5th Sunday of Lent

26th March 2023

Reflection (readings follow on below)

The valley full of bones conjures up an image of cowboy western with a vast expanse of bare sand and the  scattered  bones of long-dead cattle. Except that here it is not animal but human bones – the bones of a whole community, the people of Israel. What has caused this mass death? Ezekiel tells us they had lost hope, they had felt cut off from God – and therefore from life – and their bones had dried up. Whilst Psalm 22 famously begins, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ here it is the people who have forsaken God. Their bones now lie dry and lifeless. 

God  tells Ezekiel to speak to the bones, to command them to hear the word of God, to hear the message of salvation: that they will be restored to life. Not only will their bones be covered with flesh but God will breathe into them, filling them with his life giving spirit.

This passage has many echoes of the creation story in Genesis 2. There the first Adam is brought to life by God’s breath. And it is from one of Adam’s bones that Eve is created. God settled the two new humans in the land – the Garden of Eden – so that they and the land might flourish. And likewise Ezekiel records  God saying,  I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil – your own ground – then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act.” 

Renewal, beginning again, starting over, resurrection is always possible in God’s story. 

But why have the people lost hope, why had they felt so far from God that their very bones had dried up? Psalm 130 acknowledges that if God judged us as we deserve, we would not survive. It seems as if we humans all too easily fall into such a state of sin, that really we should be beyond the pale. But the Psalmist reminds us, God’s nature is forgiveness, God will redeem us! We should therefore always have hope. 

What would redemption look like for us in view of the most recent IPCC Report? 

It seems as if we, God’s people, have gone so far away from God that not only our bones but our whole ecosystem is threatened. Vast tracts of land at present are fated to becoming scorched and dried up and unable to support life. Scientists suggest that on our current trajectory, all the land south of a line of latitude running through the Normandy Peninsula across the whole of Europe and Asia and on through the Great Lakes in North America will be uninhabitable. Only the tip of South America, parts of Australia, and New Zealand, would join with the northern parts of Europe, Asia and America, as being habitable. In this future world would there be enough food to eat, water to drink, space to inhabit? In this world would there be enough plants to refresh the air, enough insects to pollinate crops, enough sea life to maintain oxygen levels in the oceans? 

UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in this week’s IPCC report, “our world needs climate action on all fronts — everything, everywhere, all at once.” Redemption might look like the scene depicted by Ezekiel. A renewing of the desiccated human population such that filled with God’s Spirit, we have a new zest for live, are willing to make radical changes to our lifestyles, are ready to cooperate with one another, are ready to be generous in helping others. This regenerated, resurrected, people of God would  have hope, knowing, that filled with God’s Spirit, we can be true to God’s calling we should love God with all being, love our neighbour as ourself, and thus tend and protect the earth. 

The hope of resurrection is also the underlying theme of today’s gospel. Both Mary and Martha assert their belief in the  resurrection but cannot imagine it happening. And I am sure that it wasn’t something that Lazarus could imagine either. Often we are trapped in a world view view that does not let us see clearly God’s will, God’s way. Instead we only understand things from a ‘worldly’ perspective convinced that the way things are – social norms, economic patterns, human habits – are set in stone and cannot change. It is as if we are imprisoned by this world view, shut in a dark tomb from which we can find no way of escape. 

Jesus breaks that prison apart, his voice penetrates into the darkness, and he enables both Lazarus and us to live once more as God wills. Let us pray earnestly that in this climate crisis, as the opportunity of reform becomes an ever narrowing window, Jesus will calls us all – individuals, nations, governments and institutions- to come out from the tomb. For it seems as if we are trapped in a dark place where we can’t find our way out of the systems that trap us – the economic systems that make public transport more expensive than driving, that push up,the cost of energy even when the cost of production is static, that a customise us to a meat based diet, that allows us to charge countries for the aid we give them – in a system that says that the more you have the happier you will be. Yet there are other ways of living , of sorting our our priorities and furnishing our needs. It is to find that  newness of life to which Jesus called Lazarus, and to which Jesus calls us too. 

Jesus says, “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.”

Ezekiel 37:1-14

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord.

Psalm 130

De profundis

1 Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord;
Lord, hear my voice; *
let your ears consider well the voice of my supplication.

2 If you, Lord, were to note what is done amiss, *
O Lord, who could stand?

3 For there is forgiveness with you; *
therefore you shall be feared.

4 I wait for the Lord; my soul waits for him; *
in his word is my hope.

5 My soul waits for the Lord,
more than watchmen for the morning, *
more than watchmen for the morning.

6 O Israel, wait for the Lord, *
for with the Lord there is mercy;

7 With him there is plenteous redemption, *
and he shall redeem Israel from all their sins.

Romans 8:6-11

To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law– indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

John 11:1-45

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during 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.” After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “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. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “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.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

Author: Judith Russenberger

Environmentalist and theologian, with husband and three grown up children plus one cat, living in London SW14. I enjoy running and drinking coffee - ideally with a friend or a book.

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