Ezekiel 37, 12-14 + Psalm 130 + Romans 8, 8-11 + John 11, 1-45
G.K. Chesterton said: “Hope means hoping when things are hopeless or it is no virtue at all.” Martha and Mary are women of hope, and that hope springs from their faith which John’s Gospel sets before us today. Traditional Jewish belief at the time held that somehow the soul of a dead person remains with the body for three days. After that, it departs never to return and that is when corruption begins which is makes this situation hopeless. Understanding that belief ought to make clear why Jesus waited so long to get to Bethany. He wanted to be hope in the midst of hopelessness. For the early Christians to whom John writes and for whom he offers this story, the story of Lazarus is much more than a pointer to the resurrection of Jesus who was only in the tomb three days and never knew corruption. For them this miracle is a challenge to never give up hope even in the hopeless situations in which they found themselves as individuals, or as a church. It is never too late for God to revive and revitalize a person or a church. But first we must learn to cooperate with God.
There are three commands given by Jesus at Bethany.
The first is the command is directed to those standing around to roll away the stone. There is no reason to imagine that those people understood what they were being told to do. In fact, there is reason to suspect that some of them scoffed at the idea, and some must have complained. It would have been a big and heavy stone. There would have been a very foul smell. Contact with a grave and dead body was a serious matter risking their relationship with the synagogue community. It risked being “unclean.” They rolled away the stone. It looks to me like a response of obedience. They did what Jesus asked of them even though it made no sense at all, and carried with it some risk about what others would think of them. They cooperated with God’s plan instead of fighting or opposing it. If Jesus can command Lazarus to come out, Jesus could have commanded the stone to roll back, but he did not do so. He enlisted the obedient cooperation of those who were with him. God does that all the time, you know. God uses faithful people to do a lot of wonderful and miraculous things. So some people who were obedient even though they did not understand rolled away the stone. C.S. Lewis once said: “God seems to do nothing of himself that he cannot delegate to his creatures.” In short, God will not do by a miracle what we can do by faithful obedience.
The second command is directed to the dead man. “Come Out”. We have no idea, no clue about what happened in that tomb; but we do know that Lazarus came out. While sitting with this Gospel for several days this week, I wondered if he came out instantly, or if there might have been a little wait; maybe five minutes or so. I have wondered what everyone would have thought during that time, what Jesus might have thought, or how Mary and Martha responded and waited. If there had been a little pause, it would have been very suspenseful. They might have looked at one another, at Jesus, rolled their eyes a little bit or held their breath. Whatever, I think it is more fun to imagine a little pause there allowing the moment to sink in, allowing them to wonder about rolling back the stone and whether or not it was a good idea. I’ve wondered about Lazarus and what he thought or felt as he heard the command: “Come Out.” Again, there is obedience. He comes out. John tells us that he came out bound hand and foot with his face covered. Even a man tied up hand and foot and left for dead can help himself when commanded to do so.
The third command is directed to the people. “Unbind him and let him go free.” Even though God can call him out, even though he manages to get himself out bound hand and foot, he needs the community to unbind him. In fact, it would seem from the command of Jesus that this is something the community must do, unbind. Lazarus could certainly not do it himself. Jesus does what only God can do. In his own words, Jesus said: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Now we do what only we can do, help one another. Unbind each other from whatever holds us back from abundant life.
We roll away the stones by our obedient response to God’s will even when it makes no sense and seems improbable. We open up the possibility of God doing what seems impossible in the face of what is hopeless, because we can never be hopeless. Then we stand ready to complete the work of Jesus on this earth. We complete the work of God’s forgiveness and set each other free from the consequences of sinfulness restoring the unity and community that has been broken by sin by our willingness to forgive which unbinds.
So two women and a dead man speak to us today as powerfully as does Jesus about hope, about faith, and about obedience. The consequences of these virtues on that day must have resulted in one grand party, another one of Martha’s dinners no doubt so well known in that region. It is not different today. When there is faithful obedience to the will of God, hope and a willingness to wait, life will prevail; and we will be free of whatever holds from that life, a community in communion will be maintained, and the joyful celebration will have begun.