PREQUEL TO LAZARUS UNBOUND

This post is something different than I’ve done before.  What follows are the notes I took as I dialogued with the John 11 text about the raising of Lazarus from the dead.  Although I am not preaching on this text right now, it’s an example of how I would begin to study a text for preaching.  It is the prequel to the post I wrote earlier this week entitled “Lazarus was unbound, are we?

John 11:32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
11:33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.
11:34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.”
11:35 Jesus began to weep
11:36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”
11:37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
11:38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it.
11:39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”
11:40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”
11:41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me.
11:42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.”
11:43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus come out!”
11:44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him and let him go.”

John 11 includes the familiar story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead. There is no suspense or surprise about the outcome of this story.  Most of us know how the story ends, but the various theological assumptions revealed by how people respond to Lazarus’ death are worth careful examination.  (NRSV) 

The passage opens with Mary scolding Jesus for not being there sooner to keep her brother from dying, just as her sister Martha had done in verse 21.  We are not ever told Lazarus’ cause of death, but Martha and Mary apparently believes in a God who won’t let bad things happen to good people.  Earlier in the chapter John makes a point of telling us what a faithful disciple she was by reminding us that Mary has been in charge of the church kitchen for as long as anyone can remember. (Actually it says “Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair.” 11:2).  Mary’s complaint is more confusing because we know from the early part of this chapter that Jesus has said Lazarus will not die, but his illness is “for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” (Vs. 4). 

Does that sound a bit self-centered for Jesus?  It does to me.  John tells us repeatedly how much Jesus loved Martha, Mary and Lazarus, and yet he uses their suffering for his own glorification?  In fact John tells us in verse 6 that “after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.”  And it gets worse.  It isn’t that Jesus doesn’t understand the severity of Lazarus’ condition.  After using the euphemism of sleep to describe Lazarus’ conditions, he learns that, as usual, the disciples don’t get it, “then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead.’”  (Vs. 14).  

All of that is back story and laden with John’s own theological perspective on the divinity of Jesus.  Ironically this passage also is most famous for the shortest verse in the Bible, in some translations, that shows Jesus in one of the most human moments in the Gospels.  Jesus weeps over the death of his dear friend and John tells us twice to be sure we get it that Jesus was “greatly disturbed.”  Even that quite natural emotion in the presence of death gets interpreted differently through two theological lenses.   Some of the spectators see Jesus’ tears as a sign of how much he loved Lazarus while the critics murmur that Jesus who has a great track record of miracles really could have saved Lazarus if he chose to.  

Speaking of theological lenses, John makes sure to let us insider readers of his Gospel know what the real subtext of this whole scene is.  There is a large stone in front of the tomb where Lazarus has been for four days.  Wouldn’t 3 days have been a better analogy to Jesus time in the tomb?  And yes, Martha reminds that the body is going to stink because he is really dead.  And then after John inserts an aside between Jesus and God to be sure we all understand this is all done for the glory of God, Jesus shifts to the imperative tone.  He says in a voice so loud the dead can hear it, “Lazarus, come out!”  

And then he does the second imperative: “Unbind him and let him go!”

What do we need to be unbound from to really come alive?  That question can take those who hear it in many different directions— materialism, nationalism, self-centered ness….

Emptiness – letting go, being unbound from striving for meaning –unbound from fear, doubt, anger, things that don’t satisfy the soul.  For those of us forced to let go of so many things in old age it can be anger, frustration, hopelessness, resentment, or mistrust. 

Lazarus’ resurrection led some to believe and some to go to Caiaphas and start plotting the crucifixion of Jesus as a sacrificial lamb to save the nation.  What rationalization do I use to justify my own selfish desires?  

Unbound: Lazarus was, are we?

What do tennis, hiking, golf, biking, jogging, working on a ladder, and skiing all have in common? They are all things I have had to give up in the last 10 years due to the aging process. I was talking to a friend my age who has given up even more things than I, and when I described my emotional state as “feeling empty” and not having anything to fill the space left by all I’ve lost. The words were barely out of my mouth when my friend said, “That’s exactly how I feel!” Like all of my friends, we have often joked in years past about old people always complaining about their aches and pains all the time, but more and more as we navigate our 70’s we find ourselves doing exactly the same thing.

I remember about 12 years ago asking an “older” gentleman what he was doing in retirement. Without missing a beat he said, “Going to doctor appointments and funerals.” I thought that was funny back then, but I’m not laughing anymore. When I told my friend that I was seeing a counselor about my feelings of emptiness and depression his response surprised me. After asking if the therapy was helping he said, “Thanks for sharing that. I always thought you had it all together. But knowing you are feeling the same things that I am makes me feel not so alone.” That wasn’t a “misery loves company” response; that was the blessing of letting down our armor and being vulnerable.

I’m not patting myself on the back, mind you. I have been good friends with this man for over 50 years. We have gotten together for golf and/or lunch monthly for decades until old age took our clubs away. Now like many oldsters we just go to Bob Evans. We’ve developed a trust over the years, but the fact that he still thought I “had it all together” means I’m either a better actor than I thought or I’ve been much less honest with him than I wish I had. I’m hoping this recent conversation will help us stay on a more vulnerable level going forward.

Here’s the good news. In addition to my therapist I am also working with a spiritual adviser, and when I shared this story with him he reminded me that until we empty ourselves of all the busyness and activities that keep our minds off our pain God can’t fill us up with anything else. A light bulb went on for me when he said that because when you hear truth it illumines things around and within you. He helped me realize that instead of resenting the emptiness I am feeling I can choose to embrace it as a gift from God. That doesn’t mean the UPS is going to arrive at my doorstep with God’s gifts anytime soon, and no that’s not because of a supply chain issue. Spiritual growth takes time and a willingness to sit with pain or emptiness awhile.

The Hebrews were in the wilderness for 40 years, not because it takes that long to travel from Egypt to Israel or because Moses refused to ask for directions. Even Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness wrestling with Satan because deep spiritual growth takes time to mature and ripen. The advice to “be still and know I am God” may sound really simple, but it’s not just a matter of shutting up for a few minutes so God can speak. It means prioritizing time for prayer and silence, and not the kind of prayer where we just tell God what we want or need.

Jacob wrestled with God all night long and was changed forever by that experience. Moses and Elijah both had to go up to Mt. Sinai/Horeb to hear God’s still small voice. I confess I am not good at silence. Even when writing these posts I frequently have a ball game on TV or music on some device. I know I write so much better when I am in a quiet place as I am while I write this, but like Paul I often fail to do the things I want to do and don’t practice what I preach.

The Gospel lesson for All Saints day this year is from John 11, the familiar story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. There are many rich veins of truth to mine in that story, but two stand out for me just now. This chapter contains what every kid in Sunday School loves to memorize, namely the shortest verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept.” This is one of several times in the Gospel narratives that we see Jesus vulnerable and allowing his humanity to show through. Like us he grieves over a loss, even though we and he all know he’s going to restore Lazarus to life.

The second verse in that lesson that grabbed my attention this year was the last one where Lazarus emerges from the tomb all bound up like a mummy. He’s alive but not really. His movement and sight and vision are all hampered by his grave clothes???, and Jesus says, “Unbind him and let him go.”

What are the things that bind you and me and keep us from living abundantly in the reign of God? Are we so stuck in our old ways that as Martha so indelicately puts it in the King James Version, “He stinketh,”. My wife sells a very good air purifier that kills germs and removes odors, even in cars or houses that have been skunked. But even those machines will not remove the kind of stench that comes from us who are spiritually dead and don’t know it.

My prayer is for God to unbind me from the anger, fear and regret that I feel for all the things I’ve lost in this stage of my life. Unbind me, Holy one. Roll away the stone that keeps me trapped in a pity party for my past. Unbind me and let me embrace what is and what will be if I trust you to lead me.

What’s your prayer for new life?