For the past several weeks in March the gospel of John has taken us through some very lengthy and profound conversations focused on having faith in Jesus. It started with Nicodemus, then it went on to the Samaritan woman at the well. Last week we witnessed the fracas with the Jewish leaders over the healing of a blind beggar. Today’s reading takes on a different tone altogether. It now becomes deeply intimate. Jesus beloved friends, Mary and Martha, call Jesus urgently to come to the beside of Lazarus, telling him “the one who you love is ill.”
The mood is somber. The disciples are aware that there are plots to kill Jesus, so they are worried about him returning to Judea. In the midst of this Jesus inexplicably delays going to Bethany, where Lazarus is dying. The worst happens. Lazarus dies and is in his tomb four days by the time Jesus arrives. The people are weeping and wailing. Martha cries out, “Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Mary too, kneels before him and also says, “Lord, if you have been here my brother would not have died.” The sisters are weeping, the crowds are weeping and Jesus is deeply agitated and profoundly moved. As Jesus approaches the tomb he too breaks down and cries.
John speaks of love three times in this chapter. It is because of love that this wound of loss is so deep and profound. Most of us have grieved the death of a loved one. It changes us, doesn’t it? It leaves a hole in our heart that never closes. We learn to move on with life, but life is never the same. Some of us may even feel like Mary and Martha: Lord why have you delayed? Why didn’t you do something? Why Lord have you allowed this to happen? Who hasn’t prayed like this in anguish? Jesus may know that this was to reveal God’s glory, but that doesn’t make the sting any easier to bear. Jesus bears the pain as well, as he is about to perform one of his greatest signs of all: the raising of Lazarus. A raising that surely is a harbinger of things to come for Jesus himself on Easter Sunday.
Jesus’ manner of raising Lazarus from the dead gives us insight in how we too, how our world, can be brought back to life. What we must do to testify that Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life. Jesus lays it out: how we are to come out of the mess we find ourselves in. How we are to be unbound by all that ensnares us in life. Let us look at this remarkable passage more closely and learn from Jesus how we need to go about changing our lives, how we are to help others find resurrected life, especially as we approach the end of Lent and enter Holy Week.
Weeping and with deep distress, Jesus approaches the tomb. Lazarus has been dead four days. In the common thinking of the era, the spirit has left the body by the third day. By the fourth day the funeral begins to wind down. The body is entombed. It is decaying. Death is final. What can Jesus do at this point? It seems pointless. Yet the first thing Jesus does is command “take away the stone.”
Jesus is first and foremost a stone remover. Especially stones that traps our life in tombs - the abode of death. All the hurt, mistakes, bad choices and pain we deal with in life places us in tombs and we can’t get out on our own. Yet Jesus stands before our tombs, broken-hearted, feels our pain, and orders the stone rolled away. A stone represents the barrier between death and life. A stone is an obstacle that gets in the way. Stones block our life from moving forward. Whether it’s a person standing in our way or a situation we find ourselves in or our own bad habits. Stones are real. Jesus is there to take it away. However, notice that Jesus here doesn’t order the stone to move. He has others do this task. Jesus calls us as believers to engage in the ministry of rolling away stones and clearing the path, so that others can come to Jesus when he calls. Therefore, we too, like Jesus are stone movers. Sometimes however, removing the stones around us seems impossible.
There’s story told of how God told a man to go outside his cabin and push on a huge rock that was in front of his cabin. Every day for many years he would go out early in the morning and push on the rock. After all these years he never moved the rock an inch and he became discouraged because he wanted to serve God in an awesome way, but all he had done was wasted his time pushing on a rock. The man decided to go to a nearby town and talk to a minister about his trouble. As he was walking to the town, he had to pass a mine. As he got close to the mine, he could see something happening and he ran to see what was happening. Several people were trapped when a huge rock fell from the roof of the mine. They had tried to move it failed. The man found the rock and with one huge push the rock gave way and the men rushed to freedom. The man had saved all of their lives and were thankful. He never made it to town. That night as he was praying God spoke to him and said I never asked you to move the rock in front of your cabin only to push. Because you have done what I asked you had the strength to do what I created you to do. So, friends, our Lenten lesson is keep pushing. You never know what stones you push, what testimony you give, what help you render, will move a stone out of the life of a neighbor, a loved one, or a stranger. Keep moving those stones so resurrected life can emerge.
As Jesus stands before the tomb he prays. “Father, I thank you for having heard me.” Jesus prays publicly for all to hear - The prayer is not just for Lazarus but for those who are present, so that they might come to believe in Jesus, through whom God works this mighty deed. Jesus could have just performed the miracle without a prayer. Jesus deliberately prays out loud for the benefit of others. So, we pray for many things in life, but we are called to remember that prayer is another type of stone mover. There is private prayer and public prayer. Both are important. Public prayer changes us. Public Prayer changes others. Public prayer gives glory to God and creates space for resurrected life to emerge. So be bold. Let others hear your prayers.
After praying Jesus cried out in a loud voice (remember Jesus also did this from the cross), Lazarus come out! Jesus commands Lazarus back to life. The word in Greek is interesting. The word deuro, means “to come.” It’s not the regular word Jesus uses when he talks with his disciples (erchomai). Jesu uses deuro in Matthew, Luke and Mark as he talks to a wealthy man who comes to Jesus seeking eternal life. Jesus responds: “You lack one thing — go, sell whatever you have and give the money to the poor; then you will have treasure in heaven. And come, (deuro) follow me.” Jesus is summoning the wealthy man to come out of his grave created by his money and live (Matt. 19:21; Luke 18:22, Mk 10:21).
Deuro, as it is used in the NT, describes a deliberate action to follow and obey the will of God, to walk in the footsteps of Jesus. So, Jesus is giving a command to Lazarus: his coming out of the grave is in fulfillment with God’s will. It is God’s will that we come out of our graves. So, from what grave are you being summoned? The stone is rolled away. Prayers have been uttered. Now it’s time for you, for us, to act. To leave the tomb.
Jesus’ next command is for the people to unbind the risen Lazarus from stripes of cloth binding his hands and feet and wrapped around his head. Note that Lazarus needs help taking off the remnants of his grave clothes, and we need help too. Pastor Eric Geiger notes: “Some remnants of our old selves must be taken off in community. It takes others to encourage you when you are struggling. It takes others to pray for you when you need wisdom. It takes others to graciously help you see grave clothes that you can’t see, remnants of your old life that remain. It takes a village to raise a child and it takes community to mature a Christian.”
. The apostle Paul puts it this way in Ephesians 4:22-24: “You were taught with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires… and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” We are commanded to take off our grave clothes, to “put off our old selves.” It’s not enough to come out of tombs, stinking of death. To rid ourselves of the stench we must clothe ourselves in Christ. Paul goes on to tell us how to unbind each other:” you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Make allowance for each other’s faults and forgive anyone who offends you” (Col 3:12-14).
This miracle of restored life was not just for Lazarus and his sisters, it is for us this day. This deeply personal story is our personal story as well. There are many ways we die in this world. The death of our physical body is just the final act we must face. We die in other ways. We die as relationships go sour or end. We die when innocence is taken away. We die as we numb ourselves with alcohol or drugs. We die as we face the great transitions in life and as the burdens of life wear us down, dreams fade, we find we can’t make the changes we once committed ourselves to. We die when we compromise our values. We die when injustice reigns supreme in our world. We die with every unkindness, insult and mean-spirited action comes our way. We die as we watch those we love, people, pets or creation, suffer and pass away. We feel like Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones, we are surrounded by death in all its shades and shapes. This is where our understanding of Jesus as our Resurrection and life come into focus. So, as we prepare for Holy Week and Easter; let us be about the ministry of removing stones that block the love of God. Let us pray like Jesus for the glory of God to be manifested in our midst. Let us unbind the grave clothes that cling to us and clothe ourselves with the ways of Christ. Let us hear Jesus calling to us as we face Holy Week:
Come out! Come out of anxiety and insecurities that have you bound.
Come out! Come out of pain and fears that have you entombed in darkness.
Come out! Come out of sorrows and all negativity that clings to you like a shroud.
Come out. Come out and claim your identity as a beloved child of God. Step out into the fresh air, shake the stink of falsehood and sin off, and claim Jesus as Martha did: Jesus our Messiah, the Child of God, the one coming into the world. Be clothed in Christ and follow him into the glory of a risen life, a resurrected life, that he has promised for all who trust in him.