On the Fifth Sunday in Lent, the scripture passages offered by the lectionary revolve around a central theme: life in contrast to death. It’s not every Sunday that all four passages line up to provide a clear and obvious focus on a single theme. For more than half of the Sundays in the year, the Hebrew Scripture, Epistle, and Gospel each follow their own course, and any overlap of theme is accidental, not planned. For Sundays in Advent, Christmas, and Lent, as well as key days like Pentecost, Trinity, and the Reign of Christ, the thematic overlap is intentional. This week we have just such a Sunday!
Death is at the heart of the story of Lazarus that forms the Gospel passage for Sunday (John 11:1–45). Initially, Jesus is told “he whom you love is ill” (John 11:3), but when he arrives in Bethany, Martha accosts him with “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (11:21)—an accusation repeated by her sister Mary (11:31); and then comes a graphic description provided by Martha as they draw near to the tomb: “already there is a stench because he has been dead four days” (11:39).
The emergence of Lazarus from the tomb marks a climactic moment, for the family in Bethany and many of their neighbours (11:44–45), but also for the chief priests and Pharisees, who together determine to put Jesus to death (11:53). The seventh sign recounted in this Gospel is the most significant miracle of Jesus, but also the deed that determines the fate of Jesus. Soon after this event in Bethany, he says, “I have come to this hour” (12:27), the hour when “I am lifted up from the earth, [when I] will draw all people to myself” (12:32), the hour when the Father will “glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you” (17:1). The death of Jesus is to be, paradoxically, the complete fulfilment of his mission (19:30)—the pathway into life eternal (3:16; 10:28; 17:3).
This climactic movement, of death moving to life in Bethany, resonates with the words of the prophet Ezekiel and also the writings of the apostle Paul that are offered for this coming Sunday. Ezekiel confronts the signs of death: “The Lord set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry” (Ezek 37:1–2). Paul considers the state of humanity: “to set the mind on the flesh is death … the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom 8:6–8).
So, death is in view in these three readings. It is no wonder that the psalm we are offered alongside them speaks a cry of deep despair: “out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord” (Ps 130:1). The depths of the earth were the place where sinful people went (Ps 63:9; Isa 14:15), following the lead of the Egyptians who pursued the Israelites and “went down into the depths like a stone” (Exod 5:4–5; Neh 9:11; Isa 63:11–13). There, in the depths, God’s anger burned (Deut 32:22).
However, those banished to the depths were able to be brought back from the depths by God’s decree (Ps 68:22; 71:20; 86:13), so the cry of the psalmist from the depths is followed by the plea, “Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!” (Ps 103:2). As the prophet Micah affirms, God’s steadfast love will rescue those who “lick dust like a snake,
like the crawling things of the earth”, and will indeed “cast all our sins into the depths of the sea” (Mic 7:17, 19). So the psalmist affirms, “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope” (Ps 103:5).
Just as Lazarus emerges from the tomb where his dead body was laid, so Ezekiel foresees a wondrous revival amongst the dead bones of the people of Israel: “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord” (Ezek 37:11). The vision he sees emac s that dramatically. Likewise, Paul glimpses that same hope: “if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you” (Rom 8:11).
Both prophet and apostle hold to the hope enacted in the Gospel and articulated by the psalmist: “Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem. It is he who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities” (Ps 103:7–8).
Ezekiel was both a prophet and a priest (Ezek 1:3). He had been exiled to Babylon during the siege of Jerusalem by King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon (599 BCE; see 2 Kings 24:10–17). His prophetic activity was thus undertaken entirely in exile. He addresses both those in exile with him in Babylon, and also those left behind in Judah. His prophecies continue through the period when the people in Judah were conquered and taken to join Ezekiel in exile (587 BCE; see 2 Ki 25:1–21), and then for some time after that.
A dramatic vision opens the book, in which “the glory of God” appears in the form of a fiery, flaming chariot (1:4–28). Priestly attention to detail marks the account of this vision, whilst contains multiple allusions to other scriptural stories. The bright cloud and flashing fire evokes the scene on Mount Sinai, when God gave Moses the Law (Exod 19:16–19); the “burning coals of fire” (1:13) remind us of the burning coals in the scene of the call of Isaiah (Isa 6:6); and “the bow in the cloud on a rainy day” evokes the sign of the covenant made with Noah (Gen 9:12–17). In seeing this vision, Ezekiel has had a life-transforming experience!
Ezekiel is impelled to play his role as a prophet by “the hand of the Lord” (1:3; 3:22; 8:1; etc); indeed, he says, “the spirit lifted me up” (3:12). That same spirit continues to lift him up with regularity (8:3; 11:1, 24; 37:1; 43:5) to show him vision after vision. More than this, Ezekiel declares that “the spirit entered me” (3:24), a process which he promises will be experienced by Israel as a whole (36:26–28)—for the Lord says he will “pour out my spirit upon the house of Israel” (39:29).
This emphasis on the renewing spirit of God is seen, most dramatically, by Ezekiel when he is taken by the spirit into “the middle of a valley … full of bones” (37:1) and sees a vision that he conveys in what must be his most famous oracle. What Ezekiel sees in this valley of dry bones is the work of God, as God puts sinews and flesh and skin on the bones, and breathes into the bodies so created, so that they live (37:5–6, 8, 10).
The vision indicates what God will do: “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil” (37:14). The end of the exile, it seems, is in sight. This passage is often interpreted in a Christian context as a pointer both to the resurrection of Jesus, and also to the general resurrection; indeed, its appearance on the Fifth Sunday in Lent means that it complements, and indeed illuminates, the dramatic story of Jesus bringing Lazarus back to life, as he approaches the tomb, and cries in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” (John 11:38–44).
For Ezekiel, however, this vision is not a far-into-the-future prediction (foretelling), but a word of hope to the people in their immediate situation (forthtelling). Indeed, the very next section of this chapter reports a proclamation of Ezekiel which is quite directly forthtelling. The two sticks that he takes (37:16) stand for Judah and Israel; as he joins the sticks, so he points to the return of these peoples from their exile, their return “to their own land”, and a cleansing which will mean “they shall be my people, and I will be their God” (37:21–23, 27).
That final phrase is a common covenantal affirmation made by God (Lev 26:12; Ruth 1:16; Jer 7:23; 11:4; 24:7; 30:22; 31:1, 33; 32:38; Ezek 11:20; 14:11; 36:28; Zech 2:11; and Hos 1:10–11, overturning Hos 1:9). The reunited people shall have one king (37:24) and they will observe “an everlasting covenant” (37:26).
So the dramatic story that the prophet Ezekiel reports from his vision set in the middle of a valley full of dry bones is intended to speak directly into the life of the covenant people of God, the people of Israel, offering them hope despite their current circumstances.
Paul also was commissioned for his task through a vision—reported in graphic terms by Luke, who makes the moment into a grand call-and-commissioning scene (Acts 9:3–8; 22:6–11; 26:12–18), but mentioned only briefly, in general terms, in passing by Paul himself (1 Cor 9:1; and perhaps Gal 1:1, 12). Of course, Luke was not present for this event, so he shaped in along the lines of classic call-and-commissioning narratives that existed in earlier Jewish writings. (I have explored this in detail in my commentary on Acts in the Eerdman’s Commentary on the Bible, 2003).
That vision turned Paul from persecutor of the followers of Jesus to an apostle fervently declaring “the good news of Jesus Christ” as far as possible, “from Jerusalem and as far around as Illyricum” (Rom 15:19). (Illyricum was a Roman province that covered the coastal area of the Balkans, northwest of Macedonia stretching towards Italy.) Paul delivers this good news in person to many communities, but he sets it out at length in his letter to believers in Rome, which he had not yet visited.
Paul is embued with the same hope that the psalmist and the prophet demonstrate. He rejoices with the Thessalonians that they share with him in “hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess 1:3), tells the Galatians that “through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly waits for the hope of righteousness” (Gal 5:5), and reminds the Corinthians that “faith, hope and love abide” (1 Cor 13:13). In a subsequent letter to believers in Corinth, he asserts that “he who rescued us from so deadly a peril will continue to secure us; on him we have set our hope that he will rescue us again” (2 Cor 1:10)
Paul reports to the Romans that “we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God” (Rom 4:2) and that it is “in hope that we were saved” (Rom 8:24). He affirms that it is “by steadfastness and the encouragement of the scriptures, we might have hope” (Rom 15:4), notes that scripture promises that “the root of Jesses shall come … in him the Gentiles shall hope” (Rom 15:12), and so characterises God as “the God of hope” (Rom 15:13). He shares in that strong hope which is sung by the psalmist and spoken by the prophet, and which is acted out in the Gospel reading for this Sunday.