Seward United Methodist Church
Saturday, January 22, 2022
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Let Him Go

John 11:32-44

 Our Gospel text this morning is picking things up in the middle of the story.  So we’ll have to do a little bit of catching up.

 Lazarus was the brother of Mary and Martha.  They lived in the village of Bethany, about a mile east of Jerusalem, on the other side of the Mount of Olives.  

 Lazarus became ill, and his sisters sent word to Jesus, who had gone down to the other side of the Jordan River, about 15 miles, a day’s journey, away.  But Jesus delays his return, and Lazarus dies.  Then Jesus returns to Bethany after Lazarus has been dead for four days.  

 The number four is significant.  The folk belief of the day is that when a person died, their spirit continued to “hover over the body” for three days.  After that, their spirit left and there was no more hope of revival.  This was probably how they explained what we would call a coma, where a person seems to be dead but then recovers.  

 Martha greets Jesus with the words, “If only you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  In the face of death, this is a pretty common reaction.  “If only ______.”  We focus on what could have been.  We imagine a scenario in which somehow death could have been prevented.  But the fact of the matter is this:  Death is not preventable.  It is inevitable.  

 Jesus says, “He will rise again.”  And Martha concedes that, “Yes, he will rise again, but not until the day of the resurrection at the end of history.”  

 We know that’s not what Jesus means.  But it seems to be the only possibility in Martha’s mind.  There were at least two other occasions where Jesus raised people from the dead, but they were people who had just died.  They weren’t people who’d been dead for four days, buried, in the grave, stinking from decay.  In the Jewish folk belief, those revivals were possible.  Even the cynic who doesn’t believe in miracles could say, “They were just unconscious.”  But in this situation, there is no other hope.

 Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life.  Those who believe in me, even though they die, will rise again.  Do you believe this?”  She says yes, but I think she is only holding onto the hope of a future resurrection.  It’s easier to believe that than to believe that Jesus could raise the dead right now.  It doesn’t demand any proof, only hope.

 Martha fetches Mary, and she has the same response to Jesus:  “If only you’d been here!”  But she is weeping.  She is not as “in control” of her emotions as Martha.  Martha is older.  Perhaps she feels the pressure to be in control.

 Jesus also becomes emotional.  First, he feels ENEBRIMESATO, a Greek word that carries the sense of sternness, even anger.  Why would Jesus be angry?  Some have suggested Jesus is angry at death, angry at the ravages of this thing that was not part of God’s intention for his creation.  But I think Jesus is more indignant at the lack of faith in the power of God.  After all God has done in their midst, they see no hope, and Jesus is indignant about it. 

 Then Jesus feels ETARAXEN.  This word means troubled, even confused, out of control of one’s emotions.  And then Jesus weeps.  

 Weeping and crying out in mourning were typical of Jewish culture.  It is not always considered acceptable in other cultures.  It certainly isn’t in ours.  We’re supposed to be calm and say things like “He’s in a better place now,” or “At least she won’t have to suffer anymore.”  I think the Jewish custom is probably better, better to admit our grief than pretend it doesn’t exist.

 The surprise to the reader is that Jesus, God in human flesh, is emotional.  John’s Gospel was written to a Greek audience, and in the Greek understanding of God, he is emotionless, passive, unfeeling.  Instead we learn that God has empathy; he feels with us.

 They come to the cave where Lazarus was buried.  Jesus says, “Remove the stone.”  And Martha says, “We can’t.  It’s been four days.  He smells bad!”  It is easier to move the stone than it is to move Martha from doubt to faith.  But she relents, and the stone is rolled aside.

 Jesus prays.  He doesn’t ask God to raise Lazarus.  He has full confidence God has already done so.  And then Jesus commands, “Lazarus, come out!”

 And out he comes, still wrapped in the grave clothes.  The Jewish custom was that a dead body would be wrapped from neck to toe in long strips of cloth.  It would be bound tightly, to keep the limbs straight.  The head would be wrapped separately in a piece of cloth about a yard square.  They would be placed in a large family tomb like this for one year, and at the end of that year, their bones would be gathered up into a stone

box, called an ossuary, and then reburied in a different part of the tomb.  Jesus says, “Unwrap him, and let him go!”  Lazarus can’t live in these vestments of death.  

 When we read the Scriptures, we often see ourselves in the story.  Maybe when we read this story, it’s easiest to see ourselves in the persons of Mary and Martha.  We probably all know the sting of losing a loved one.  We probably all know the regret of saying, “If only…”  And we probably all know the experience of doubting, questioning what God could possibly do in the midst of our difficult circumstances.  

 But I want you to see yourself in the person of Lazarus.    

 First of all, apart from Christ, we are all dead.  We are spiritually dead, cut off from relationship with God our Creator by our sins.  And we need someone to come and bring us back to life.  And that’s what Jesus does.  Jesus gives us new life.  

 But there’s more.  We are all wrapped up in the vestments of death.  We are spiritually dead, cut off from God.  We are relationally dead.  We have broken relationships in our lives.  We don’t live at peace with one another.  And we are emotionally dead.  We struggle with grief, with regret, with despair, with fear, with doubt, with addictions, with depression.  Those things are the vestments of death.  And as long as we are wrapped up in them, we cannot live fully as Christ intended.  

 Jesus did not just come to set us free from our sins.  Jesus came to set us free from everything that hinders our lives.  Jesus’ word for us, wrapped up in our vestments of death, bound tightly by them, is “Unwrap him, unwrap her, and let them go!”  

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