Lectionary Commentaries for March 29, 2020
Fifth Sunday in Lent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 11:1-45

Melinda Quivik

A close friend nearing death and the dry bones of a nation command our attention this Sunday.

Yet, while the story of Lazarus’ death and rising may seem straightforward in some ways, its substance is complex and mysterious: Jesus’ vision of God’s power beyond what human beings can comprehend.

Jesus does not hurry to the bedside of his dying friend. He sees into the circumstance of death to the ending of the story. When Jesus finally travels to see his long-time friends, to share their grief and to reveal the glory of God, he does so even though the journey may prove dangerous. He sees beyond the present to a future in which God’s hand is at work and the word of the Lord does what is impossible.

It is no accident that the raising of Lazarus is paired with the reading from Ezekiel. Jesus’ relationship to death is mirrored in Ezekiel’s story. Both narratives reveal God’s power. When the preacher attends to the Old Testament reading along with the Gospel, the images and the meaning of both are stretched and strengthened. When we are grieving, weary, and lacking hope, it may feel like we are gazing on a valley full of bones. A merciful God whose power is infinite, however, creates hope just when it is needed.

Jesus sees beyond death, and with that same God-given vision, Ezekiel sees the bones coming to life again. Jesus, the prophet, who is hounded throughout his teaching and healing life, unappreciated in his hometown, derided and plotted against, grilled for healing on the Sabbath, drives his followers always to a deeper understanding of God. The prophet Ezekiel, like Jesus, was not admired and fawned over. But he is guided by God’s hand and the spirit of the Lord into the place of grieving, that dusty valley where everything is desolation, the bones of God’s beloved Israel, the lifeless shards of a ruined nation. He is given a vision painted in stark terms with dry bones and the assumption that all is lost.

We sadly also know that place, but we often do not recognize it as inhabited by the spirit and the hand of God. Jesus knew the presence of God’s power in that place of grief, and his word of command is the province of utter confidence that “nothing is impossible with God.” Jesus stands outside Lazarus’ tomb in the place of grieving.

When Ezekiel pronounces the word of the Lord in obedience to God’s command to prophesy, the bones rattle. When Jesus cries, “Lazarus, come out!” the dead man rises.

The word of the Lord is the force that brings life out of death, in the stories of the bones and of Lazarus. The Lord speaks and it comes to be. The universe and all that lives came into existence on the power of God’s word. Both the dry bones and Lazarus, the man who has been dead for three days, hear and respond to the word of the Lord.

Even when everything about Lazarus’ death makes it impossible for his sisters and the gathered friends to imagine he could walk out of the tomb, when Jesus calls to him, he comes. Resurrection is God’s realm. It is not for a human being.

It needs to be said, however, that the story of Lazarus’ rising from the dead is not identical to the resurrection of our Lord. Lazarus is raised; Jesus is resurrected. The difference is more than semantics, but the point in both stories is the power of God.

The people who see Lazarus come out of his tomb are given the ability to believe because Jesus does not do the easy thing (keep bad things from happening), Jesus does the hard thing, which is to reverse destruction. Jesus does not hurry to Lazarus’ bedside to nurse him to health. He waits. Takes his time. And then when death has occurred, Jesus appears at the tomb to weep with the mourners. The detractors see his tears and wonder why he did not come earlier to save Lazarus as he gave sight to the blind man. It is a question that stops many people from believing in Christ because it is logically impossible to answer, and we human beings crave answers that make sense. “If God Almighty can do one thing, why not another?” they ask.

Finally, here is why God’s work is not what we expect. The raising of Lazarus occurs in this way:

  • Jesus orders the stone to be removed,
  • gives thanks to the Father for hearing his prayer, and
  • commands Lazarus to emerge.

Neither Lazarus nor anyone else present is said to believe in Jesus’ power. Just the opposite is the case. The crowd does not expect the dead man to emerge when the stone is rolled away. The people assume that death is final, irrevocable, and there is no remedy for it.

Yet, the story shows us that the crowd did not have to believe in order to make Lazarus’ appearance possible. Human belief is not the source of the rising. Jesus’ oneness with the Father is the source of the rising. Jesus sees beyond death to God’s infinitely greater power. He demonstrates with thanksgiving and authority that his vision is true.

Through just such powerful events, the veracity of Jesus’ vision is given to us. We cannot come to them with ready-made belief. Instead, Jesus creates the ability to believe by causing death again and again to turn to life. Those who watch and help to unbind Lazarus are given the vision they need.

Many bindings in our world seem impossible to untangle, but every day the word of the Lord frees someone. That is the message of this story. We are left to wonder at Jesus’ conviction about God’s word, but the evidence of God making good come from destruction is all around us.


First Reading

Commentary on Ezekiel 37:1-14

Christopher B. Hays

What a story this is!

I teach near Hollywood, and so maybe that’s why I imagine this being filmed with a whole bunch of CGI animation, with God and Ezekiel flying around like superheroes. Then again, that might obscure the fact that there is serious theology undertaken here.

For one thing, there’s theological anthropology—that is to say, what is humanity made of? Ezekiel is working here from the idea that the spirit is something different from the flesh. God puts the bodies back together first: the bones and sinews, the muscles and skin … “but there was no breath in them”—no ruah—no spirit. Interestingly, though, that reverses the order from the prophecy: When Ezekiel announces the word of the Lord, he says first: “I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.” Then the physical restoration comes after that.

Why is that? Perhaps it’s because the restoration of the spirit is the more important promise.

The spirit marks this as a story of re-creation. At creation, the spirit is hovering over the face of the waters (Genesis 1:2). In Genesis 2:7, “the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground” … but humankind was just this pile of dust until God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and then the man became a living soul.” Physical stuff is not worth much without the spirit that is breathed by God.

Ezekiel’s re-creation story is of course different. It’s the story of the rebirth of a nation. Ezekiel is speaking to exiles and to those who have seen their city destroyed and their civilization seemingly stamped out. Judah’s life as a nation essentially came to an end with the Babylonian destruction of 586 BCE—they were flat-lining, as doctors say. But here, God offers to bring them back to life, and even to restore them to their land. Flesh and blood restored to the soil of Judah!

Hm, but wait: “Blood and soil”? … In German, that would be Blut und Boden. Now we are in dangerous territory. Can you hear the echoes? “Blood and soil” was a Nazi slogan.

The Bible uses “bone and flesh” as a motif for kinship. To take just one example, in Genesis 29, when Jacob comes to stay with Laban, Laban welcomes him with these words: “‘Surely you are my bone and my flesh!’ And [Jacob] stayed with him …” (Genesis 29:14) And the same two Hebrew words are used in Ezekiel for the bones and flesh that God brings back together in the valley.

This is, in a very real sense, a nationalistic text and an ethnocentric text. At least since there has been writing, nationalism has frequently been a powerful force in human cultures, lurking at the door. And still today it rears its head forcefully in the United States and in Europe. Citizens who self-identify as natives look at each other and say “you are my bone and my flesh,” and from there dangerous things happen.

For that reason, Ezekiel’s emphasis on spirit is important—because the spirit of God is something different from bone and flesh. When the Spirit of God moves, other things happen. Creation happens. And at Pentecost, the disciples “were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability” (Acts 2:4). Those who were filled with the Spirit did not band together and persecute those who spoke other languages; instead, they were empowered to share the gospel with them.

And what is the gospel that the Spirit empowers? In Luke 4:17-19, when “the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’” Then he rolls up the scroll and sits down. This is Jesus dropping the mic.

The things Jesus was sent to do, he sends us to do: “Go and do likewise.” And the agenda Jesus calls us to is a long way from the agendas of our nationalist parties today. It is important to resist these movements for the sake of the public good; that’s only what Jesus would have done. But it is just as important to resist for the sake of the church. So often these movements embrace Christianity as part of a nationalist program, and in doing so, they take the Lord’s name in vain. That way lies death for the church.

Ezekiel 37 makes a call on its hearers as well. It implies that “bone and flesh” or ”blood and soil” is just dead dust. There is no life apart from the God-breathed spirit. That’s why the prophet emphasizes the spirit, and why it is the climax of the passage. But through human history, we forget this again and again and again.

If it seems unlikely that Ezekiel meant something surprising and countercultural, consider the reaction of the bystanders when God used the Spirit to create in Acts 2. This is the point at which the Jesus movement ceases to be a bunch of shaggy fishermen following Jesus around, and begins to be the church—something international that reaches beyond its religious and cultural origins to embrace the world. And the world thinks it’s nuts. Just after the Spirit comes and disciples start speaking foreign languages, a lot of people in the crowd “sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine’” (Acts 2:13).

These are the same people who think it’s nuts to move beyond nationalism. They are the same ones today who sneer at “social justice warriors” on social media. A lot of the world doesn’t understand the Spirit, at some level even fears it. Because what the Spirit does, doesn’t make sense. The Spirit tells you that the blessings God has given—our minds, our lands, our money—are only ours to give away.

I have long been moved by the story of Les Miserables, particularly by the bishop who, after Jean Valjean steals most of his silver and is caught, sets him free and gives him the candlesticks as well. From Jesus’ giving away his life, to Bishop Myriel giving away his silver to Jean Valjean, to the ordinary gifts that we share every week or every month, giving it all away is the life of any church.

When we look out across the valley of dry bones that is our politics today, it would be understandable if we, like Ezekiel, were uncertain whether there is any hope for these bones. The people of Ezekiel’s restoration struggled to embody that hope, as have all of us who are heirs to the tradition. But empowered by the Spirit, we are called to hope—indeed, to faith, hope, and love.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 130

Nancy deClaissé-Walford

Psalm 130 is the eleventh of the fifteen Songs of Ascents in Book Five of the Psalter (Psalms 120-134).1

These psalms are most likely songs that ancient Israelite pilgrims sang as they made their way to Jerusalem to celebrate a number of annual religious festivals, including Passover, the Feast of Weeks, and the Feast of Tabernacles. Jerusalem sits on a hill; so no matter where one comes from, one “goes up” to Jerusalem. Imagine traveling from your village home, meeting up with others, joyously anticipating the festive time that you would celebrate together in the city of God. And you, the travelers, would perhaps sing as you went along: well-loved, well-known traditional songs. And as one group met another, they mingled their voices and sang together.

A variety of psalm “types” occur in the Songs of Ascents: individual and community laments (Psalms 120, 123, 126, 130); individual hymns of thanksgiving (Psalms 121, 122, 131); community hymns (Psalms 124, 125,129, 134); wisdom psalms (Psalms 127,128, 133); and a royal psalm — about the person of the king (Psalm 132). The diversity within this collection has led some scholars to question its cohesion. If we understand the collection, though, as the mingled voices of pilgrims coming from all sorts of situations in life, its diversity is not hard to understand. Some travel with burdens that cry out for lamenting; others with stories of deliverance by God; others marveling at God’s goodness, wisdom, and provision.

Psalm 130 is a lament, specifically an individual lament, words spoken to God by an individual worshipper (pilgrim?). In verses 1-2, the lamenter addresses God directly, asking (petitioning) God to “hear” and “be attentive.” In verses 3-4, the lamenter expresses confidence that God will indeed “hear” and “be attentive,” because God does not “mark iniquities” and offers “forgiveness.” The word “iniquities” (‘avonoth) occurs over 200 times in the Old Testament and is the primary word used to describe human sin and guilt in the prophetic writings. The root meaning of the word is “to bend, curve, turn aside, or twist,” thus providing a concrete image for a definition of “iniquity” as “an act, or mistake, which is not right or unjust.” God provides forgiveness, and so, God is to “be revered” (NRSV). The Hebrew root of “revered” is yara’. A number of translations render the word as “feared” (KJV, NASB, NLT). “Fear” is a good translation of the word. But in today’s culture, the idea of fear is usually connected with the basic human instincts to run, defend, or retaliate. The Hebrew root yirah encompasses a larger meaning of “awe, reverent respect, honor.” It appears in the Hebrew Bible as a synonym for “love” (‘ahab, Deuteronomy 10:12); “cling to” (dabaq, Deuteronomy 10:20); and “serve” (’abad, Deuteronomy 6:13; Joshua 24:14). At its root, the word denotes obedience to the divine will.

Verses 5-6 in Psalm 130 are a statement of hopeful expectation. The words “wait” and “watch” occur repeatedly. “Wait” is from the root qavah and conveys a sense of almost tense expectation, like pulling on two ends of a rope and waiting for it to snap. The psalmist waits, with more intense expectation “than those who watch for the morning.” Sentinels often stood guard on city walls, as did soldiers in camps during times of war, watching in the darkness for danger and waiting expectantly for the safety that daylight brought.

Thus far in Psalm 130, we have heard the voice of an individual singer, crying out to God, petitioning God, expressing confidence in God, and stating hopeful expectation of God’s presence. In verses 7-8, the psalmist turns attention to “Israel,” — in the context of the Songs of Ascents, perhaps to companion travelers. This singer has renewed confidence in God and calls on those traveling alongside to “hope.” The Hebrew word is yahal, which means “to wait expectantly.” The word is far less intense than the word translated “wait” in verses 5-6, but clearly ties the psalm singer’s statement to the admonition to “Israel” in verse 7. “Wait, expect, hope,” and in the end, God will deliver Israel from all of its “iniquities” [’avon], because, in the words of verse 3, “If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, LORD, who could stand.”

And so, once again, imagine it. Pilgrim travelers to Jerusalem; one village or family group meeting one another, exchanging greetings. The songs begin; first one voice, then another, and others join in. Many times a single voice breaks out in song — “Out of the depth I cry to you, O LORD . . . my soul waits for the LORD.” And that single voice invites all traveling companions to “hope” — expectantly hope as they approach Jerusalem together. For God, indeed, can redeem us from all of our “iniquities” — our twisted ideas of what is right and wrong, of what is just and unjust.

Psalm 130 is one of the seven penitential psalms in the Psalter (Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143), the Lenten liturgy of the medieval church. By order of Pope Innocent III (1198-1216), the psalms were to be prayed while kneeling each day of the Lenten season, or at least every Friday. The penitential psalms remind the reciter of the great divide between the goodness of God and the iniquity of humanity, but they also remind the reciter that “with God” is “steadfast love” and “redemption.” Martin Luther called Psalm 130 “a proper master and doctor of Scripture.”


Notes

  1. Commentary first published on this site on June 7, 2015.

 


Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 8:6-11

Elizabeth Shively

School children are often asked to name their heroes.1

This type of task gives them a chance to think about the qualities that make a role model and how they might imitate someone they admire. When my boys were young, they would don a chestnut hooded cape, grab a light saber and cry “may the Force be with you” and set out to destroy evil as they saw it. As they have grown through the years, their heroes have changed from superheroes to sports personalities to historical figures to people they know. When they admire someone, they tend to dress like them, talk like them, and act like them. They appear to take on their form.

Romans 8:6-11 fits into a larger discussion about the way believers take on the form of Christ. In these verses, Paul builds on his description of the believer’s life in Christ, for which he has laid the foundation in Romans 6. There, Paul exposes the incongruity of sin in the life of the believer (6:1-4), and then develops a series of contrasts to explain the radical new life in Christ: it is characterized by the movement from one state of being to another (death to life), from one master to another (sin to God), from one principle to another (law to grace), and one kind of activity to another (wickedness to righteousness). Robert Tanehill comments, “Christ’s death and resurrection are continuing aspects of the ‘form’ of Christ … so that believers take on the same ‘form.’”2 That is, believers become like Christ; they are transformed into his image by dying and rising with him.

In Romans 8, Paul develops this line of thought by characterizing the contrasts of Romans 6 as “flesh” versus “Spirit.” This is an antithesis between the old age ruled by sin that results in unrighteousness and death; and the new eschatological age ruled by the Spirit that results in righteousness and life. Reading Romans. 6 and 8 together, we might say that Paul presents unbelievers as belonging to the realm of the flesh where sin reigns and enslaves people to unrighteousness, resulting in death; and believers as belonging to the realm of the Spirit where God enslaves people to righteousness, resulting in life.

Throughout Rom 8:6-11, Paul juxtaposes life in the realm of the flesh and life in the realm of the Spirit by repeating the language of the mind: Those who live in conformity with the flesh think things that are of the flesh, while those who live in conformity with the Spirit think things that are of the Spirit. In other words, the age or realm to which people belong aligns with their thinking and generates their behavior. For Paul, the power of sin is not only personal, but also cosmic. The sin-sick cycle that determines the thinking and actions of individuals, of groups, of the world is complex and requires divine help.

For this reason, the Spirit does not merely characterize a realm or an age; the Spirit also works in believers and communities. Paul explains the presence and work of the Spirit in two important ways. First, while he had earlier argued that believers’ living is based on being “in Christ Jesus” (6:11), he now states that it is based on “Christ in you” which he defines as “the Spirit of God in you” (8:9-12). Second, while Paul had earlier stated that sin used to dwell in those apart from Christ (7:17, 20, 23), he now states that the Holy Spirit dwells in the believer (8:9, 11), creating new life. God does what the law was unable to do, first through Christ’s atoning death (8:3) and now, on that basis, through the transforming work of the Spirit (8:4-11).

Based on 8:6-11, Paul tells believers that if they put to death the practices of the body by the Spirit they will live (verses. 12-13; see also 6:11). The Spirit’s work is to replicate the life of Christ in believers both at the present time through obedience in righteousness (1:18; 6:13, 16, 18, 20)—“the Spirit is life because of righteousness”—and in the future through resurrection—“he who raised Christ … will give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit” (8:11). The Holy Spirit continues the work of producing the form of Christ in believers. That is, believers take on the form, or image, of Christ by dying and rising with him (Romans 6) and by living in conformity with the Spirit (Romans 8).

Romans 8:6-11 is thus an important part of Paul’s developing argument that believers are taking on the form of Christ. Believers are obligated to live now according to the Spirit (8:12) because this Spirit has a future claim on them: Just as God appointed (horizo) Jesus to be Son of God with power by the Spirit through the resurrection from the dead (see also 1:3-4), God has pre-appointed (proorizo) that believers will be conformed to the image of his Son by this same Spirit (8:29).

In the meantime, this Spirit bears witness that believers are children of God and co-heirs with Christ of God’s glory (8:14-18). And the Spirit performs the process of transformation into the image of Christ individually and corporately as the members of Christ’s body discern righteous thinking that is manifest in righteous conduct that pleases God (12:1-5). Such conduct is marked by self-sacrificial love and enables a diverse community to glorify God together (Romans. 12-15, especially 13:8-10; 15:1-6).

To be in Christ is to take Christ’s form, dying and rising with him and living in conformity with the Spirit. Taking the form of Jesus is not optional for Christians, but is the very essence of who we are as individuals and a community, both now and in the future.


Notes:

  1. Commentary first published on this site on Apr. 2, 2017.
  2. Robert C. Tanehill, Dying and Rising with Christ: A Study in Pauline Theology (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2006), 38-39.