Tombstones and Death Wraps
In John 11, we find the story of Jesus raising dead Lazarus to life again. Lazarus, a good friend of Jesus, had been seriously ill. Jesus delays coming to his aid, even when Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha, send an urgent plea for Jesus to help.
Finally, three days too late, Jesus shows up. The girls let him have it. Had Jesus cared enough, He could have healed Lazarus and spared them all of heartache.
Jesus shares their grief, but is undeterred in His intentions. He has a method to His apparent tardiness. He’s laying the groundwork for something big, something that will catalyze faith in those involved.
Jesus doesn’t allow their emotional reactivity to distort or rattle His sense of self. “I’m the resurrection and the life, here and now. Lazarus’ death doesn’t change any of that. The story isn’t finished yet. If you dare to believe it, a resurrection is about to take place.”
Mary, Martha and the disciples look on, understandably perplexed by the events unfolding before them. Jesus tells the crowd to roll away the stone covering Lazarus’ tomb.
Martha can’t keep silent at this point. “It’s been three days, Jesus. What are you doing? This is ludicrous. It’s not proper. Don’t toy with us like this. There will already be the stench of death.”
Jesus holds His ground. Their doubt doesn’t become His own. He pushes them to trust, to dare, to see beyond the conventional. “Believe and you’ll see the glory of God here.”
The stone now out of the way, Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb. Once out, Jesus turns His attention to the onlookers, “Unbind him, and let him go.” Belief breaks out in the crowd.
While this is one of the all-time great stories, for a long time it made me uncomfortable. It goes back to an experience in college.
I was involved in a charismatic student group that was caught up in the hyper-faith teaching. We were told that faith was measured by results. You pray, you get exactly as you pray–an obvious indication you have faith that God rewards. You’re successful.
You pray, you don’t see prescribed results–well, a faith-failure. God is not pleased.
This put large amounts of pressure on the members of our group to compete with each other over our levels of faith. My hunch is that we faked each other out for the most part. After all, who would really know if we actually paid our school bill on time, or if we got that prime parking spot we prayed for?
But something happened one fall semester that threatened to expose my faith for the sham I feared it was. A friend of mine got married the summer before. One weekend, he and his new wife were in a head-on car wreck, and his wife was killed instantly.
I grieved for my friend for his unspeakable loss. But a thought began pestering me. If I really had faith, I would be able to raise my friend’s wife from the dead, just like Jesus did with Lazarus. In fact, not only could I, I should do it. I had a responsibility.
I sat through her funeral, tormented. A real man of faith would stand up in the middle of the funeral and create a Lazarus moment. But I stayed glued to my seat, immobilized by fear and doubt.
Shame taunted me.
Thankfully, I’ve since grown through that stage of my Christian formation. My theology has matured. I now understand faith differently. But the Jesus and Lazarus story has always carried a level of discomfort.
I recently experienced a new insight on the story. I was visiting with a man who was describing the impact his abusive childhood is having on his life. He has bought into a belief system that says he possesses little personal value, is not allowed to voice his opinions, and cannot state what he wants and needs. He’s adopted a life pattern of placating those around them, particularly his spouse and family members.
It dawned on me that this person is wrapped in the grave clothes of false beliefs and ineffective life strategies. This bondage limits his capacity to experience the joy of loving and being loved. The stench of death hangs heavy on him, snuffing out each flicker of life.
But like Lazarus in his death wraps, the person God created is still in this man, buried under his pain, beliefs of worthlessness and ineffective relational patterns. God continues to see his value and potential. The real person, the authentic expression of who God made this man to be, waits to be released, set free to live.
Jesus uttered three commands that play into the release of new life and freedom.
“Remove the stone.”
“Lazarus, come forth.”
“Unwrap him, and let him go.”
There are layers upon layers of meaning here, no doubt. In simple form, I see this as a dual process.
One, we have a role in setting others free. We help remove their tombstone and undo the death wraps of false beliefs, pain, unworthiness and bitterness. We carry the privileged responsibility of speaking words of life and healing. We offer practical, hands-on assistance where appropriate.
Second, in our own Lazarus experience we’re to exercise personal responsibility. When Jesus calls us out of our grave, it is ours to respond.
It’s this second area that I’ve been working with lately. I’ve come to realize that I can stay in my tomb of shame, refusing to let the wrappings of failure to come off. Or, I can dare to experience resurrection, leave my tomb and step back into living, with all the joys and risks involved.
I’m realizing anew that once we taste the death of failure or pain, we can allow our tomb and grave-clothes to define us. Yet underneath is the person God created long before the death of failure, pain and shame got its hold on us.
That’s how He defines us.
That person is the real us.
He intends to set that person free.
When that person comes out of the tomb and is unbound, we discover we’re good enough.
Dare we latch on to Jesus’ promise that He is the resurrection and the life–right here, right now?