Sermon for the 5th Sunday in Lent

Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45 (NRSV) (KJV)

Our Old Testament reading is a familiar one to anyone who has attended a Great Vigil of Easter in which it was used. It speaks of restoration by God showing God’s power by giving life to the dry bones of a defeated army.

The prophecy which Ezekiel is told to prophesy is restoration for the whole nation of Israel. We think of Israel more or less in terms of today’s nation or the kingdom of David, but Ezekiel is speaking of the northern kingdom, conquered by the Assyrians; the people were taken away to captivity to be replaced by other subject people.

None returned as many of the inhabitants of Judea and Jerusalem would after the victory of the Persians over the Babylonians. They lay in graves in foreign lands so the prophecy truly deals with restoration from the dead.

God’s prophecy is communicated as well by Paul in this portion of his letter to the Romans. Paul says that if we welcome the Spirit then we will live even if the body is dead because of sin. The Spirit of God who raised Jesus from the dead will give life to our mortal bodies.

Paul writes to assure the Roman Christians that through faith they have been justified by God’s grace and the Spirit dwells in them and gives them life.

And Life is what Jesus offers Lazarus in our gospel lesson for today. The Jews believed that the soul hovered near the body for 3 days. Jesus delays his arrival until Lazarus is truly dead—the soul gone to the place of the departed souls.

He is about to show the power of God by raising Lazarus from the dead, but he knows that he is subjecting two of his closest friends to great pain. And he weeps for their pain.

It seems to me that there are three parts to the drama that we hear at this time in the liturgical year. First Jesus cures the man born blind. That is the first part—Jesus giving a new lease on life to a marginal man and welcomes him when ‘polite’ society banishes him.

Now the second part—the raising of Lazarus showing clearly Jesus’ power and answering the critics who said, Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?

Next Sunday we will hear again the story of the Passion and experience the third part—the one who could heal, cast out demons, raise people from the dead would not use that power to save himself.

Why we may ask? It will demonstrate the ultimate power of God—to overturn the cruelest and most demeaning kind of death that the most powerful government the world has known could devise for enemies of the state.

Another related theme comes with Jesus’ order to those watching Lazarus to unbind him and let him go.

How this phrase reverberates throughout Jesus’ ministry then and now. He unbinds everyone he heals particularly those afflicted with leprosy and in last week’s narrative—the man born blind. He unbinds the Samaritan woman who has mired herself in sin and in raising Lazarus he literally unbinds one dead and buried.

But by his resurrection Jesus himself is unbound to be with everyone who will accept him. Through him the world has been saved. He has left us with words of life-giving wisdom and with direct access to God.

May we experience the liberation that the Spirit offers us all in the name of Jesus Christ who restores all.