“Take Off The Grave Clothes”
Lent 5A – April 2, 2017
Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45
There is such a powerful symbol associated with Jesus’ resurrection of his beloved friend Lazarus – “Take off the grave clothes and let him go”.
Jesus had come to the holy city for the final time to celebrate the festivals of Hanukkah and Passover. This will be his last Passover before his death and resurrection. Things didn’t go well for Him during Hanukkah, the Feast of Dedication. The Sanhedrin was trying to have him arrested; attempts were made to stone him and to seize him. The timing was not right for him to be arrested, so Jesus and His disciples left Jerusalem and walked down to Jericho, where they crossed the Jordan river. They went to the spot where John The Baptist preached and baptized Jesus.
At this place word that Jesus’ beloved friend Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary, lay sick. They were from the village of Bethany, about two miles east of Jerusalem.
Instead of going immediately to see to the well-being of his friend, Jesus decides to stay in Jericho another two days. I’m mentioning all this because
The Distance Between Jericho and Jerusalem Is Important To The Story.
Jerusalem is 2,400 feet above sea level. In comparison, Ashville NC, is about 2,200 feet above sea level. Conversely Jericho, 17 miles from Jerusalem, is 1,200 feet Below sea level. The Dead Sea, which is the lowest point on the planet at nearly 1,400 feet below sea level.
Now imagine walking from Jericho to Bethany. You are going to walk about 15 miles and climb 3,600 feet. Let me put it another way: for every mile you walk you will also climb the stairs of a 24-story building. You will do that 15 times. If you are fit enough, you can walk the 15 miles between 6 and 8 hours. If not, there was an Inn about half way. That was the place the Good Samaritan took the man who had been beaten by robbers.
So, let’s now follow
Jesus’ Timeline In The Story.
In John’s Gospel, chapter 10 ends with Jesus having left Jerusalem for the Jordan River near Jericho. Chapter 11, our Scripture lesson, begins by introducing Lazarus, Mary and Martha. Lazarus was sick so his sisters send word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.” From the time the sisters send word to Jesus until he receives that word, at least one full day has passed.
The way John handles this story is to point out the seemingly contradictory manner of Jesus. A man he loves is gravely ill. Instead of leaving immediately, John makes a special note to say: “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. Yet when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days” (:5-6). Why? Because souls were being delivered out of the bondage of sin, which is what this entire chapter is about. There, at the place where John, Verse 42, says: “And in that place many believed in Jesus.” There were souls to save. We now have three days elapsed since word was sent to Jesus of Lazarus’ illness.
On the fourth day, Jesus made the hard climb from Jericho to Bethany, and finds that Lazarus is dead. The Jewish custom is to bury the body as soon as possible and certainly within 24 hours. Therefore, by the time Jesus arrives at Bethany, Lazarus has been in the tomb up to four days.
When Jesus arrived Martha went to meet him. She tells Jesus that if he had been there Lazarus would not have died. Jesus responds with, “Your brother will rise again” (:23). Martha thinks she understands and replies, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day” (:25). Jesus responds with one of the most famous verses in the Bible: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even through he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this? (:25-26).
Martha responded like Peter did at Caesarea Philippi: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who was to come into the world” (:27). Then Martha went to retrieve Mary. Mary comes, weeping. Others are also weeping. Jesus is “deeply moved in spirit and troubled” (:33). “Where have you laid him? Jesus asked” (:34). They invite him to go and see, and “Jesus weeps” (:35), the shortest verse in the Bible.
They took Jesus to Lazarus’ tomb and he orders the stone covering the entrance be removed. Martha protests because, after four days, the odor will be bad. Jesus reminded her that, “if she believed, she would see the glory of God” (:40)
Jesus, standing outside of the tomb, speaks to the dead man inside, “Lazarus, come out!” (:43); and Lazarus came out, wrapped from the neck down with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Then Jesus speaks the word for Lazarus and for us today:
“Take off the grave clothes and let him go” (:44).
The Revised Standard Version translates this verse as “Unbind him, and let him go.”
Lazarus literally needed to be unbound. Jesus’ message to Lazarus is also a metaphor to us. We too need to be unbound by the mighty hand of God and set free. The grave clothes of Lazarus represent the things that bind us and prevent us from living in the freedom that God promises through the ministry of Jesus Christ. Jesus said, “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32)
What, then, are some of the things that bind us and prevent us from living in complete freedom? We need freedom from are addictions: food, sex, drugs, alcohol, unhealthy relationships, power, unwise out of control spending – these are some of the addictions that permeate our society. Psalm 119:5, reads: “In my anguish I cried to the LORD, and he answered by setting me free”.
Another area of life that binds us and prevents us from living freely is guilt. Guilt can arise from unrepentant sin in our lives, or not forgiving the sin of someone else who has repented, or the consequences of bad choices. Jesus said in John 8:36, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed”.
At the beginning of his earthly ministry Jesus was at his hometown synagogue. He called for the scroll of Isaiah and read these words: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19).
Many people are fighting to be set free from memories and behaviors that are the result of past abuses: physical, emotional, sexual, or debilitating poverty. The Psalmist wrote: “ But the LORD is righteous; he has cut me free from the cords of the wicked”. (129:4)
Whatever are your grave clothes Jesus is ready today to set you free. Sometimes we are miraculously set free instantly. More often, if we will cooperate with God, Jesus will begin a process that results in our freedom. It is no less miraculous, only slower. Romans 8:2 (CEV): 2The Holy Spirit will give you life that comes from Christ Jesus and will set you free from sin and death.
Sometimes our journey begins with a bad medical report that brings home the realization we have bound ourselves in death clothes as the result of lifestyle decisions and habits. Only then are we open to the Holy Spirit showing us a better way to live; only then do the grave clothes come off even as we change our thinking and our habits. 2 Corinthians 3:17-18: 17Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18And we, who with unveiled faces (our grave clothes removed) all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
The unwrapping of our grave clothes might begin with an action in our life that hurts people we love; and the Holy Spirit influenced realization that there is something broken in our own soul. Then a process of prayer, study, contemplation, counseling, repentance, forgiveness, restitution and rehabilitation begins that results in an inner healing that sets us free from emotional and lifestyle clothes that have bound us for most of our life. Praise God!
In Galatians 5:13, St. Paul who had worn grave clothes of self-righteousness, harsh judgment of others, murder, and the purposeful destruction of other people’s lives, wrote – 1It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.
Here’s what you can do if the Holy Spirit has convicted you about the grave clothes you are wearing, or to open your mind and spirit to the possibility that God wants to set you free. You can come to this communion rail and let Jesus Christ begin to unwrap you.
If you are convicted of a particular thing in your life, confess it to Jesus, and cooperate with the Holy Spirit as God either heals you instantly, or leads you on an Exodus experience out of a land of bondage to the promised land of freedom that lies ahead in your life.
Romans 6:21-23: 21What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death! 22But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. 23For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.