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5th Sunday in Lent – Year A (April 6th) E-mail
Written by Nicholas King SJ   
Saturday, 15 February 2014 16:30

•    Ezekiel 37:12-14
•    Psalm 130:1-8
•    Romans 8:8-11
•    John 11:1-45

Next week, we come into that deeper part of Lent, when our attention should be no longer on ourselves and our sinfulness, and focussed instead on the Jesus whose death is now less than two weeks away.

The first reading is from Ezekiel’s wonderful image of the Valley of the Dry Bones, which is intended to give hope to the Israelites exiled to Babylon, to reassure them that God is still at work. That is something that we have to grasp, as Lent reaches its sombre climax. Ezekiel is told to prophesy to Israel that “the Lord is going to open your graves and bring you up from your graves, my people, and bring you into the soil of Israel”. What Israel have to do, what we in our turn have to do, is to recognise God at work, even in our deadness, as God proclaims, “I shall put my spirit in you, and you shall live”. Confidence in God needs to be our watchword.

The psalm for next Sunday is certainly not lacking in confidence; it is the De Profundis, one of those songs that Israel traditionally sang when going on pilgrimage up to Jerusalem, a song of absolute confidence in God, even “from the depths”. It contains that very telling image of the night-watchman looking for day-break; and urges that, if night-workers can be confident that morning will eventually come, Israel can be even more confident that God is about to act.

In the second reading Paul is offering reasons for us to have confidence in God; he tells the Romans that “you are ...in the Spirit, since the Spirit is living in you”. And he defines the Spirit a bit further, looking ahead to Easter, which should now be looming large in our thoughts: it is the “Spirit of the One who raised Jesus from the dead”.

That does not mean, however, that there is no death; we all have to face death, and Jesus has been there before us. The gospel for next Sunday is a climactic moment in the Fourth Gospel’s journey into the mystery of Jesus, and it is a wonderful story, which you will do well to read carefully before you attend next Sunday’s Eucharist (it is also rather long, of course). It starts with the sickness of Lazarus, who, surprisingly enough, is apparently only significant because he is the brother of Mary and Martha; these ladies have sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, look! The one whom you love is sick”. Jesus reinterprets this sickness as “not leading to death, but it is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it”. And we have already learned to interpret Jesus’ own death as a “glorification”, so we are aware that this is something of a Good Friday moment. Then, bafflingly, Jesus stays where he is for two further days, before announcing that he and the disciples are to go to Judea; the disciples point out that the Judeans were looking to stone him, but he is not deterred, and responds in terms of having the light. Once more the disciples fail to understand as Jesus tells them that Lazarus is “fast asleep”, to which their response is “Well, that’s all right, then”. More puzzling yet, he makes it clear a) that Lazarus is in fact dead, and b) that Jesus is glad about it, because it will bring them to faith. Thomas, ever the cheerful soul, says “Let’s go and die with him”. And off they go.

When they get there, the place is thronging with Judeans; and the two sisters, one by one, reproach Jesus for not having been there. First Martha and then Mary say “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died”. With Martha, this leads to a dialogue about Lazarus’ resurrection, of which the culmination is the remarkable statement, stronger than anything that we have heard in the gospel so far, “I am the Resurrection and the Life; anyone who believes in me will live, even if they die”. In response, Martha makes the powerful claim “Lord, I have come to believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is coming into the world”. Next Mary, with a crowd of mourners round her, falls at his feet, weeping; and Jesus is, we learn, disturbed, and he too weeps, which leads some of the mourners to complain that Jesus had failed to save Lazarus. We watch, spell-bound, as the story continues. Jesus orders the stone to be rolled away, despite the practical Martha’s warning about the smell, and, after a prayer to his Father, summons Lazarus forth; he comes out, still in his grave-clothes, and that is that.

Or rather not quite; we learn that “many of the Judeans came to faith in him”; this provokes a crisis in the Judean religious establishment, as a result of which they settle upon Jesus’ execution. So we have it before us: Jesus is the presence of God on earth, is the Resurrection and the Life, with power over death, and yet, and precisely because of this, is shortly going to die at the hands of his own religious establishment. Is there any hope at all for a happy ending to the story? You must decide, this week.