The Preacher’s Study
First thoughts on next Sunday’s sermon,
5th Sunday of Lent
John W. B. Hill and Angela Emerson
Ezekiel 37: 1 - 14; Romans 8: 6 - 11; John 11: 1 - 45Lent 5: Ezekiel 37: 1 - 14; Romans 8: 6 - 11; John 11: 1 - 45
All the readings for this Sunday address the disastrous reality of our bondage to hopelessness. St Paul names this reality succinctly: “the mind of the flesh is death” (Romans 8: 6, Revised Version). Ours is a culture of death; the rich and powerful prepare for it by building monuments or legacies; the rest of us can do no more than forestall it (“Lord, if only you had been here...”), or banish it (ritual wailing, tombs sealed with heavy stones and shuddering revulsion).
Ezekiel’s prophecy was addressed to Jews in exile in Babylon. Jerusalem and the temple lay in ruins. We know that their exile would eventually end; they did not know this. Their perspective was dominated by the reality of death — of their community, their culture, and their faith in the God of promise. That is why the word of the Lord through Ezekiel is so dramatic; it is a promise of communal resurrection, new creation. In the beginning, God spoke, and dead matter took form; now God speaks again and his breath infuses life in the dead—in “the whole house of Israel”. This passage is a powerful testament to God’s ability to rebuild lives and community. God can redeem even the most evil moments and events.
The raising of Lazarus was a ‘sign’; Lazarus recognized the shepherd’s voice, and came back to life. But what the world really needs to know about death is not that it can be reversed (through resuscitation) but that because of the death and resurrection of the Lord, death no longer has dominion. And so, in all the details about the death and raising of Lazarus, what we are really hearing is a foreshadowing of Jesus’ death and resurrection: his anger, agitation, and weeping; a place near Jerusalem; a tomb closed with a rolling stone; crying out with a loud voice; graveclothes, even a head cloth. For, as Jesus himself says, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains a single grain; but if it dies it bears rich fruit” (John 12: 24).
Three other details are noteworthy. First, this episode plays the role in this gospel that the expulsion of the dealers from the temple played in the synoptics: it precipitates the plot on Jesus’ life, launching us into the passion narrative. Second, most translators soften the references to Jesus’ reaction to the crowd of mourners (vss. 33, 38); a literal translation would refer to Jesus’ indignation and anger. Third, the word for the crowd’s weeping and the word for Jesus’ weeping are different; in a literal translation, the crowd is wailing — a communal ritual signaling not only loss but also the impassible gulf between the living and the dead. Paid mourners were often involved.
Why would Jesus be angry? And why would resuscitating a dead man become a national crisis (vss. 48 - 50)?
A culture in which people think they can deal with death by forestalling it or banishing it is a culture dominated by death; its people are hostages to whoever wields the power of death. So Jesus’ indignation and anger would appear to be his response to the spectacle of mourning in which the crowd expressed its bondage to hopelessness. But to know Jesus is to know resurrection and life, for “through death he destroyed the one who has the power of death...and [freed] those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death” (Hebrews 2: 14 - 15). Anyone who can change our relationship with death in this way will be a threat to every power that relies on the threat of death — hence the plot to destroy Jesus.
Martha saw this in the moments before Lazarus was raised: she confessed Jesus as Messiah, Son of God (vs. 27). She came to believe in Jesus as the life that is greater than death, just as the woman at the well and the blind man did. Indeed, as a result of witnessing the sign of Lazarus, many came to believe in Jesus (vs. 34).
Today we live under the power of a carbon-based economy that is taking us into a global disaster greater than anything in recorded history. Those of us who are not in denial could easily find ourselves in bondage to hopelessness. But we believe that God will redeem his creation and breathe new life into it, if we allow him to work through us. There is much to be done. We must respond to the shepherd’s call and be guided by his voice.
John W. B. Hill is an Anglican presbyter in Toronto, Canada, author of one of the first Anglican sources for catechumenal practice, Council member of APLM, and chair of Liturgy Canada.
Angela Emerson was a litigation lawyer in Toronto for 31 years; she left the practice in June 2013 to have a saner lifestyle and pursue other interests. Angela obtained her M.Div. from Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto in 2009.
“Raising of Lazarus 1” by Bruce Williams. Available at http://www.absolutearts.com/portfolio/for_sale/painting/Religious-3.html
“The Raising of Lazarus,” by Vincent van Gogh