Updated: Aug 12
You’ve got to give it to the church. The liturgical calendar is a work of art. Because the church year is very complex. If you don’t believe me, try to explain it to a newcomer (or a teen in a confirmation class). We have our own seasons (which are different than the seasons of the year that everyone else knows about), feast days (on which we often actually fast), and days to honor saints that most people have never heard of (Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky, anyone?) Not to mention the fact that said calendar is color-coded, so that we can spend lots of money on serious liturgical concerns like making sure that the altar hangings match the presider’s chasuble. Still, you’ve got to love a calendar that asks you to observe a 40-day period of meditation and preparation in which we refrain from most of the things that make church (and life) fun, but then puts in little breaks to help you get through it. For example, last week we enjoyed “Laudate,” or “refreshment” Sunday, which basically just confused the Altar Guild, who tried desperately to figure out why the church calendar was pink.
Which brings us to today, the Fifth Sunday in Lent, known in my house as “Zombie Sunday.” Our first lesson tracks Ezekiel as he carefully following the directions of the Lord to prophesy to a collection of bones in order to make them come alive, after which we hear St. Paul admonishing the Romans that setting our minds on “flesh is death,” and, for the finale, Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, complete with Lazarus wandering out of the tomb, smelling like rotten garbage and trailing dirty bandages behind him. The mummy lives!
The question is, what does all of this great night of the living dead action have to do with becoming closer to God? The answer is, “resurrection.” Because the true art of the Christian liturgical calendar is that it moves us through the cycles of our own lives onto a path toward inclusion in the resurrection of Christ and oneness with God. It also reminds us that resurrection is a process –a process that requires faith and patience. Ezekiel demonstrated such faith. According to today’s Hebrew scripture, he was bodily lifted by the hand of God and put down in the middle of a boneyard. That’s frightening enough – but then immediately the Lord asked him to “Prophesy” to the bones around him in order to make them live- a feat he could only accomplish by allowing himself to become the vessel of the mighty power of God. By obeying the commands of God, Ezekiel was able to resurrect his dead ancestors and to bring them up from the depths of the grave to their proper place in the sight of God. This scripture is incredibly important from a theological point of view, because it is the first indication in the Hebrew Bible of the possibility of life after death and, for Jews and Christians alike, an extraordinary sign of the power of God.
It is also a sign of the way God considers the body – our flesh. Most early Christians believed that resurrection required a body. “Without flesh,” [they believed], there is no person to overcome death, because a human being, in this life and the next is an intermingled soul and body… [so] for the miracle of resurrection to occur, there must be a corpse.” 1 But here we are told that even in a valley filled with bones that have no flesh – that have been separated and broken- that have dried up – God can bring life. God can bring life to arid bones and to parched spirits, to spirits that are mired in concerns of the flesh, that long to drink from the waters of forgiveness, that thirst for the fountain of new life. That desperate thirst – that deep well of despair – is what happens when we become too focused on the flesh. That is what the author of the letter to the Romans means when he says, “to set the mind on the flesh is death.” The evangelist did not, as has often been argued, say that all material things are evil, that our bodies are innately bad. He knew all too well that we are human beings, made of flesh and subject to it; he knew that we have fleshly desires. He knew what it was to crave chocolate, Diet Cokes and pancakes – to experience hunger and fear and cold – and he never said that we should be able to resist all these physical desires or ignore our material needs. He said that things of the flesh are natural, but worshipping them is not. When we choose to put our material needs before God, we are misusing our flesh. We are “putting [ourselves] rather than God in the center of the universe.” 2 “Christian life is a material life…. [What we need to worry about is not ignoring our bodies so we can practice our faith, but how we use our bodies]…how we use our physical energies and our material resources, how we care for our neighbors and for our planet.” 3 It is about how we conduct ourselves when Kelton Cobb, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Fifth Sunday in Lent), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing orporation], 124. 2 Kenneth L. Clark, Sr., (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Fifth Sunday in Lent), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 138. 3 Amy Plantinga Pau, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Fifth Sunday in
Lent), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 134. we are in the depths of our lives. It is not about whether or not we can, but how we wait for resurrection – how we wait for the Lord. Because we do wait. God does not always answer our prayers immediately – or in the way we think God should. Jesus made the disciples wait to go to their friend Lazarus, even though he knew that during that delay, Lazarus would die. Jesus did not answer the prayers of Martha and Mary as they would have liked, by saving their brother. Instead he waited. He allowed them to suffer – to mourn and to weep – and to fear. He allowed them to consider and question and worry and wonder until they knew, deeply in their hearts, that any life they had -and any rebirth their brother could have – would come through Jesus Christ their Lord. And their faith was rewarded.
It is hard to wait for the Lord, much less with such faith and patience. In 1994, after six years of marriage, my husband and I decided to start a family. The fact that our first attempts did not work did not initially bother us. After all, we had married young. We had time. But two years later our attitude had changed. We had begun to be afraid that we could not conceive a child. Over the course of the next three years, we attempted all of the homeopathic, medical and even superstitious treatments that we could try – all without result. And during that time I tried to do things to bolster my chances that God would answer my prayers; I read the Bible stories of Sarah, Elizabeth, and Miriam. I proclaimed my belief in God’s faithfulness. And I prayed. I prayed loud and I prayed long. And I wept, just as my sisters Martha and Mary wept for their brother Lazarus.
Just as so many others have wept in pain, in fear, and in desperation. Just as we have all
wept while waiting for the Lord. God knows our pain. We know this. We know this because in what is perhaps the shortest and most significant verse in the Bible we hear the words that can, if we allow them, provide us with all the comfort we need to wait patiently and with faith. We hear that Jesus also wept. He wept because, like us, he was disturbed and distraught by the sorrow of his friends and by the finality of death. But unlike us, Jesus had the power to overturn it. Jesus had the power to raise Lazarus from the power of the greatest and deepest darkness of all – the power of death. Jesus never doubted the power of God. Jesus knew that Lazarus could and would be raised. We know this because he thanked
God for his miracle in advance. Jesus believed that God would provide for him and God did.
That is what we must do. We must believe. As the calendar of our church and our lives marches on toward the day when we can again celebrate the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ we must wait – but not quietly, not stoically, and not passively. We must wait as Mary and Martha did – as Jesus did – actively, hopefully, and gratefully. God has heard our cry – and God has already given us what we need – but we must be ready to receive it. That is what Lent is about – making ourselves ready to receive the miracles that God is so very eager to provide for us. As God did for me. “Wait for the Lord, for with the Lord there is mercy. With him there is plenteous redemption.” With him there is resurrection. AMEN.