First, this story is full of deep emotions and coated with tears, grief, loss and longing. Just think of the last funeral visitation you attended, the lump in your throat, the uncomfortable silence, the tears and not-knowing-what-to-say feeling as you walk around the funeral home looking at photos of the deceased and greeting the family. Let the raw, real emotions of this story in. As you read this paragraph, also notice how many times John mentions Jesus’ own emotions.
32 Now when Mary came to the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother [Lazarus] would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the people who had come with her weeping, he was intensely moved in spirit and greatly distressed. 34 He asked, “Where have you laid him?” They replied, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus wept. 36 Thus the people who had come to mourn said, “Look how much he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “This is the man who caused the blind man to see! Couldn’t he have done something to keep Lazarus from dying?” 38 Jesus, intensely moved again, came to the tomb. (Now it was a cave, and a stone was placed across it.)
You begin to wonder if John is familiar with all the millions of souls down through history who would entertain the lie that God is far away in our suffering, that he doesn’t really care, that he’s a stoic deity unmoved by human emotions. Let’s remember that John’s gospel emphasizes Jesus’ divinity more than the others, and yet here we see that God-in-Jesus is weeping at the death of his friend (v. 35). The people looking on also whisper to one another, “Look how much he loved him” (v. 36). Next time we are crying out to God at the foot of a casket and wanting to shake our fist in in the air, let’s remember we are addressing the God who “was intensely moved in spirit and greatly distressed” (v. 33).
But soon the tragedy turns into a triumph, and new life comes out of this death. But it’s interesting to note just how this all plays out. I noticed today for the first time how Jesus involves others in this miracle. He requires others to be active participants in this new life moment. Might this be significant in how God goes about intervening in our own lives and how he goes about bringing us out of our own spiritual tombs and into a new spiritual life? Check this out:
39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the deceased, replied, “Lord, by this time the body will have a bad smell, because he has been buried four days.”
Standing between Martha and God’s miracle-in-the-making is a big, heavy, difficult to move stone. Do you ever feel like that? Do you have a dear loved one who is trapped in a tomb of their own making and you know exactly what stone is keeping them trapped inside? Anger? A spirit of fear or discontent? A toxic relationship? Addiction? Sexual sin?
Now, how often to we just pray that God will just intervene and remove that stone Himself? How nice that would be if God just magically healed our marriage, took away our negative thoughts, removed our fears with a snap of his fingers. I’m guessing Martha and Mary were wondering why Jesus didn’t just go take away the stone himself. But he says, “You take away the stone.” We need to do our part to help others get out of the tomb. We need to move away the stone preventing the light of God from shining into the dark place.
Oh, and anyone who has ever gotten involved with someone else’s problems can relate to the fear a bad odor! It’s not going to be pleasant removing that stone. “It stinks, man!” Even going near that stone might unleash unspeakable backlash, pain, suffering, opening old wounds, resistance, and all kinds of bad stuff. Have you ever confronted a friend about their stone of self-pity keeping them in a tomb of woe-is-me victimhood? Have you ever confronted someone trapped behind a stone of pride? Try moving that stone and you could easily be crushed by it. But the stones need to be moved before they person can be set free. This is called “tough love.” I don’t recommend trying to move away such stones alone. That’s why interventions usually involve a group of friends. (That’s why in v. 41 it says “they took away the stone.”)
“Lord, by this time….” You complete the sentence. “By this time there’s probably no hope for them.” “By this time who knows how they’ll react my offer of help.” “By this time there’s no chance of full recovery.” It’s easy to give into such despairing thoughts when facing the cold grip of death and the apparent immovability of life’s large stones. But Jesus invites us to have faith even in the face of such apparent hopelessness.
40 Jesus responded, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believe, you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you that you have listened to me….When he had said this, he shouted in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The one who had died came out, his feet and hands tied up with strips of cloth, and a cloth wrapped around his face. Jesus said to them, “Unwrap him and let him go.”
Ok, very similar to my insight above, I found it interesting that Jesus chooses to perform this miracle with his mouth and not his hands. “He shouted in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” Then he stands back, arms folded, and waits for Lazarus to arise and make his own way out of the tomb. Why didn’t Jesus go inside, kneel down at his side, and lay hands on him? Why didn’t he grab his hand and lift him up? Why didn’t he unwrap him and let him go? Perhaps there are spiritual lessons here as well.
Some observations at random:
1. Is this an echo of the way God created in Genesis? He spoke new life into existence with his powerful, creative word.
2. Jesus stands calling all of our names to be reborn, offering all salvation…but tragically only those who hear is voice and respond in faith will receive this salvation and enter new life. He will not come in our self-made tombs and drag us out against our will. I believe we can resist the Spirit. Oh, how many people are trying to keep their tombs sealed shut, holding that boulder in place and “stonewalling” the One who can set us free and bring us out into the light!
3. God breathes new spiritual power into us by His Spirit but we need to cooperate with his grace and do our part to begin unwrapping ourselves and letting others help unwrap us from the power and effects of sin in our lives. “Therefore put to death the deeds of the flesh…” According to Jewish burial customs of the time, Lazarus would have been wrapped in nearly 100 pounds (!) of burial clothes much like a mummy. Emerging from that tomb and the weight of those wrappings would be a difficult process!
4. Yet, we don’t begin this life of “sanctification”, of growing in faith, rooting out the “old life” and embracing the new Spirit-led life on our own. Rather, Jesus tells his family to go “unwrap him and let him go.” This is the role of discipleship in spiritual community and the work of pastoral ministry. We are to gently help those coming out of their own dark tombs of sin and begin adjusting to the light of new life in Christ, learning to live in His resurrection power, and going about the tedious work of unwrapping the layers of twisted grave clothes from our old life of sin. As we read elsewhere, “We must strip off every weight and the sin that so easily hinders our progress, and run with endurance the race set out for us, keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:1).
God wants all of us to experience our own spiritual resurrection and the process it would seem will include these three steps: Moving away the stone, hearing and obeying his call to come out and beginning the process of being unwrapped.
Roll the stone.
That’s a great message for Easter…and everyday!