It is significant that the story of Lazarus, unique to the Gospel of John, is the Gospel reading for the last Sunday in Lent,
the Sunday immediately preceding Palm/Passion Sunday. For the Synoptic Gospels, the cleansing of the temple is the impetus for the plot to kill Jesus (Mark 11:18; Luke 19:47-48). In the Gospel of John, the temple scene is moved to the beginning of the Gospel, immediately following the Wedding at Cana, and it is the raising of Lazarus to life that incites the plot for Jesus’ arrest and death (11:53, 57). In John 11:46-57, the chief priests and the Pharisees are told what Jesus did and “from that day on they planned to put him to death.” Moreover, the chief priests want to get rid of the evidence as well, and plan to put Lazarus to death “since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus” (12:9-11). It is Jesus’ very claim, “I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25) that provokes his death in the Fourth Gospel. The repercussions of the raising of Lazarus are not included in the lectionary reading, or any time in the three-year lectionary cycle (12:1-11 only on Holy Monday), and should either be read or referenced in preaching on this text.
The raising of Lazarus is the last of Jesus’ “signs” in the Gospel of John. Chapter 12 functions as a bridge chapter before the narrative halts in time for Jesus’ last meal and words to his disciples (chapters 13-17). The actual raising of Lazarus is narrated in only two verses (11:43-44). The events, discussion, and details prior to the main event receive the bulk of the narrative space. Previously in the Gospel, Jesus performs a sign, which is typically followed by dialogue and a discourse by Jesus that interprets the sign (5:1-47; 9:1-10:21). Why does Jesus comment on the sign before actually raising Lazarus from the dead? On one level, it seems that what precedes the miracle is just as important. In other words, Jesus’ interpretation of the meaning of the sign is perhaps as, or more, critical than the sign itself. Why is the structure changed for this last sign and what does it suggest for the preaching on the raising of Lazarus? How do these details in the story leading up to Lazarus finally walking out of the tomb contribute to our understanding of the meaning of this sign?
This is not to say that the raising of Lazarus is not important. The narrative elements that set up Lazarus coming out of the tomb are significant. They contribute both to the narrative suspense and to the extraordinary final scene of Lazarus, dead man walking. We are told that the tomb was a cave and that there was a stone against it. Lazarus has been dead four days (see also 11:17). Since Jewish belief held that the soul left the body after three days, just in case we are wondering, Lazarus is really dead. And, he is going to smell. Jesus then pauses to pray and this prayer is more than demonstrative. Note what Jesus highlights in his prayer–hearing (11:41-42). Jesus thanks God for hearing him, and how is Lazarus raised? By hearing Jesus. Like the sheep that recognize the voice of the shepherd who calls them by name (10:3), Lazarus hears his name being called, he recognizes the voice of the shepherd, and the dead man comes out, because only the shepherd can lead his sheep out.
Again we should ask, why does Jesus need to talk about the raising of Lazarus prior to doing it? Is it because that the sign would be easily misunderstood, even by us? When we think about the raising of Lazarus, do we place our focus on “I am the resurrection” and not remember that Jesus also says “I am the life?” Indeed, this is exactly what Martha thinks. Notice her dialogue with Jesus in 11:21-27. When Jesus says to her, “your brother will rise again,” she hears only the promise of a future resurrection, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day” (11:24). And Jesus seems to correct this misunderstanding, “I am the resurrection and the life.” But Jesus, we might ask, what is the difference?
In fact, this is a question that has puzzled others as well. Other ancient manuscripts omit “and the life,” with the assumption that this phrase is a redundancy on the part of Jesus. Our first impressions may be the same. We tend to focus on the resurrection that we situate for ourselves as a distant promise, our guarantee of salvation, our eternal life with God and Jesus in heaven. But what might it mean that Jesus is the resurrection and the life? That we are raised to life, not as future salvific existence, but to life right now, right here, with Jesus? For Lazarus, the Gospel does not describe his future with Jesus, but his present. In chapter 12, the anointing of Jesus takes place at the home of Mary and Martha in Bethany. We are told that Martha served, Mary anoints Jesus, and Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead (12:1, 9, 17) “was one of those at the table with him.” The raising of Lazarus also gives him new life with Jesus. This new life is leaning on the breast of Jesus (13:23), reclining at the table with him, sharing food and fellowship (13:28). New life in Jesus is this intimacy, this closeness, this dwelling, lying on the chest of Jesus. It is here and now, because for the Gospel of John, it is not just the death of Jesus but the life of Jesus that brings about salvation. For the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, through which “we have all received grace upon grace” (1:16).
The “valley of dry bones” is almost certainly the most beloved and well known of Ezekiel’s visions.
The vividness of its imagery, the wonder of its unfolding narrative, and visceral appeal of its symbolism endow it with a sort of plug-and-play appeal–even an uninitiated reader can engage with this wonderful story. And yet the story becomes even more powerful when the reader learns something about its historical context, literary background, and theological symbolism.
Historical context This vision dates to the period of Israel’s history known as the Babylonian Exile. In 597 BCE, the armies of Babylon forced the capitulation of the rebellious city Jerusalem and deported the Judean king and many Judean leaders to Babylon (2 Kings 24:10-16). Ten years later, in 587/6 BCE, after Jerusalem had rebelled again, the Babylonians razed Jerusalem and its temple and deported a second wave of Judean leaders. Among the first wave of the deported was the young Ezekiel, whom God later called in Babylon to the office of prophet. For those deportees forced to live in Babylon, the future seemed a black hole into which the people were destined to disappear. A century-and-a-half previously, many citizens of Judah’s sister kingdom Israel had been similarly deported, had lost their identity, and had faded into the mists of history–the so-called lost tribes of Israel. The exile was more than just a crisis of physical suffering and communal identity. It also necessitated a crisis of faith. The key symbols of Judean faith–Jerusalem, its temple, its people, and the Davidic monarchy–had been destroyed (cf Psalms 89 and 137). According to the theological rationality of the ancient world, many exiled Judeans assumed that their deity had been defeated by a stronger deity from Babylon (cf. Ps 42:3, 10; 79:10; 115:2). The people wondered if the Lord was truly lord and truly faithful.
Literary background Behind the vision in Ezekiel 37 are two literary forms–the communal lament psalm and the prophetic message of deliverance. In communal laments, the people poured out their pain in fervent cries for deliverance. Toward the end of the oracle in Ezekiel 37:1-14, we hear the words of lament of the deported people: “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely” (v. 11). One finds similar language in the lament psalms. “My strength fails because of my misery, and my bones waste away” (Ps 31:10). “My bones are shaking with terror” (6:2). “My bones burn like a furnace” (102:3). The reference to “bones” here is an idiomatic way of referring to one’s deepest self, or, in the case of “our bones,” a way for the community to refer to its most essential self (thus also when Adam, in search of a partner finally finds Eve, he cries “This at last is bone of my bones” [Gen 2:23]). What we learn from this is that Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones is a poetic and prophetic response to the situation of God’s people–to their sense of hopelessness, to their situation of being cut off from their land, their temple, and–they think!–from their God. The people use a common idiom of their time to express their helplessness and hopelessness. They say, “Our bones are dried up.” So Ezekiel shows them a vision of exactly that: dry bones. The second literary genre that helps one understand Ezekiel’s vision is the prophetic message of deliverance (also called the oracle of salvation). As is well known, the prophets were messenger sent from God bearing messages. At times the prophets were sent with messages of judgment, calls to repentance, and admonitions to obedience. At other times–and this is the case in Ezekiel 37–the prophets were sent with good news. The summary of Ezekiel’s good news is found in vv 12-14, which culminates with these words: “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil.” Ezekiel’s message is the promise that God’s spirit will reach out and bring the people back from exile.
Theological symbolism A third element in the story that is helpful is the multidimensional meaning of the Hebrew xwr (ruach). This word can mean “spirit” (as in God’s spirit), “wind,” and “breath.” In this vision, the prophet plays on all three meanings as part of his brilliant strategy to make God’s promise of return from exile ring in the ears of the deportees. In v. 1, Ezekiel reports that the Lord’s spirit (xwr) showed him a vision of an entire valley filled with dry bones. As already noted, this vision is an echo of the people’s lament. (I have young children, so when I think of this vision, I see the scene in Disney’s The Lion King of the elephant graveyard.) The question is, “Can these bones live?” The key to the unfolding story, of course, is that in order to live, they need not only flesh, sinew, and skin. . . but also breath: “I will. . . put breath (xwr) in you, and you shall live” (v. 6). Then, in the vision, sinew, flesh, and skin cover the bones, but there is no breath (xwr) in them (v. 8). So, Ezekiel prophesies to the breath (xwr), “Come from the four winds (xwr), O Breath (xwr), and breathe upon these slain, that they may live” (v. 9). And “the breath (xwr) came into them, and they lived” (v. 10). As already noted, in Ezekiel’s explanation of the vision, he summarizes the point: “I will put my spirit (xwr) with you, and you shall live” v. 14). The prophet’s insistent use of repetition drums the point of the message into our heads: God’s spirit is the key. With God’s spirit, anything is possible. Without it, existence is just flesh and blood. But with God’s spirit, there is life–and what Jesus called fullness of life. And there is no place on earth, no when in time, and no what in sin or situation, that can keep God’s Spirit away from God’s people (see Romans 8:31-38).
A final word about preaching this text The text not only gives the preacher a powerful gospel to proclaim, it also confers a freedom of proclamation on the preacher. Most preachers will explain the meaning of the text and proclaim it anew to congregations today. And that is good and neat. But the preacher also as much freedom as Ezekiel had to enter into a sermon as evangelical performance. Is there a way for the preacher not just to explain the text, but to do more? As Ezekiel drew on the metaphor of the lamenting bones of the people and wrought from that image the vision of the valley of dry bones, can the preacher enter into the lives of the people and cast a vision for them of God’s Spirit at work in their lives?
The second lesson for Lent 5 may be attractive from a simple numerical standpoint:
the first lesson has fourteen verses, the gospel has forty-five, and the epistle has only six! But there are other good reasons to focus on the Romans passage, especially in Lent. The Romans passage helps us to move away from thinking only about individual sins and individual spiritual activities to explore our basic orientation to life as Christ-believers.
Paul often thinks in terms of opposites, which he does throughout our passage. In v. 6 the first opposites are the team of flesh and death set over against the team of Spirit, life, and peace. Flesh can be a misleading term in Paul. To understand it we need to turn to its apparent twin, the word body (sw/ma sôma). Body, in Paul, is ethically neutral; that is, it is neither good nor bad in and of itself. The issue is how the body is used. There certainly is nothing wrong, for Paul, with having a body. But when the body is used inappropriately–when it is used differently from how God intended the body to be used–then it is a sinful body. And Paul’s shorthand expression for the body when it is used in inappropriate, sinful ways is flesh (sa,rx sarks). To have the wrong attitude, the wrong approach, or the wrong mindset in life is to have exactly what we have in v. 6, “the mindset of the flesh.”
When the person’s basic life commitment is to the flesh, as defined by Paul, then that person’s mindset is the flesh. And that kind of orientation, in turn, is focused on death. It is focused on death, because the flesh does not last. It will die not only physically but also spiritually, because when a person’s focus is on the flesh his or her focus is not on God, on what lasts and is eternal. And so the death of v. 6 is not only physical death; it is also spiritual death, separation from God.
Over against that orientation is the mindset of the Spirit. When a person’s orientation in life is Spirit-directed and Spirit-controlled, the focus is on life (both in this world and in the next; see 5:21, 6:4, 6:22-23) and on peace (both with God and with other people; see also 5:1 and 1:7).
In v. 7, Paul can even draw the conclusion that the mindset of the flesh is hostile to God. In v. 8, Paul finally concludes what is one long Greek sentence that began in v. 6 with the strange thought that those who are in the flesh are not able to please God. At first blush we might think that lets us off the hook. But that is not, of course, what it means, when we remind ourselves of how Paul uses the term flesh. People who have lived in such a way that they have made their bodies into flesh (and have not been freed from it by Jesus) are, by definition, unable to please God.
And with that understanding, v. 9 begins to make sense. The believers–those in Rome who hear this letter read–are not in the flesh, but rather they are in the Spirit. How do they know that? “Since the Spirit of God dwells in you.” The presence of the Spirit marks those who belong to Christ. And Paul is so sure of this Spirit-indwelling business that he goes on to write, “Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.” It is hard to find a distinction in Paul between Spirit of God and Spirit of Christ.
In v. 10 he continues simply, “But if Christ is in you.” And the result of that indwelling of Christ is another set of opposites. On the one hand, “the body is dead because of sin.” That statement has two references:
*the body is dead because of the killing power of sin that separates believers from God and from each other; and
*the body is dead because, positively, it has been killed to the power of sin through the action of being baptized (6:1-11, 7:1-6).
On the other hand, over against the dead body “the Spirit is life because of righteousness.” That is, “the Spirit is life” in the sense of life-giving. The Spirit dwells in the body that was killed in baptism, and it gives life.
Paul in v. 11 defines believers.
*First, believers are defined in terms of the Spirit, namely, the Spirit that dwells in them. And what Spirit is it? It is the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead. So once again Spirit and Christ (Jesus) are closely related, as are Spirit and God (Father).
*Second, believers are defined as the ones whom the one who raised Jesus from the dead will make alive. Just as Jesus was raised from the dead, so believers will be raised, too. This is the same thing Paul says much more expansively in 1 Corinthians 15.
And so the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus will give life to the mortal bodies of the believers. Thus the Spirit is the agent of resurrection, which once more is close to 1 Corinthians 15 in which Paul looks forward to the spirit-ual body, a body controlled, infused by the Spirit (not a body composed of spirit).
And when will God do all of this making alive? In the future, at the resurrection of the dead, when full deliverance occurs.
In our focus during Lent on our individual sins we can center so much on our actions and mis-actions that we can miss the larger issue. What is our mindset? What is our orientation toward life? For Paul the proper mindset is the Spirit, the same Spirit that makes Christ present today and the same Spirit of the One who raised Jesus from the dead.
Walter F. Taylor, Jr., is the Ernest W. and Edith S. Ogram Professor of New Testament Studies and Director of Graduate Studies at Trinity Lutheran Seminary, Columbus, OH. The apostle Paul is his major area of research and teaching.