Tuesday, March 8, 2022

Following Jesus: Being Free Together

A certain man, Lazarus, was ill. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. (This was the Mary who anointed the Lord with fragrant oil and wiped his feet with her hair. Her brother Lazarus was ill.) So the sisters sent word to Jesus, saying, “Lord, the one whom you love is ill.”

When he heard this, Jesus said, “This illness isn’t fatal. It’s for the glory of God so that God’s Son can be glorified through it.” Jesus loved Martha, her sister, and Lazarus. When he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed where he was. After two days, he said to his disciples, “Let’s return to Judea again.”

The disciples replied, “Rabbi, the Jewish opposition wants to stone you, but you want to go back?”

Jesus answered, “Aren’t there twelve hours in the day? Whoever walks in the day doesn’t stumble because they see the light of the world. But whoever walks in the night does stumble because the light isn’t in them.”

He continued, “Our friend Lazarus is sleeping, but I am going in order to wake him up.”

The disciples said, “Lord, if he’s sleeping, he will get well.” They thought Jesus meant that Lazarus was in a deep sleep, but Jesus had spoken about Lazarus’ death.

Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died. For your sakes, I’m glad I wasn’t there so that you can believe. Let’s go to him.”

Then Thomas (the one called Didymus) said to the other disciples, “Let us go too so that we may die with Jesus.”

When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Bethany was a little less than two miles from Jerusalem. Many Jews had come to comfort Martha and Mary after their brother’s death. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him, while Mary remained in the house. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. Even now I know that whatever you ask God, God will give you.”

Jesus told her, “Your brother will rise again.”

Martha replied, “I know that he will rise in the resurrection on the last day.”

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die. Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

She replied, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, God’s Son, the one who is coming into the world.”

After she said this, she went and spoke privately to her sister Mary, “The teacher is here and he’s calling for you.” When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to Jesus. He hadn’t entered the village but was still in the place where Martha had met him. When the Jews who were comforting Mary in the house saw her get up quickly and leave, they followed her. They assumed she was going to mourn at the tomb.

When Mary arrived where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.”

When Jesus saw her crying and the Jews who had come with her crying also, he was deeply disturbed and troubled. He asked, “Where have you laid him?”

They replied, “Lord, come and see.”

Jesus began to cry. The Jews said, “See how much he loved him!” But some of them said, “He healed the eyes of the man born blind. Couldn’t he have kept Lazarus from dying?”

Jesus was deeply disturbed again when he came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone covered the entrance. Jesus said, “Remove the stone.”

Martha, the sister of the dead man, said, “Lord, the smell will be awful! He’s been dead four days.”

Jesus replied, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believe, you will see God’s glory?” So they removed the stone. Jesus looked up and said, “Father, thank you for hearing me. I know you always hear me. I say this for the benefit of the crowd standing here so that they will believe that you sent me.” Having said this, Jesus shouted with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his feet bound and his hands tied, and his face covered with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Untie him and let him go.” --John 11:1-44 (CEB)

That day. That day.

My sister, Mary, and I--we lived in Bethany, along with our brother, Lazarus, who lived nearby. Bethany was close to Jerusalem, only about a mile and a half away. It was small and secluded, just a few hundred people living across the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem.

It was so peaceful. Full of palm trees rustling in the breeze as  you came out of the valley. Hidden away from the bustling noise of Jerusalem. It was a beautiful place, our home. Just an hour’s walk into the city.

So, it was a perfect place for Jesus to stay, when he came to Jerusalem. He did it often. We became close. Because he was our teacher. Our rabbi. 

On one of his visits, my sister, Mary, did something a little impulsive. On that visit, Mary took our entire stash of nard--a very expensive anointing oil--a full pound that we had collected over a long time. She took the entire pound of nard and poured it all over his feet. His feet! Instead of selling it so we could give to the poor. That’s what we’d intended. Oh, she was criticized for it. Judas, especially, didn’t like it. 

But, back to the story of that day. 

Lazarus had been sick. We’d been caring for him and he, just wasn’t getting better. We decided to send for Jesus. He had left Judea, the area where we lived. The things he’d been doing here, the signs he’d been performing, the way he’d been challenging our religious leaders - well, it wasn’t safe for him here. So, he’s gone back across the Jordan. To the place where John had first baptized people and told them about Jesus.  

We knew it wasn’t safe for him, but still we sent for Jesus to come. We’d seen him heal others who were sick. Or crippled. Even blind. We were hoping - maybe selfishly - that Jesus would come and heal Lazarus. We knew it would take him 3 days to get here, but still we asked.

But, he didn’t come. And Lazarus got worse. And worse. And, then, unbelievably, he died. My brother. Dead. My dear sweet, kind, loving brother Lazarus. Dead. And no Jesus. He never came. To heal his friend. My brother.

We were heart-broken. I was heart-broken. But, more than that. I was angry with Jesus. He had the power - I’d seen it with others. With complete strangers, no less. Why not with one of his dearest friends and disciples? Why had he let this happen. I felt like he’d abandoned Lazarus. And us. 

And, then, four days after Lazarus had died. After, according to our tradition, his soul had already left his body. Then. Then! Jesus came.

I heard he’d entered the village and went to him. I was so angry. I said to him, “Lord, if you had been here. If you had been here, Lazarus wouldn’t be dead.”

And, then, I challenged him to do something, knowing that if he asked, God would answer. I wanted him to do something. What? I wasn’t sure. But, he had to do something. Something to make up for not saving Lazarus.

Then, Jesus spoke. He said that Lazarus would rise again. I knew that. It was central to my belief, something that my ancestors had believed, that our souls were immortal. I told Jesus this. That I believed I would see him on the last day. But, I didn’t believe that I would see him again in my own lifetime. 

Then Jesus said words to me that I didn’t really understand. Not then. He said that he was the resurrection and the life. He said that, if we lived in him and we believed in him, we would never die. Then, he asked me if I believed this.

What came out of my mouth, then, was even a surprise to me. But after I had seen. After all the signs Jesus had done, there was nothing else to say, but “Yes. Yes. I believe. I believe, Lord, that you are the Christ. The Son of God. The one to come. The Messiah.” 

But, Lazarus was still dead. 

I went, then, to get my sister, Mary. Funny, how when she finally came out to greet Jesus she said the very same words I had just spoken to him. “If only you’d been here…” And she started to cry.

He looked at her. I could see how upset he was. He asked where we’d put Lazarus’ body. We showed him. It was a short distance away.

Then. Then, when we got there, I knew. I knew how much Jesus loved Lazarus. And Mary. And me. He began to weep himself. 

I had never seen him cry before. Jesus? The man who wasn’t afraid of anyone, who wasn’t afraid to challenge the hypocrisy of our religious leaders.?The man who seemed to have all of the power of the world. Here? Standing in front of me, in front of the tomb, crying?

The tomb was a cave, really. This was our custom. To bury our dead in holes cut into rocks. This was where we had buried our brother. To protect his body from grave-robbers, which were such a problem in our time, we had a very large stone rolled in place to block the entrance. It took several men to put it in place.

As Jesus was standing there, weeping…upset…he told the men to roll the stone away. I thought he was crazy. After all this time, my brother’s body would stink. I tried to convince Jesus not to do this - that the smell would be so bad. And, wasn’t it already enough that he had died, but then to smell his corpse, too?

Then, Jesus reminded me what he’d said before to me. “If you believe, you will see God’s glory.” 

The men rolled the stone away. Then, Jesus looked up into the heavens. He gave thanks to God for hearing him. And, then, in a loud voice--so loud that it seemed he wanted everyone around to hear--Jesus shouted, “Lazarus! Come out!”

It was as though time had moved backward. There. Right in front of me. My dead brother stood. Alive. Still wrapped in his grave clothes. With his feet and his hands still bound. With the linen still covering his face, Lazarus walked - WALKED - out of the tomb. Alive.  My dear sweet, kind, loving brother Lazarus. Alive. 

Then, Jesus spoke again. “Unbind him and let him go.” 

Unbind him and let him go. How powerful those words would become for us in the next week! We would watch Jesus willingly go to his death. Then, just a few days later, miraculously be raised from the dead. Just as Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead. 

After those events, I began to understand what those words really meant. Unbind him and let him go. Unbind me and let me go. Unbind you and let you go.

Jesus wants us to be free. He knows our human struggle. The wilderness in which we live. The hardship and grief we experience. The oppressive forces and evil in the world. The limitations of who we are as human beings, falling short of transformation. Over and over and over again.

But, what if? What if it isn’t about getting out of the desert? Out of the wilderness? What if we are called to dwell in our doubts, our fears, our anxieties and brokenness so that we might stand together with others who are trapped in their own wilderness experiences? What if we make a place - a home - right there? Together. A home that exists right there - in the tension between despair and hope.

Because, that’s what we found that day. Right in the middle of heartbreak and hope. We found a home. Together. In Jesus. Who, out of death, brings life. Out of bondage, freedom. For us. And for you, too. 

Preached March 6, 2022, at Grace & Glory, Prospect, with Third, Louisville, and New Goshen Presbyterian.
Lent 1
Readings: John 11:1-44; Psalm 104:27-30

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