Reflections on the Readings for Sunday 6 April 2014 (Fifth Sunday of Lent)
Psalm 130:1-8; Ezekiel 37:12-14; Romans 8:8-11; John 11:1-45 [Find the readings here.)
Hope is an essential part of the Christian faith, the stubborn belief that there is always a future with God. No matter how cataclysmic the ending that faces us, there will be a new beginning. The endings reflected in today’s readings are exile, death, and guilt-induced despair. The hope offered is redemption and resurrection.
The psalmist’s situation is described as being ‘in the depths’, a vague but evocative description of the abyss or void that sometimes swallows us up. The experience here is linked to feelings of guilt, but notice how that does not stop the worshipper from crying out to God. The psalm is not a plea for forgiveness so much as a confident assertion that God does not hold our sinfulness and inadequacy against us. When we pray this psalm, we do not hatch plans for self-improvement nor try to bargain with God about what we can do to earn God’s forgiveness. We simply throw ourselves upon God’s grace and kindness, trusting that with God there is mercy and full redemption. And then we wait in the darkness, straining our eyes for the first glimpse of the dawn that we know is coming.
Hoping is not the same as being in denial. The words of Ezekiel, spoken to God’s people in exile, come toward the end of the book of Ezekiel. In the first half of the book, the prophet consistently warns his hearers that the calamity they are facing is considerably worse than they are willing to acknowledge. Many of the elite had been taken from Jerusalem by the Babylonians, but life in Jerusalem continued under a replacement king and the Temple of God was still standing. The exiles preferred to listen to the message of other prophets who assured them that their exile in Babylon was just a temporary setback and that soon they would be restored to their land. Ezekiel warned otherwise – it is worse than they fear, and going to get even worse. Time proved Ezekiel right, and when he speaks the words found in today’s reading, the Temple in Jerusalem has been destroyed, the Davidic king deposed and most of the remainder of the population taken into exile. Their false hope has been shattered. Every symbol of their status as God’s special people – their land, their king, their Temple – has been taken from them. A crisis of this magnitude felt like nothing short of death. Indeed, how could they go on being the people of God? Ezekiel acknowledges the severity of this ending which leaves the people of God effectively dead and buried, but then tells them that their God is the God of resurrection. At this point there was no clear belief in life beyond the grave, so the Lord God’s promise is incredible. When they are beyond redemption by all reckoning, they will be saved. And that is what happened. The Persians later defeated the Babylonians and allowed the exiles to return to their land, rebuild their Temple and continue to worship God according to their ancestral laws. This was nothing short of resurrection. Even prior to that, they experienced the little resurrection of surviving as a faith community in exile.
The miracles that Jesus performs in the Gospel of John are referred to as ‘signs’, visible pointers to the truth of Jesus’ identity and mission. Jesus’ claim to be the resurrection and the life is given concrete expression in the raising of Lazarus. Lazarus would have had to die again at some stage in the future, but his return to life is a picture of the resurrection, the raising to eternal life that is promised to all who have the Spirit of God. Belief in the resurrection should not just be ‘pie in the sky when we die.’ St Paul reminds us that our lives here and now can be lived out of resurrection faith. It should make a fundamental difference to our commitments and to our behaviour. Belief in resurrection also gives the lie to any notion of spirituality that exalts the things of the spirit to the detriment of the body. Resurrection means that it is our embodied lives in which we suffer and sin and experience big and little deaths that are redeemed and given a future. In the dark times when we cannot see this, we live in hope.
I originally posted this on April 4, 2011