I know we cherish the thought that we are free. I phrased that sentence very carefully. Listen to it again. I know we cherish the thought that we are free. I mean, no one wants to be told or to think that one is shackled. No one wants to be told or think that one is a prisoner. No one wants to be told or think that one isn’t in control of his or her own life or destiny. “I govern my own thoughts and my own life and no one tells me what to do! I AM FREE!” Or so we like to think.
But are we really free?
A couple of chapters before this story, Jesus confronts a group of Pharisees, and he tells them, “Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’ They answered him, ‘We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, “You will be made free”?’
Jesus answered them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there for ever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”
Now, you may say to me, “Well, pastor, I know that I sin, but I’m hardly a slave to it. It doesn’t control me. I ask God for forgiveness, and I continue on in doing the things that make me happy.”
And so I ask you, “Are you then a slave to happiness? By your own words are you not a slave to your desires?” I do the things that make me happy.
And I am sure you are happy–for a time. But do you have joy? Do you have peace? Do you have a sense of fulfillment about you? If you do, then congratulations, but do you think this is what I hear most people say about their lives? Do you think when I ask people about how their lives are going, they say they are at peace and have contentment? Not a chance. In fact, I cannot think of anyone who has ever answered me that they are at peace. Of course, everyone first says that they are doing fine, but in a matter of moments, if you really engage them in conversation, they begin telling you how busy they are. They begin telling you how they are chasing after their kids, or their commitments, or after volunteer opportunities, or at work or what have you. Our conversations constantly revolve around all the stuff we have to do or get done, and time and again I hear the stress and the strain. “I’m tired.” “I’m stressed.” “I don’t want to deal with all of this stuff anymore.”
And if I got up here this morning and said, “Just walk away from it then,” what would you tell me? Many would say, “I can’t.” Others might say, “Well, I’ll just stop coming to church because that’s a place where I can cut some time.” Let me offer you this. First, if you say you can’t stop doing the things you are doing, then I submit to you, you are not free. You are a prisoner. Second, I submit to you that if you decide to cut out going to church and coming into contact with the living God, then you are actually leaving the one place where you can be assured to encounter the one who can make you free.
Let’s turn to our gospel lesson this morning from the 11th chapter of the book of John. It’s the story of Jesus’ raising of Lazarus. We see how Jesus is made aware early on that Lazarus is very ill. Jesus purposely procrastinates in going to his friend’s side knowing full well Lazarus will die. When Jesus does finally head to Bethany, He is confronted with the human condition–our bondage to sin and death.
Upon His arrival, Martha runs out to meet him. Martha tells Jesus, “Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Interestingly enough, this is not the first time we will hear this statement. It will be spoken again later. “Lord, if only you had been here...but nevertheless, I know that God will grant you what you ask.”
Jesus responds, “Your brother will rise again.”
Martha says, “Of course he will at the resurrection.”
And Jesus snaps back, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
Do you believe this? Jesus confronts Martha with the Truth. In the midst of our struggles and stresses and anxieties, we usually become so overwhelmed that we leave the Truth behind. We focus on all the stuff of the world, but neglect the source of our strength and hope. We neglect the source of true freedom. “I am the resurrection and the life!” Jesus says, “Do you believe this?”
Martha says, “Yes. I believe you are the Messiah.” Are we so bold as to say the same thing?
It’s interesting that the story doesn’t progress from here straight to Lazarus’ tomb. There is more, and this time, Martha’s sister Mary is involved. Mary now comes to Jesus, and she says the exact same phrase Martha said earlier. “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.”
But this time, Jesus’ response is vastly different. This time, instead of appealing to the Truth, Jesus responds with tears. Seeing Mary’s grief and the grief of those surrounding her, Jesus is troubled deeply. Actually, that’s not the proper term. The proper term is brought to a place of roiling anger. It’s an anger that causes Jesus to weep. Why? Why does Jesus weep?
Let’s take in three more sentences of the text. 36So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ 37But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’ Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed (billowing with anger!), came to the tomb.
Remember when I said Jesus was confronted with the human condition? Jesus is confronted with the reality of death, and His first encounter is with Martha who says, “Lord if only you had been here, this stuff wouldn’t have happened.” There is both a statement of trust and condemnation in that statement. Martha trusts that Jesus would have healed Lazarus, but she also has a hint of chastisement, I think. Not just if you would have been here, you should have been here. How often do we think the same things of God–you should make my life better. You should take away my problems. You should take away my anxiety, my fear, my guilt, my shame–if only you were here!
Mary offers another aspect of the human condition to Jesus. She falls on her feet in front of Jesus and with tears says, “Lord if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.” She is consumed with grief; with pain; with frustration; with agony. Jesus sees this pain–pain brought on by death and suffering. And He gets angry about it.
Finally, Jesus knows the hearts of those who are saying, “Well, He opened the eyes of the guy born blind. Surely taking care of a cold would have been pretty easy.” They are doubting Jesus. They are doubting that He is the Messiah. Confronted with death, grief, illness, and suffering, they doubt that Jesus is who He says He is. And Jesus gets angry once again.
What is He angry at? Is He angry at Martha and Mary? No. I don’t think so. Is He angry at those who were expressing doubt? No. I don’t think so again. He was getting angry before their statement. Is He angry with Himself for not getting there? No. He engineered this situation from the get-go. If He’s not angry with any of the players in the play, then who or what is Jesus angry at?
The human condition. He’s angry at the whole situation of brokenness that we face when it comes to facing death. And where did that brokenness come from? Where did it all start?
Long ago, in the garden when man and woman chose to be like God instead of depending on God. The sin of Adam once again rears its head. Selfish desire strikes out showing just how we are trapped. We are in chains. Death holds sway, and many of our pursuits of life are efforts to deal with the fact or to avoid the fact that we will die. We rush and hurry and scurry to get as much in as we can because we are going to die. We enslave ourselves to our jobs and our possessions and our plans and our desires so that we can die having done and seen as much as we possibly can. We end up stressed out burning the candles at both ends with no peace and no joy because we are afraid of death. And Jesus sees this. He’s angry about it. Deeply and passionately angry about it because He knows, He knows this is not the way it is supposed to be.
He knows that we are meant to have peace.
He knows we are meant to have fulfillment.
He knows we are meant to have joy.
But we will not find them pursuing all the stuff we think will give it to us. We will only find such things in Jesus. He knows He must show us, and in the raising of Lazarus, we get a foreshadowing of why Jesus came into the world.
For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son so that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but so that the world may be saved through Him.
“Show me where you buried him!” Jesus exclaims. “Roll the stone away!”
“LAZARUS, COME FORTH!”
Lazarus is raised from the dead to the astonishment of all. Jesus shows that He has power over death. “I am the resurrection and the life.” Abundant life. Fulfilled life.
And Jesus’ last words in our lesson today are, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
Unbind him, and let him go. On Calvary, Jesus stretched out His arms and died to reconcile the world unto God. Three days later, another stone was rolled away and another tomb became empty, and the freedom released wasn’t just for one man. It was for the world. It was for you. It was for me. By grace, you have been set free, and it was and is through Christ alone. Amen.