Spring 2013 Chapel - February 20, 2013

The Company of the Unbound


February 20, 2013

"The Company of the Unbound"

This morning I invite us to look at a story in the life of Jesus and His disciples; the story of Martha, Mary and Lazarus.  You remember the story, Lazarus was ill, the sisters called, Jesus tarried, Lazarus died, Jesus comes to the sisters, the scriptures record the shortest verse in the Bible ("Jesus wept"), and Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead.

Though familiar, this story has multiple layers of meaning and significance:  for those following Jesus, those deciding if they will follow Jesus, those in need of Jesus' help, and those whose help Jesus can use.  For today, it is both a story about you and for you.  Let's turn to the Gospel of John, Chapter 11:

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.  Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill.  So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, "Lord, he whom you love is ill."  But when Jesus heard it, he said, "This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God's glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it." Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. John 11: 1-6


John, the gospel story teller, begins slowly, setting the stage for the story, reminding us of the characters and the setting, Martha and Mary were in Bethany (near Jerusalem), Jesus was elsewhere, away from those who had begun to plot His death, their brother was sick, so they sent a message to Jesus.

These people are not random characters in the Jesus story, onlookers in the crowd.  Martha, Mary and Lazarus show up several times in the gospel, anointing Jesus, giving him food and shelter.  They loved Jesus and Jesus loved them.  And now, they send a message to Jesus, "he whom you love is ill."

So what should happen next?

Well it's obvious isn't?  Jesus should spring into action.  A plea for help has gone out from those He knows best, loves most; they're part of the inner circle that cared for the traveling band.  He must act.  All those random people with their wants and needs.  If ever there was a time when Jesus would step forward when the "distress call" went out, this was it.

So what does Jesus do?

Nothing.  Well, not actually nothing.  He makes an observation, and he waits.  He waits for Lazarus to get worse.  His rationale is not linked to the health of Lazarus; His decision is focused on what will bring glory to God.  So he waits for two more days before He and His disciples travel to Bethany.

Have you ever been in such a dialog with God?  You're close to God, God is close to you.  A problem arises, well beyond your power or understanding, so you call out, you "send a message to God"; to the God who loves you, the God you love.  And instead of action, or at least an answer, all you get is silence.

Though we are well within the bounds of our relationship with God to call out to Him, it is clear that our timing is not God's timing.  We should keep sending messages to Jesus; but remember, we are confined to our urgent view, or limited sense of life's problems, God's view and God's timing are different than ours.

Let's return to the story:

When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days.  Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother.  When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home.  Martha said to Jesus, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.  But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of Him." Jesus said to her, "Your brother will rise again." Martha said to him, "I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day." Jesus said to her, "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.  Do you believe this?"  She said to him, "Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world." John 11: 17-27


Though the story begins slowly, it soon develops layer upon layer of meaning.

Have you ever thought, or even spoken out loud, words to this effect:

"Lord, if you had been here . . ."

Martha spoke words to Jesus that belong to all of us, "if you had been here . . ." In her case, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died."

She is presently experiencing the effects of "Jesus timing," but she will soon experience Jesus power.  But first, they have an exchange about life and death and the resurrection.  

Martha, "my brother would not have died"

Jesus, "your brother will rise again."

Martha, "he will rise in the resurrection on the last day"

And then Jesus, in one statement that will soon recalibrate the very reality of existence says:

Jesus, "I am the resurrection and the life."

He goes on to speak of life with Him, an eternal life that transcends the power of death.  And this life is available to all who believe.

Jesus, "Believe in me and you will never die.  Do you believe this Martha?"

Martha, "Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world."

The scene begins with Martha expressing her frustration with Jesus' tardiness.  "Jesus, if you had been here my brother wouldn't have died." It ends with Jesus offering Martha a life beyond the physical death we all experience.  Essentially Jesus asks Martha the same question He asked Peter, "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asks you and me the same question.  

Then Martha sought out Mary and told her to come to Jesus.

When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.  He said, "Where have you laid him?"  They said to him, "Lord, come and see."  Jesus began to weep.  So the Jews said, "See how he loved him!" John 11: 28-36

The story's next scene unfolds and we discover that Mary holds in common the same feelings Martha had:

"Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died."

It makes sense doesn't it?  No doubt they had seen him perform scores of miracles.  Their faith in Him was strong; the signs and wonders He performed made belief in Him and His power easy.  If only, if only, if only.

But almost immediately, Mary is surrounded by those who have come to share in her loss.  Their agony, their sorrow, touches Jesus deeply.  Though he spoke in terms of life everlasting, he was not unaware or immune to the sadness, sorrow and pain of their lives.

Jesus looked upon the scene of sorrow, and he wept.

Jesus cries.  Isn't it odd that we find that peculiar, a bit funny?  Why would, why should, the Son of God cry?  Doesn't He know the ending?  Aren't His tears a waste, shouldn't He be smiling already?

No, Jesus loved them, cared for them and shared in their sorrow.  When we weep, Jesus weeps.

But I have to imagine that His tears reached beyond that one scene to humanity's season of sorrow.  He came to a people who lived in the shadow of darkness and death.  Jesus, the one who is Light and Life, cries for a people oppressed by the darkness and death that awaits us all.  

Then He acts.

Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb.  It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it.  Jesus said, "Take away the stone."  Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, "Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days." Jesus said to her, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?" So they took away the stone.  And Jesus looked upward and said, "Father, I thank you for having heard me.  I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me." When he had said this, he cried out in a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out!" 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." John 11: 38-44


We've reached the final scene in the Lazarus drama.  Jesus, Mary and Martha and all the mourners arrive at the tomb.  Not a fancy tomb, a hole in the side of a hill, with a large stone over the opening to keep wild animals away from the corpses set inside.  This is where the body of Lazarus had laid for four days.

Jesus sets the stage for the story's resolution, "take away the stone," is His command.

Lord, didn't you hear us, "if only you had been here, our brother would not have died." But you weren't here and he is dead.  Can't you smell the stench of death seeping out from behind the stone?  Let our brother be.

Martha, the woman who just declared that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and by believing has been invited into the world of life eternal, this same Martha, is now reluctant to believe and obey Jesus.  Jesus chides her, reminds her, "don't you remember, if you believe you will see the glory of God?"

"Take away the stone."

As the stone is being moved aside, Jesus looks heavenward and on behalf of all those present that day, and all who will hear the story, he connects the dots, the origin of power and the object of belief, the Father.  "Father for their sake, so they might believe, I call out to you, acknowledging the fact that what is about to occur is only possible because of you and your power at work through me."

And then He shouts, in a voice that can wake the dead, "Lazarus, come out!"

Then, silence . . .

Perhaps in Martha's mind, a 30-minute-old memory flashes, Jesus' declaration, "I am the resurrection and the life."

And then, there he is, her brother, Lazarus stands, actually stoops, at the mouth of the cave turned tomb.  He is covered in grave clothes, his feet and his hands are bound with cloth, so he is only able to take the smallest of awkward steps.

In this moment, on display for them and for all who will hear, Jesus reveals God's power over the effects of evil and death.  Lazarus is alive.

Draw curtain, scene over.

But the scene isn't over, the final line, though often forgotten, or omitted, is crucial to our understanding of God's timing and God's action and our activity in relationship to God's love.

Jesus looks at Lazarus, draped in the clothes of death, bound hand and foot, and says, "unbind him and let him go."

Lazarus becomes a symbol for the life, the Kingdom reality that lies ahead.

Played out in advance of the death and resurrection of Jesus, is the death and resurrection of Lazarus.  Jesus is who He says He is, the Son of God.  The power He displays is the power of His Father.  In God's timing Jesus has come and raised Lazarus from the dead so that both Jesus and His Father might receive the glory they alone are due.

There stands Lazarus, raised from the dead, symbol of the new creation that Jesus Christ would make of us all, and yet, he's bound. Constrained by the garments of death.

And what does the "I am," the giver of life, say?  "Unbind him and let him go."

I came here today to get to these lines in the drama.  To ask you certain questions about yourself and to issue some of you a charge.

Have you come to Jesus, the resurrection and the life?

Have you experienced His power to make you a new creature?

But wait.  Look at Lazarus.  Consider Lazarus.

He's alive, a miracle among miracles.  And yet, he is bound.  Still in need of being let go.

What do you think about that?  Is that just leftover fabric from his previous state, or is there human symbolism that applies to us all? 

Here's what I think.  Even though we have come to Jesus, believing upon Him, being made new, the wounds of the world, the poison of sin may still linger, the stench of death, the clothes of the habits worn for many years need to be removed.

For some of you, you have come to Christ, 

Experienced His life-giving presence, and yet

In a certain area or dimension of your life, you are still bound.

Jesus needs to unbind you.

Fact of the matter may be, you have given up,

You have sent a message, sent many messages to Jesus,

And no response.

I am here to tell you, don't give up.

God's timing is not our timing,

The power of the one who raised Lazarus, and then Jesus, from the dead,

Will arrive as you earnestly and honestly seek Him.

Over time, the scars and wounds, the poison and the shadow

Of life's past, can be, will be, overcome by the Jesus who weeps for those He loves.

Some of us, maybe all of us, need to be unbound.

So I ask you, do you want to be unbound?

Released from the stain, the poison of sins done to you or sins done by you?

Send that message to Jesus, keep sending and seeking.

There's one more dimension for us to consider.

Jesus didn't do the unbinding Himself.

He called on others to set Lazarus free.

Many of you are studying here to answer a compelling call.

God has placed upon your heart the idea, the passion for service to Him and humanity.

God's call upon you emerges from God's purpose, 

To assemble an army of those 

Who will unbind people held captive by the effects of sin.

Some of you haven't ever consider this notion, but now that it is before you,

It sounds right; you are studying, learning, pursuing the art of liberation.

Yet you need to realize, the college pursuit, the life pursuit, is more than academic interests and accomplishments.

You are, we are, called to unbind those tied down by sins past.

The weight of the phrase "creative and redemptive agents" takes on its proper meaning in this story.

So where are you today?  Which character in the Lazarus drama do you most relate with?

Let us pray and send a message to Jesus.