Worship Resources for March 26, 2023—Fifth Sunday in Lent

Revised Common Lectionary: Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45

Narrative Lectionary: Last Judgment, Matthew 25: 31-46 (Psalm 98:7-9)

The prophet Ezekiel had been taken into exile during the first wave of the Babylonian invasion of Judah, though he continued to prophesy through the siege and destruction of Jerusalem. He beheld strange visions of what God had done and would do. Like his contemporary Jeremiah, he saw through the corruption of the priests and prophets who only told the Judahite kings what they wanted to hear, and they failed to listen to God’s warnings. In 37:1-14, the prophet beheld a vision of a battlefield, a valley of dry bones. In dialogue with Ezekiel, God asked the prophet rhetorical questions about whether the dead could live and commanded Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones. The bones rose from the earth, with sinews, muscles, and skin, but they were just lifeless bodies. Then God called upon Ezekiel to prophesy to the breath. The Hebrew word for breath is the same as wind and Spirit. The four winds came upon the bones and the bodies came to life with breath. God told Ezekiel to prophesy to the people, that God would open up the graves, that God would bring to life what was dead, and that God would put Spirit into their own bodies so they would live on their own land. A prophecy of hope for the exiles, that God would be with them in spirit and they would find new life.

Psalm 130 is a prayer of hope and forgiveness. The psalmist prays on behalf of the people, knowing that if God held their sins against them, no one could come before God. However, God is the one in whom there is hope and forgiveness. God will deliver them, just like a watchman waits all night for dawn, they know that God will bring deliverance and redemption. They are forgiven, for God is all powerful, and God’s steadfast love endures forever.

Paul uses the image of flesh and spirit in Romans 8:6-11 as a metaphor of the ways of the world humanity has created and God’s ways. For those who live by the Spirit, they know God’s ways and are not tempted by what the world offers. Those who have the Spirit are alive in Christ, and death has no hold on them. Christ is the one who brings us true life and will raise us from the dead, giving life to our mortal bodies.

Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead in John 11:1-45. There is much to unpack in this story and various points of interest In John’s account. Lazarus was the brother of Mary and Martha, and while they sent word that Lazarus was ill, Jesus delayed in going to them. When Jesus finally decided to travel to Judea to visit, the disciples tried to talk him out of it because they knew some of the community leaders wanted to kill him. Nonetheless, Jesus insisted on going, though he knew that Lazarus was dead, for he was going to awaken him. Thomas, in his first appearance in this Gospel, was ready to go with Jesus even to the death. Martha was the first to greet Jesus as he arrived, stating that if he had been there, her brother would not have died. Yet she claimed her faith, knowing God would give Jesus whatever he asked. Jesus declared to her, “I am the resurrection and the life,” and Martha proclaimed her belief in him as the Messiah. Martha then went back and called Mary to see Jesus. Mary said the same thing Martha did, that if Jesus had been there, her brother would not have died. However, instead of boldly claiming her faith as Martha demonstrated, Mary knelt and wept. Jesus’s response to her was different. He also wept. For even bold declarations of faith did not keep Jesus from grieving himself. When other neighbors began to question why Jesus could not keep Lazarus from dying, Jesus rose, went to the tomb, and ordered them to roll away the stone. Martha warned him about the smell, since her brother had been dead for four days, but nonetheless, Jesus prayed, and called Lazarus out of the tomb. The dead man walked out, and many who witnessed the event came to believe.

The Narrative Lectionary focuses on the last judgment in Matthew 25:31-46. Sometimes thought of as a parable, it’s different from the previous parables in that Jesus doesn’t begin with, “the kingdom of heaven will be like …” Instead, Jesus begins with “when the Son of Man comes in his glory.” Already we know this is not like the other stories Jesus has told. This one, while using some metaphor, is more clearly about Jesus’ vision of what the final judgment will be like. Some Bibles title this “the Judgment of the Gentiles” because the word used for nations is translated as Gentiles elsewhere. Perhaps this is a statement of what the Jewish followers of Jesus are to do in sharing the Gospel among the Gentiles—it is important to teach about right living, right behavior in how they love their neighbor. All the Gentiles (nations) will be gathered before the Son of Man as he separates people like sheep from goats. Those who give food to the hungry, water to the thirsty, hospitality and welcome to the stranger, those who clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit those in prison—those are the ones who have lived faithfully, as if God was among them. Those who did not do these things are those who never lived as if God was with them, and are sent into eternal punishment, while the righteous are given eternal life.

The supplementary verses of Psalm 98:7-9 are about God coming to judge the world and all its peoples. All of creation celebrates the arrival of God, who rules in righteousness and judges with equity.

As we approach the end of Lent, we are nearing the end of Christ’s journey to Jerusalem in the scriptures. In the Narrative Lectionary we look at Jesus’s final teachings in Matthew, a reminder that we are judged by how we live. Do we believe Christ is among us, now? Then we must live like it. In the Revised Common Lectionary, we are reminded that God is a living God, God is the God of life. But this doesn’t mean we aren’t spared death. We aren’t spared grief. We aren’t spared loss. No, that is the cost of loving one another. God loved us so much, but the cost was Christ’s death. We love our friends and family so much, but the cost is that we will grieve their loss when the time comes. This is the price of love. But the promise of love is that death cannot separate us. The promise of Christ’s love is that love will live on through eternity. Somehow love will carry us through, whether we are bold in our faith like Martha or fallen on our knees like Mary. Whether we are brave like Thomas now or doubtful like Thomas later on in John’s account. Love will still carry us through.

Call to Worship
Christ is the Resurrection and the Life,
Even though we die, we believe, and we have life.
Death will not have the final word,
For Christ has shown us the way of life eternal.
For truly as we have cared for the least among us,
We have cared for and loved Christ himself.
We enter this time of worship together,
Living in the way, the truth, and the life of Christ Jesus.

Prayer of Brokenness/Confession
Son of Humanity, You wept when Mary wept for the death of her brother. You grieved when Your friend Lazarus died. You cared for Simon’s mother-in-law when she was sick. You know our hearts and our bodies all so well because You lived our lives. Call us to have compassion on ourselves and to seek the care we need—therapists, physicians, teachers, coaches, social workers, and pastors. Restore our hearts and minds and bodies so that we might care for one another’s needs. Help us to be gentle with our souls, Loving One, as we share in the work of caring for each other and meeting the needs of those around us. Guide us, Holy Spirit, to care for ourselves and for one another, for all the least among us, as You care for us. Amen.

“For with the Lord there is steadfast love,” the psalmist declares, and we know God’s love through Jesus Christ—through his life, death, and resurrection. But we know God’s love more intimately through the love of one another. When we love and care for others, we are loved for and cared for. When we give, we receive. When we mourn, we are comforted. When we feel despair, others pray for us. Know this: you are never alone. There is nothing you can do that can separate you from God’s love in Christ Jesus, and the whole congregation is here for you. When we love and care for each other, Christ’s love grows in us. So grow with Christ, grow in love, and serve one another. Amen.

God of All Seasons, as spring arrives in the north and autumn in the south of the world, we remember our ancestors marked the Equinox as a turning point in the year. If we have struggled, this is a time of change and renewal. This is a time when colors burst forth in autumn leaves to the south and in budding flowers to the north. This is a time when we are reminded that all things change, and You bring about both the challenge and promise of change in our lives, through repentance, reformation, and redemption. Your Holy Spirit is moving among us now. Help us to grow in new ways, to experience the new life You have promised us in this moment. You are making all things new. Help us to embrace hope and the challenge to change our hearts and lives for You, Spirit of Life, Spirit of Seasons. Amen.

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