“Take away the stone.”
Has there been a more frightening commandment? “Take away the stone!”
You may not think this is a frightening command, but that is because we are looking at this story through the lens of 2000 years of familiarity. But if we were there, standing in front of the tomb, these words must have been not only scary, but offensive and revolting.
Having anything to do with a dead body was a major social taboo in Biblical times. Touching a dead body would make you ritually unpure. And, of course, there was the desecration of the tomb; once the body was laid in the tomb; it was not to be disturbed. So when Jesus told the people to take away the stone, he was probably triggering all kinds of discomfort in those around him.
And the people let Jesus know that this was not something they wanted to be part of. They told Jesus that the body was in the tomb, now, for four days. In the heat of the desert, we can be pretty sure that a body in a tomb for four days would have become pretty rank. No embalming would have been used. So just from an esthetic point of view, taking the stone away would have been disgusting.
But don’t we act similarly when the stones in our lives are threatened to be removed? We don’t like to have those stones removed. Like the stone over the mouth of the tomb, the stones in our lives are there for a purpose. Just like the stone over the tome kept the stink from flowing out into the world, the stones in our life keep the stink of our deep, dark secrets from flowing out into our daily lives. And no matter who we are, we all have stones covering the secrets in our lives. And when Jesus tells us to roll back those stones, it can become very frightening.
The same can be said for our clubs, our political parties, and even our congregations; there are stones in all of these places, covering the things that we would choose to either not deal with or do not want the world to see. We do not want to look at the death that is lying within these places so we place stones to cover them. We wish to hide those things away from prying eyes. We may even know the stones are there, but we are afraid to take those stones away.
The problem is, for Jesus to enter into these areas, the stone has to be moved. For the light of Christ to enter in, the stone that is hiding everything in the dark must be rolled back. Granted, Jesus probably could have raised Lazarus from the dead while the stone was in place, but what good would that have done? With the stone in place obscuring the sight, the miracle would have been missed and poor Lazarus would have been pretty confused!
But Jesus commanded the people to take away the stone, and even when they protested, he did not back down. For the miracle to be seen, we need to remove the stones in our lives and in our society. This is scary, but this is what we are commanded by Jesus. “Take away the stone!”
Then once the stone is removed, Jesus gives another command, “Lazarus, come out!”
What good would it have been for Lazarus to be raised from the dead if he just continues to remain hidden in the cave? What good is it to have new life given if Lazarus were just to have him not share that new life with the world? No, if new life is given, it is to be shared! Lazarus is told to “Come out!”
Being out in the world with our new life can be just as frightening as taking the rock away. As long as we stay hidden and secluded, we can remain safe. As long as we stay hidden, we don’t have to worry about offending anyone’s sensibilities (or noses for that matter!). We need to remember that in the Gospel of John, it is this act of bring Lazarus back to life that caused the Pharisees to plot for Jesus’ death. Taking away the stone and calling Lazarus is not a trivial thing. It is truly a matter of life and death.
In our lives, where are the stones, and what is hiding in the caves that we do not want to have exposed to the light? What would be so frightening to have exposed to the world? What do we not want Jesus to call forth? We need to look for these things in our lives, in our organizations, and in our society and government. We need to look at these things and then we need to have the courage to bring them to Jesus and allow Jesus to call them forth.
But even when Lazarus steps forth, there is still a problem: He is still covered with the clothes of death. The wrappings need to be removed. We are told that Lazarus’ hands, feet, and face are still covered when he emerges.
Have you ever met people who have gotten a divorce and are still just as married, if not more married, to their former spouse? My niece is one such case; she is divorced, but she still is constantly trying to “get back at him” and trying to “make him pay.” She has been given new life and has been let out of the tomb, but she is still keeping her hands, feet, and face tied up in the problems of her past. The marriage is over, she can come out of the tomb, but she still is wrapped in the marriage, she cannot take off the cloths that bind her.
I think moving beyond the death wraps may be the most difficult part of Lazarus’ move out of the tomb. So often we stay wrapped in the troubles of our past. So often we get caught in our deathly habits, even though we have had them exposed and have been called forth. Sometimes we don’t WANT to have the wraps removed, we like having our pet angers to hang on to. But as long as we hang on to these past hurts and presumed slights, we are as bound as if we were still tied in shroud cloth.
Since this is so difficult, there is something you will notice: Jesus tells the people, those who are friends and those who care for Lazarus, to unbind him. This final layer of wrapping, this final forgiveness of self is not something that happens in a vacuum, it happens in community. It is when we are part of a community that truly loves us that Christ’s light can shine most fully. It is in community of trust and love when those things that restrain us can be removed. It is in a caring community that death can be made into life!
We always need to remember that through Christ we find life, not death. We may be looking death square in the face, but our faith tells us that we need not be afraid, we are followers of the one who can bring life out of death.