Fifth Sunday of Lent
Ezekiel 37:12-14 | Romans 8:8-11 | John 11:1-45
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 fifth Sunday of Lent, and I’ve said to you, over and over again, these five Sundays carry five themes that the church fathers, who gave us this liturgy of the word the way we turn to scripture and offer reading after reading — it builds on the one previous and prepares us for the next. They’ve chosen these five themes to be, in a sense, the heart of the message of Jesus, the heart of the message. That’s why it’s given to those who are about ready to be baptized in a simple overview of these five Sundays.
The first is the temptation where we find out who Jesus really is. He is like us. We are like him. God is in him, because we are like God. So we see this humanity and divinity in this figure, and what it’s struggling for is the truth. It wants to know what’s true. It wants to simply trust — not wants, but if it finds the truth, it knows it will be safe, and somehow it won’t buy into the lies of the world. That’s who we are. That’s what we come into the world as, and we are moving in that direction.
Then he shows us that he has this wisdom, this enlightenment, and he shows it to his disciples in the transfiguration. He says, “What I’m doing for you is not giving you a knowledge. I’m not telling you what to do anymore. I’m opening your heart, your essence to what is real. I want you to be alive. See what’s real.” Then we see that.
The next one is basic, the woman at the well, and it’s the fertilizing the fig tree. It’s always that there’s this thing that we have to be given. It’s called grace. It’s called God’s presence, but it works inside of us, and it nurtures that thing that we need to become who we are.
Then last Sunday was all about seeing. “I want to see,” the blind man. That’s the one on cycle A, but in that story, it’s the church that can’t see what Jesus is really doing, refuses to see it, denies it. And it’s the older brother in the one we read for this cycle who refuses to see the message of God in this beautiful image of a son returning to his father. After he sinned, he’s forgiven.
Now, this last Sunday is always the raising of Lazarus, the ability to live, and what I think is interesting in the cycle C that we choose, we have the gospel today, which is all about somehow receiving the primary, most transformative gift we can receive from God, in terms of our developing all these areas that I just talked about. Forgiveness, it is life.
So let’s go to this set of readings and see what I can draw from it to help us understand all of this more and take it in and make it a part of us. The first one is the Book of Isaiah, and it’s important to know Isaiah is one of those books of the Bible that is unique in one very single thing. It talks more about the ministry of Jesus than any other book of the Old Testament, and when you look at it, it’s like it’s describing the whole thing — the whole thing. And it’s beautiful, and one of the things we listen to, in this particular passage of the Old Testament, is something that I think is at the heart of what I would call the conversion process that we’re involved in as followers of this figure Christ, the conversion. It’s from a lower level of consciousness where we are the center of our universe and everything is about us to another level of our ability to become who we are, a level of consciousness where we are dedicated to and living for the work of service, wanting to care for people. From selfishness to other-centeredness, that’s the movement, and so what he’s saying is, “Don’t look at the past,” in this particular passage. “Don’t look at things in the past. I’m doing something new.” And the images he talks about, Isaiah talks about, when he’s talking about doing something new, it’s the work of Jesus, and it’s not about judgment. It’s not about condemnation anymore, but it’s about creating a place for people where there’s water and life, and they can grow and become who they are. And they’ll be sustained by the very life that they’re leading, which is a great image, this land, Promise Land. It’s a way of life that nurtures and feeds you with the things that you are made for, not the things that the world promises that don’t really fulfill you, and so we have this beautiful reminder. We have to shift from one world to another, the Old Testament to the New Testament, and that’s not something that happened in the past.
That’s not something we all went through as a religion, and now we’re all living in the present. No. The reason why that Old Testament/New Testament is so essential is because every single person that’s coming into this world is going to make that crossover from the old to the new, from self-centeredness to other-centeredness. Why would I say that? How did God work with people in the Old Testament mostly? How did he reach them? He reached them primarily by telling them that there was a nature that he made them to be. They have a nature that they should follow, and that was the Ten Commandments. “And so I want you to be careful not to do the things that are against your nature.” He gave that, told them, “That’s all you really need.” They made more laws out of it, as you know, but nevertheless, what it was doing is saying, “You do this, and if you don’t, I’ll punish you. I’ll destroy you.” No, when someone tells you that, what are they convinced you probably will do? At least, if they want you to follow this new way, this law, rather, the old law, then they’re going to say, “Please, whatever you do, think about, when you do it, that you might be destroying yourself.” So he’s playing off of a self-centered human nature, the part of human nature that’s self-centered, and that’s how he worked for the first whole section. We think perhaps the Old Testament is 2,500, 3,000 years. So all that time basically, even though he’s preparing them for something else, he was working on their self-centeredness.
Then Paul talks about it in the second reading, and he goes, “I remember the old way, and I don’t want to have anything to do with it.” Isaiah said, “Don’t think about the past. Think about what’s now.” Paul’s saying, “All that stuff, all my following those rules and laws, I see that all as rubbish compared to what I see now.” And what does he see? A forgiving, loving God who is on our side, who wants nothing more than for you and for me to grow and evolve into our higher level of consciousness, which is our goal, to be lovers, servants. That’s what we’re here for. He counts on people understanding that, seeing that. It’s interesting. I don’t think it’s necessary that every human being go through this transition perfectly. No, that would be based on the fact that all of us are individuals, separate from each other. We’re not. We’re all one, so it only takes a few people to begin this work, and then it begins to be sort of part of who we all are as a people. Then it becomes more and more accepted, and then all of a sudden it reaches a sort of critical mass, and then everybody gets it, the difference between living for self or living for others. It’s there in our DNA to make this change, and Paul said, “I’ve made it, and I can’t believe how wonderful it is. Again, I just think all that other stuff was wasted time, because I have been given something inside of me that I live now with that enables me, not to follow the law out of some great, new selflessness discipline, but out of my heart, I just know this is what I need to be. I just want to be this.”
So let’s look at this image then. Let’s look at the woman as the part of all of us that comes to some moment in their life when they realize the difference between the old and the new. What’s the old? You are asked to surrender your will to a God, and you are to perform as he calls you to do it, and if you pass that test, you will be acceptable. That’s pretty much the Old Testament. It’s what a lot of people think religion still is today, an organization that tells you what to believe and what to do, and if you do it, they will save you. If you don’t, they’ll kick you out — old way. So the new way is different. Instead of condemning us for those things that we do that are not right, instead of telling us that we’ve made a mistake and we’re going to pay for it, and whatever pleasure we got out of it, you might think again about doing that, because it’s created all this pain in your life, this separation, this isolation, this emptiness. He just wants us to feel that. So here is the Old Testament at its best, or worst, I might say. Jesus is teaching. He’s the new teacher. He’s the new — he’s the enlightened one who’s going to open our hearts and put some kind of living water inside of us, and then we’re going to see, and then we’re going to live.
So here’s the beautiful, beautiful story, a woman caught in adultery. Adultery, what is adultery? To adulterate something means to choose something less when you have something more. There’s something about religion at the time that seemed unfaithful to the God who created it, because they were so resisting this gift of God’s wisdom in this person Jesus. It’s like they were unfaithful to God. So we’re talking about their sin here in this woman, because while he’s teaching his incredible, life-giving teaching of forgiveness, which is 99 percent of everything he taught, when you no longer will be condemned for what you do. You will be loved and forgiven. It made no sense to those who were working out of a self-centered model, because they’ll say, “Well, everybody will take advantage of that.” They couldn’t feel it or see what it was doing for them, but the woman in the story is a perfect example of that old system. And so it turns out that she’s brought to Jesus not because of — if the crowd had brought Jesus this woman, I wonder what the story would have been. I’m sure he would have forgiven her, but he made a major point of seemingly disinterested, as he traced his finger on the ground. I think that’s such an interesting part of this story, like he’s not going to fight this fight with them. He’s tried that before, and it didn’t work. He’s called them all kinds of hypocrites, but he didn’t do it this day. He was much more subtle, and he said, “Okay, if this is the law and you all want to do this,” obviously that’s what most of the people thought they were supposed to do, “Well, go ahead and do it. Go ahead, but by the way, I’d like you, Pharisees, to throw the stones. Would you do that? Go ahead.” They knew deep in their heart they were not attached to the true God. In some way, they knew something. That’s why Jesus was so threatening to them, and so the beauty of this is here’s the presence of a forgiving God in the minds of these men who taught there was no such thing as a forgiving God, only a punishing God, and they’re somehow caught in a few seconds of saying, “Oh, my God, I’ve been guilty. If I forgave her —,” If this is true, there must have been something in them that must have thought, “Oh, my God. This would be wonderful.” It seems that one of the things that’s going on in their head is they’re saying, “Okay, I know I’ve done some things.” But it had to be deeper than that. Maybe they saw the crowd. Maybe they saw their eyes and went, “Oh, my God. This guy — this is so different than the religion we’re used to. We always kill people that don’t do what the law requires. That’s who we are.” But when you’re doing that, what are you doing? You’re not only condemning an act, but you’re condemning the human being along with the act. There’s no separation between what they’re doing and who they are, and Jesus bypasses what they’re doing and looks at who they are. And he said, “Oh, my God. I love you so much, and you’ve so much more potential than this. And I want you to know I believe in it, and I trust in it. I’ll be there. I’ll enter into you, and I’ll give it to you.” My God, what a different religion, a God who’s on our side, not judging us and condemning us but who enters into us.
What he’s saying is, “You’re like me. I made you in my image, so you are basically wonderful, beautiful beings, and I want to affirm that. I don’t want to tell you you’re worthless when you fail as a human, because that’s part of humanity. I want to tell you that that failure doesn’t disturb or bother me in terms of my love for you, because I know what you need more than anything else is to believe in your own goodness, which I will awaken in you through grace, through redemption. I will let you feel it.” And when you feel it and you know you’re loved, something shifts inside of you. I don't know how to describe it. It’s called redemption, but you become some kind of new creature that forgets about the past and the old system and enters into a system that is so life-giving and so fulfilling and so natural.
Father, you promised us abundant grace during this holy season. We long for that grace that frees us to see the truth, who we are, what you ask of us. So we thank you and praise you for this gift, but we ask most especially that, through this end of this great season, as we re-enact the death and resurrection of Jesus, we will not only be thinking about what it is but we will experience it. We’ll go through a death ourselves and a resurrection. That’s your promise, and we welcome this great gift rooted in your love and your forgiveness and your deep desire for the fullness of life for everything you’ve created. Amen.