INSIGHTS: Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year A

This is another day, O Lord. I know not
 what it will bring forth, but make me ready,
Lord, for whatever it may be.
If I am to stand up, help me to stand bravely.
If I am to sit still, help me to sit quietly.
If I am to lie low, help me to do it patiently.
And If I am to do nothing, let me do it gallantly.
Make these words more than words, and give me the
Spirit of Jesus. Amen[i]

I love the above prayer; it is from the Ministrations to the Sick, but I think it appropriate for many spiritual situations.  Quiet bravery, patience and doing nothing gallantly do not come easy to most of us.  All of these attributes are consistent with our Lenten disciplines.  We’ve being doing self-examination, spiritual redirection, and have sought reconciliation with God, the deeper self and others.  It is the last Sunday of Lent; next Sunday is Palm/Passion Sunday and we begin the pageantry of Holy Week. We will enter profoundly into sacred time and space and become one with our own Christian history.  It is truly an awesome and holy time, culminating in the glorious Resurrection of our Lord on Easter Sunday.

Today’s lections are a foretaste of that great event, reminding us that God is always ready to resurrect our deadened spirits and renew his people when their individual and/or corporate lives have become dry and empty.

The prophet Ezekiel bemoans the sins and poor choices of the people of Israel. He calls us to worship an authentic God who holds people accountable for their actions and longs to put a new heart and spirit within them (us).  Then renewal will “flow like a river” and we (they) will know that God is God. [i] In Ezekiel 37:1-3(4-10) 11-14, the prophet has a vision.  The dry bones of the house of Israel are lying in a valley; the breath of God reforms their flesh and sinews and they come to life.[ii]  God tells him to prophesy to God’s people. “This is what the Sovereign Lord says: O my people, I am going to open up your graves and bring you forth…I will put my Spirit in you and you will live”.

The Letter to the Romans is a realistic and practical discussion of our Life in Christ; salvation is a free gift. We are redeemed by God’s love.[iii]  Romans 6: 16-23 tells us that we “have been set free from sin…the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus.”

The Gospel is John 11(1-16) 17-44 where Lazarus of Bethany is raised from the dead.  The Gospel tells us he is the brother of Martha and Mary. “This Mary…was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.”  The sisters send for Jesus.  He stays where he is, doing nothing gallantly for two days. He then tells the disciples “Let us go back to Judea.”  The disciples are concerned for Jesus’ safety; they fear the Jewish authorities will stone him.  But Thomas says “Let us also go that we may die with Him”.  When they arrive, Martha informs Jesus that her brother has been in the tomb four days. Both sisters acknowledge that “If you had been here Lord, our brother would not have died”. But it is Martha who declares “You are the Christ, the Son of God who has come into the world”. Despite her concern about the stench of a body that had lain in the tomb four days in the heat, she obeys Jesus and has the stone sealing the tomb rolled away and Jesus calls Lazarus forth.  He comes out still wrapped in his shroud.  Jesus says “take off his death cloths and let him go!”

This is a very dramatic story crammed with all sorts of redemption.  Yet nowhere does it allude that Lazarus was a sinner.  He simply died and was brought back to life.[iv] We often think of Martha as the lesser sister, because in Luke (10:38-42) she is focused on serving their guests and annoyed that Mary sits adoringly at Jesus’ feet.  Jesus tells her not to worry so; it is Mary who has chosen “the better part”. Yet Martha proclaims (before the crucifixion) that Jesus is the resurrection and the life.  Similarly history has condemned St. Thomas as a doubter, because in John 20:24-29 he refuses to accept the resurrection until he sees the scars and places his fingers in Christ’s nail wounds. Yet we completely forget that he does neither when he actually sees the Risen Lord, but boldly states “My Lord and My God”! [v] In this passage he demonstrates the ultimate loyalty; he is willing to stand by Jesus even if it means he will die with him.

The followers of Christ are complex people who seek the truth.  We are not limited by just one moment or event. There are times in all our lives, when we become very task-oriented, times when we need a sign from God. There are times when we are as spiritually dead as a valley of dry bones or Lazarus in the tomb.  Yet we are the same servants who would lay down our lives for our Lord, throw off our death cloths and proclaim him as the Christ who has come into the world.  It is the all encompassing Grace of God that enables us in all humility to be Christ in the world today.

The OT and Gospel Lessons lend themselves well to dramatic readings for all ages. Youth and adults might want to discuss the concepts of spiritual “dryness’ and how God breathes renewal upon us. Perhaps they would be comfortable sharing times when they felt God had called them out of the tombs of sorrow and disillusionment.

Younger children might enjoy acting out the Lazarus story with puppets (at Manakin we’ve a very nice puppet of Lazarus wrapped in his grave cloths) or do it like a play.  It is also a good Sunday to prepare your students for the events of Holy Week.

O God…by the resurrection of your Son…
you conquered sin, put death to flight,
and gave us hope of everlasting life:
Redeem all our days…
forgive our sins, banish our fears …and steel us to wait…

[i] Spiritual Formation Bible,  p. 1098
[ii] The New Prayer Book Guide to Christian Education, p. 72
[iii] Ibid # ii, pp. 1485-1492
[iv] Harper Collins Bible Dictionary,  p 596.
[v] Ibid, p. 1144

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