Bible Study: 5 Lent (A)

April 6, 2014

Eileen O’Brien, Virginia Theological Seminary

“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.” (John 11:33-35)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Ezekiel 37:1-14Psalm 130Romans 8:6-11John 11:1-45

Ezekiel 37:1-14

This is the third of four vision narratives in Ezekiel introduced by the phrase “the hand of the Lord came upon me” (37:1 NRSV). As in our psalm today, location matters. This vision takes place within the context of the exile, and we are offered the image of the prophet led by the spirit into the deepest part of a valley, which is full of desiccated bones. One might imagine walking around a battlefield full of fallen soldiers, as we hear of Ezekiel being led by the spirit to and fro and all around this valley. Is this what exile is like: chaos and hopelessness? Here, even struggle and crying out has ceased. One can imagine the deep silence of the valley.

Into this silence comes a voice that tells Ezekiel not to proclaim something convoluted like his first vision, but to call out to these dry bones to hear the word of the Lord and live. Ezekiel summons the dry bones, representative of the desolation of his people, to life, and they are reformed into living beings. In fact, we have here a new creation that reverses the process of decay and parallels the narrative in Genesis 2 about the creation of Adam.

It should come as no surprise that Christian interpretation of this passage has often associated it with bodily resurrection. However, we might also invite God’s spirit to lead us into the lifeless valleys of our own lives or the lives of our communities, trusting that God is at work recreating and renewing. How might God’s word be calling us to new life as we approach the end of this season of Lent?

Psalm 130

This psalm provides rich content for reflection on this Fifth Sunday in Lent, and its simple structure might serve as a helpful guide for a Bible study or as sermon. Designated as “a song of ascents,” by its superscription, this psalm takes us on an ascending journey. The psalm may be read in four movements, which lead us from the depths to a proclamation of hope and trust in the Lord. One might think of these four movements as stops for reflection along the way on a hike up to the top of a mountain, or indeed, on the pilgrimage from the valley up to the temple mount, the highest point in Jerusalem.

We begin our journey at the base of the mountain, crying out to the Lord from the depths. By beginning in the depths, we have the opportunity to name our own pain and the pain of the world. Note, though, that the psalmist spends little time describing his or her situation and more time invoking the Lord in these first two verses. This invocation in itself is an expression of trust and relationship with the God who hears. What is the cry from the depth of your own heart?

What might be getting in the way of crying out to the God who hears? The second movement of the psalm addresses this question provoked by the first movement. The psalmist is clearly aware that there are things that get in the way of a fullness of relationship with God. Like Paul in Romans 1-3, he is aware that the answer to his question, “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord who could stand?” is nobody. We have all fallen short. And yet, the psalmist has confidence that forgiveness continues to hold God’s people in relationship with God.

The third movement involves something bound to make us uncomfortable: waiting. The image of “those who watch for the morning,” repeated by the psalmist, suggests the restless character of this waiting. But all of the language about restless waiting in verses 5-6 make the hope in verse 5b stand out all the more. God has already spoken, and “in his word” the psalmist hopes. As Christians, we believe that God has already spoken decisively in Christ, and part of our call is to wait in hope for God’s kingdom when all will be reconciled to God. Perhaps today, we should ask: What is the quality of our waiting? Are we restless for the coming kingdom? Or have we placed our hope in something other than God’s promise in Christ?

The final movement of the psalm reaches out of the psalmist self and proclaims to all of Israel the “steadfast love” of the Lord and God’s “great power to redeem.” There is something ecstatic about this proclamation; this is the cry from the heights. How difficult it is to get to the place from which we can openly proclaim God’s steadfast love and hope to all people!

How often are you able to make it to the part of the spiritual journey that calls you out from yourself to share God’s love and your hope in God’s word with others?

Romans 8:6-11

“But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you” (8:9).

Here, Paul proclaims good news to us and to the congregation at Rome. Those who have been joined to Christ are a new creation. Even though we live embodied lives, we are even now “in the Spirit,” and, therefore, free to love and serve God. But Paul also acknowledges that there is still a battle going on. He formulates it as an opposition between flesh and spirit and calls upon his listeners to choose the side of life – to set their minds upon the Spirit.

What does Paul’s call to set our minds upon the Spirit mean for us during this season of Lent? Have we taken time to really engage in the struggle to reshape our lives so that they might be more reflective of Christ’s self-giving love? How is your Lenten practice leading to fuller life for you and for others?

John 11:1-45

John’s dramatic “sign” story of Lazarus speaks volumes about the one who brings about the sign and the responses of those who witness these events. Within John’s narrative, this text occurs at a turning point. It is the last of seven narrated “signs” within John’s gospel, and it marks a shift from the narration of Jesus’ public ministry to the John’s lengthy Passion narrative with its long discourses. Thus, it is particularly appropriate that we hear it today, on the Fifth Sunday in Lent, as we prepare to enter into the events of the Passion of Our Lord.

So, what does this story say about the one who performs the sign? While it is easy to read John’s gospel and get a sense of a Jesus who seems to be in complete control, walking about five feet above the ground, and talking on a wholly different level than many of his interlocutors (Nicodemus, for example), this narrative offers a picture of Jesus in which his humanity is fully on display in his grief over his friend. In the midst of the grief, Jesus’ conversations with Martha and Mary reveal his identity more fully. In the midst of his vulnerability and grief, Jesus is revealed as the one who can say, “I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25). Similarly, it will be in the midst of human vulnerability and death on the cross, that Jesus’ glory will be revealed. This is classic John: Divine glory is revealed most fully in the fullness and perfection of Christ’s humanity and the vulnerability of the outpouring of self-sacrificial love.

What does this story say to you about the identity of Christ?

The bystanders invite us to “see how he loved him” (11:36). In this narrative, we have a remarkable picture of Jesus’ loving relationship with the family of Martha, Mary and Lazarus at Bethany. We see a sign of God’s desire that all humanity might be unbound from the shroud of death and have an abundance of life. We also get a glimpse of a love that will be fully revealed on the cross. In the Passion of Our Lord, we will be invited to see how he loves us (cf. John 3:16).

How is Christ’s love shown throughout this passage? As a bystander in this scene, how will you respond to this sign?

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