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Fifth Sunday in Lent

Readings: Ezekiel 37:1–14, Romans 8:6–11 & John 11:1–45

What a wonderful set of readings for today! The story of Lazarus is among my favourite stories from the Bible, and Paul’s Letter to the Romans was my favourite unit of study when I completed my Bachelor of Theology. And I’m sure that most people are familiar with the ‘Valley of Dry Bones’ from the Book of the prophet Ezekiel.

The key message I take from each of these readings is that only in God do we find life and hope. And the world is desperately in need of both at the moment, as literally all people around the world share in the struggles and challenges presented by the Coronavirus pandemic.

The prophet Ezekiel experiences a vision in which God places him in a valley full of dried bones. Perhaps the valley is the site of a battle fought a long time before, in which many people died, and the bones of the skeletons are all that remains of the combatants. God instructs Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones that God will make them live; that He will cover them with flesh and skin and breathe life back into them. Ezekiel does as God commands him, and the bones come together to form skeletons, and the skeletons are then covered with sinews, flesh and skin. And finally God breathes life into them.

God tells Ezekiel that the bones and skeletons are a metaphor for the nation and people of Israel, who have been conquered and dispersed, and sent into exile far from their homeland. The people are separated not only from their physical home, but also from their spiritual home, and their hope is gone. They are alive, but figuratively speaking they are dead. God promises that He will raise them from their “graves” and bring them back to the land of Israel. He will put His spirit within them and they will live. 

The Apostle Paul also talks about how the Spirit of God dwells within the members of the church in Rome, and that the Spirit will give life to their mortal bodies. In this passage Paul talks about different ways of living – in the flesh, and in the Spirit. To live in the flesh does not mean to live as a body of flesh and blood, what Paul is talking about here is to live under the power and control of sin; in other words, to live without God. To live in the Spirit is to live with God, to follow the Two Great Commandments of loving God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and loving your neighbour as yourself.

Paul, like most other Jewish people of his time, believed in Jewish eschatology which said that the current age would end and be replaced by a new age, when the Messiah would lead the Jewish people and all the nations of the world, and usher in an age of justice and peace. God would resurrect the dead, and create a new heaven and new earth. Paul believed that Jesus was the Messiah, and he also believed that the new age had been ushered in with the death and resurrection of Jesus, but that it wouldn’t be complete until the Second Coming of Jesus. In the meantime, the world was living in an ‘overlap of the ages’, where sin, suffering and death still existed. But there was also hope; hope that came through the Holy Spirit dwelling in people, which not only gave them life in the current age, but would also give them eternal life in the new age. 

Jesus talks of this when he says to Martha, the sister of Lazarus, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” In Jesus is life, and through Jesus the glory of God is revealed. And just like the story of the man born blind, from last week’s gospel reading, which gave Jesus the opportunity to reveal God’s glory by healing the blind man, the death of Lazarus in today’s passage, provides another opportunity for God’s glory to be revealed in Jesus when Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. 

And just like in the story of the man born blind, where Jesus declared, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world”, in today’s story about Lazarus, Jesus says to his disciples, “Those who walk in the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” This is basically what Paul was saying in today’s passage from Romans about living ‘in the flesh’ or living ‘in the Spirit’. Jesus is the light, and those who believe in him won’t stumble because he provides them with the light – that is, he provides them with the teaching and example of how they should live their lives.

The author of John’s Gospel makes it clear to his readers that Lazarus is truly dead, not just in some comatose state. Because when Jesus comes to the tomb, and asks for the stone at the entrance of the tomb to be removed, Martha tells him that there is already a stench because he has been dead for four days. This suggests the body of Lazarus has already started to decompose. So it truly is a miracle when Jesus raises Lazarus to life. The glory of God is revealed through Jesus in this miracle. Jesus makes this clear to those witnessing the event when he says aloud to God, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.”

I said at the beginning of this sermon that only in God do we find life and hope, and each of our readings today have demonstrated that. The situation that we, and the rest of the world find ourselves living in now, in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic, is an extremely challenging one, and for many it is a frightening one. Our lives as we know them have changed drastically. We no longer have access to things that we normally take for granted. We aren’t able to undertake the activities that we normally would. 

Like the people of Israel in the time of Ezekiel we might be feeling isolated and lost. But we needn’t feel that way. God has put His spirit within us. The same Spirit which raised Jesus from the dead now dwells in us. We can put our trust and faith in God that, we WILL emerge from the darkness of these days, and that in the meantime He provides us with the light that we all need to endure the inconvenience, frustration and challenge. 

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