FIFTH SUNDAY OF LENT (A) March 17, 2024

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

by Jude Siciliano, OP

Dear Preachers:

Even those just beginning to read the Scriptures realize quickly that, like good literature, the sacred writings communicate through symbol and poetry. So, in today’s gospel, we are told that a man named Lazarus, who lived in Bethany, was ill. John begins by first describing him as “a man,” other translations say, “a certain man.” One senses that he is not just one particular person, but that he represents us all – women and men in every age.

Bethany, where the ill one lies, means “the house of the afflicted” and Lazarus’ name means, “God helps.” In a few opening words the master writer, John, has summarized the gospel story – all gospel stories. Lazarus is seriously ill. Our story begins in need and soon spirals downward. But, though he dies, Lazarus is not forgotten in the tomb. “God remembers” and Jesus comes to the tomb. He is the concrete sign that God has not forgotten us humans. There are many afflictions we humans suffer, we are, in the gospel’s imagery, a “house of the afflicted.” In one way or another, we are Lazarus in the tomb and God has not forgotten our name either, “God helps.”

Let’s not forget Mary and her sister Martha. Lazarus isn’t the only one suffering in dire circumstances. He is not a solitary, but is connected to a loving family, his grieving sisters. The three also have concerned friends and after Lazarus dies, “many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them about their brother.” The three are well connected to others. But still, even with all that support, these humans are unable to stop Lazarus’ slide into death. The “certain man” needed help, as each and all of us do in a world where death, in forms of violence, hatred, and despair, exerts seeming total control over us. Our skilled gospel writer has us on board now as join him and one another to discover whether Lazarus’ name will prove true, “God helps.”

Wouldn’t you be frustrated with Jesus if you were one of the sisters? He has the power and he loves Lazarus and his sisters. Why did he delay and let Lazarus die! What is he up to, anyway? We get assurance early. Immediately after Jesus is told, “Master, the one you love, is ill,” and he responds, “This illness is not to end in death....”

What the story will reveal is Jesus’ power over death. John anticipates this manifestation and tells us that we will learn about the “glory of God” – that our God is not a God of death, but a God of life. Isn’t that our hope when we live in “the house of the afflicted?” When we suffer and watch those we love diminish? Faith in Jesus, like the kind Mary and Martha had, does not guarantee an easy solution, a cessation of all problems. In fact, things may even get worse, as they did for Lazarus and his sisters. We might ask with them, “Where is Jesus when we need him!?” At this point in the story we do believe and hope that God’s “glory” will shine forth in the end. Because of Jesus we have the life of God in us, helping us through the losses that afflict us.

Death seems to have the last word. Sin and death hold the world in a powerful, seeming unbreakable grip. The powerful ones of the world often have the ultimate fate of their subjects in their hands. But Jesus comes to Lazarus’ tomb and to our tombs as well, revealing that God has the last word – and it is a word of life.

How do we discover the “glory of God?” In Jesus God comes to the dead spots and the tombs, that seal us up – limited vision, addictions, indifference, helplessness, spiritual fatigue and discouragement – and calls each of us by name, “N, come out!” Which is what Jesus does for us today. We have called to him to come to our community’s needs, as well as to our personal ones. It is never too late, even though we may think the human situation is beyond all hope. In fact, things may go from bad to worse, but they are never beyond the healing reach of Jesus’ word – “Come out.” At this Eucharist his word comes to us, helps us through the losses death has inflicted on us, forgives our sins and then sends us on mission to be bearers in word and deed of the new, raised life we have received.

After Jesus calls Lazarus forth from the tomb, he tells those nearby, “Untie him and let him go.” Which is what he does for us. Through his death and resurrection death no longer has the last word over us. We now live a new life. Inspired by Jesus’ word we pray, “Untie us and let us go! Free us from the bindings that cause us to think only of ourselves and those closest to us.” We want to be Christ’s instruments for life in the world: defenders of the poor, voices for the oppressed and defenseless. We want to untie the cords of hunger, racism, war, economic inequality, homelessness and hopelessness that keep others bound and held down.

Ezekiel reminds us that God’s Spirit can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. The prophet saw the defeated and enslaved people of Israel in his vision of the valley of dry bones. But God’s breath over the bones gave them life and raised them up. No wonder this reading was chosen to go with today’s gospel. The same life-giving God that breathed new life over the dry bones of Israel, did the same for Lazarus.

Is anyone or situation beyond God’s help? Even death cannot frustrate the plans God has for us: to bring life and hope to even the most dire situation. Can Jesus come to the dead places of our nation and world and raise up disciples to feed the hungry, heal the sick, educate children and develop the potential of all human beings? Yes, our God, who approached the tomb of the beloved Lazarus and was not repelled by the stench of death, can breathe life where death seems to be entrenched.

We pray at our celebration today, “Unbind us and let us go.” The one who is, “the resurrection and the life,” will call us forth, breathe new life into us in the Word and nourish us with his body and blood. Then he will send us forth to do for others what the Resurrected One has done for us – untie and release others.

Click here for a link to this Sunday’s readings: