If you were here in the church parking lot on Halloween this past week you saw ghosts and goblins, princesses and Power Rangers, Captain America, the Incredible Hulk, dinosaurs–all kinds of cute and scary creatures!
Having just heard the reading from John, chapter 11, it may feel to you like Halloween all over again! One day Jesus shows up at his friend Lazarus’ house but it’s too late. Lazarus has died. At the tomb Jesus shouts, “Lazarus, come out!” And the way John tells it, The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth.
Sounds like a Halloween story, a mummy straight out of Hollywood, doesn’t it?
But the story of Lazarus actually starts earlier with his sister Mary. When Jesus arrives on the scene she says to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” If any of us were in her place, could we have said the same thing? Would we have such faith? Mary believes that Jesus not only has the power to heal but the power to save, power even over death.
On the other hand, there’s a hint of accusation in her words. Lord, if you had been here… this wouldn’t have happened. And she was probably right! Early in chapter 11 Jesus learns that Lazarus is ill. But, instead of leaving right away John tells us that he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. For reasons that aren’t clear, Jesus was dragging his feet!
Lazarus must have been Jesus’ age or younger, which means he was only in his 20s. He died too young. God, where were you? Why didn’t you show up? You could have prevented this. Who of us has not had such questions? We understand where Mary is coming from.
And it’s not just Mary! Some others were saying, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” They, too, had seen the power of God at work in Jesus. They, too, believed. They knew what he could do. Why didn’t he do something?
These are questions that speak to our own time and to our own hearts. Where is God? Why is there evil? Why is there death? Why do bad things happen to good people? No doubt such questions are being asked right now on the East Coast, following Hurricane Sandy. Why do such things happen? Why to some and not to others? What happened to fairness? Where is God?
In today’s story Jesus has no answers for such questions. In fact, he may have the same questions! In response to the grieving people around him John tells us that Jesus was “disturbed,” so much so that he began to weep. People notice this, and they say, See how he loved him.
But after a prayer Jesus doesn’t merely heal someone. He commands Lazarus to come out of the tomb. You see, our prayers are usually too small. The people in this story were hoping Jesus would show up in time to heal the sick man. But he didn’t. We pray for healing, but God offers salvation.
And not just for the life to come. Lazarus, come out! And Lazarus does! It’s a happy ending to the story, and it should end there. But did you notice? Jesus wasn’t content to raise a man from the dead. He wasn’t satisfied that the man was dead was now alive.
When Lazarus comes out of the tomb, head and limbs bandaged like some Halloween mummy, Jesus speaks to the crowd: Unbind him, and let him go. It wasn’t enough that the man was alive. It wasn’t enough that the man had been raised from the dead. Jesus’ work was not finished until he was satisfied that the man was free.
You and I, my friends, are invited to find in Lazarus a glimpse into our own lives. God is love, and God’s love is never satisfied merely with life. God’s will is freedom. For example, to the extent that we are bound to the past we may be living, breathing creatures but are we really so different from zombies…or mummies—the undead of Halloween. Where are we, each of us, bound to the past? To the extent that for years or decades after some loss we are bound to “what might have been” we cannot be free.
Where are we, each of us, stuck in longing for what might have been? Jesus said to Lazarus’ sister Martha, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” What are the grave clothes that bind us, the strips of cloth that blind us, that keep us from seeing the glory of God that desires more for us than just life, that desires for us—whether dead or alive—freedom!
Last week we heard in Jesus’ words the hope of freedom. If you continue in my word you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free. We are invited to share in God’s saving work. We are invited to freedom, and to set others free.
“Unbind him, and let him go.” Our work is to set each other free: free from the power of fear, free from the power of grief, free from the power of the concerns of our own lives to overwhelm us. We are free to unbind one another, for none of us has the power to set ourselves free. We set each other free by choosing to call attention less to our losses and more to God’s love in the midst of loss. We set each other free by casting a vision of God’s work beyond our own lifetimes. We are called by Jesus himself to pull off the Halloween mask of fear that blocks our ability to see the one who first loved us, who reaches out to us, and invites us to freedom.
When Lazarus’ sister Martha saw that Jesus was about to remove the stone from in front of her brother’s tomb she was alarmed. Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days. We, and all of life, sooner or later will die. Sometimes death is a welcome relief. Most of the time it is not. Where there is death there is a stench. Or, as we might put it in our own words, death stinks. Yes. Death stinks!
Do we grieve death? Yes. Do we mourn? Yes! But is that where we leave it? The story of Lazarus proclaims, No! What marks us as different in the face of death is somehow to proclaim to one another and to the world that we worship a God who even right now is creating a new heaven and a new earth, who says, even when death is all around us, “See, I am making all things new.” Not next year. Not in the life to come. Now. See, I am making all things new! Or, as the prophet Isaiah proclaims it elsewhere in Scripture, I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
God has given us the responsibility but also the great privilege of seeing and participating in the new thing that God is doing, of pointing to signs of God’s love all around us as hope for those we meet. Those who have gone before us were faithful in participating in the new thing that God was about, a new thing that would outlast their own lives and continue to bless our own. We, in turn, are called to God’s good work through all saints in unbinding one another, setting one another free, of building a new heaven and a new earth for generations to come.