God of the resurrection, as we hear of your life-giving power once again, grant us faith in the newness of life to which you also call us. Amen.
SCRIPTURE LESSON John 11:38-44, GNT
38 Deeply moved once more, Jesus went to the tomb, which was a cave with a stone placed at the entrance. 39 “Take the stone away!” Jesus ordered.
Martha, the dead man's sister, answered, “There will be a bad smell, Lord. He has been buried four days!”
40 Jesus said to her, “Didn't I tell you that you would see God's glory if you believed?” 41 They took the stone away. Jesus looked up and said, “I thank you, Father, that you listen to me. 42 I know that you always listen to me, but I say this for the sake of the people here, so that they will believe that you sent me.” 43 After he had said this, he called out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 He came out, his hands and feet wrapped in grave cloths, and with a cloth around his face. “Untie him,” Jesus told them, “and let him go.”
SERMON Lazarus’ Story
We’ve already talked about Lazarus’ Story when we looked at Mary and Martha, his sisters. These beloved friends of Jesus lived in Bethany, just outside Jerusalem. We know the sisters sent word to Jesus when Lazarus became gravely ill. Jesus’ disciples were surprised he waited awhile to go to Lazarus, but at the same time they were concerned, because as Jesus’ ministry and popularity grew, so did the resentment of some Jewish leadership. The situation was threatening. William Barclay notes, “So often we would like Jesus to do things our way; we must leave him to do them in his own way.” (Barclay, John, vol. 2, Daily Study Bible Series, p. 83.) So true!
When Jesus was ready to go his disciples didn’t understand his mild language that Lazarus was asleep, so he had to tell them plainly, “Lazarus is dead.” But he went on to say that all of this would be another opportunity for God’s glory to shine through the situation. Thomas is the one who bravely suggested they might as well go and die with Jesus. R. H. Strachan says of Thomas, “This was not expectant faith, but loyal despair.” (Barclay, p. 87) Still Thomas showed courage here, not to give up to the end, in spite of his fears. I’d rather we remember Thomas for this courageous moment than for his need of proof after the resurrection.
When Jesus arrived at Bethany, the customary mourning observances were in place. These may not be familiar to all of us, so let me share some of the traditions of Judaism at that time as I read about them in Barclay’s commentary.
Because of the climate, burial took place as soon as possible. It could be a costly affair with expensive spices used for embalming, robes to dress the deceased, and material goods buried with them. Rabbi Gamaliel reformed that part, changing the wrapping to a simple linen garment. (Barclay, p, 89)
The funeral procession began with the women. There were memorial speeches and expressions of sympathy by the tomb. Leaving the site, chief mourners passed through two rows of those who attended. Then they were to be left alone for a time to grieve in private, rather than bothered with idle talk. That was the funeral. You can see some elements similar to our practices today.
I think what took place in the home had more differences. Even some Jewish rules were set aside for the time that the body was present in the house. No meat and no wine were to be consumed; no food could be prepared. There was to be no study, and the scrolls of the Shema worn daily by Jewish men were removed, just for that time period. When the body was taken out for burial, all the furniture was turned around, and people say on the floor or short stools. (Barclay, p. 89)
Returning from the graveside, a meal was served by family friends, including bread, “hard-boiled eggs and lentils…[They] symbolized life which was always rolling to death.” (Barclay, p. 89) Deep mourning continued then for 7 days, the first 3 with weeping. There were more restrictions during these days: no anointing oneself, no shoes, no business or study, no bathing. Then followed another 30 days of lighter mourning. (Barclay, p. 89) The closest I can compare this to typical customs today might be the funeral lunch, wearing black, taking time off work, bringing food to the home, etc.
One rabbi has taken Deuteronomy 13:4 which reads, “Follow the Lord and honor him; obey him and keep his commands; worship him and be faithful to him” and interpreted it to mean doing the things God would do. Since God clothes the naked, visits the sick, and comforts those who mourn, he taught, so should we. I can see the parallels in Jesus’ teaching, especially in the parable of the sheep and the goats. But the Beatitudes also come to mind, particularly, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Barclay sums it up this way, “Respect for the dead and sympathy for the mourner were an essential part of Jewish duty.” (p. 90) Many of us hold those same values today.
You can see that this period of mourning was a community affair. Many people were still gathered around Mary and Martha even four days after Lazarus’ burial. When Jesus finally arrived to pay his respects (and do more for them) the sisters took turns greeting Jesus. Each expressed their faith that if Jesus had been there Lazarus would not have died.
I think they are sharing honestly the frustration many of us experience at the loss of a loved one, when we get angry with God or we want to ask “Why?” Last year on Mother’s Day a good friend, Carol Jewell, died suddenly. As family and friends, we all may have had our moments of arguing with God about it. For several weeks, every time I thought of Carol, I continued to tell God, “I can’t believe she’s gone!” and “It’s just not fair.” Even trusting God as much as I do and believing in our future life with God in heaven as you know I do, I still had to wrestle with the reality that my friend was gone. When you face those moments in your own life, be gentle with yourself. The courage to argue with God may be more an expression of faith than doubt, and God does understand that you have to take your time working through it.
Understand also, that loss comes in many forms. There may be a time when things end or change: a job, a relationship, a move, even an institution. We go through a grieving process at those times, and it is perfectly reasonable that we do so.
By the same token go easy on the friend or family member struggling with grief. There is no magic formula for getting through it, though classic stages were once identified by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. We all go through them in our own way at our own pace. So when someone expresses their denial, anger, bargaining, or depression after a loss, give them time; respect that they are doing the hard work of grieving. You can’t predict when they will arrive at the final stage of acceptance.
As Jesus approached the tomb, some translations say that he was “deeply moved.” This is not the best translation of the Greek embrimasthai which more often refers to anger. (Barclay, p. 97) Other translations say, “deeply disturbed” (CEB), “very upset” (NCV), or (NTL) “Jesus was still angry when he arrived at the tomb.” (John 11:38) This refers back to v. 33, when Jesus is speaking with Mary, “When Jesus saw her weeping and saw the other people wailing with her, a deep anger welled up within him, and he was deeply troubled.” (NLT) Again that has been more mildly translated in other versions as “disturbed” or “upset” or in the GNT “his heart was touched, and he was deeply moved.” I think perhaps we find it safer to relate to Jesus being touched than angry, but again, anger is an honest reaction to death, one of the stages of grief. If Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine, wouldn’t Jesus experience all the stages? Of course, he would.
Barclay points out the significance of Jesus’ emotional expression to John’s audience reading this gospel toward the end of the first century. That audience was primarily Greek, and in Greek culture gods were emotionless. (p. 98) John clearly portrays Jesus as God in the flesh with a depth of emotion we also experience as humans.
Jesus expressed his own grief at Lazarus’ tomb in what is famously referred to as the shortest verse in the Bible, “Jesus wept.” (John 11:35) Jesus fully understands our grief and shares it. But Jesus is also the answer to our grief.
Many memorial services include the words Jesus spoke to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me will have life even if they die.” (John 11:25) The grave is not the end of the story. What Jesus does next for Lazarus previews what God will also do for Jesus not too long after this story takes place.
A typical tomb of that era in Palestine was either a natural cave or hand hewn from rock. Beyond the entrance was an area approximately 6 feet by 9 feet and 10 feet high. The linen wrapped bodies were laid on shelves carved into either side. There was a deep groove in front of the entrance, where a large round stone would be rolled to seal the tomb. Lazarus and later Jesus would each have been buried in this type of grave.
Jesus commanded that the stone covering Lazarus’ tomb be moved. When the women went not many days later to Jesus’ tomb, the stone had already been moved. They found the cave open and empty but for the angels who greeted them.
As Jesus asked that Lazarus tomb be opened, ever practical Martha warned there would be a stench, as the body had been in there 4 days, long enough to have begun to decay. According to Jewish belief, by that fourth day, the spirit had also departed from that decaying body. But of course this did not deter Jesus’ purpose. To Martha “Jesus responded, ‘Didn’t I tell you that you would see God’s glory if you believe?’” (John 11:40)
As soon as the stone was removed, Jesus prayed for all to hear. “Father, thank you for hearing me. 42 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.” (John 11:42) Jesus came at this late time, to better demonstrate God’s power and glory, and to affirm that he himself had the authority to wield God’s power and share in God’s glory.
“Then Jesus shouted, ’Lazarus, come out!’” (John 11:43) Lazarus’ own name perfectly suits this story. It is a form of Eleazar which means, “God is my help.” Lazarus, by God’s help, did come forth from that tomb and lived though he was dead.
Given the wrappings around the body, this scene may have looked like something out of a horror movie. But for me, Jesus’ next words are among the most significant. “Untie him and let him go.” (John 11:44b) Lazarus was set completely free: free of the tomb, free from death, free from decay, and free of those strips of cloth that bound him. Lazarus was free to live anew.
When I think about Jesus ministry, it was often one of setting people free: free from demons, free from disease and disabilities, free from public prejudice, free from the burdens of guilt or shame, and free from the bondage of sin. From Mary of Magdala to Zaccheus, from Blind Bartimaeus to the woman caught in adultery, and for many, many more, Jesus set them free to live a new life.
Jesus offers us the same. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “If anyone belongs to Christ, there is a new creation. The old things have gone; everything is made new!” (2 Corinthians 5:17) From what do you need to be set free? In our world today I can think of many such needs. We need to be set free from prejudice and from poverty, free from depression and despair, free from anger, from addictions and from anxiety. We need to be set free from living in the past and from our fear of the future. We need to be set free from our lethargy and sometimes from our indecisiveness. We still long to be set free from disease and pain. We still need to be set free from guilt and shame and sin. Only in Jesus can we find new life beyond these things that bind and limit us.
What holds you back? From what dark place must Jesus call you forth? What obstacles must be removed?
Now think about this not only for yourself but for others. Mary and Martha loved their brother. They loved and trusted Jesus. When Lazarus was ill, they sent word to him. They expectantly knew that Jesus would come, and even though he arrived later than they wished, they still believed Jesus would act for Lazarus’ benefit. Isn’t that what we do when we pray for others? We send our concern to Jesus, our trusted friend. If we have faith, we wait expectantly for what Jesus will do, even if it may not be on our favored timetable or exactly as we thought we wanted. We choose to trust Jesus, or why bother to pray.
When we give public witness to our prayer, to our faith, and to the ways in which Jesus brings new life to us or to our loved ones, then we are also letting others see something of God’s power and glory. Every healing and every transformed life are examples of God’s work continuing in our day. This is something the world desperately needs, to see and believe that God is at work in our midst, bringing new life in situations that feel as though the world is decaying around us.
As you listen to the news or to a friend in need, as you face challenges that overwhelm you or burdens within that threaten to undo you, remember Lazarus. Remember that it is Christ who has the power to bring us out of that darkness. Remember that Christ calls us to remove the obstacles that hold people back and the trappings that bind them. As Jesus brings new life to the world around us, we also have a part to play in obedience to Jesus’ commands. Listen for Jesus’ voice, perhaps literally, but more often in a spiritual nudge or things repeated from many directions or sometimes the thought that takes us completely by surprise and won’t let go. When you are convinced this urge comes from Christ, then join in the process of setting others free as did those who moved the stone and unwrapped Lazarus that day. But in all these things be sure to give God the glory, for truly it is God who sets you free!