Fifth Sunday in Lent  |  Bones

Ezekiel 37:1-14 and John 11:1-45

Gravel 008The lectionary guides us to Ezekiel 37:1-14, the valley of the dry bones, and to John 11:1-45, the raising of Lazarus. We are invited, in this time of Lent, this journey toward Jerusalem and the cross, to contemplate the tomb.

Ezekiel, the prophet of the exile, visionary, one of the most strange of all the strange people in scripture, tells us of his vision of the valley of dry bones. Ezekiel speaks of many wonderful and frightful things. He sees angelic beings with wings and wheels, cities built like cubes. He sees a valley full of the bones of the dead. The bones are the people of Israel as individuals, all those who perished in the past, being raised at the last day. The bones are also the collective people of Israel, the kingdoms of Israel and of Judah destroyed by oppressors, finally being restored by God. The bones are many things, on many levels.

The bones are us. The bones are our lives, scattered like sand over our days, our losses, our failures, our shortcomings, our longings, our sins. The bones are our ignorance, our hard-headedness, our hard-heartedness. The bones are us.

And here in Ezekiel, ‘son of man’ (your translation may say something else, mortal perhaps) is not a phrase referring to the Messiah. No, in Daniel and in the Gospels we find the messianic phrase ‘the son of Man’ used to describe the one born of woman but who is God. Here, in Ezekiel’s stark vision, the son of man is just that—the dying child of dying children, one who knows and must accept mortality, the unrelenting bondage of time.

Son of man, mortal creature, says our God, can these bones live? Can our shortcomings be repaired, our failures remade? Can our lies be untold, our unkind truths be recalled? Can we find the honesty to see ourselves from within, our sinews, our bones? Can we be saved from the dust of which we came?

Lazarus had been dead for four days.

Again, there are many levels to this Gospel story, many levels to everything John records in this Gospel. We see Jesus, God among us, the resurrection and the life. Who lives and believes in me shall never die, Jesus says, do you believe this? Shall these bones live, oh mortal? O Lord, God, you know the answer, says Ezekiel, and so say we. Yes, Lord, you are the Messiah, says Martha, and so say we.

Just as the bones are us, our lives, our past, our future, so are Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Each of us is them. Each of us is Martha who boldly goes to meet Jesus, to meet God, on the dusty road. Each of us is Mary, holding back, hearing of God’s nearness, God’s approach, but slower to respond, each for our own reasons and for our own time. Each of us is Lazarus, already dead within, carrying the darkness of our own choices, surrounded by the darkness of the world, grieving for ourselves, for those lost before us, grieving for the pain we cannot spare those we love, perhaps for the pain we have caused them, the pain we have caused for ourselves.

We are in Lazarus’ tomb. We are the people sitting in darkness, the prisoners, the poor, the pitiable, the naked and the blind.

And that is the Gospel we hear—that voice. It is Ezekiel, prophesying, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. It is Jesus crying, Lazarus, come out! The promise of the Gospel is resurrection, newness, life, the promise of Easter.

For now we wait. These days of Lent give us time, here in the darkness, to gather the bones of our failures, our shortcomings, our doubts and our fears, our losses, our grief, our anxieties, our needs, our weakness. We have time to examine the dry, bare truth of who we are, each of us in the darkness, unknown to those other souls around us. And we wait.

Who believes in me, though they die, yet shall they live.

We wait for the sound of the stone being rolled away, death and loss being remade. We wait for the Easter voice of God, calling us out from our tombs.

Already and not yet—the Gospel promise, the new life in Christ, is described as already and not yet. Already we have the life of God. Not yet are we fully transformed. Lazarus comes out of the tomb, alive, renewed. He is already resurrected, but he is no heavenly being; he is restored, but not yet of a new heaven and a new earth. He walked in the same dusty paths as before, but he no longer carried the dread of death; his second journey to dying became one of hope, a journey toward a voice he knew.

We walk as Lazarus, leaving the darkness behind. Jesus commanded that the robes of death be removed, that Lazarus be unbound. Likewise, hearing that voice, we are raised in renewed life, unbound by those burdens that dragged us into darkness. We leave our bindings behind; there is no need of carrying those burdens any longer.

Easter is the promise of resurrection, the call into new life.

And now we listen. And now we wait.

The Other Thief in the Night

Second Sunday in Lent  |  John 3:1-17

The relationship between Nicodemus and Jesus is strange, as is the story in the third chapter of John’s Gospel.

Candlestick at NightNicodemus comes to Jesus, acting out the role of a thief in the night, though that phrase is not used to describe the messiah in John’s Gospel. In this gospel, the thief comes to steal (John 10:10). Are we to consider Nicodemus as a thief, coming to take what is not his?

Another oddity is the shifting voice of verse 11. Suddenly Jesus is speaking in the plural—we speak of what we know…what we have seen. The same shift occurs at the end of the gospel in 21:24, where we hear the voice of the Johannine community speaking. 1 John 1:1 offers the same plural voice, a similar attestation to having seen. Are we seeing layers in the text, the words of the early community placed alongside the words of Jesus?

How about the reference to Moses and “the serpent in the wilderness” in verse 14? Did anybody really understand the first time this image occurs in Numbers 21:9? It sounds less like faith and more like magic.

Perhaps it is a suitable objection. After all, a great deal of what passes for faith is actually magical thinking cleverly transformed into religion. Magic is the practice of ways to control hidden power, ways to get the deity to do what one wishes to be done. The question is whether that is so very different from the way most of us practice Christianity: if we do this, God will do that.

True faith does not ask for a response from God. True faith is a response to God. Anything else is just us fooling ourselves.

Jesus tells Nicodemus that the Spirit of God is like the wind, coming from places we cannot imagine and going anywhere it likes. The wind, like the rain, does not touch only the righteous. Instead, the wind blows across everything in its path.

Nicodemus found that God was already waiting for him, even in the dark.

Limits of Grace

Seventh Sunday After Epiphany  |  Matthew 5:38-48

An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, that was the law. Simple enough, you might say.

Candle In DarknessWhen we hear it, we hear a legal prescription—if they harm you, you harm them the same way. Do unto them as they did unto you. The ancient world heard a prohibition, a limit, changing revenge to justice—this far you may go, and no farther. If they steal your goat, you may not kill their families, burn their tents, and take their herds. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a goat for a goat. The law was a limit to vengeance and, strangely, a provision of grace. It took modern people, with all our advances, to listen to that law and hear words inciting violence.

Jesus goes beyond the limits—give them another eye for an eye, give them another tooth for a tooth. Another cheek, another garment, a second mile. Undermine violence with peace. Love your enemies.

Be perfect.

Then there is the way we hear that last word: τέλειός. Teleios. Perfect is the word used in most translations, and most of us hear a word meaning to be without imperfections, without error. To be fair, the word could have meant that, twenty centuries ago. More importantly, and with more use for us, it also meant mature, complete, fulfilled, or pertaining to the end.

Try the whole last verse again: Be mature, complete, fulfilled, therefore, as your father in heaven is mature, complete and fulfilled.

Does that sound different? We’re not aiming at modern perfection anymore, with all of those impossible expectations. We’re walking toward maturity, completeness, fulfillment, our end goal as a human being, something as ancient as life itself.

When the ones who are incomplete, immature, or unfulfilled come to beg, to demand, to inflict harm in the vain attempt to allay their own needs, Jesus is saying find the means to bring them along the path. Show them the way.

Go beyond the limits. Go to the very good end.

A Word to the Ancient Ones

Sixth Sunday After Epiphany  |  Matthew 5:21-37

They stood on that mountain, sat there, lay there, a great crowd, and all of them so quiet that you could have closed your eyes and thought yourself alone. The only sound beyond the wind on the rocks was the voice of the man speaking.

Mountains with Blowing RockHe reminded them of what they knew, what had been told to the ancient ones, a people gathered centuries earlier at the base of another mountain covered in smoke and clouds. Moses had brought them words from God the Almighty, words to drag them out of their dark bondage and to lift them slowly to become a new people.

Thou shalt not. That was what Moses had told the ancient ones. Thou shalt not.

They forgot, of course. They forgot the rules, forgot the telling of them, sometimes one rule or two, and sometimes they forgot them all in a rush to satiate their needs, their lusts, their anger, their rights. And that had been when the rules were new and simple and fresh upon their minds.

The rules weren’t new to the crowd on the mountain with Jesus. They had heard the rules all of their lives, knew all the ramifications, all the ways one could fail. The law had become a ponderous thing since the days of the ancients, as though it were alive, growing, full of snares and loopholes. Surely, they must have thought, this man can give us some relief, some easier way to live.

No. He seems to want to make their path more narrow. It is no longer their choices that are wrong, it is their thoughts.

Pluck out your eyes, he says. Cut off your hands, if it will save you. And keep your bothersome wives. Surely he goes too far, says crazy things? “But I say to you,” he says. He thinks he has more authority than Moses. Who is he to tell us these things?

But they are quiet on the mountain, and they are still listening.

Later, they know by the silence that he has finished. They gather themselves and walk back down the mountain. Some of them whisper to one another, others mumble like the ancient ones themselves did so long ago. All of them look back to get one more glimpse of Jesus, but he is already walking away, hard to see through the band of followers.

A boy climbs onto a rock for a look, and his father waits for him.

“Does he mean it?” he asks. “Is it better to cut off our hands?” He looks down at his own hands, rubs one with the fingers of the other.

“No,” his father says. “He only told us that to make us think.”

Grace in the Darkness

Season of Epiphany  |  Baptism of the Lord  |  Matthew 3:13-17

SidewalkPlantThe lectionary leads us into the season of Epiphany, the showing or manifestation of Christ. Think of wise men seeing the young Jesus, and of Jesus becoming known to the world around him.

ἐπιφάνεια – ephiphaneia – epiphany – from the Greek verb “to appear” or “to show forth”: a manifestation, an appearance, a moment of realization

Consider Matthew’s account of the baptism of Jesus, an odd passage.

Jesus approaches John the Baptist and presents himself for baptism. At first, John refuses. It would seem to be a reasonable position: if Jesus is the Christ, the Lord, God incarnate, why would he need or submit to baptism? Why would such a ritual have any use for a god, let alone the God?

Not that the answer John gets is much use either: to fulfill all righteousness.

It may be that John simply threw his hands up at that point and said, “Fine.”

I have never read a single explanation of the baptism of Jesus that made any sense to me, at least none offering reasons of purity, or of a new beginning, or anything else that picks up on the customary uses and meanings of the baptism ritual—repentance, cleansing, dedication. Surely God has no need of repentance, or of cleansing, and surely Jesus was dedicated to his purpose in the very beginning (as John’s Gospel tells us).

Maybe for us the idea is closer to simple submission, or humility, even in the face of apparent meaninglessness. John submits to Jesus and performs the ritual, though he clearly does not understand the meaning of it himself. Jesus is submitting to the hands of John, though there is nothing to be gained; instead, Jesus’ submission may itself be a sign of grace. God is made known not only in human form, but humble even for a human.

We may sense God moving us to do something, though we do not understand the meaning or the value of it. Perhaps there is a meaning we do not comprehend. Humility and grace in the service of God, even when we do not see the purpose of what we do, may form the greatest experience and expression of faith.

We may not see the value of giving away our last candle. Perhaps it is simply that the other person lacks the faith to walk in our darkness and still find God.