The Raising of Lazarus, by Léon Bonnat, 1857. Wikipedia

God's Word on Sunday: Restoration of life offers us reassurance

  • March 22, 2020

Fifth Sunday of Lent, March 29 (Year A) Ezekiel 37:12-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:8-11; John 11:1-45

God is the source of life, but life comes in many forms.

For people of the ancient world, there was something worse than death — dying far from home. There was a strong bond between people and their land, and it was important to be laid to rest in one’s native soil.

Ezekiel prophesied in the mid-sixth century BC to the people of Israel during their exile in Babylon. During their long sojourn in captivity, their thoughts were constantly on the land and way of life they had left behind. It is in this context that we understand Ezekiel’s prophecy of the valley of the dry bones.

Ezekiel describes the hand of God opening the graves of the people and giving them life, and then returning them to their native soil. The spirit that God was going to place within the people was intended to restore them as a people and remove the shame of punishment and exile.

God was the life of the people and it was God’s people who were being brought to life. No one — not even the dead — would be left behind. The prophecy of homecoming and restoration reassured the people — and should reassure us — that God is always faithful, regardless of what happens to us.

History abounds with instances in which broken people were restored to life and happiness. Especially in this uncertain time, it is important to turn to God, the source of life and hope.

God is also the source of life for individuals during their earthly sojourn. Romans contrasts the spirit and the flesh but there was no intention to demean the physical body.

In biblical terms, spirit and flesh describe two modes of living. Flesh is oriented towards self, the physical and earthly concerns. Living in the spirit, on the other hand, describes an orientation towards God and serving others.

Paul insists that one who has received the Spirit of Christ has already begun to experience the Resurrection and that this is a guarantee they will be raised up at the end of time. There is a big difference between being physically alive and being alive in the Spirit.

When the New Testament speaks of “the dead,” it often refers to quite ordinary people who live and experience life strictly on a physical level. Life in the Spirit — being aware of the personal presence of God — is promised to all who seek and accept it.

The account of the raising of Lazarus is theologically rich but complicated as well. Jesus deliberately delayed when Mary and Martha called Him to tend to their dying brother. His arrival was choreographed so that He would arrive after the death of Lazarus. This was intended to reveal Jesus as the One sent from God, who had the very gift of life within Himself.

At the funeral, Jesus was greeted by grief, tears and subtle accusations of not caring. He countered that with an amazing assertion: He was the resurrection and the life. Whoever believed in Him would live even when they died, and whoever lived and believed in Him would never die.

On the literal level, it made no sense. Of course, believers die every day, even great saints. Obviously, in John’s Gospel “life” carried a different meaning. Being separate from God in mind and heart is the definition of death.

Eternal life is not merely temporal — it is not a question of how long — but describes a quality of life. That quality is living in the presence and awareness of God, something few people experience. And yet that is what Jesus promised to those who believe in Him and dwell in Him unceasingly.

Jesus gave Lazarus the gift of life, for it is Jesus who makes us truly alive in this life and completely alive in the next. Those who dwell in Jesus will not experience separateness from God, for God will dwell within them.

Earlier in John’s Gospel, Jesus insisted that He had life within Him and could give it to whomever He chose. Additionally, He proclaimed that He came so that we might have life abundantly.

By calling Lazarus from the tomb, He gave proof of the first astonishing assertion. Our transformed lives are proof of the second.