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  • Writer's pictureFather Nicholas Lang

The Fifth Sunday in Lent

One day God was looking down at the earth and noticed a lot of just plain bad behavior. God decided to send an angel down to check it out. When the angel returned, he said, "Yes, it is BAD down there on earth; 95% of them are misbehaving and only 5% are not."

God thought for a moment and said, "Maybe I had better send another angel and get a second opinion." When this angel returned, she went to God and said, "It's true, alright! The folks down on earth are misbehaving big time, only about 5% of them are being good." God was not pleased. So, God decided to E-mail the 5% who were being good in order to encourage them and give them some inspiration to keep them going. Do you know what the E-mail said? Oh, you didn’t get it either.

Happily, God does not operate that way and God does not send emails only to the 5% who “ain’t misbehavin”—as if we don’t get enough of them already. But, even before God’s Son Jesus came to earth, God intervened in the world by sending a different kind of messenger to bring hope and encouragement. We call them “prophets” and we hear from one of them this morning.

Ezekiel was a sixth-century B.C. prophet and priest whose voice was one of forgiveness and salvation for God’s people. God gave him a vision of a valley filled with many bones—bones that were very, very dry—and God asked Ezekiel if these bones could come to life again.

Ezekiel was baffled by this and so God told him to speak to the bones and say that they shall live again. These were the bones of his beloved people, the people of Israel, who had been conquered, captured, and hauled off by their enemies, the Babylonians. Dry bones abound in our world. People are broken by systems and institutions that marginalize them or held captive by physical and mental illness, dysfunctional and abusive relationships, homelessness, poverty, and the horror of war-torn regions. They long for the resurrection of their lives.

The texts we hear today anticipate Easter in the way they deal with life and death but their focus is not so much on the life to come but on life this side of the grave and how God wants us to live. We only find the story of the raising of Lazarus in John’s Gospel. It is a disturbing story because it is about a man—probably in his thirties—and his untimely, unexpected death.

We don’t know why Jesus did not rush to Bethany when he heard the news of his friend’s illness. What we do know, however, is that, by the time Jesus did arrive, Lazarus was very dead. His body had begun to decompose.

There was intense mourning for seven days with lots of tears and wailing—all very cathartic. When Jesus arrives, he is deeply moved by the grieving Mary and Martha and others who had gathered. I’m sure that he wept for the loss of his friend but I suspect he also wept over the frailty of human life, over his frustration that people were not getting what he was all about and the barbarity of what was soon to happen to him in Jerusalem.

Then Jesus goes to the tomb and shouts, “Lazarus, come forth!” The mummy-like corpse appears and Jesus orders the mourners to “Unbind him, and let him go!” But go where? A once dead Lazarus stands before them—dazed, disoriented, mystified—but quite alive. What must that have been like for Lazarus? Once he pulled the dirt and grass out of his hair, took a bath, wiped off the spicy smelling burial oil, and drank several large goblets of wine, he had to face the reality that he had been in a tomb for four days.

I’ve always wondered what happened next? What did Lazarus do with his new lease on life? Jesus’ command “unbind him and let him go,” was more than a directive to the mourners to remove the burial binding from him. It was a mandate to give Lazarus another go at life.

This had me thinking. Not too long ago, we were all living in a kind of symbolic, metaphorical “tomb,” and bound up by the threat of COVID. We were isolated, cooped up in our homes. Some of you didn’t escape it. We had many family members and friends who had varying degrees of this virus and it multiple symptoms and we all know at least someone who lost their life in this pandemic. We could not even attend their funerals.

But…we have pretty much escaped. At least we’ve returned to some semblance of normalcy. We can come together for holidays, meet in church, go out to dinner, travel. In a sense, we got a new lease on life. What are we doing with it?

How much has the “tomb” given us a different perspective on things? What do we take less for granted? How has the impact of COVID informed how we see having another go at living?

The plane had experienced terrifying turbulence. One of the engines began to fail. The captain told the crew and passengers to prepare for an emergency landing. People white knuckled their arm rests. With great skill, the pilot landed safely and there were no injuries to anyone. As he greeted the disembarking crowd, everyone thanking him for his efforts in avoiding what could have been a catastrophe, a priest who was on board said to him, “Now remember, all the rest is extra.”

To which the captain replied, “Father, it’s all extra—from the very beginning.”

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