Thanks for the comments, both positive and negative to last Fridays post. I am hopeful that as long as we agree that facts matter more than preconceived partisanship and we are able to really listen to one another and respond respectfully real dialogue can still occur.
Today I want to go in a different direction. I am posting a sermon that I preached a few years ago. Reading a sermon is not the same as hearing it. It is a spoken medium after all, But here it is for whatever it’s worth.
JOHN 11: 17-44
- BOUND BY DEATH
The local weather reader is a good- looking young guy who should just read the cards and not ad lib. Last week he said, “There were some icy conditions on the roads out there this morning, but there were no serious fatalities.” A matter of life and death would have been a pretty good title for the story of Lazarus. It works from the standpoint of being alive physically and spiritually.
Death is always a serious matter. Philosopher Ernst Becker said the human race is “bound by death.” He believed that all of human existence is clouded by the reality of our mortality. “No one gets out of here alive” a poster from the 60’s proclaimed. Death is the ultimate statistic. It’s one out of every one. But for those of us who know the story, the inevitability of death does not have to bind us up and keep us from living.
Prudy had a lifelong friend named She was terminally ill. But she had no fear of dying. She explained to us that she knew where she was going, because she had been there before. Years ago, she was clinically dead for a few minutes on the operating table before being revived. She shared the usual story of a bright light and the voices of loved ones already there. But she said, “There are no words to describe the feeling of peace and contentment and joy that I felt.” Far from being afraid, she was anxious to go back there. Don Piper in his book “90 Minutes in Heaven” expressed the same frustration in not being able to articulate the deep joy of that experience.
I’m guessing that Lazarus had the same problem. Standing there blinking in the sunlight looking at Jesus, I wonder if he wasn’t sure which side of eternity he was on. I wonder if the thought ever crossed his mind, “Did Jesus do me a favor or not?”
In Israel they will show you the place where everything biblical happened. Most of the sites are not authentic. But they serve as a good visual for what the original might have looked like. The tomb of Lazarus in Bethany goes straight down about 20 feet. It has a winding stone stairway. The further down they go the less light there is. There is perhaps morbid comedy I thought about old Lazarus all wrapped head to toe in those burial strips, trying to make his way up that stairway. Jesus is shouting “Lazarus COME OUT! And he is thinking, “I’m coming I’m coming. I’ve been dead for 4 days you know. And I’m trying to navigate these stairs with my feet and legs tied up. Hold on to your Halo.”
And then Lazarus got a whiff of himself. (sniff) Is that me? The body decomposing for 4 days without any embalming is not minty fresh. Death stinks in every way possible. There is putrefaction that happens in a rotting body that causes an incredible stench. The bandages that bound him up were filled with the stench of death and decay. But it is not just physical death that causes that bad odor. It is the little deaths that occur along the way. Our souls begin to rot when we allow ourselves to me bound by a living death that will not allow us to climb the stairs to a renewal of life in the light of the presence of Christ.
Jesus had intentionally delayed his trip to Bethany in spite of his love for Lazarus. The Jews believed that the soul sort of hung around for 3 days and then took off for the after life. Jesus was there to blur the lines between life and death. Jesus had a lesson to teach about the connectedness of the body and the soul. The lesson was that we are given new life now; not just when the undertaker gets us, but here and now. We can strip off the stinking bandages that bind us up in a living death right now.
This is a key passage in the gospel of John. It is a turning point in which the Pharisees are now bound and determined to kill Jesus. The double entendre on the word bound, is intentional. In this act, Jesus leaves no doubt about who he is and what his life means. I am the resurrection and the life. And he means that he is the glory of God present with humanity. The everlasting life that Jesus gives is basically the same on both sides of the grave. The verb that is used by John for Jesus shouting is It is used only 5 times in John. Four of those times, it is used by the crowd before Pilate. They shouted, “Crucify Him!” This was a pivotal moment in his ministry. Jesus shouts life to humanity. Death, you have been beaten. And the crowd shouts death to Jesus. But he sees his death as glorification; the chance for all human beings to be free from the stench of death’s final victory. Because we are also shown a foreshadowing of another empty tomb still to come in the story.
But the question that comes to the modern mind is more basic perhaps. “Could this have really happened?” Because we know! We know about what happens if the heart stops beating and the brain is not receiving oxygen. We know that after four days of decomposition there can be no revival. We know. That’s why Jesus waits. He wants us to understand how much we don’t know. The line between life and death, the line between the natural and the supernatural, these are permeable lines. Was there symbolic truth in the raising of Lazarus? Yes of course. Does that mean that the Spirit of God can’t do the impossible? Does that mean that this never happened? What do you think? Life eternal; that is our proclamation, not just at the funeral home but in every aspect of life; whether this one or the next one.
But I think the most significant lesson for us as a faith community is what Jesus says when Lazarus finally makes it up to the opening and steps out into the light. Jesus says, “Unbind him and let him go.” I think that is the call to the faith community, the church that has to be a part of our mission. It’s not that we don’t care about each other, but we tend to keep things on a superficial level. How are you? I’m fine, how are you? I’m fine. We say that even when we are not fine; even when we are bound so tightly in the stinking bandages of pain and heartache that we can hardly take one more step. Why can’t we get real with our church family? “I’m dying here. I need your help.” And Jesus calls every one of us to be in the business of unbinding each other and freeing each other to really live.
FREED BY GLORY
What happened to Lazarus tells us that Jesus has ended the separation between God and humanity once and for all. That means that in this life and the next, we will never have to be separated from the glory of God again. We don’t need to wear the stinking bandages of death around ever again. Did anyone ever say to you, “You don’t look so good?” It is usually meant as an expression of concern for your well being. Once a deacon named Pat and I were visiting Erma in a nursing home. Erma told us that she was going to the beauty parlor in a few minutes. Pat said, “Oh Erma, you look so lovely, you don’t look like you need to go to the beauty parlor.” And I joked, “Pat never says that to me. Maybe I should take your beauty appointment.” And Erma looked up at me form her wheelchair and said, “Well, maybe you should.” The church needs to take off the bandages of death and look like we are alive.
My dad died some ten years ago. He left a special gift to me. A series of cassette tapes of his voice telling his life story. I play them once a year. In one portion he says, “Rick, I want to talk to you now as if I was in the room with you.” And he is! That line between life and death and life seems so fuzzy and permeable. It doesn’t mean that we have to pretend that death does not hurt, and that grief is not real. Some of you are dealing with grief that is fresh and still very painful. There is no magic to make that pain go away. But we need to learn to let the community of faith help to unbind us.
There are two words in Swahili for the dead. Zimani and Sasha. Zimani are the remembered ones. As long as they are remembered, they live on among us. My dad is Zimani. Once the last person who knew the deceased passes on, that person becomes a Sasha and moves on to eternity in another realm where eventually all are reunited in a circle of love
When I was in Sunday school and we had to recite a Bible verse from memory I would always choose John 11: 35. It is the shortest verse in the Bible. KJV says, “Jesus wept.” When Jesus was confronted with death, he cried tears of pain like all of us have done. The people around him said “See how he loved him.” Well, see how Jesus loves you. See how Jesus weeps at your pain. See how Jesus offers the hope of new life starting right now. See how Jesus calls the community to help unbind each other and set each other free; to be to one another Jesus with skin; to help us overcome our fear of death or the uncertainty of God’s power to overcome death, maybe it is time to take off those stinking bandages. Well, maybe you should.