Fifth Sunday in Lent: Ezekiel 37:1-14, Romans 8:6-11, John 11:1-45, Psalm 130
This week’s gospel reading completes our series of surprising encounters and is the last, and greatest sign, in the first section of John’s Gospel that most commentators call the Book of Signs. The raising of Lazarus is the Book’s climax for there can be no more powerful sign of Jesus’ power and authority than the power over life and death. Ironically it is Jesus’ gift of life to his friend, Lazarus that in John’s Gospel causes the Jewish authorities to decide to have Jesus killed: “So from that day on they planned to put him to death.” (John 11:53) What follows this encounter are the events leading up to the crucifixion, Jesus’ Passion, his Resurrection, and the post-Resurrection appearances: These are the events that will be the focus of our readings and services in Holy Week and Easter.
But coming back to today’s reading. We encounter another host of characters, both named and unnamed. First we meet Martha and Mary with all the characteristics we already know from the story in Luke’s Gospel: Martha is the busy one who rushes out to meet Jesus, who can’t wait to confront him. Mary on the other hand is more contemplative; she stays and waits in her sorrow until she is called. Of the disciples who accompany Jesus, only Thomas is named – loyal and trusting even in the face of danger: “let us also go, that we may die with him,” he says to his colleagues. We’ll hear more about too him in a few weeks’ time! At the end of the passage we get to meet Lazarus himself, briefly, when he answers Jesus’ call and staggers out of the tomb still wrapped in his burial garments. And let’s not forget the ‘Jews,’ those unnamed witnesses, the friends and acquaintances of Lazarus and his sisters who were mourning with them. Many of them will become followers of Jesus after witnessing God’s glory in action in him.
However different Mary and Martha may be in their character and reactions, they both have one thing in common. They are both very disappointed. Jesus had not acted as they expected and hoped, he had not arrived while Lazarus was still ill and been able to heal him. They knew that Jesus could heal the sick: he had done so often in the past. But Jesus’ arrival was delayed and their brother Lazarus had been dead for four days. And now it’s too late. Oh if only you had been here, they both say. But now they have lost hope – they despair.
And they have this in common with the whole nation of Israel that Ezekiel is addressing with the vision we heard in the Old Testament reading. They felt that they were as good as dead. The kingdom of Judah was no more, Jerusalem and the Temple had been destroyed, and the survivors find themselves in exile in a strange land. It is not surprising then that they feel abandoned by a God who had not acted as they expected and hoped. He had not vanquished their enemies. And so they lack in faith and hope. “Our hope is lost; we are cut off completely” they say. In Ezekiel’s vision they are like unnumbered dry, dead bones scattered in a valley. But God has not left you, Ezekiel tells them. You are still God’s people and God will revive you. In his very vivid image the dry bones come together and gradually get re-covered with flesh and skin, they become people, a people, again and are revived by the very Spirit of God being breathed into them.
You know this is one day when I am glad that our readings are not illustrated: thousands of skeletons milling about, graves opening and people climbing out of them, Lazarus coming out of his tomb looking like a Mummy – it could also be a scene from a horror film!
Last week in our Lenten course LOVELife – living the Gospel of John we talked about God, which is always a good thing to do in church now and again. We discussed how it is easy to conceive of God as Father – though of course for those who have bad experiences with their fathers that concrete image may not always be a good one. We found it even easier to picture God’s Son – Jesus - because he was also fully human and therefore also just like us. But we admitted to finding the idea of God the Spirit abstract at times – what is the Spirit like, we asked, what does it do? We could of course ask our Pentecostal brothers and sisters – the Holy Spirit is anything but abstract for them! I won’t try and give you a complete theology and doctrine of the Holy Spirit today – that can wait for another sermon, perhaps when we have heard the passage from 1 Corinthians on the gifts of the Spirit – but there is one aspect I want to highlight from today’s readings – the Holy Spirit as the source of hope. In Ezekiel’s vision, God’s Spirit was the source of new life and new hope, this Spirit will sustain them in their exile and guide them on their return to the Promised Land.
Paul too writes about hope to the Romans. Setting the mind on the Spirit, means believing that God raised Jesus from the dead and trusting that the Spirit of the same God will raise us too. Not only that, but as God’s Spirit already dwells within us, that gift of new life is already ours while we are still in our mortal bodies. When Paul contrasts flesh and spirit, he is not rejecting this material world. It is after all God’s creation and therefore good. We are both physical and spiritual beings. Things go wrong however when we set our minds solely on the ‘flesh,’ when we get too concerned with and focus too much on all those very temporal and temporary things: material possessions, wealth, positions and power. That’s when we set ourselves up for disappointment. That’s when our lives get out of balance and we miss the full life and peace that setting the mind on God’s Spirit brings.
Martha and Mary do not need the Holy Spirit to restore their faith and hope and to give their lives meaning again. Jesus does that for them. It is only later that he promises the disciples the gift of the Spirit after his Resurrection: “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” (John 14.26) When Martha first runs out to meet Jesus, she still does not know the extent of Jesus’ authority. She knew he was a healer, she knew he was in some way empowered by God, but not that he was God. Then in conversation with Jesus she learns that resurrection is not just something that will happen in the far future, that it is not just an abstract doctrine. Resurrection is a person and that person is standing before her. Jesus first invites her to look into the future and then brings that future forward by raising Lazarus from the dead as a concrete sign of the promise of new life. Both her and her sister’s encounter with Jesus do not just restore the hope they had lost, but gives them a new and much stronger hope than ever before. This is a hope sustained by faith in Jesus as Lord, Messiah, the Son of God as Martha confesses him to be, using almost the same words as Peter in his confession as recorded in Matthew’s Gospel (16:16): “Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’”
The actual miracle of bringing Lazarus back to life again is almost an afterthought in the story. The interpretation of the miracle and its meaning for us all is much more important. The raising of Lazarus is only a sign or foretaste of what awaits us beyond death. Lazarus is restored to mortal life, he will die again – that’s why he brings his burial garments with him: he will need them again. When Jesus is raised from the dead he leaves his garments behind, he will not need them again because he has already been raised to eternal life.
We can all lose hope at times. This church is still going through a period of uncertainty, an in-between time as I called it in my article for the newsletter and many of you are still afraid of loss. As individuals we also have times of hopelessness, particularly after a loss of some kind, and perhaps even the season of Lent and my call to self-examination and repentance has caused some of you to despair a little! To be dispirited means literally to have lost enthusiasm and hope; to be disheartened. As Christians we never need to be dispirited because as Paul promises, the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus dwells in us all. We have that Spirit to give us hope and strength. We have the knowledge of Christ’s resurrection as our hope for the future. We can be sure that God has a great future in store for us. And as all the different encounters we have heard about over the last weeks tell us, that future will probably be both surprising and unexpected, but it will certainly bring good news, new life, and new possibilities.