Lent 1 (NL4)
February 18, 2018
The raising of Lazarus is one of the most famous stories about Jesus. It is, of course a story about God’s glory and power. In fact, God’s power is so apparent in this story, that it is what finally moves the Jewish authorities to arrest Jesus – they feel that Jesus is a threat to their power. Immediately following this miraculous sign, they begin to plot Jesus’ death. It is an amazing moment, when Lazarus comes out of the tomb!
But today, as we begin our Lenten focus on healing and wholeness, we would be wise to consider what comes before that moment of glory. Just like the story of the man born blind that we heard last week, the actual event of the raising of Lazarus only takes a couple verses, at the very end. Most of the 44 verses we are about to hear are dedicated to the events and feelings of the surrounding circumstances: in particular, two devastated sisters and their friends, grieving, weeping, and even assigning blame in order to make sense of this tragedy. As you hear the story, take note of those feelings. Consider whether you have ever felt such feelings in the face of tragedy. And, consider what God can do with those feelings. Let’s hear the story.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
When we decided last fall that this year for Lent we would focus on healing, we knew it was a timely choice. We all have various sorts of brokenness in our own lives, whether that is an active illness or injury from which we seek healing, or painful relationships, or past hurts that we are still trying to work through. And we all have heavy hearts about the state of the world right now, whether your concern is with world hunger, or the environment, or the largest refugee crisis since World War 2, or tension with North Korea, or the decline in civil discourse and rampant fear and blame going on in our own country. All of that… and then, as if to hit home the immense need for healing in our communities, this past week, on Ash Wednesday, we learned of yet another school shooting, the 44th mass shooting this year alone. The picture that accompanied the Washington Post article showed a woman weeping in the arms of another woman who had an ashen cross on her forehead. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” – those words she heard that day as she received that cross should not have become so real to her so soon and so tragically.
Our hearts are broken. This world is broken. The world is in desperate need of healing.
Enter, the story of the raising of Lazarus. Here is a story in which grief is palpable. As I mentioned, the actual raising of Lazarus doesn’t even happen until the last two verses. Everything before that is the immense grief that accompanies pain, loss, death – the grief that accompanies brokenness. It is Martha, begging Jesus to ask God to fix it. It is Mary, weeping at Jesus’ feet, even, accusing him of not coming sooner. (Don’t we always want to do that in the face of tragedy? Assign blame to someone or something, in an effort to make some sense of it?) It is even Jesus himself weeping openly over the loss of his friend.
It is so important not to gloss over this grief. Maybe we’d like this story just to be about the raising of Lazarus, but it isn’t. We’d like for it to go like this: “Jesus learned that Lazarus, whom he loved, was sick. So he immediately traveled to his friend, but he was too late. Only a little too late, though – no sooner had Lazarus died, then Jesus raised him again! New life! And everyone was happy. The end.” That’s how we want our own stories of loss to go, too. Immediate return to normal. No time to dwell in sadness. No time to fight about it. Just move on, and pretend nothing happened.
We as a society do not like to leave space for lament. And yet, the raising of Lazarus shows us that healing and new life must begin with lament: lament over the loss of something we loved, lament over the pain we and our loved ones feel, lament over things no longer as we wish they were. Only after we have done this, can we truly hear those words, “Unbind him and let him go!” as good news, and enter into the new life God has in store for us.
This focus on lament is one of the gifts of Lent. I often hear grumbling about Lent, with its sad hymns and focus on sin. As for me, I love that about Lent. Life so often demands that we put on a happy face and pretend everything is fine, even when it really isn’t. But here, we have the chance to admit to God, “No, everything isn’t fine. I am broken inside. I need some Jesus. I need the mercy and compassion of a loving God. I need healing, and freedom from my dis-ease.” Lent is a time when we can stand at the foot of the cross, and ask God to call us out of the dark tombs we find ourselves in, and to remove from us all that binds us, all that keeps us from living as full and abundant a life as God wants for us. It’s a time when we can listen for God to demand the bindings that keep us from freedom be unbound. Lent is not a time to wallow and stay still and throw up our arms and say, “There’s nothing that can be done. It is what it is.” No, the lamenting we do during Lent necessarily calls us out of the tomb, out of despair, and into hope and new life.
This morning, I’d like to start with you that process of recognizing what we need to lament, what we need freedom from, in hopes that once we can recognize it, we can be called out from under it. If you need help thinking about that, in your bulletin you have a green sheet that outlines different sorts of health and wholeness that we as followers of Christ strive for, including some suggestions for how you might address those types of healings if you find you are not where you’d like to be in any particular area. I hope that you will take the time to pray over that, and really consider how, concretely, you might seek healing during this Lenten season.
But for now, we’re going to enter into this through prayer and liturgical action. When you came in, you should have received a strip of cloth. I imagine these cloths as reminiscent of Lazarus’ bindings, what kept him dead and in the tomb – the very thing about which Jesus said, “Get rid of that and let him go!” Today, let these strips be symbolic of whatever it is that binds you, whatever keeps you in the tomb, living in dis-ease, whatever keeps you from living a whole and healthy life with God. In a moment, I’ll lead us through a prayer, and as you pray, bind yourself in your strip – wrap it around your arm, or your hand, and feel it constrict you.
And then, we will enter into a time of healing prayer. During that time, you are invited to come forward to the cross, and pin your cloth – and with it, whatever binds you and keeps you in dis-ease – pin it to the cross. Leave it here for Jesus. Pray that he would take it from it.
The healing time will be several minutes. If you’re not pinning what binds you to the cross, then enter into some other types of healing prayer. You can meditate on scripture [or images] or pray on your own, or you can talk with someone else. Or, I will be available for healing prayer and anointing, which is an ancient healing practice of the church. I can pray with you for personal healing, however vague or specific, and I can anoint you or not – your choice.
However you use this time, let it be an entry point into a season in which lament and grief are okay. Let it be a time to talk to God about where and how your life could be more abundant, and ask God to guide you in that direction. We’ll play some music during this time – when you hear our hymn of the day being played on the piano, that will signal the time to come back together.
And now, I invite you to take your strip of cloth, and let us pray…Lord God, we are bound. We are bound by our sins, things done and left undone. We are bound by our fears. We are bound by our insecurities. Unbind us, we pray. Help us to see what sort of healing you desire for us, and then help us to pursue it. Unbind us, so that we could walk out of our tombs, and into the newness of life that you promise. Unbind us, so that we might have life, and have it abundantly. Through Christ our Lord we pray, Amen.