Today in the Spirit: Lent 5A

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The designation of Lent 5 as “Passion Sunday” in the BCP 2019 is a return to that same designation in the BCP 1928 (maybe earlier, but I couldn’t find it elsewhere), where also the two-week period from Lent 5 Sunday through Holy Saturday is called “Passiontide.” The Collect and readings assigned in Lent 5A continue the trajectory of the season in pointing out our need for divine grace to overcome sin. So the petition in the Collect is for the preservation of the saints: “grace to love what you command and desire what you promise.” The extended Gospel readings in John in Lent Year A finish with this week’s assignment of the account of the raising of Lazarus from the dead in John 11:(1-17) 18-44. The selection of the prophetic vision of the Valley of Dry Bones in Ezekiel 37:1-14 permits the contemplation of the parallel between Ezekiel speaking life into the bones and Jesus commanding Lazarus to be resuscitated, while also pointing ahead to the resurrection of Christ himself. Psalm 130 speaks poignantly to the desire for the sinner to be saved, and, some might say uniquely, for the dead to be raised. As we give voice to the words of the psalm we can imagine ourselves as the bones in the valley or Lazarus in the grave crying out: Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD; O LORD, hear my voice! And yet in Romans 6:15-23 we have Paul responding to the countervailing tendency at work in our hearts to keep on sinning: What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! (15).     

The Collect

Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of this world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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From Your Graves (Ezekiel 37:1-14)

Then [YHWH] said to [Ezekiel], “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the LORD God: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the LORD (11-14).

Ezekiel’s vision of dry bones coming to life, of course, makes a solid connection with the Gospel reading on Jesus raising Lazarus. The parallel is especially evident in the latter part of the Ezekiel reading (above) in which YHWH interprets the vision, saying: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves. Maybe it’s just me, but dry bones in an open valley are not quite as finally, end-of-story dead as bones in a grave. See how your graves is repeated again and again in this section, as if to say to us devotionally, in your sin you are not just dead but dead and buried. Here again we grasp a major theme in the messaging of the church at Lent: The Good News is so good because the bad news is so bad. It is vitally important that we take the time to rest, as it were, in the paradox of mortal life without Christ as death in the grave. It is all too easy to skirt around and brush off the horrible depths to which we have sunk in sin, with the effect of severely minimizing in our minds the salvation, even the excavation, Christ has accomplished for us in coming, rising and dying. We settle too easily in the mode of thinking that Jesus is a welcome improvement and not the breath of life he really is. Today, Holy Spirit, breath of God, restore me daily as one who has risen from my grave, that I may, with everything that has breath, praise the LORD (Psalm 150:6). 

Let Your Ears Be Attentive to My Pleas for Mercy (Psalm 130)

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord!
    O Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
    to the voice of my pleas for mercy!
If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,
    O Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness,
    that you may be feared.
I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
    and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
    more than watchmen for the morning,
    more than watchmen for the morning.
O Israel, hope in the Lord!
    For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
    and with him is plentiful redemption.
And he will redeem Israel
    from all his iniquities.

Be attentive indeed to this psalmist’s pleas for mercy. There is true contrition. He has come to the place of such sorrow for his sins that he cannot imagine being permitted to stand at the throne of judgment. And yet he does stand, more than watchmen [waiting] for the morning, he looks for the sun, the light that will bring him there on the walls, not only an end to his turn of duty, but hope for a new day. Be attentive to the manner of this psalmist’s pleas for mercy. His deep penitence does not send him as it often does us into a tailspin of paralyzing self-doubt or fear or rebellion, but to anticipate the plentiful redemption of YHWH flowing out of his steadfast love (that Hebrew word hesed again, remember from Psalm 33 two weeks ago?). Jesus Christ is our sun in the morning: If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:8-9). Today, in the Spirit, as the psalmist pleads for the Father to be attentive to his pleas for mercy, we ourselves will be attentive to his manner of coming before you and imitate it.

The Fruit You Get (Romans 6:15-23)

For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (20-23).

Paul uses the tactic of posing and answering questions throughout Romans (3:1, 3:9, 4:1, 4:9, 6:1, 6:15, 7:7, 9:30, 11:1, 11:11). Here the question, Are we to sin because we are not under the law but under grace?, has the ring of a temptation we have all heard the evil one whispering in our ears: “Why not just go ahead and sin? It’s always forgiven through Christ.” Having established earlier (6:1-14) that we do not sin because it is against our nature as Christians (our old self was crucified with Christ), he now puts forward the argument that it is also against our best interest: But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life (NIV). It is a dual benefit: sanctification (the action of God both to declare us now and to make us over time holy through Christ; and eternal life (the decree of God that we are no longer under the penalty of death but from the point of conversion onward alive to God). What a gift! What fruit you get! Today, by the Spirit who aids us in both recognizing and enduring the cleverness of the enemy who tempts us, let us in this lenten season grasp Paul’s logic in Romans and put aside any desire to treasure sin in our hearts.    

Light of this World (John 11:(1-17) 18-44)

The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him” (8-10).

John is good for providing tidbits of Jesus’ teaching on doing the Father’s will in the midst of telling larger stories (see 4:34ff, 9:4-5).  Here the reader has to recall Jesus saying earlier I am the light of the world (last week’s Gospel reading). Our Lord follows the will of the Father as his light of this world, his day–and he clearly desires his disciples to learn to do the same.  The consequences (like possibly getting killed in Judea) may be considered, but the right thing is always to follow the divine plan.  Jesus Christ is the light of God in us.  So Paul says: Live as children of light…and find out what pleases the Lord (Eph. 5:8-9). Here is a good place to recall the advice of Secrewtape to the younger demon Wormwood: “Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.” Today, with the help of the Spirit who gives courage to look beyond the consequences, walk by the light of Christ’s will. 

Today in the Spirit

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Published on

March 20, 2023

Author

Geoff Little

Geoff Little writes the Today in the Spirit series of reflections on the ACNA Sunday and Holy Day Lectionary. He is the founding rector of All Nations Church in New Haven, Connecticut, where he lives with his wife, Blanca.

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