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Fifth Sunday in Lent: March 9, 2008.

Ezekiel 37:1-14

Psalm 130

Romans 8:6-11

John 11:1-45

First Reading

Like Martha in the Gospel reading, the house of Israel in Ezekiel's vision despairs that life can ever come again to the desiccated corpses of the dead. "Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost," the exiles lament (Ezek 37:11). The word of the LORD brings life to the bones, however, even as Ezekiel prophesies according to God's command. Amidst the din of bones rattling noisily, first sinew and then flesh come upon the bones, and finally, the breath of God comes as prophesied, and lo! the house of Israel lives.

The psalmist who cries out from the depths of some grave or another knows intimately the despair of waiting and waiting until time itself comes to mean nothing. Even if God should happen upon our graves, he wonders, would we dare show our faces? Yes, we may. On account of God's steadfast and redeeming love, we hope in the word of the LORD on whom we wait.

Paul, too, describes how the Spirit of God, who once raised Christ from death, will also raise our mortal bodies, despite how long they have moldered in sin and death.

John 11 presents yet another multilevel drama of life and death. Most plainly, by raising Lazarus Jesus offers another of the "signs" by which people may come to believe in him as Messiah. In this case, Jesus' sign points to his identity as "the resurrection and the life." Whoever clings in belief to Christ will never die (vv. 25-26).

However, by the time the first readers of this Gospel rehearsed the story of Lazarus, some of their number had died, others would soon follow, and still the expected return of Christ had not occurred. He dillydallied, it seemed. What was Jesus waiting for? One after another, believers in the community of the beloved disciple could chide in the way Martha does, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." Despite the long delay, and the seemingly hopeless state of the corps of corpses our community is fast becoming, when Christ arrives, his word raises the ones he loves.

On a third level, this narrative tells another story of life among the baptized. All of us in this community have been wrapped in burial cloths and buried, and then raised by the word of promise in baptism to new life. Each in a slightly different way has come from the darkness of our tomb, with the stench of death and the grave-clothes still clinging to us. We find it difficult to walk, to really live, bound up in the dead, old life we once knew. So Jesus says to those more accustomed to light and fresh air, "Unbind him, set him loose." The Greek verbs in the original ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) are the same as those used for forgiveness of sins in key texts such as John 20:23 and Matthew 18:18. The community of the baptized, charged as they have been by the risen Christ who breathed on them and sent them out as he himself was sent to handle the world's sins, employ forgiveness as a key practice at stripping off their own graveclothes as well as those that bind the neophytes still learning to walk in Jesus' way.

On yet another level, this story hints at the nature of the way of life into which Jesus summons those raised to new life in baptism. When Jesus informs the disciples that he must return to Judea, they upbraid him for seeming recklessness (v. 8): "They'll stone you!" Immediately after Lazarus leaves the tomb and word spreads of what happened, this threat materializes. The chief priests and Pharisees determine once and for all to kill Jesus because of what has happened in Bethany (11:47-53), and shortly thereafter they determine to kill Lazarus as well (12:9-11).

How curious, to raise one's dear friend from death only to invite him along on a journey that is sure to get him killed.

Pastoral Reflection

We can hear ourselves in all the despairing notes rung in today's readings. Along with Martha and Mary, we have cried out, "Where were you, Lord, when my loved one died?" And with the townspeople who watched, we grumble, "Wouldn't you think a guy who could open a blind man's eyes could keep his friend from dying?"

So many of our prayers prove in the end no more than requests that God would keep us from dying. "Keep us safe. Heal our diseases. Give us (and all the poor folks) food. Make peace in our time." Every one of them boils down to the same plea: "Keep us from dying." We organize the rest of our lives around the same bottom line, spending plenty on our medical plans, teaching our children safe ways, supporting causes that will hopefully stop drunk driving and cure cystic fibrosis. We all work to stave off the threat of dying, and we enlist God as our biggest supporter.

Curiously, even when Jesus undoes Lazarus' dying, he doesn't call for a celebration, an even bigger feast than the one no doubt served potluck style in the synagogue's fellowship hall after Lazarus' funeral, at which everyone sat around telling their favorite Lazarus story. No, given the conversation on the way to Bethany, and ones among the priests and Pharisees after Jesus left again, we can imagine the gist of Jesus' loud, prophetic words that brought new life that day in Bethany as sounding a little different than we're used to remembering them. "Lazarus, come out!" we read. But the way the whole story works, Jesus might as well have shouted into that tomb, "Heads up in there! I'm coming in!" Because that's where Jesus was headed. Barely a week after the day he called out Lazarus, Joseph and Nicodemus laid Jesus in a tomb a few miles away, and Lazarus had a price on his head. All of which means that Jesus did not call his dear friend out of his grave to come live happily ever after in a trouble-free life of no more pain and sorrow. Rather, in effect he said to Lazarus, "Come, my friend, let's get ourselves up to Jerusalem and die a real death! We won't settle for some death by illness or accident, but let's give our lives for something."

To that way, truth, and life Jesus calls us here in the darkness of our Lenten passage, marked as we are with dust and ashes that remind us where our flesh will take us. Called as we are, and accompanied as well by the body of Christ dispatched to strip us over and over of our grave-clothes, we look death in the eye, and we have another prayer besides "Please, please, please God, keep me from dying." Now we pray, "Unbind me, loose me, for we're on the way to Jerusalem." There are feet to wash and a Passover to keep. This year, one of us will be the lamb whose blood shows up on the doorpost. FAN
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Preaching Helps
Author:Niedner, Frederick A.
Publication:Currents in Theology and Mission
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2007
Previous Article:Fourth Sunday in Lent: March 2, 2008.
Next Article:Sunday of the passion/palm Sunday: March 16, 2008.

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