Fifth Sunday in Lent, 3.29.20

We live in a dramatic time. Certainly, we never anticipated such drama for ourselves. We are fortunate to have two dramatic readings from scripture to match today’s drama.

In today’s reading from Ezekial, we get this incredible image of a vast valley that’s filled with the dried bones of a huge army. As far as the eye can see – there are BONES. DEATH. DEFEAT. And the prophet wants us to know they are VERY DRY. Make no mistake about it. These bones cannot get up and move on their own. They need the animating BREATH of the Creator.

Ezekial says, “I prophesied . . . and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.” It’s BREATH, and God ANIMATES the people who were dead beyond dead, whose bones were DRY, DRY, DRY. This is a great promise for US. It is a word given to a people in exile who feel hopeless, forsaken, lost.

DEATH stalks us. What we hear in Ezekial sounds like a word for many of us NOW kept at home because of covid19. This is God’s promise that we will be RESTORED. This is God’s promise of a revival of SPIRIT among the people. This continues to be a LIVING word for US. What the people say to Ezekial might be said in the homes right now: “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.”

Certainly, we feel we are cut off. We feel – we know – we are risking something to go to the supermarket. We have to take disinfectant wipes with us; we can’t take any risks. Just when we NEED people – we must keep people away. That is feeling cut off.

We all have dry bones in use, yearning, yearning to RISE from the SIN that holds us back. We YEARN for God’s grace and goodness. We yearn for God’s light and forgiveness, to stumble out of our tombs of death, gestured forward, answering Christ’s call to us to COME OUT!

Jesus says leave the tombs of your inertia, leave anger. Leave the tomb of jealousy, leave fear. Leave the grudges behind among the hard rocks and walk forward in response to the shepherd’s VOICE. “To be helplessly trapped inside one’s own WORST self,” is to be trapped in a TOMB.[1] Don’t we WANT the sunshine on us? Don’t we WANT to feel the fresh breezes? We are TRAPPED in a tomb “between what we ARE and the way God intends us to be.”[2] We catch GLIMMERS sometimes of what we CAN be.

Yet the Lord’s words are as true NOW as they were then. The people of Ezekial’s time WERE restored. They were allowed to return home.

IN TODAY’S reading from the gospel of John, we see an even more dramatic restoration. The dead Lazarus is restored to his family. It’s especially fitting for today because death STALKS us.

First Jesus orders the stone to be removed. Then he thanks God the Father for HEARING his prayer. And what a prayer this is- what audacity – raise his friend from death. Then Jesus uses his voice to COMMAND Lazarus to RISE.

In ch 10 Jesus has just finished saying that he is the good shepherd and that his sheep hear his voice. Now in the next chapter, Jesus uses his voice and “cried out, ‘Lazarus, come out!’” Lazarus HEARS the voice of his shepherd and answers with his whole body; his WHOLE body moves forward, even though he’s been in the tomb four days.

We can’t underestimate this RELATIONSHIP that Jesus and Lazarus have. Last week, Jesus established a relationship with the blind man and SIN was defined as NOT being in a relationship with Christ. Everything HANGS on the relationship of SHEPHERD and SHEEP. The relationship is ALL important. This good Shepherd has found his sheep and DEATH will not Lazarus from him, so Jesus BELLOWS to Lazarus: COME OUT!

            In Genesis we recall that God’s SPIRIT moved over a void and then with a loud VOICE commanded creation into LIFE. In John’s gospel, Jesus’ WORD is this COMMAND and Lazarus leaps to his feet at the VOICE of his shepherd.

Jesus CALLS his sheep, his LAMB of his flock, out of the darkness of the tomb and into LIFE – Life with Jesus.

At a time like this with Covid-19, we can be like Martha and Mary – confused and in despair. As special friends of Jesus’ couldn’t they expect better treatment? As Christians, don’t we expect better treatment from God, too? Don’t we expect to be let off the hook when bad things happen to good people, and we are the good people. Yet here are plenty of good people who are quarantined or have caught the virus. We know GOOD people have died.

Yet Martha and Mary’s confusion and disappointment live side by side with their faith.

Martha says, “If you had been here my brother would not have died.” At the same time, she also gives a bold declaration: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

Often times, that is us too: confusion and despair live alongside of faith. Anguish and faith.

Often, we just don’t understand. We have questions and the questions don’t get answers. IF we had all the answers, there would be no need for faith. As St. Paul says, “we see now as through a mirror, darkly.” We hold onto our faith to get us through. We don’t understand why evil overtakes us. We are sheep, and we strain to hear our good shepherd’s voice. It feels like we’re living through biblical plagues from Moses’ time, but we HOLD on to the sound of our shepherd’s voice.

The disciples are also confused, confusing sleep and death, and they expect the worst. The Judeans had tried to stone Jesus, and now he says let’s go back. Thomas says, “Let us also go that we may die with him.” Their confusion and fatalism live with their obedience. They follow him to Bethany, despair and faith, side by side.

Jesus could have done this miracle any way he wanted. Yet he needed a community of helpers to roll away the stone and others to untie Lazarus from the shroud that keeps him captive.

What are the stones that keep us blocked and dead in the tomb? How can the community help roll it away? What his sister says about Lazarus “He stinks!” can be said about us – SIN makes us stink. Sin – not the individual missteps – but the cosmic enemy which is bent on keeping us far far away from the close relationship we CRAVE with Christ. We KNOW we belong to him, and we CRAVE to BE with him, NOW in THIS life, because eternal life begins NOW with HIM. It’s a catastrophe to be separated from God’s love. It’s a catastrophe like a small child being separated from their loving mother or loving father. We were made to be in relationship with Christ, yet the tragedy is that we push Christ away when he invites us to go into a deeper relationship with him.

We cling to death – we want to STAY in our tomb –with our lack of forgiveness –  our tombs of anger – our tombs of jealousy and envy and greed, when there is so much more that Christ wants to give us! He calls us OUT of these tombs of DEATH.

            Sin and death are POWERS that we repudiate when we renew our baptismal promises. Sin and death are dedicated to UNDOING God’s purposes for us. In today’s gospel we see Jesus UNDOING DEATH. HE does it for Lazarus, the good shepherd calls his sheep to him, and the sheep obeys.

Christ comes to us now in the year 2020 to undo sin and death NOW in our own lives.

As St. Paul says, “O death where is they victory? O death, where is they sting?” Death is swallowed up by LIFE that Christ gives us.

            Do some people prefer being imprisoned in the tomb of envy and resentment? But when they get a glimmer of the kingdom, they get a taste of what they are missing. Like getting a taste of a sumptuous banquet, and then not being turned away, but some run away of their own accord, because they are TRAPPED in this tomb of a FALSE self.

Christ SEES us as we are. Christ sees us as we can become. He gestures us forward into a BIGGER life, into a DEEPER life of relationship with HIM. To whose voice do we respond? Do we respond to our good shepherd?

Father forgive us when we don’t respond to our good shepherd, who wants to deliver us from our tombs. Give us protection during this time of plague and virus. We know you have given us the victory over death. We look forward to the time when death will be totally eradicated.

We hold on to that promise. Help is to keep our loved ones safe. Strengthen our faith as we are. Send us your HEALING. In Jesus’ name we pray.


[1] Fleming Rutledge. The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ. Eerdmans: GrandRapids, 2015. 174. 

[2] Ibid.