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Introduction To The Scripture For The Fifth Sunday in Lent - Year A
Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45

The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (jlss@sympatico.ca) of the United Church of Canada. John has structured his offerings so that the first portion can be used as a bulletin insert, while the second portion provides a more in depth 'introduction to the scripture'.

INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE	
The Fifth Sunday in Lent - Year A


EZEKIEL 37:1-14          The Book of Ezekiel was so compellingly
imaginative that in strict Jewish circles young people were not permitted
to read it alone.  The haunting passage comes from a long section
expressing hope for a new age initiated by God.  It was probably written
soon after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple in 586
BC.  The prophet urged his devastated nation to look beyond that
catastrophe to a future that vindicated God's justice and promised the
restoration of the nation by the action of Gods spirit.


PSALM 130                As a prayer of penitence this psalm has few
equals.  It reflects of an actual situation evoking a desperate cry for
God's forgiveness.  The need to be reconciled to God has universal
application in the patient hope with which the psalm ends.  


ROMANS 8:6-11            Paul discusses two levels of existence: The
physical which will end when our physical resources are exhausted; and the
spiritual level with the ongoing assurance of life beyond death.  Life
focused only in this world is the way to the death that is ultimately
separation from God.  The spirit filled life is full of energy and intimacy
with God now and forever.


JOHN 11:1-45             The story of the raising of Lazarus is the sixth
of seven signs John gives to prove that Jesus is the Messiah/Christ, Son of
God, and that through faith in him believers receive eternal life.  Even as
the event shows Jesus' divine power over death itself, it also shows him as
a wonderfully sensitive human being.  His love for Lazarus is palpable. 
Martha's and Mary's accusation that Jesus' presence would have averted
Lazarus' death tells how real their friendship was.  So also did Jesus'
tears.  The story, which may be a midrash or interpretative story, is also
John's reflection on the significance of the resurrection.  Because Jesus
is fully human and fully divine, life and death are his gifts to give.
          

A More Complete Analysis:


EZEKIEL 37:1-14   The Book of Ezekiel was so compellingly imaginative that
in strict Jewish circles young people were not permitted to read it alone. 
This passage contains one of the best known of the prophet's visions.  It
comes from a long section (33:1-39:29) expressing hope for the restoration
of Israel initiated by Yahweh.  Probably experienced soon after the fall of
Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple in 586 BC, it urges the
devastated nation to look beyond that catastrophe to a future that
vindicates God's justice and promises redemption.

The image of the valley of dry bones may well have come from an actual
battle site.  The location of this site cannot be determined and may well
be imaginary.  Some scholars relate it to *the plain* in 3:22-23.  Although
Ezekiel is thought to have spent most of his ministry in Babylon, the
vision could also have been a memory from the destruction of Jerusalem. 
This vision is also thought to have influenced a similar experience in
Revelation 11:7-10 although a scene of a massacre such as this was not
unfamiliar in ancient times.  Or, tragically, even now.
     
Bones had a special meaning in ancient Hebrew thought.  The Hebrew word
*hetsem* repeated eight times in this passage, derived from a root meaning
*to be powerful* and hence indicated stability and firmness.  If the bones
were strong and firm, then the soul was also strong.  Because of this
relationship, careful attention was given to the burial of bones.  That
these bones lay exposed long after death accentuated the spiritual tragedy
which had befallen Israel.

The promised resurrection was more than the enfleshing of skeletons and
resuscitation of the dead.  It included the restoration of the whole
community.  The prophet's conversation with Yahweh (vss. 3-10) emphasizes
that it is the Lord who takes the initiative to restore life to the
skeletons.  Whereas the people had lost all hope of restoration (vs. 11),
Yahweh insists that not only will they be raised from death and given a new
life, but also will return to their homeland (vss. 12-14).

The effective agent of this resurrection is the Spirit of Yahweh (vs. 14). 
Remembering that the Hebrew word *ruach* means breath, wind and spirit, we
can see the play on the word throughout the passage in vss. 4, 6, 9, 10 and
14.  This recalls the creation stories of Genesis 1:2ff and 2:7ff.  The
same vibrant Spirit infused the apostles on Pentecost, equipped them for
their mission, led to the creative assembling of the NT, and still inspires
and empowers the Christian community so created.  
     

PSALM 130   As a prayer of penitence this psalm has few equals.  It
reflects of an actual situation evoking a desperate cry for God's
forgiveness.  In these few lines of exquisite poetry we find an impressive
description of the burden of unforgiven sin, estrangement from God which
sin causes, and a passionate longing for reconciliation.

While we do not know exactly what sins the psalmist had committed or what
other calamity may have befallen him, we sense that he despairs for his
life.  The depth of his depression comes vividly to mind when one
recognizes that the Hebrew mind did not contemplate any life beyond death. 
The phrase "out of the depths" in vs.1 expresses the fear of being engulfed
in the waters of Sheol into which the dead were believed to sink never to
reappear. (See also Isa. 51:10; Ezek. 27:34; Jonah 2:3.)  As a people of
the land who had passed miraculously through the waters of the Red Sea, the
Israelites knew no greater fear.  

The poem moves from the general to the specific by voicing the common
failure of humanity (vss. 3-4), then pleading the psalmist's own case (vss. 
5-6).  Finally, his trust that Yahweh will be merciful mitigates his sense
of guilt and moves him to wait for divine pardon with hope inspired by
faith in Yahweh's word, i.e. the covenant.  A rich metaphor, twice
repeated, expands the concept of trustful waiting.  

The image of a watchman waiting for the morning suggests that the psalmist
could have been a member of the temple guard, one of the two groups of
Levites whose task it was to protect the sanctity of the temple precincts
and its treasures from nocturnal infiltrators and thieves.  Guards on the
city walls or watching a sleeping caravan could also have been the source
of the metaphor.  Anyone who has stood a night watch knows how long the
hours seem before dawn breaks.

In the closing verses, the poet again expresses the faith of the community
in Yahweh's steadfast love and power to redeem as had frequently happened
throughout Israel's history.  The need to be reconciled thus receives
universal application resting on Yahweh's historical deliverance of Israel
according to the covenant promise.


ROMANS 8:6-11   Paul discusses two levels of existence or two principles of
life: the physical which will end when our physical resources are
exhausted; and the spiritual with the ongoing assurance of eternal life. 
It is difficult for us who have a relatively comfortable existence with
moderately effective support systems to contemplate exactly what Paul meant
by this contrast.  We find it all to easy "to set our minds on the flesh"
and leave whatever lies beyond to theological argument.

In many respects, Paul may have been recalling the two ways of life the
Deuteronomists had set before Israel: the way of life and the way of death. 
But the Deuteronomists emphasized obedience to the law of the covenant as
the means of  assuring the Israelites a life of security in the land
promised to their patriarchal ancestors forever (Deut. 30:19-20).  It is
here that Paul differed with his ancestral tradition.  He had a totally
different scenario in mind.  Life focussed only on this world and on
satisfying one's natural impulses is the way to the death that is
ultimately separation from God.  This is the end for those who "set their
minds on the flesh." 

Paul wrote after the resurrection of Christ and Pentecost, when the Spirit
the prophet Joel promised would come "in the last days" had actually been
"poured out" on the Christian community.  As he says in vs. 9, "the Spirit 
of God dwells in you." For him, the Spirit-filled life is full of energy
and intimacy with God now and forever.

Thus Paul was not dreaming of an other-worldly existence "in the sky by and
by." He knew full well that every human life must be lived in the real
world.  It was the kind of life one lives that is so important to him. 
This is nothing short of the life of Christ in us made real and effective
by the work of the Spirit (vs. 10-11).  

Equally important in Paul's thinking is the empowering action of God,
Christ and the Spirit in the life of the ordinary Christian.  Nowhere in
the NT is the activity of what the church subsequently defined as the three
Persons of the Trinity more clearly expressed.  In this passage the three
are virtually interchangeable.  Paul goes so far as to use the two phrases
"the Spirit of God" and the "Spirit of Christ" in successive sentences.  He
had fully comprehended the truth that God acted in Jesus Christ, not only
throughout Jesus' human life and ministry, but especially in raising Jesus
from the dead to be the living Christ present to all believers through the
Spirit actively changing our lives here and now (vs. 11).


JOHN 11:1-45   The story of the raising of Lazarus is the sixth of seven
signs John gives to prove that Jesus is the Messiah Christ, Son of God,
and that through faith in him believers receive eternal life.  Hence, the
telling of this miracle leads directly to the climax of the gospel story
and the greatest sign of all - the resurrection.  Throughout the gospel,
John's purpose had been to show that in all that Jesus of Nazareth said
and did God was fully present, actively revealing and "glorifying" the
redemptive power of God's love.  Of this not even Jesus' closest friends
were fully aware until after the resurrection.  

As this story proceeds, Martha gradually becomes aware and believes.  That
is the significance of the interchange between Martha and Jesus resulting
in another of the characteristic "I am ..." proclamations found only in
John's Gospel (vs. 25), and Martha's confession of faith (vs. 27).  Yet
even she, like countless others since, experiences a moment of real doubt
when Jesus orders the tomb to be opened (vss. 39-40).  

While the miracle of raising Lazarus from the grave shows Jesus' divine
power over death itself, it also shows him as a wonderfully sensitive
human being.  His love for Lazarus and his sisters is palpable.  Martha's
and Mary's accusation that Jesus' presence would have averted Lazarus'
death tells how real their friendship was.  So also did Jesus' tears.  All
cultural aspects of ostentatious grief aside, the story represents the
best of that special human quality of openly expressing their real
feelings.  This same quality also comes through in Martha's revulsion at
the stench of her brother's decaying corpse.

Not to be overlooked, however, is the dramatic intensity building
throughout John's narrative.  Martha' s accusation (vss. 21) sets the
stage for Jesus to declare, "I am the resurrection and the life," and for
Martha to confess her faith in him.  When Mary repeats the accusation,
Jesus uses it to reveal his very human feelings (vss. 33-38) and then
perform the miracle.

By means of this miracle story, John is telling his own 1st century
community and us that because Jesus is fully human and fully divine, life
and death are his gifts to give.  This too is the meaning of his
resurrection and the basis of hope for ours.

                         
copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.



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