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John 11:1-45

Many of us pastor churches whose parishioners trend toward the older end of the age spectrum. For many, though certainly not all, of our older evangelical Christian friends, their understanding of Christianity is consumed with notions of individual responsibility and, subsequently, salvation. With this mindset, the emphasis is on verbally sharing the Good News of God’s personal salvation. While there might be some compassion for those who find themselves bound by cycles of sin, violence, and poverty, the typical response for some is one of indifference to their “non-spiritual” struggles. Accepting Jesus into your heart should be enough to get you through whatever else might trouble you. Of course, it might also be assumed that if a person accepts Jesus as their savior, then they’ll automatically develop the work ethic, stamina, or self-control to really make it in this world.

The gospel of personal responsibility and salvation seems utterly contrary to the portrait of salvation and our participation in that salvation for ourselves and others that John’s gospel paints. This is especially true for this week’s story about Lazarus. As you undoubtedly have noticed by now, this passage is long and contains any number of homiletical angles. You could focus on how God can work the tragedies of life into events that foster spiritual growth and bring about glory to God. Or, you could draw out the significance of Jesus’ comments about being how the current moment is the right time to do the work of the Father because Jesus has brought the light. Indeed, Jesus is the light. Of course, there’s always the angle that speaks to the pain and frustration of waiting for God to finally act to bring about healing and even resurrection amid our brokenness and death. Jesus did not act as swiftly as Mary and Marth would have liked! I dare say, we often feel the same way. Additionally, you could focus on how deeply Jesus loves us, even to the point of weeping as he enters into our pain and sadness.

Indeed, you could focus on one, several, or maybe even all of those nuggets of Good News in the forty-five verses of this passage. Yet, I think there is one remaining angle that has the potential to bear much fruit. It comes in verses 38-44, which is arguably the climax of the scene.

After a two-day delay, Jesus and the disciples arrive at Lazarus’ tomb. Again, John tells us that Jesus is greatly disturbed. After surveying the situation, Jesus commands the stone that is covering the entrance to Lazarus’ tomb to be taken away. With some doubtfulness as to what Jesus is about to do, Martha makes sure that Jesus knows that Lazarus has been dead long enough, four days, that his body has begun to decompose. The smell will not be pleasant.

Undaunted, Jesus proceeds. The stone is rolled away, and Jesus lifts up his face toward the heavens and begins to pray. He prays so that the crowd might know that God the Father is the one who sent him, Jesus the Son. In this prayer, Jesus is supremely confident that his prayer will be answered even before he asks it. It is interesting to see that nowhere in Jesus’ prayer does he ask for Lazarus to be raised from the dead. Not only is Jesus confident that the Father listens and responds but that the Father knows what it is that Jesus needs to do. Jesus’ prayer also reveals another primary purpose for the episode: to enable these witnesses (and now you and I) to believe that the Father has sent Jesus.

After Jesus prays, he shouts with a loud voice commanding Lazarus to come out from the grave. Lazarus comes forth, bound hand and foot with strips of cloth. I always imagine that Lazarus looks much like the mummies found in comics and cartoons, though I am sure that the image was far less comical than my imagination might render it. In truth, watching a dead man emerging from his tomb, wholly wrapped in burial cloths, would have been terrifying.

Jesus’ last words in the passage are what strike me. Jesus orders the witnesses of this resurrection to unwrap Lazarus. Jesus does the resurrection, but it is the job of those who are witnesses to the resurrection who are urged to participate in the final moments of release. Speaking of Lazarus’ resurrection as a metaphor for Christ’s work in the lives of those who are “dead in their sins” today, Frederick Dale Bruner says, “Jesus could have done the unwrapping himself, but he asks those with him to do it. People who have come to new life often still need unwrapping and help, though the deepest wraps have already been removed.”[1]

To me, this is a beautiful image for the work of the church in our world. All around us, Jesus is working resurrection in people’s lives. Long dead in their sins, long enslaved to the cycles of violence and poverty at work in our lives, people are being freed by the resurrection power of Christ. Many times, the church is often well-equipped to stand by and watch these folks emerge from their tombs, cheering all the while, but are reticent to help Jesus finish the job. In our fear of the stink that might still be on these newly resurrected brothers and sisters, we slink away. Meanwhile, our new siblings remain bound and soon will likely again succumb to death.

We are all witnesses to Lazarus’ resurrection and to countless other acts of resurrection as our family, friends, and neighbors benefit from Christ’s saving grace. Jesus calls us to move forward and participate in those death-defying acts by helping to remove the last vestiges of death from a new brother or sister in Christ. Plainly put, Jesus resurrects people from sin and death to new life, and our job is to take their hand, continually guiding them toward an ever fuller life.

None of us, not even those who have lived by the gospel of personal responsibility, were able to take the first steps of the journey from death to life apart for the gracious help of our siblings in Christ. We did not pull ourselves up out of the grave by our own bootstraps. There were, and continue to be, a great cloud of witnesses who tenderly unwrapped us from the death in which we once lived. And now, you and I are called to do the same so that others may confidently walk forth in newness of life.

[1] Frederick Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: Eerdmans), 20.