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Sunday, March 17, 2013

Unbinding Death (John 11.38-46)

Sermon by: Robert Austell - March 17, 2013

:: Some Music Used
Prelude: "Cross of Christ Medley" (4-hand piano) (Shackley)
Hymn of Praise: "And Can It Be?" (SAGINA)
Song of Praise: "Amazing Grace/My Chains Are Gone" (Rees.Excell, Tomlin, Giglio)

The Word in Music: "God's Son Has Made Me Free" (Grieg-Overby)
Offering of Music: "All Things New" (Andrew Peterson)
Hymn of Sending: "I Will Rise" (Giglio, Tomlin, Maher, Reeves)

Postlude: "In the Cross of Christ I Glory" (Cherwien)

"Unbinding Death"
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Text: John 11:38-46; Isaiah 61:1-3; Revelation 21:1-5

**Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

This is our fourth week in John 11 with the Lazarus story. Over the weeks we have seen major themes emerge – themes of risk, waiting, faith and belief, the humanity of Christ, and most of all, the glory of God. Early in the chapter, having received the news that Lazarus was sick, Jesus told the disciples that this sickness wouldn’t end in death, and said this would all result in “the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by it.” (v. 4)

That frames everything that follows, especially as we come today to the resurrection of Lazarus. It would be especially dangerous to understand his resurrection as dependent on Martha’s faith or in response to the grieving of Mary. Martha’s faith is indeed to be commended. Mary’s grief is something we understand and many have experienced. But we cannot reduce God into being a dispenser of answered prayer or manipulate God into serving our will, however deeply or well-motivated our desires are held.

Hear me clearly: God DOES answer prayer and God IS compassionate beyond anything you or I can imagine. But there is an even greater gift being offered in this text, in this event, and it is a glimpse of the glory of God. God's glory is not a message from God or the character of God, it is the very presence and being of God among us, and at that we either must be silent like Job, undone like Isaiah, or join the angel choirs of Revelation in singing, “Holy, holy, holy.”

“If You Believe, You Will See the Glory of God” (v. 40)

We left off with Jesus and the crowd having walked down to the tomb, a cave with a stone lying against the entrance. Jesus has again (for the second time) been roused to anger, whether from the crowd questioning his timing, the pain and suffering caused by sickness and death, or the seeming finality of death, we are not sure. But he is stirred up! And so, against any expectation and certainly any convention or propriety, in the midst of the wailing and grieving, in front of the stone sealing off the cave-tomb, Jesus says, “Remove the stone.”

Remove the stone? Martha, full of faith, yet full of practicality, immediately speaks up, “Lord, by this time there will be a stench… he has been dead for four days.” (v. 39) The translators have softened it up a bit for us. It’s not the dulcet tones and genteel language of the funeral home; it’s a shocked sister who literally says, “But now he stinks! It’s been four days!”

Jesus responds to Martha, connecting this moment with what he told the disciples back in verse 4, when they first got the news of Lazarus’ sickness. Jesus says to Martha, “Did I not say to you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” (v. 40) Does that mean that God’s glory is dependent on human belief? No; God is glorious in and of Himself. What Martha’s belief – what OUR belief – means is that we will SEE God’s glory. We become attuned to what God is doing. Unbelief is like a child closing his or her eyes. We may even think God goes away when we stop believing. But God is still there and God is glorious! This exchange between Jesus and Martha is Jesus saying, “Martha, look at me. Remember who I am. I love you. Keep believing and you will see God at work!”  And they remove the stone.

Public Glory

They remove the stone. Then there is this interesting prayer. After they move the stone, Jesus looks up to Heaven and prays out loud, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me; but because of the people standing around I said it, so that they may believe that you sent me.” (v. 42) Think about that prayer. It was not, “Father, I ask you, in your power, to bring Lazarus back to life.” It was not, “Father, help these people believe.” Jesus has apparently already communicated with God; he says, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me.” Indeed, we hear in Jesus’ words that God “always hears him.” This prayer was public, for the sake of those gathered around. And we know that because he even says so in the prayer! It’s not for show; it’s so those gathered may believe. (We also know that because he says so.) And how does their belief relate to God’s glory? Remember, we just talked about that with Martha. It is so that they can SEE God at work.

Last Wednesday night, with the sermon preview study, we speculated a bit on this next part. The next thing Jesus does is cry out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth.” Why so loud? We speculated: maybe Lazarus couldn’t hear well because he was dead; maybe it was a little distance to the back of the cave; maybe it was to shout beyond the boundary of this world to wherever Lazarus' spirit was hanging out. Or maybe Lazarus was already alive at this point; Jesus did thank God for already hearing him. And maybe, being formerly dead and all wrapped up, Lazarus was confused and needed the directions. Well, in the end, I don’t think it was any of those things. I think it was like Jesus’ prayer… public, for the sake of those listening. If they missed Jesus' prayer, they didn’t miss this. That guy is shouting into the open, stinky cave for the dead man to come out. Hard to miss that!

All this and the miraculous resurrection that follows is all so public. There is a reason for that! It is to bear witness to God’s glory and the even greater miracle that is soon to come on Easter morning.

Rocks and Wrappings, Stink and Fear

And so, after loudly crying out, “Lazarus, come forth,” Lazarus came out. He was still wrapped up as he had been at his death. And Jesus says one last thing: “Unbind him, and let him go.”

Can you imagine the mixture of emotion? I’m not really sure we can.

Excitement and awe and seeing a dead man – friend and brother – alive.
Fear that he might be some kind of spirit, devil, or zombie.
Revulsion at the smell and appearance of death coming at you.
Confusion over seeing something that could not be.
Faith through believing in something that could not be.

Freeze frame. Take note of all that Jesus has asked… invited… those present to do. He first asked someone or some ones to remove the stone. This was before any praying, before any declaration of intent. Someone had to trust him enough to take action and open up the cave, releasing the smell of death, not to mention the fears of being made unclean. Then Jesus prayed that prayer out loud, inviting all who heard to believe that he was talking to God as his Father, to believe that God had already answered his prayers. Then Jesus shouted loud enough for all to hear for Lazarus to come out, inviting all to stay or flee, to believe or disbelieve. And then, Jesus asks, dare we call it an invitation, for someone or some ones to unwrap the dead man walking, drawing even closer to the stink and uncleanness of the grave clothes, but also even closer to the new life and resurrection power of God.

What a picture of all that we wrestle with to trust Jesus. God asks us to participate, to be a part of what He is doing in the world, and it feels risky and sometimes makes no rational sense. And if we dare look and listen, we realize that He asks far more… for us to lose our life to save it, to give up all to follow. What great risk, what great fears, what obstacles those things can be!

And then there is the new life. Having trusted and believed, having been declared new and alive and reborn through Jesus, are we not like Lazarus, emerging into the light of new life, still draped in the old clothing of death? Is our Christian life, though washed and made clean, not a process of unwrapping and removing the things that stink and bind us tight? And, like Lazarus, do we not need the help of God and others to see and to remove those things in our life? Yes, it is a very good picture; there is much to see and learn about ourselves as we walk through this story with Jesus, Mary, Martha, Lazarus, and the crowd.

It is well worth our asking two questions:

“God, where are you inviting me to be a part of what you are doing?”


“God, what stinky wrappings of my old life are still binding me and keeping me from following you and fully experiencing new life?

The Plan All Along (Isaiah 61, Revelation 21)

Finally, I want to briefly reflect that this whole story is a picture of what God has planned all along. Listen again to these words from Isaiah, written some 600 years before Jesus:
1 The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, Because the Lord has anointed me To bring good news to the afflicted; He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to captives And freedom to prisoners; 2 To proclaim the favorable year of the Lord And the day of vengeance of our God; To comfort all who mourn, 3 To grant those who mourn in Zion, Giving them a garland instead of ashes, The oil of gladness instead of mourning, The mantle of praise instead of a spirit of fainting. So they will be called oaks of righteousness, The planting of the Lord, that He may be glorified. (Isaiah 61:1-3)
Liberty to captives and freedom to prisoners… even those captive to sin and death! And the result in v. 3, that God may be glorified.  And this is the passage Jesus took up in the synagogue at the beginning of his ministry in Luke 4, reading from the scroll of Isaiah and then announcing, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” It was God’s plan all along, fulfilled in Jesus and pictured so vividly in setting Lazarus free from the bonds of death.

And then listen to this passage from Revelation. We began the service with this and it is a picture of what God intends, through Christ, for His creation:

1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea. 2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, 4 and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.” 5 And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” And He said, “Write, for these words are faithful and true.”  (Revelation 21:1-5)
What Jesus did with Lazarus was a foretaste, a picture, of what God would soon do on Easter morning. He makes all things new.  Amen!

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