Thursday, October 14, 2004

John 11:28-44

Unwrapping the Good News
October 2004

I was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

My wife was good friends with both Martha and Mary and so when their brother Lazarus died she wanted to go out to the mourning site. We couldn’t go on the first two days because of the work in the field but we went for the third and fourth days.

And really my wife was doing most of the weeping and wailing – you know how it is with women. I just sort of stood off to the side talking with a few of the other guys or helping out if the servants needed help lifting a heavy pot – or whatever. You know, just sort of observing and overseeing the whole thing.

Well, when Jesus showed up that’s when things started to get really interesting. I knew it would – the instant I saw him.

He had been the focus of attention all around the area. Apparently he had performed a lot of miracles. I heard that he fed a whole crowd with just a few pieces of bread. And there are rumors that he turned some water into wine up in Cana.

I didn’t know if that was true but that’s what people were saying. And in general he seemed to stir things up wherever he went. People were either really against him or they were really for him. Some were even saying that he was the Messiah.

So when he shows up at the mourning with his entourage of disciples – a motley crew if you ask me -- I kept an eye on him – as much our of curiosity as anything.

Anyway, he starts walking over toward the tomb – you know what I’m talking about – those small caves hewn from the sides of the hill. After people had died they’d be wrapped in strips of cloth and covered with scented spices – and left on a shelf in the tomb to decay.

Then a big rock would be rolled over the entrance – and that’s how things would be – for about a year. At that point the tomb would be reopened and the bones would be transferred to a ossuary burial box.

Anyway, when Jesus showed up it was only the fourth day – right at the point where the body was starting to decompose. And Jesus walks up to the tomb and tells the servants to move the stone which covered the door.

Martha, quite little beside herself, weary from all of the wailing, looked right at Jesus and told him – “Lord, he’s been in there for four days! If we open that door it’s going to stink something terrible.”

Jesus’s response was something about the glory of God. After which the servants walked over and moved the stone. Jesus then positioned himself in front of the tomb – looked up into heaven, raised his hands, and started to pray – "Father, thank you for hearing me. You always hear me, but I said it out loud for the sake of all these people standing here, so they will believe you sent me."

And all the time I’m thinking – “Okay – what’s that about.”

But then, without even saying Amen – he raises his voice even more and starts to shout into the tomb – “Lazarus, come out.” – as though by his very words he could call life into existence.

There was this long horribly uncomfortable pause – a silence. The birds stopped singing and the breeze ceased. I could smell that horrid scent of death rushing from the open cave door. But no one said a thing. No one whispered. The only sound was that of everyone holding their breathe.

After the eternity of a few seconds passed there was a small noise coming from the tomb – as though someone had tripped and picked himself up. And suddenly but slowly a shoulder emerged in the doorway and then a wrapped head – and a full mummy.

If I wasn’t so shocked I would have run.

You couldn’t see his face because it was wrapped up and the hands and the legs were bound together. And the body shuffled and hopped itself along for two or three feet.

Everyone froze. There was a collective gasp.

And it was at that point that I became the wrong person at the wrong time – for Jesus turned to me and one of the servants I’d been talking to and said – “Don’t just stand there, Unwrap him and let him go!”

Yeah, right, the thing that went through my mind was – YOU WANT ME TO GO UNWRAP SOME ZOMBIE! No way was I going to go near it -– no way -- no way - no way!

I’m sure Jesus sensed our hesitancy. And when he flashed that reassuring smile we both melted and started to walk slowly toward the standing body.

I reached up and gingerly started to unwrapped the cloth around its head – not too complicated but scarey. What would be under there as it came off? An extreme make-over. And we both breathed a little easier when we saw the fresh pinkish skin on his forehead.

We looked into his eyes and they were not the eyes of a dead man.

And when the clothe came off his nose we could hear breathing and there was this indescribable grin on his face as we unwrapped his jaw – a look of someone relieved of a great burden and at the same time totally satisfied after a great meal.

His arms and legs started to move so we hurried to unwrap the rest of his body. Piles and piles of scented spices dropped to the ground with every layer unwrapped.

The smell was sweat – and the scene of death which was so strong but a few minutes before was totally overwhelmed by the smell of life.

Someone took off his cloak and threw it over Lazarus so that he had at least some decent body covering – and to protect all of that fresh skin from the sun.

Martha lost control at that point and threw her arms around Jesus weeping with joy.

Mary ran over to hug her brother – followed by about 300 other people. For all of the commotion had gathered a crowd.

The mourners quit mourning and broke into song. Lines of people started to dance. It was all somewhat euphoric – in a once-in-a-lifetime-kind-of-way. To go from the depths of despair to the height of life in a few short minutes – is enough to change your life forever.

And I’ll tell you my life was changed – in lots of ways.

Of course, Lazarus who had been but an acquaintance became one of my best friends. You don’t go through an ordeal like that without striking some new bonds.

My wife and I were actually the one’s who hid Lazarus for a few weeks when the chief priests were plotting to kill him. They had become so concerned about such a public act on the part of Jesus that they thought by permanently removing Lazarus from the scene it would make the crowd less enthusiastic for Jesus!

So we hosted Lazarus in our barn for a week or two – but that’s another story.

The thing that changed the most, though, was how I connected with Jesus.

Now, it’s not like he became my best chum – at least not in the sense that he would come to our house for dinner everyday. But after that, he knew me and I knew him. And I knew what it meant to believe.

You don’t see a man raised from the dead and not believe. Well, I suppose you could. I’m sure some did. But I was there and I saw, and it was like a lamp was lit when Lazarus left the tomb.

All of those rumors about Jesus became facts. I realized that if he could call someone from the tomb that it wasn’t really a big deal to feed a crowd from a boy’s lunch or to turn water into wine. All of those things that he had been saying about himself – being living water – being light – being the bread of life... When I first heard them it sounded like the man had an ego – with a big E. But when I saw that he was really the Messiah – the Son of God – the Master over death – all of those grandiose claims seemed to be understatements. Of course he is all those things – he could even raise the dead!

As a matter of fact when I heard that Jesus himself had been crucified – I wasn’t all that worried. I mean, the whole thing was horrible – the cross is not a pleasant way to die. But if Jesus could raise Lazarus on the fourth day then certainly he would raise himself.

That’s what I kept telling my wife. “Wait until the fourth day – it will be just like Lazarus – just wait, you’ll see.”

That’s what I kept telling everyone else in Bethany. They were so overwhelmed with grief at that point they couldn’t see it.

Those were dark days – not unlike the days after Lazarus died – but 100 times worse because so many more hopes and aspirations had been pinned on Jesus.

But through it all – I kept reminding people of the fourth day. “Remember the fourth day.”

So when Mary and Martha came up to the house on the third day with the news that Jesus’ tomb was empty – I was surprised – it was a day early according to my calculations! That’s the way God is – full of surprises – hard to peg down to a formula.

And that’s the way death is – a new surprise – it no longer seemed so final. If there is a master over death and if even an ordinary person from my town could experience a resurrection. That’s hope for the rest of us!

It’s not like death is undefeatable!

The Psalmist used to talk about how horrible it would be to die. In the 88th Psalm he cries out to God lamenting the finality of death – (Psalm 88:10-12--NLT):

“Of what use to the dead are your miracles? Do the dead get up and praise you? Can those in the grave declare your unfailing love? In the place of destruction, can they proclaim your faithfulness?

“Can the darkness speak of your miracles? Can anyone in the land of forgetfulness talk about your righteousness?”

The problem with the psalmist is that he didn’t live long enough to see Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead – or Jesus himself raised.

Nope. This whole episode changed the whole way that I looked at life and death. Even when my niece died – it wasn’t as tragic as before. No, Jesus didn’t come to take her out of the grave. But I knew that there was a master over the grave and that there was therefore a hope for life that extended beyond the grave.

All of that religious talk about a resurrection day seemed to have a whole lot more substance after the fourth day.

So perhaps I wasn’t really in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sure it was a bit troubling (to say the least) but unwrapping Lazarus was without doubt the most significant occasion in my entire life. It was a turning point.

Now I realize that not everyone has the opportunity to be there when someone is raised from the dead. And I know that on occasion Jesus still does that just to keep us on our toes. But not everyone has that experience. So that’s why I’m here – to tell you my story and to tell you that John the gospel writer got it right.

He was there on the fourth day, too, you know. And he wrote me into the gospel account – not recording everything I’ve told you this morning – but I was right there in John 11:44 – “And Lazarus came out, bound in graveclothes, his face wrapped in a headcloth. Jesus told THEM,‘Unwrap him and let him go!’”

I was a part of the “them.” and I’m here to tell you that death can be unwrapped – and that the Master over life and death is about the business of setting people free from their grave clothes.

Let that reality change how you look at life – and indeed your very lives. As it has mine.

Thank you for your kind attention.

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