(This first appeared in the Faith column of the Sentinel-News in Shelbyville, KY on August 22, 2014)
Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” (John 11:39-44, NRSV).
Of seven signs narrated in the Gospel of John, the final and most miraculous is the raising of Lazarus. You know the story. Jesus’ friend Lazarus has died and his sisters, Martha and Mary are grieved. Furthermore, they insist that if Jesus had been there, Lazarus would not have died. In the midst of Martha’s sorrow, anger and pain, Jesus tells her plainly that Lazarus will rise again. She says, of course he will, I know this. After all, I believe in the resurrection of the dead at the end of time. Jesus says, no, no, no. You don’t understand. I am the resurrection and the life. Don’t you believe this?
Have you ever been grieved? Have you ever been in the midst of sorrow, anger and pain? Have you ever been told by other people not to worry? Everything will work out okay, you are told. It will pass. You’ll be okay. You will find a better job. You will find a better relationship. You won’t be sick forever. Your loved one is in a better place. This too shall pass, they say to us. Who knows the will of God? God doesn’t give us anymore than we can handle.
I have no idea what the words of Jesus must have first sounded like to Martha, but I can’t help but remember all the insensitive advice and hollow comfort that well-meaning people have tried to give me in my moments of worry, grief, hurt and sadness. Believe, he says. Just believe. We do, Mary and Martha say, but telling us to believe doesn’t take away the pain. Our brother just died!
There are two things that Martha and Mary fail to understand. First, when Jesus says that Lazarus will rise again, he’s not talking about something in the future so distant it might as well be wishful thinking. He’s not talking about the resurrection of the last day. Lazarus is going to be eating dinner with them tonight. Secondly, when Jesus says to believe, he’s not talking about an idea that he wants them to agree to. Jesus is calling for a trusting faith, a faith that is made real in obedient action. How do I know? I’m glad you asked. Don’t you think that it is interesting that the gospel writer says Jesus can turn water to wine, heal the sick, feed the masses, walk on water, and (as we are about to see) raise the dead, but he needs other people to roll away one measly stone in front of the tomb? Why doesn’t he roll it away himself? I’ll tell you why. It’s how Jesus reveals the insufficiency of the sisters’ faith. We can’t do that, Martha says, Lazarus has been dead four days. And just like that, Martha reveals that she doesn’t have the kind of trusting, acting faith that Jesus commands. She is convinced that death is absolute.
If you are grieving, if you are hurting, if you are in deep sorrow or worry, I cannot say that what you are feeling isn’t real and appropriate. And I will never say that God is doing this to you. When we suffer, God suffers. But nevertheless, I implore you to roll away the stone. I know it might seem useless. I know it is painful. Roll back the stone anyway. After all, the miraculous thing that God wants to do in your life is not in some distant future. It can happen now. The pain likely won’t go away overnight, but the power of God to breathe new life into dead places can blow over you today.
Roll back the stone in front of the tomb of financial ruin, of the broken heart, of crushed dreams, of a long dead hope. Let the voice of Christ boom inside the walls of that dark tomb, “Come out!” Let the light of God shine in. And when your heart, your dreams, your hope are standing again at the edge of the tomb, unbind them and let them go! Because there is still a whole lot more life to be lived.