Wednesday, 5 March 2008

5th Sunday of Lent - Year A

Ezekiel 37:12-14; Romans 8:8-11; John 11:1-45

We marvel today at the close correspondence between the words of Ezekiel and the actions of Jesus.

Ezekiel proclaims in the First Reading today that God will:
  1. open your graves...
  2. raise you from your graves...
  3. lead you back to the soil of Israel...
This is precisely what Jesus does for Lazarus.
  1. He opens his grave - Take the stone away.
  2. He raises Lazarus - Lazarus, here! Come out!
  3. He leads him back - Unbind him, let him go free.
To lead the Jewish People back to the soil of Israel was to set them free from their captivity and this certainly is what the Lord does for Lazarus - he lets him go free and, if you will be generous with your imagination, the Lord leads Lazurus back to 'the soil' - that is, the soil of his own body.

In the time remaining I would like to reflect a little on the concept of 'the land' or 'the soil'.

Three weeks ago in the First Reading we heard the words of the Lord to Abraham: Leave your country, your family and your father's house, for the land I will show you. This land the Lord swore he would give to the descendants of Abraham and it is this land, Canaan, the promised land, the future land of Israel, which Joseph and his whole family left to go and settle in Egypt where they became slaves.

Now this is important because in the Bible Egypt becomes a symbol for slavery and sin, while the Promised Land, Israel, becomes a symbol for freedom and righteousness. We need to keep this opposition clearly in mind.

Moses was the one called by God to lead the People of God out of Egypt. He had taken pity on their sufferings and he had heard their cry for help. Not only did he want to set them free from the land of slavery but he wanted to bring them into the land of freedom and plenty.

So Moses goes to pharaoh and says: This is what Yahweh, the God of Israel, has said, 'Let my people go, so that they may keep a feast in the wilderness in honour of me.'

Now this is very interesting! Do you notice the reason God wants his People out of Egypt? It's not simply that he wants them to be rid of their slavedrivers and their sufferings. It is because he wants them to worship him.

We tend to think of freedom in rather selfish, limited, personal terms but freedom is, in essence, freedom to worship God. Let my people go, so that they may keep a feast in the wilderness in honour of me.

From this point on we are able to make an even more precise statement about the purpose and meaning of God's gift to his People of a land of their own - it was so that they would have the freedom and the place within which to worship him.

Worship and the land were now always to go hand in hand. Worship justified the the gift of the land; the land made possible the worship of God.

Do we wonder at the anger of God when the People used, or rather abused, the wonderful gift of freedom in a land of their own by turning to the worship of false gods. Time and time again God warned them that their sins were 'polluting the land' and that if they did not turn from their idolatry the land would be taken from them and they would be 'scattered' among the surrounding peoples.

This is, in fact, what eventually happened. Contrary to the Law the people were using the Sabbath as a time for work and when they were finally taken into captivity in Babylon Jeremiah the prophet said: 'Until this land has enjoyed its sabbath rest, until seventy years have gone by, it will keep sabbath throughout the days of its desolation'. By this he meant that while the People were in exile the land would have seventy years of the Sabbaths the Israelites had refused to give it.

So there is was, and still is, an intimate connection between the Chosen People and their land. If they did not use it to worship the true God it would be taken from them while if they lived righteously upon the land they would prosper.

There are two further ideas I would like to propose. Firstly, the question of how we use the land of Australia that the Lord has given us. Our National Anthem exults:

Australians all let us rejoice
For we are young and free
We've golden soil and wealth for toil...

Again the notions of freedom and soil (land) come spontaneously together. We too are given the land of Australia as a place within which to worship the Lord. We are bound by the same imperative of gratitude and integrity before the Lord and we do well to examine ourselves in this regard.

The other idea, perhaps a little less easy to grasp, is the awareness of our relationship to the 'soil' which is our body. This 'land' no less than the Promised Land, is a gift given on trust as the locus of our worship of God. I like the Protestant Our Father which prays that God's will be done in earth as it is in heaven. This has always been a reminder to me of the fact that my relationship to my body is important and that the 'soil/land' of my body can be polluted by sin as truly as the Hebrews polluted the Promised Land by their sin.

The ultimate Promised Land, of course, should be our soul. It is possible that it has become for us our Egypt, a slave to sin. Lent is a special time of hope-restoring grace. The offer has been made - he will open our grave of sin and raise our soul through a good Confession, and lead it back to freedom. Once more we shall live in integrity on the land.

I pray that Lazarus' astonishing miracle will be performed for all of us this Lent and we will be led to new life.

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