REV. Eric Dillenbeck
April 10, 2011
 JOHN 11:1-45  (NRSV)
Listen to Podcast

1 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 

[Read entire passage]

 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.” 45 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

 The Word of the Lord      Thanks be to God!

Unbind him, and let him go.”

Petra Nemcova, a world renowned model, was inThailand on Dec. 26, 2004 when the tsunamis hit.  As you all know, large areas of Asia and Africawere flooded, and more than 200,000 people died in that disaster.  Nemcova was there with her boyfriend and they were literally pulled out of their bungalow by the waves crashing ashore. 

They were swept from the safety of their room into the powerful current of water and surrounding debris.  In the process she shattered every bone in her pelvis leaving her legs almost useless.  After nearly drowning and as the desperate voice of her boyfriend was swept away, she somehow managed to grab hold of the top of a palm tree to survive. 

For nearly eight hours she clung to that palm tree for dear life.  As she watched and listened, helplessly, the sounds of fear and chaos subsided into an eerie silence as faces and voices of her fellow victims were swept past her and out to sea. 

Two Thai men eventually rescued Nemcova by floating her back to the battered shore on a mattress where she was then transported to a hospital.  The doctors who treated her are not sure how she survived or how she is able to walk today. She lost almost all of her blood to internal bleeding, but in the face of an unfathomable amount of death she says she “found her prayer”.  And she prayed. She prayed for all those experiencing that terrible disaster and who, like her, were not sure how long they could hold on.  She now says, “She feels like she is living for more than herself.” 

I imagine she must feel much like Lazarus did.  She must feel like a resurrected woman.  Out of the clutches of death, a loud voice called her to come down from that tree, a voice that has forever changed how she views LIVING.

I am sure that Mary, Martha, and Lazarus’ view of LIVING was forever changed by this encounter with Jesus.  Mary and Martha’s brother, Lazarus, a close personal friend of Jesus was terribly ill; Close to death. They knew that if Jesus would come to Lazarus, then their brother would be healed.  But Jesus did not come. 

He waited.  He waited another two days before making his way toBethany.  And by that time Lazarus was dead and in the tomb.  Hearing that Jesus was coming, Martha goes out to meet him; and full of grief she takes him to task for not being there for his dear friend.  “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.  She thinks she understands who Jesus is, but we come to see that no one fully understands. 

She had seen and experienced Jesus’ healing power, but no one expects that life can come out of death.  No one grasps that Jesus is the life-giving power of God.  When he says to her, “Your brother will rise again”; Martha assumes he is speaking about the resurrection of the last days.

Why would she think otherwise? 

Her brother had been dead four days;
his body had been washed,
anointed with oils and spices,
then wrapped in strips of cloth and hastily buried before any decay could have begun. 

At that time, it was believed that the soul lingered near the body for three days[i].  So by the fourth day, there was literally no hope that Lazarus would awake; we can see in the text that the smells of decay were present.  Death had settled in that tomb. 

So it is not surprising that Martha would not understand Jesus because who expects that life can come out of death?  He tries to open their eyes.  He says,

“I am the resurrection and the life.  Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (vs. 25-26). 

In Jesus, the dynamic life of the reign of God is no longer a future expectation, but a present reality which not only foretells the resurrection of the last days, but also transforms our LIVING. 

But in the midst of her grief, this was a lesson Martha was not quite able to comprehend.  Not until Jesus arrived at the tomb of her brother. Jesus arrives at the tomb to find the evidence of death all about.  He knows that death’s power is still very much in place, a very real part of his disciples’ lives and this moves him to weep. 

It’s important that we understand this was not just a polite little sniffle; the Greek word used to describe Jesus’ behavior here suggests that he actually burst into tears, he sobbed over this loss. He was moved by the grief and sorrow, which are realities with which we must live. 

There are some situations that lie beyond our power to help. 

We can not stop death.  We can not stop people from aching with sorrow and pain.  There are circumstances in which we are as helpless as those who suffer and the most and the best we can do is to weep with them.

Jesus wept, but then he accepted life’s wholeness and moved to remind us all of God’s glory and faithfulness, which is a creative power not confined by the limitations of death. 

When Jesus was done weeping, he prayed and then shouted into the darkness of the tomb where Lazarus lay. 

And as I imagine it, Jesus did not merely shout, he screamed with every ounce of strength he had.  He screamed to the point of no return: “LAZARUS, COME OUT!” (vs 43)

And his scream echoed, banging off the walls of that dark cave; it continues to echo down throughout human history, throughout all time. 

It was a scream loud enough to resurrect the dead man and it is a scream loud enough to resurrect the dead places in our lives.

To each one of us Jesus cries out with a loud voice, “Come out!”

Come out from the self imposed tombs of nonliving,
of mere existence,
of over crowded schedules!

Come out into the fresh air,
into the breath of God. 
Come out and LIVE. 

But people can fear resurrection even more than death because as Pamela Cooper-White says, “resurrection is neither cute nor pretty.  It is not delicate or sentimental.  It is gristly and powerful – powerful enough to lift a man out of his rotting burial clothes and bring him back to his sisters.[ii]

Resurrection is about more than what happen to our souls after we die, it is also about the continual miraculous renewals that happen throughout our lives which call us out of our self – imposed tombs of non living.

When we experience these moments of resurrection we are called out of our old ways of living and this can be painful and uncertain.  Will Willimon tells the story of talking with a friend who has spent most of his adult life active in Alcoholic’s Anonymous.  This friend says, “Sometimes, once you finally do the hard work to stop drinking, become sober and break free, then you find that you have another problem.”  “What is the other problem” Willimon asks?  “What to do with the new life, that’s the problem”, his friend said. 

“When you are drinking, you don’t have to think about what to do with your life, the bottle tells you every move to make.  When you get free, and get your life back, well the ball is in your court; and that can be more than little frightening[iii]”.

Friends, resurrection can be frightening because it lifts us out of our old comfortable ways of living which enabled us to feel like we were in control, like we were powerful. 

Resurrection reminds us, once again, that we do not have all the answers; we do not have it all figured out; it lifts us out of our tombs of non living and reminds us to live in reliance upon the Breath of God.  And this can feel pretty scary and lonely sometimes.

But knowing that we were created for a life spent in community, Jesus did not resurrect this dead man and then leave him alone. 

Lazarus was raised from the dead and returned home.  He was returned to the place where he was loved and the place where he belonged.  When we are raised, renewed and transformed by the power of the spirit we discover that we are brought home to a place within ourselves that is centered and whole, but also crying out for communion with God’s people.  It is clear that this was on Jesus’ mind when he raised Lazarus.  He did not unbind Lazarus himself.  He said to THEM, to his sisters and their community, “Unbind him and let him go!” (vs.44) 

Though Jesus brings him back to life, revives his body completely, we are called to unbind the dead man.  Jesus leaves us with the responsibility to minister to one another, to help unbind the death rags that bind us to our self-imposed tombs of non living. 

It can be messy dealing with our own and other’s pain and past. 

Even if we do not realize it, the death rags of our assumptions, prejudice and stereotypes are bound tightly around our hands and feet; and the death rags of hatred, indifference and bigotry continue to block us from seeing the world as God would have us see it.

It can be smelly and painful to unwrap those things that still bind us, but the community of faith is called to tend to those things that keep us from living the resurrected life that we’ve been given.  Unbinding the death rags from one another may sometimes mean stepping into situations that may be new or different. 

It will push us out of our comfort zones, but unbinding those death rags, those grave clothes from one another can open us up to the breath of God and to a whole new future filled with hope and with real LIVING. 

So, during these remaining days of lent, let us roll away the stones which cover those places in us that need to be open to the renewing echoes of Jesus’ command to Lazarus to “Come Out” so that we may emerge from our tombs into the refreshing Breath of God. 

And may we then turn to our neighbors and help remove the rags which continue to bind us to our brokenness and pain so we may live with Hope in the face of death, that we may live with Hope; that we may LIVE. 

To God be the Glory!  AMEN

[i] Note came from Holly E. Hearon’s exegesis work found on page 47 Journal for Preachers

[ii] Note came from Pamela Cooper-White’s Pastoral Implications found on page 49 in Journal for Preachers

[iii] The Downside of Resurrection,March 13, 2005 – Proclaiming the Text on page 48 by William H.  Willimon