On the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives, not the western slope where Jesus goes to pray sits the town of El-Azariyeh which is named after Lazarus. It is this place, where it is believed, that Jesus raised him from the dead. In the Bible it’s called Bethany. El-Azariyeh is about two miles outside of the gates of the Old City of Jerusalem separated by the very steep and rocky Kidron Valley and the beloved Mount of Olives. It is from here that on Palm Sunday every year pilgrim’s reenact the parade of palms into the Old City.
By foot, it’s quite a walk and it’s one that Jesus will make on a donkey in just a few short days. A walk in which there will be palms waving against the cerulean blue sky and children laying their cloaks on the dusty road. But we are not there yet. Certainly none of the people knew what the future was going to hold for them, or for Jesus. All they knew was that their dear friend and brother, Lazarus was dead and buried. And their hearts were heavy with grief as they are when a beloved friend dies, and Jesus shuddered with sadness.
The raising of Lazarus is a long and large story like the other readings this Lent. It is a very complicated story of faith amid the vicissitudes and obstacles of life, and it put us face to face with our own human mortality. There are so many portals of entry in this passage in which we could reflect but today we will concentrate on Lazarus. First now, hear this story in its entirety from the Gospel of John the eleventh chapter.
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.
Then after this he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the [people] were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?’ Jesus answered, ‘Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.’
After saying this, he told them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.’ Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the [people] 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.’
When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, ‘The Teacher is here and is calling for you.’ And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The [people], who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there.
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 [people] 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 [people] said, ‘See how he loved him!’ But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’
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 for 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 upwards 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 with 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.’
Many of the [people] therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him…………Here ends our scripture.
Already Jesus is foretelling his disciples of what the future holds, but the disciples are slow to understand, this is no surprise, is it? It’s hard to believe that Jesus would dilly-dally just so he could demonstrate the miracle of resurrection as foreshadowed by Lazarus’ resurrection, but he knows them all too well and wants to prepare them. Once again compassion is at the core of what he does.
“Lazarus, come out!” Unbind him and let him go.” And the first face that he saw after being dead was the face of Jesus, the face of love. Not the face of the ever popular Hallmark card kind of romantic love but love’s other faces of compassion, of justice, of strength, of healing. Lazarus, after being bound with strips of linen and laid to rest in a cold and dark stone tomb was given life once again. And many people saw this great miracle of Jesus that day and believed. For life had come to the dead. And the bound were unbound. Surely if Jesus could do that for Lazarus he could do that for them too. Surely, if Jesus could do that for Lazarus he can do that for us too.
For all of us, if we are truthful, have been bound tightly with strips of linen or a shroud one way or another. Strips that threaten to deny us breath. Strips that hinder our vision. Strips that ensnare us in addiction, depression or old habits, or the past. Strips of linen that like to near kill us. None of us are exempt because life is indeed difficult at times and everyone has suffered. And yet we are constantly called out of our tombs because God so dearly loves us.
It takes great faith to believe that once unbound you can come back to life; to strip off grave’s apparel and begin to live again. It takes faith to believe when you are shivering in the darkness of a metaphorical death that you will ever breathe again. And a thimble full of faith will do when you can’t conjure up the faith that you think you ‘should’ have. And if you have no faith left, I’m here to say that you will live a vital life again. Because the voice calls, “Arise!” “Come out!” Come out wherever you are, in whatever condition you may be in. And that voice is Jesus. And that is love.
We are called out of our tomb because we are loved. We are unbound by that love so that we can be in the presence of Christ because in his presence we find forgiveness, mercy, grace and peace.
But it can’t stop with just ourselves, because we are unbound so too we can help loose others. Jesus brought Lazarus back to life but it was Mary and Martha who unbind him. We know all too well that there are people who live bound up with constraining strips of linen that society has placed around them. People who are victims of prejudice, hatred, poverty, and discrimination. They need our help in so many ways.
Columbus House had their volunteer luncheon yesterday and we were given a tour of the facility. It’s one thing to talk about homelessness but it’s another to see it face to face. Surely, the strips of linen are tightly wrapped around those who use their services. People become homeless for many reasons, mental illness, addiction, unassimilated veteran’s living with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), loss of job, chronic systemic issues that force a person into helplessness rather than self-sustaining living. The people who work at Columbus House are the Mary’s and Martha’s who help to unbind the constrictive strips for these men and women. What more can we do as a caring, faith community that upholds the work of Christ? How might we enlarge our ministry here to help unbind and make free others, like Lazarus who was unbound and made free to live once again?
Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and life, those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
Amen and may it be so!