5th Sunday of Lent
FIFTH SUNDAY OF LENT
Ezekiel 37:12-14 | Romans 8:8-11 | John 11:1-4
By your help, we beseech you, Lord, our God. May we walk eagerly in that same charity with which, out of love for the world, your Son handed himself over to death. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever, amen.
WE’VE come to the last Sunday of the five gospels of Lent, and next Sunday we’ll begin Holy Week with the celebration of Palm Sunday. My thoughts today are going in the direction of wanting to somehow capture the essence of this great mystery called our redemption. What is it? How did it happen? Why did it happen? What’s the effect of it on us? What is interesting about that kind of question is that our relationship with God is so much more personal than we had thought. It’s almost impossible to tell you exactly how it works, but it is possible to talk about what it is, so that, when it begins to happen, you will know you’re experiencing the core of what God has called you to, as far as your work on this planet, on this earth. We’re here to accomplish something, and in the broadest stroke I can think of, one of the reasons we’re here is to understand who God is, to get to know him, I mean, really know him intimately, and to know who we are and to know that intimately. By intimacy, I mean nothing is held back; there is nothing about God that he won’t reveal, nothing about ourselves that we won’t accept if it’s true. If we are caught in certain situations, we need to see them. We need to understand them. That’s why I think the image of truth is so strong in this set of readings for these five Sundays.
We remember that Jesus came into the world because he had a destiny, and it was to find the truth. That’s what he wanted more than anything else: to find it and to trust in it, and not to buy into the lies of the world. Jesus, in a sense, became that truth. He became light, and he then took on the role of enlightening people as to what the truth is, and when we know the truth, we see. We can see and understand who we are and what we’re here for, and then we’re alive. I love that image of God calling you and me to being fully awake, fully alive, fully conscious. I know who I am. I know who God is. I know what I’m here for.
So let’s look at this set of readings, the normal ones we had on this Sunday, at least the ones that were around for the longest time, Cycle A; on Sunday we talk about the rising of Lazarus, so it has a lot to do with the theme of death. Let’s talk about death for a moment as it’s spoken of in the Scriptures; it is a most interesting word, because you wish there were two words that Scripture would use, one for the destruction of who we are and the other for the life we’re called to become. If we do not follow our destiny, if we do not open our hearts to who we are, if we don’t trust in the God who is there for us, we will die. Our spiritual life will be dead, but if we listen to the story of the life of Jesus, we know that there is something about the end of his life that is so bizarre and unexpected and confusing. As he says in the gospel today, unless you hate your life here, unless you die like a seed dies in the ground before it bursts forth, you can’t be in the kingdom of God. You can’t find the promises unless you die. So what dies when you are living in illusions and lies, and what has to die in order for you to be in the world of light and truth? Well, certain things had to be changed in terms of this surprise ending, so to speak.
Throughout the Old Testament we see a very simple understanding of a relationship with a deity who is calling us to a way of life that is healthy for us. But in order to motivate us to do what is healthy, he had to punish us. And so we had a relationship with God, which was somewhat distant. In fact, it’s so interesting in the Old Testament how God can only speak to a few people, like Moses, and if he did, Moses’s face was so bright and so light that, if he went back to the people to tell them what God had said, he had to cover his face, because to get anywhere near God as a mere mortal was to be destroyed by him. He was so other, so awesome, so bright, like a raging fire ready to consume, and so in the Old Testament, we have a God who is somewhat distant, but becomes closer and closer as he reveals himself more and more about who he is. You see change the way God reveals himself in the Old Testament; he goes from someone who can become angry so easily and so disappointed in the actions of the creatures that he simply wants to destroy them all. He wants to have nothing to do with them, and he did set up a covenant with Abraham that said, “I will take you all to the place you long to be, but you must follow my rules and laws. Otherwise, you will never make it, and I can’t lead you any longer.” So a covenant was made there that was conditional, based on our doing our part and then God would do his part, but if God didn’t do his part, we weren’t bound to him, and if we didn’t do our part, he wasn’t bound to us. So a world was created where there was good and evil, and when anyone chose good, their life became blessed. If anyone chose evil, their life became cursed, and God cursed them, and God blessed them, and that was sort of the system. It’s so frightening to me that most people still think that’s what Christianity is about, and what all religion is about, surrendering to a higher power that is, if you don’t do it, you die.
We’re made for something so much more than that. At the time Adam and Eve entered this world, the evolution of human consciousness was so slow that basically all they could understand was power over someone, someone deciding how things should be, how they should go. The frightening part is the sin of Adam and Eve, the lie they were told is they could be just like that. They could choose what was right and what was wrong, what should be, what shouldn’t be, and that is sin, our will versus God’s will, our choices versus his choices, but more than that, our sense of what is true versus the real truth.
What we see in the first reading is that there is this new covenant, and the way it’s described is so beautiful. The difference is that God has promised never, ever to not be there for us. No matter how far away we go from him, no matter how evil we become, he will never leave our side and will continually desire that we change. We may have to experience the effects of our choices, and we sometimes think that’s God’s punishment, but God does not punish in that way. He allows the fruits of our works to be seen and felt, because that’s reality. That’s the way the world works. The truth is nothing other than conformity to reality, and so what we see in this new covenant is a new relationship. What I love about this new relationship is that it seems to be based on a deep, deep trust in God, that he will eventually win when it’s over. And how is he going to do that? What do we have to do on our part?
Well, the second reading has a very important piece of information. It says that one of Jesus's assets — and think of Jesus as the message, just pondering his life, not so much his words, his life and what it says about obedience, which is adherence to what is true, to hear the truth. And it says very clearly that Jesus learned what was real and what was truth, like suffering. And what is suffering? It sounds like being in pain, but that’s not a good definition. Suffering is accepting, giving in, receiving whatever is relying on the truth. Jesus learned throughout his life that, when he had one thought that was part of his human nature, he had to weigh it against the truth he found in God, and when he found they were at odds, the part that was him, that he had thought was the truth had to change. Depending on how close it was to his own identity at the time, it was like a death, like the person I think I am has to die. That’s how Jesus learned about the truth throughout his life, and then it comes to the end of his life.
What we see in this gospel passage is interesting, because next Sunday we’re going to see Jesus enter Jerusalem as a triumphant hero because of his ability for miracles, particularly the miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead. That stirred up everybody. They thought, “This is our man.” And they had an image of Jesus that would be a normal image, and it could be the image that Jesus worked through in his life, but that he would be the hero, and he would be the Savior, and he would make everything all right and fix everything. But he wasn’t going to come to fix the world in the ways in which the individuals in the world, who weren’t fully conscious, thought the world should be. So he had to let the world and all of its lies judge him. It was the lies judging the truth, and it was coming through the people that were there. And the people were living the lie. They were people of that kind of thinking, and so they had to destroy Jesus. And what Jesus learned in that moment, when he was told, “You must do it as it is written,” he gave into that for them — for them. He learned how to do it himself, but he had to do it for us where there was no way we could have the strength and the ability to do this unless he did it first. And then somehow we were empowered. That’s the most amazing thing about redemption. We are empowered.
This power that has been given us is fascinating, because when you understand the New Testament, you understand the teaching we find there. It’s about God entering our life, not just as someone telling us what we must do, but as someone dwelling within us, entering into us, becoming one with us, a voice inside us, and that’s what he meant when he said, “I will write my law on your heart. My law is the law of truth.” And the law is what we are reminded of, over and over again, that the only laws that God gave are the Ten Commandments. And the most interesting aspect of the Ten Commandments, rather than being what we’re supposed to do, the Ten Commandments are a revelation of who we are, what our nature is made for. We’re made to be connected to God, made to have relationships with each other that are life-giving, to not steal or cheat or lie or kill. When that’s known inside us, not as something we’re supposed to do because we’re told to and, if we don’t, we’ll be punished, but no, that’s me. I know that’s who I am, and that’s what I want. My deepest longing is to be who I am, not in any way saying I’m the one who determines who I am, not the surrender and the suffering of learning.
So in a way, we have to understand redemption as an empowering force of grace, the presence of God living inside us, calling us into a journey of learning how to die, to everything that’s not real, not true. What a different focus than the more common sense that we belong to a religion because we think we can’t make decisions for ourselves about issues, what to do, and we turn to the church to tell us everything we need to do. Our moral life is guided by the church’s rules and laws, and we surrender to them. And then if we surrender to that, we have life. If we don’t surrender to what we’re told, we die, and that is such a caricature of what it is that we’re engaged in, with this amazing God who is more personal than we could ever imagine, more patient, more loving than we could ever imagine, and more interested in the core we have as the deepest drive within us, a true, authentic life. It’s more important than just existence, which used to be the primary motive, but now it’s I must be the person I’m called to be.
Father, your Son came into the world to reveal the truth, a light that shines and enters into the darkness of our lies and illusions and destroys them. Bless us with an awareness of this great gift and hope in our hearts. We know that you’ve written that law in our hearts now, and we know that it’s within us. So bless us with insight, openness to the illusions that we often find ourselves trapped in. Give us the freedom that only the truth can enliven within us, and we ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.