As we prepare once again to address the pain of the world, and the pain of our congregations, here is a sermon on John 11, the gospel lesson for Lent 5A.
Unbind Him! Let Him Go!
A Sermon on Exodus 2:23-3:10; John 11:17-44
The pain was deep. Mary fell at Jesus’ feet and sobbed her heart out. The illness had been bad enough. If only Jesus had gotten here sooner! Mary was wrapped in grief as surely as Lazarus was wrapped in burial bindings.
At the sight of her pain, Jesus was deeply distressed. Mary, Martha and Lazarus were his friends. It was sorrow and concern, yes, but it was also anger. The Greek word used there lets us know he was both sorrowful and angry. Jesus was angry when he saw what sickness and death had done to this family. “Where have you laid Lazarus?” he asked. “Lord, come and see,” they answered. And then Jesus started to cry. Jesus saw their predicament. He heard their cries. He knew how much it hurt. He knew.
Centuries before, God had been every bit as touched by the pain of the Israelites in bondage in Egypt. God heard their cries. God saw their suffering. And God knew. How he knew. The Hebrew word there is yadah, and it means much more than knowing a fact in your head. It means deep knowing, deep understanding.
God still sees, and God still hears, and God still knows. God knows what bondage does to people, where governments now use the same kind of terror tactics that the Egyptian Pharaohs used. Where hunger and disease stunt children’s bodies and minds if they survive at all. Where sickness and profound physical or mental infirmity make people prisoners inside their bodies. Where addiction keeps people stuck in self-destruction and despair. Where anxiety paralyzes people so thoroughly they can’t see what’s possible for them anymore. A good future just doesn’t seem possible.
Oh yes, God knows what binding does to people. It does just what footbinding used to do to women and girls in China. Tiny feet were thought to be pretty. And so, at about age three, all of a little girl’s toes except the big toe were broken and folded under the foot. Then the big toe and heel were forced as close together as possible, and the feet were bound in tight wrappings. This held the feet in this position and to stop them from growing. It caused intense pain and deformity, death in some cases. The result: feet that were only three or four inches long and so bent that women walked on the big toe and the heel, which were squashed together. Simply walking was a big struggle.
Binding, bondage causes pain and deformity. Even if we are blessed to be spared most forms of bondage, there are two forms that spare no one: sin and death. Sin is much more than disobeying a rule. It is much more than simply choosing to do the wrong thing. It is much more subtle and powerful than that. Sin sneaks in even when we do all we can to do the right thing. We do our very best, and we still find that there was some hurtful result. And we are caught in webs of injustices, as when we realize that some benefit we enjoy is at the price of some poor person’s pain in another part of the world, or even in this country. Paul called it the law of sin at work in us. We are prisoners of the law of sin. We are prisoners of the law of death. No wonder the book of Revelation pictures humanity at the mercy of a dragon and two terrible beasts!
“Where is Lazarus,” Jesus asked. “Lead me to him!” Jesus was determined. With tears still wet on his face, Jesus ordered, “Take away the stone!”
“No, Lord, we can’t do that,” was Martha’s reply. “The odor will be unbearable!”
Funny. The same sort of thing happened when God resolved to do something about the Israelites in bondage. “Moses, I’m going to get those people out of there, and I’m sending you. Go down, Moses!” God said.
“I don’t think so,” Moses replied, almost automatically. “Who am I to be going to Pharaoh?” And if you read on, you get a catalog of all Moses’ weaknesses and of all the potential problems. “No, I can’t do that!”
There was sharpness in Jesus’ voice. “Didn’t you get what I said? “I am the Resurrection. I am the Life! Didn’t I tell you that if you trust, you will see the glory of God? Take away the stone!”
They took away the stone. Jesus prayed. And then Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out of there!” Lazarus appeared. Then Jesus told the onlookers, “Get those bindings off him and let him go!” It echoed God’s cry of centuries before, “Let my people go!”
As Jesus said in our call to worship today, that is Jesus’ mission. Liberation is his mission. The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to do this: announce good news to the poor. And this: to proclaim liberty to the captives. And this: to give the blind new sight. And this: to set the downtrodden free. And this: to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
He is the Resurrection. He is the Life. He is the Freedom, the Freedom from sin, and sickness and death.
Jesus fulfilled this mission right and left. Once he was preaching in a synagogue and his eyes fell on a woman who had been bent nearly double for almost two decades. He stopped preaching, called her to come to him and declared, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity!” And he laid his hands on her. Up she stood, straight and tall! “Satan, unbind this daughter and let her go!”
Jesus set people with leprosy free from being segregated and outcast. Through the power of forgiveness, he drew sinners into the embrace of God. He set a man free from his sins, as well as from paralysis. He ordered demons to come out of those who were disturbed and to leave these people alone. Jesus called people to get free from the power of things. His disciples and a few others took him up on that, though one wealthy young man said “no” and went away sorrowful. Jesus set Zacchaeus the tax collector free from exploiting others. He gave many the gift of eyesight, and the gift of insight.
And then there was Lazarus, dead, sealed in the tomb. Take away the stone! Lazarus, come out! Jesus cried. Unbind him! Let him go!
God sent Jesus Christ to get us out of slavery. Jesus was born to set people free. He lived, died and rose again to set us free. With all his being he cries, “Unbind my people! Get these burial bindings off of them! Let my people go!
Still Christ our God cries, “Unbind these people and let them go!” He is still at it, and so are his servants: those who are willing to go down to Egypt like Moses. Those who are willing to take away heavy stones in spite of the problems, in spite of the smell. Those who obey Jesus when he directs, “Unbind them, and let them go!”
You can catch sight of our liberator, our redeemer at work, where grace is freely, generously given, where forgiveness is practiced, given and received. He himself is the peace. He is the power of reconciliation.
You can catch a glimpse of our redeemer where his servants gently wipe away one another’s tears and walk through deep, dark valleys together. You can see him where his servants are working to set people free from illness, relieving pain, restoring broken bodies and broken spirits.
There the Savior is! He’s over there doing everything he can to help people with disabilities be free: offering acceptance, accessibility, adaptive technology, education, all that enriches people’s lives and gives them a chance to contribute.
See our Savior at work, relieving hunger and attacking its causes, from agricultural problems to public policies that need to be changed. See him saying no to oppression and no to bad government. Unbind the hungry! Unbind the poor and powerless! Let them go!
See our gentle Savior setting people free as they approach death. Jesus’ servants give tender, merciful care those who are making that last journey. When it is time to die, he himself is waiting. He is their liberator, ready to carry them to eternal life in the very heart of God, truly free at last. Unbind my people, and let them go.
“I see you,” says the Lord. “I hear your cries. I know. I know.” And then with determination, our Savior gets down to work: unbind my sons and daughters. And let them go!