Year A — The Fifth Sunday in Lent

Commentary for April 10, 2011

Click here for today’s readings

Ezekiel 37:1-14
It’s actually a pretty spooky scene, if you stop and think about it. Ezekiel often gets swept away by the Spirit of the Lord for ecstatic visions — but in this one, he ends up “down in the valley” surrounded by nothing but bones. 

As in human bones. They used to be skeletons, but they’re past that stage now. The text notes that they are “very dry” — all the life-giving marrow has been sucked out by the wind and time. There are no remaining connective tissues; presumably, they have also gone the way of the desert air. Just a pile of bones, literally. 

As if to remove all doubt, the scene emphasizes emphatically (which is saying the same thing twice, I guess) that these people are DEAD — LONG DEAD!

Which of course, sets the stage for a dramatic revival of spirit, flesh, and bones by the Lord GOD. And a great precedent for not only the miraculous story of Lazarus’ re-entry into the land of the living in the gospel story for today, but for God’s greatest miracle of new life: the resurrection of the Lord (coming soon to an Easter story near you!)

Of note: it is clearly God’s power that transforms the bones in Ezekiel’s vision; yet, the “Mortal” prophet is invited to play his part in the dramatic transformation. God invites us, weak and mortal though we may be, to “prophesy” — to preach and proclaim — the good news of God’s redemption.

Psalm 130
Beautiful prayer of acknowledgment that it is from “the depths” that God hears our cries. Perhaps this is because we are most likely to call to God when we’re in the depths? Not that many psalms begin, “From the mountaintops I called unto you, O Lord…”

Verse 6 is particularly poignant: “my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning.”

Have you ever had one of those nights that you thought would never end? Anxious over the health of a sick child…waiting to learn the results of an important medical test…wondering about the fate of a loved one…facing a difficult situation of almost any kind…the kind of experience St. John of the Cross called la noche oscura del alma — “the long dark night of the soul?”

That’s what it means to watch for the morning. That’s what it means to wait (long, ache, hope) for the Lord.

Romans 8:6-11
Lots of language here about flesh and death and the spirit and being raised from the dead. Fits in well with the texts from Ezekiel and the Gospel.

For a focal point, you might consider verse 9a: ” But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.”

John 11:1-45
There are a number of important questions raised by the story of Lazarus; among them is one lifted up by Dr. Chilton in the sermon that follows: “does an awareness of God’s power to overcome death make a difference in how we live our lives?”

Jesus confronts Martha, the sister of Lazarus, with essentially that question. “Your brother will live again, Martha…do you believe this?”

We stand with family members time and again, offering the rites and assurances of our particular traditions for the burial of the dead. The question persists there, quite tangibly.

As preachers, perhaps the best place for us to begin preparing this week’s message is to ask the question of ourselves. Does my awareness of God’s power to overcome death make a difference in how I live my life?

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

“Ten minutes after you’re dead, where will you be?”

That was the first line of the first sermon preached by James Insight in his first parish. In his book, I TURNED MY COLLAR ROUND, he tells the “rest of the story.”

In his mail on his first day in that church, Father Insight found an advertisement for a sermon service which promised to send him, for a modest fee, a fresh sermon every week, written by a “veteran” preacher, and based on the week’s Gospel lesson.

They helpfully included a “sample” sermon, already printed out and ready to preach.  The young Rev. virtuously wadded it up and threw it in the trash-can.

All week he struggled to find time to write a sermon as well as struggling with the fact that he really didn’t know how.  Finally, on Saturday night, he plunged into the trash can, recovered the trial sermon, smoothed it out, and promised himself, “just this once.”

“Ten minutes after you’re dead, where will you be? It certainly caught the congregation’s attention. As a sermon, it was not full of mercy, but it was mercifully short.

A classmate of the new Vicar, a man who had been the star of the class, who took all the prizes in Greek and Hebrew and theology, was scheduled to preach Evening Prayer.

The guest preacher went into the pulpit, fiddled with his notes, adjusted his vestments, pulled his glasses down to the end of his nose and, glaring over them at the congregation, bellowed;

“Ten minutes after you’re dead, where will you be?”

and proceeded to preach the exact same sermon, with the exact same gestures, that Insight had preached that morning.

The question is an important one, isn’t it? Where will we be ten minutes after we’re dead?

What does life after death hold for us? Is this all there is, or is there something more to follow?

And, if there is, what difference does it make?

Is the promise of life after death just pie in the sky, bye-and-bye?

Or, does an awareness of God’s power to overcome death make a difference in how we live our lives? Here. And now.

Each of our Scripture lessons deals with these matters of life and death and life eternal.

Ezekiel looks out over a valley of dry bones and hears God ask:
Son of man, can these bones live?

St. Paul writes to the church in Rome and says:
To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.

And the Gospel Lesson is the story of the raising of Lazarus, a story containing much talk of life and death, and the startling sign of Jesus bringing a dead man back to the world of the living.

Lazarus is the one man who could have told us much about what effect a second chance at life might have.

Unfortunately, the Bible is mostly silent about what happened to Lazarus after he walked out of the tomb, merely noting his presence at dinner with Jesus 6 days before the Passover.

All of us are familiar with stories of near death experiences. The long tunnel of light and a comforting presence at the end have become a part of popular culture, including being in an episode of the Simpsons.

Southern humorist Lewis Grizzard joked about one of his many heart surgeries by saying that he himself had seen a strange light at the end of a long tunnel.

He said he realized he had gone to Georgia Heaven when a strong voice said, “Attention K-mart shoppers, our Blue Light Special is. . . “

In 1821, a boy was born into a well-to-do St. Petersburg, Russia family. After graduation from the Imperial Military Academy, the young man found that he was more interested in writing than fighting, and so he became a journalist and a novelist, writing about the life of the well-to-do in Czarist Russia.

He also spent much time discussing politics with other young writers, whiling away the afternoons in bars and cafes; filling the time with coffee and communism, rum and revolution.

Czar Nikolas the First quickly learned of the young radicals group and decided to teach them a lesson.

He had them arrested and tried and sentenced them to death by firing squad. They were dressed in White death gowns and led to a public square where the military detail awaited them.

Blind-folded, dressed in burial clothes, hands bound tightly behind their backs, they were paraded before a jeering crowd, and then tied to posts.

The order “ready, aim” was shouted. The rifles were cocked and . . . at just that moment a horseman rode up with a message from the Czar: sentence was to be commuted to four years hard labor.

Fyodor Dostoevsky never fully recovered from this experience. He had peered into the jaws of death and from that moment life became for him precious beyond calculation.

“Now my life will change,” he said, “I shall be born again in a new form.”

In his life after that there were two signs of that profound born again-ness.

One was faith in Christ. As he boarded the convict train for Siberia, a devout woman handed him a New Testament, the only book allowed in prison.

He read the Gospels over and over again while he was in prison and emerged with an unshakable confidence and belief in Christ.

The other was that he came out of prison a different type of writer. His naive views on the inherent goodness of humanity were shattered on the hard rock of the gigantic evil he found in his cellmates.

Yet, over time, he glimpsed the image of God in even the lowest of prisoners. He came to believe that only through BEING LOVED is a human being capable of love.

Out of this transition came his great and moving novels of sin and repentance, forgiveness and grace:

Crime and Punishment
The Brothers Karamazov
The Idiot

Those of us who baptize infants by sprinkling and pouring sometimes miss one of the great messages of Baptism, a message fully evident in the immersing, the dunking, of an adult convert completely beneath the water. In Baptism we “die and rise with Christ.” Listen to the words of the Lutheran Funeral service:

When we were baptized in Christ Jesus, we were baptized into his death. We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live a new life.” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 280)

“. . . . we too might live a new life.” The message of the Gospel is that ten minutes after we’re dead we will be safe in the arms of God’s love. Our most important death has already taken place, our death to sin and the devil.

We live each day as new creatures in Christ and death no longer holds any threat for us.

Poet/priest John Donne said, Death be not proud. Why should death not be proud? Because Death cannot win, indeed, death has already lost.

Our calling today is to live each day as persons for whom death holds no fear,

as messengers of the unbelievable Good news that God’s love is more powerful than anything this world can do to us,

we are called to spread the word that dry bones can indeed live:

Prophesy to the bones, People! Prophesy to the bones!


4 thoughts on “Year A — The Fifth Sunday in Lent

  1. Revs. Bubbas…what a Holy Hoot to find your site this morning as I begin pondering the texts I'll get to pour out in the feeder for the flock this coming Sunday. This being the fourth time I've preached this cycle of the lectionary in this particular place, you've helped me to freshen up a message that could otherwise be as appealing as, dare I say, dry bones? Thanks much ….

  2. Pingback: Year A: The Fifth Sunday in Lent (April 6, 2014) | The Lectionary Lab

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