Belmont UMC—April 6, 2014
Ken Edwards, preaching
This is a wonderful and surprising story. It is surprising because we are as deep into Lent as we can go and we are reading a story of resurrection. During a season in which we refrain from “Alleluias!” and we use unadorned branches in the place of flowers, here we have a story that stirs hope in us. But it fits the season because John uses the story to move Jesus closer to Jerusalem and the events of Holy Week. Jesus comes to Bethany, against the advice of his disciples. Bethany is only a couple of miles from Jerusalem, on the other side of the Mount of Olives. The story is pivotal because it connects us to the plot against Jesus. The storm clouds of Good Friday begin to hover over the life of Jesus.
Jesus has taken the risk of going to Bethany because of his good friends, Mary, Martha and Lazarus. This is a story about Jesus’ love for his friends and the evidence suggests that these three were among Jesus’ closest friends. It was with them that he could retreat. Jesus needed them and they needed him in return. Jesus loved Lazarus like a close friend. “See how he loved him!” There is no more moving scene in the New Testament than seeing Jesus weeping at the grave of his friend.
Everyone needs close friends like these three friends of Jesus—friends with whom we can relax, be ourselves, let our hair down and feel at home. These are the friends who know us, who are full of grace and forgiveness, and who hear our complaints and have permission to interrupt us with good news and special requests. These are also the friends who gently hold us accountable when we are on the wrong path. Jesus took a great risk for this kind of friendship.
We might put ourselves in the place of early Christians in the late first century, who are hearing this story for the first time. In this story we would hear of a Messiah, who called his disciples friends and loved them with passion and sacrifice. We would hear a story of Jesus who would call us friends, understand our human dramas and failings, weep with us and laugh with us, treat us with grace and forgiveness, and make us feel at home in his presence. We would hear the story of Jesus who befriends us and calls us forth to new life.
This is also a story about Jesus’ power over death, defeat and despair. John’s Gospel makes it clear that Lazarus is truly dead. He’s been in the tomb four days. If you’ve been to Israel you’ve probably been to Bethany and a place called Lazarus’ tomb. It is not an ordinary grave, but a cave dug out of the hillside. You enter and walk down stone steps deep into the earth and at the bottom of the steps is another opening for the burial. There is a deep, dark permanence to it and Lazarus is deep in the grave.
Ever practical Martha says, “Lord, it’s been 4 days and there will be a smell.” That’s crude but a real and practical response. So holding their breath and expecting the worse, the grave is opened and Jesus calls forth into the darkness, “Lazarus, come out!” And Lazarus comes up, up, up, reaching the opening, shielding his eyes against the sun light and dragging his grave cloths behind him, wondering, “What has happened?”
Jesus said to the crowd, “Unbind him and let him go!” Take the signs of the death off of him. The point is not that Jesus protects us from death. He does not. We will all have to face death. The point is that because of what Jesus does with death, we do not have to fear it. “I am the resurrection and the life!” Jesus says.
God is the life giver and God has the power to summon us out of the dark places of despair and defeat. I’ve been to many funerals and I’ve never seen anyone come back to life. I have seen those who have given up, felt defeated, and reached a kind of finality, hear the summons of Jesus and found new life in him.
People often express defeat and despair. “I’ll never amount to anything.” “I’ll never kick this habit.” “I’ll never find a decent job.” “I’ll never find my way out of poverty.” Sometimes the hole gets deeper and despair darker. In our world where the disparity between the rich and the poor grows wider and wider, there is a culture of disparity for those who are poor.
For some folks depression feels like a slow death. People lose heart and hope. Some years ago I was called to a friend’s house. His wife had entombed herself in their bedroom with the blinds closed. She had been there for days living in the darkness of depression and grief. With much love and tenderness we coaxed her out into the light and finally into life itself. “Unbind her and let her go!”
Kayla McClurg wrote, “The Lazarus parts of us feel abandoned, deserted, dead. Lazarus is whatever lies beyond our ability to restore, so bound up in old beliefs or hurts that spiritual rigor mortis has set in. The Lazarus in us no longer seeks to grow and learn, no longer asks if we might be of use in God’s unfolding story, fearing the response. We hunker down in caves of regret, we zone out, grow numb, live small. Dead as dead can be.” (Inward/Outward, April 6, 2014)
But Jesus comes to us in the form of a faith friend, AA sponsor, Sunday School teacher, pastor, neighbor, to offer new life. In the church we are in the “unbind them and let them go” ministry. We come alongside those who despair and we bring them into the presence of the One who has the power to give life.
Where are you today? Are any among us defeated, entombed in the darkness of despair? Come to this table to eat and drink with us and meet Jesus here! Come forth and live again.