Fifth Sunday In Lent – Year A
March 26 2023 10:30 AM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Ezekiel 37:12-14 | Psalm 130
Romans 8:8-11 | John 11:1-45
+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
My favorite local television weathercaster is Chloe Carlson on K-M-I-R. In her program segments, she compares the temperatures of the day with their historical averages, and when we have a storm, she talks about the amounts of rain we’ve experienced in years past compared to the present.
Lately, she’s been talking a lot about storms. What Chloe tells us is that the storms that have been wreaking havoc on the Palm Springs area have usually dumped hundreds of tons of rain and snow in areas to the west and north of the Coachella Valley before they get here to share their moisture with us.
Both of these situations illustrate the biblical concept called “prefigurement.” What is a “prefigurement?” The short answer is that a person, place, or event in one part of the Bible is a shadow or model of someone or something similar yet to occur. In terms of the weather, what we’ve experienced historically gives us a pretty good idea of what can be expected in the future, sooner or later.
Most commonly in the Bible, what appears in the Old Testament is said to prefigure what appears in the New Testament. For example, the birth of the prophet Samuel to the barren Hannah, announced by an angel, has been identified as prefiguring the annunciation and birth of Jesus. At various times by various scholars, Moses and/or Adam have been identified as prefiguring Jesus.
The Lazarus story is, in fact, a prefigurement, but it’s different than the others. The antecedent and the main event, or to use more scholarly-correct terms, type, and antitype, occur in the same book of the Bible, and if the timeline in John is correct, less than a week apart. It’s like Chloe telling us that rain in Banning often means the rain will soon come to Palm Springs.
In less than eight days from the time Jesus raised Lazarus, Jesus would be crucified and rise from the dead. And many of the people who had witnessed the death and resurrection of Lazarus would subsequently experience the death and resurrection of Christ. For those who might doubt if the Resurrection of Christ was real or some kind of stunt, they had, within their recent memory, seen it happen to Lazarus, so they would know it was possible. This was true for both the Jewish leaders and the common people.
The Story of the Resurrection of Lazarus, however, communicates an important message beyond prefigurement. It illustrates how the human and divine natures of Jesus interact with one another. For Christians, it is axiomatic that Jesus was fully human and fully divine, as declared by the church councils of Ephesus in 431 A-D and Chalcedon in 451 A-D, respectively.
The Council of Ephesus addressed the so-called Nestorian controversy. What Nestorius contended was that Jesus was the mere human in whom God dwelt and that it was improper to refer to Mary as the Mother of God. However, the Council declared that we should recognize that united in Jesus Christ at the time of the incarnation were two natures, divine and human and that one should confess Jesus Christ as true God and true Man, and the Holy Virgin Mary is the Theotokos or God-bearer.
The Council of Chalcedon dealt with the opposite problem, a heresy promulgated by a guy named Eutychius, who taught that the human nature of Jesus was completely absorbed in his divine nature. The Chalcedon participants decreed that Jesus received his human nature from Mary, his Mother, and in every way is like us, except in sin.
Together, these two church councils reduced to the settled doctrine that the divinity and humanity of Jesus are indivisible and inseparable, thus refuting Nestorius and united in Him as a single person, infused and immutable, thus refuting Eutychius.
We see this settled definition of Jesus in the story of Lazarus. Mary and Martha reached out to Jesus. When Jesus arrived in Bethany, he found Mary and Martha weeping, mourning the death of their brother. Jesus did what every good pastor would do in the same situation. That is, he empathized with the family. He comforted them and mourned with them. The Gospel explicitly says, “Jesus wept.”
Then and there, Martha and Mary experienced in a very poignant way the humanness of Jesus, who, to paraphrase Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians, emptied himself and became one of us. As we will sing in the Nicene Creed today, Jesus “became truly human,” as shown by his empathy and by his weeping.
Jesus empathized and cared for Mary and Martha in a very human way, but at the end of the day, the divinity of Jesus is what made the news. The divine power of Jesus, that is, the aspect of Jesus that is God, enabled Jesus to call Lazarus out of the tomb and back to life. The raising of Lazarus is considered by Eastern Orthodox scholars to be the high point of John’s Gospel because it definitively establishes the divinity of Jesus.
Jesus is, in fact, the Lord of life. Indeed, the story of Lazarus includes Jesus stating, “I am the Resurrection and the Life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.” That is, of course, one of the seven great “I am” statements of Jesus appearing in the Gospel of John.
Today’s first reading also demonstrates the divine power of God and God’s sovereignty over life itself. It comes from the story of the valley of the dry bones in the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, read at the Easter Vigil service. Ezekiel was among those Jews deported to Babylon in about the year five-ninety-seven B-C and is thus known as an “Exilic prophet” those who prophesied from the midst of the Jewish community while it was in Babylon.
To give you a little background here, the Babylonians, led by King Nebuchadnezzar, ransacked Jerusalem, destroyed the first Temple built by Solomon, and deported its inhabitants. The Jewish community remained in exile until about five-thirty-eight B-C, almost sixty years.
Ezekiel, like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and other prophets, predicted a return to Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the Temple. Ezekiel’s message was one of hope that God, who has ultimate power over life and death, would raise up the Jewish community back to life, just as Jesus did with Lazarus in raising him from death.
For Christians, death doesn’t end life, just as it did not end for Jesus or for Lazarus. In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells us that the sheep know the voice of their shepherd. Thus, when those in the graves hear the voice of Jesus, the Son of God, the Good Shepherd, they will recognize His voice and come forth. Lazarus personifies these verses as he hears the voice of Jesus and comes forth from the tomb.
The Lazarus story has far more implications, however, than a mere illustration of the human and divine sides of Jesus when considered in the context of the death and resurrection of Jesus that we will soon be celebrating. The Lazarus story set all of that in motion.
The intention of Jesus was to raise Lazarus in a very public way so people would take note of his Messianic ability to raise the dead as well as to put people on notice of His own impending death and resurrection. That Jesus was part of the triune God as God’s Son and shared in God’s power was a controversial notion when Jesus lived and continues to be controversial in twenty-twenty-three. While Christianity may be the world’s largest religion, it is not the world’s only religion. The world has billions of people yet to be convinced that Jesus is God’s Son and the Messiah long promised to the Jewish people.
If you continue reading the Gospel of John after the passage appointed for today, you will hear that some of the people who saw what Jesus did and acknowledged that he was the Messianic Son of God, but the others who did not went straightaway to the temple priests and Pharisees, who held a meeting at which they expressed alarm over the activities of Jesus. They were concerned that if too many people followed and trusted in Jesus, the Roman Empire would destroy the temple and the Jewish people.
So the high priest Caiaphas decided Jesus must be killed. He told the assembled religious people that it was better for one person to die than an entire nation. At that point, they plotted to get Jesus killed, one way or another, as he was threatening their power and their livelihood. That meeting set off a chain of events that ultimately culminated in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, the Kalendar celebrates Lazarus Saturday on the day before Palm Sunday as the connection between Lent and Holy Week. The Troparion for Lazarus Saturday day says it all:
By raising Lazarus from the dead before Your passion,
You did confirm the universal Resurrection, O Christ our God!
Like the children with the palms of victory,
We cry out to You, O Vanquisher of death;
Hosanna in the Highest!
This Troparion not only underscores the relationship between our recognition of the raising of Lazarus today and our coming Easter Sunday celebration but also proclaims estachological implications for all of us. The raising of Lazarus prefigured the resurrection of Jesus, which, in turn, prefigures the ultimate destiny of all humanity.
But, coming back down to earth into the real world, the raising of Lazarus teaches us an important lesson. When God seems to be doing nothing, God may be doing more than you could ever imagine. Here, Jesus had declared that Lazarus’ sickness was for the glory of God. Jesus knew God would be totally glorified in the situation at hand.
But when Lazarus died, Jesus was just getting started. He used Lazarus’ situation to bring the utmost glory to His Father. No, Jesus didn’t do what Mary and Martha were expecting when they reached out to Jesus, that is, to get there earlier to heal Lazarus before he died. Instead, Jesus did something better. He brought Lazarus back to life after Lazarus had died.
We will experience times in our lives when God doesn’t do what we expect or what we think God should do. But in every situation, God can and will bring greater glory to God as part of God’s ongoing activity as a creator, which God does by improving our lives. If God doesn’t do what we think God should, it is very probable that God has something better in mind. Never underestimate God, and always expect God to surprise you in ways you do not expect.
Are you dealing with disappointment right now? Life is full of disappointments. Has God acted in a way that you would not have expected? We can never predict what God will do because God is ultimately a mystery.
Take heart. Reach out to Jesus, just as Mary and Martha did. You can never go wrong with Jesus. He is the resurrection and the life. Jesus can breathe life into any situation, including yours. Entrust your troublesome situation to God. Then ask God to use your circumstances for God’s honor and glory.
Entreat God to bring forth the greatest glory possible in your life and situation. If you trust God, God will do what’s best for you, even if it is not immediately apparent to you. And then watch out to see what God does. It may seem like God is doing nothing at the moment, but God may be doing more than you could ever imagine. If you don’t believe me, just ask Lazarus. AMEN.