Here are a few observations on the lessons for this coming Sunday. You may find them helpful in preparing for online or at home worship.
The lessons for Sunday, March 29 are from Ezekiel, the valley of dry bones, and John, the raising of Lazarus, both very familiar. In between is a short passage from chapter 8 of Paul’s letter to the Romans about how new life is ours through the Spirit that dwells in us.
Because we know the stories well it’s easy to skim them with a sense they have nothing new to say. God’s Spirit speaking to us through scripture disagrees. There is always something new being said to those who listen. But what could it be? Let’s see.
About 600 years before Jesus the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians, and many people were sent into exile in Babylon. With no temple and the priesthood scattered, what did it mean to be an Israelite? For that matter, they wondered who exactly is God and what would become of them? How could they hope when the future looked so bleak? They’re serious questions not unlike a few of our own. Into that mess came Ezekiel, living in exile with the others, and, according to his own book, more than a little looney. He acted out prophecies in some very odd ways. You can read about them for yourself. But in this passage he offered God’s word of hope in a fairly clear way. No matter how dead and defeated they were, God intended to give them new life, and had the power to do it.
It’s likely they understood it to mean new life for the nation of Israel that their decedents would enjoy. Although God spoke through Ezekiel about his power to restore life to the dead who were no more than dry bones lying scattered about the desert floor, the people of the time couldn’t easily comprehend that it might refer to them personally. Jewish understanding of personal resurrection and a heavenly afterlife in God’s presence developed in the centuries after their return to Jerusalem from Babylon. By the time of Jesus, the Pharisees understood it well, but the Sadducees didn’t.
We’re much the same. It’s hard to comprehend the new things God is saying when they don’t fit easily with what we think we already know and believe. The voices of prophecy include many spouting religious sounding words God has nothing to do with. It takes time to discern what is genuine, and it certainly helps to have prophets less nutty than Ezekiel.
And so we come to John’s gospel where a new thing so utterly unbelievable was incomprehensible to those who were eye witnesses.
In the form we have it, John’s gospel came late, maybe twenty or thirty years after the others. There was plenty of time to reflect on Jesus’ life, teaching, death and resurrection, and to consider what was needed to fill in what the others had excluded, or didn’t know about. The raising of Lazarus, for instance, was not recorded in the other gospels: we don’t know why. In this passage from John, God made a bold statement: there is no condition of death beyond God’s power to give life to whomever God chooses, whenever and however God chooses to do it.
I have no doubt Jesus wept because it was a rotten trick to play on Lazarus. Ripping him from new life in God’s loving embrace to return to ordinary life as an object lesson for the disciples? It meant he had to live, suffer, and die all over again. Could we not be satisfied with the reality of Jesus’ resurrection? I guess not. The disciples had to witness resurrection in an ordinary human being like themselves. I think there are good reasons why it came before Christ’s own death and resurrection, and wonder what you think. Give it some prayerful reflection.
We’re getting close to Holy Week and Easter. We’ve been following Jesus on his way to Jerusalem for almost forty days. We’ve seen the power of God at work through what he’s said and done. If we were among his disciples, we couldn’t possibly understand it wasn’t God’s power working in him. Jesus is the power of God. God had been walking and talking with them all this time, but how could they have known. Lazarus was a clue, but the fullness of the revelation would not come until Easter.
That same power is as intimately present in our lives today, as it was in their’s so long ago. We already know about Easter, but the fullness of its meaning may have escaped us, just as the greater meaning of Ezekiel’s dry bones escaped the exiled Israelites, and the meaning of Lazarus’s resurrection escaped the disciples.
Holy Week and Easter are going to be a little weird this year. In a sense, we’ve been exiled, our churches are off limits, our clergy scattered, sickness and death surround us, our movements are restricted, ordinary life has been put on hold. It’s dry bones and tombs. But thanks be to God, we are already living into our eternal life through Christ Jesus. We can say with Paul: “…Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Jesus doesn’t have the power of life, he is the power of life, and his Spirit dwells in us giving us new and eternal life.