3:00 p.m. on a Friday afternoon at the beginning of spring. The cause of Jesus' death is that it was time to get rid of this threat to the status quo. But that's not where the story ends. For it is also time for the glory of God to be revealed to the world. It is time for the last day to break into the present day so that we might find hope and purpose for all our days.
What time is it? In Jesus' presence, it is God's time for saving--and our time for living. DLN
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|Title Annotation:||Preaching Helps|
|Publication:||Currents in Theology and Mission|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2004|
|Previous Article:||Fourth Sunday in Lent: March 6, 2005.|