The man who had died came out,
his hands and feet bound with linen strips,
and his face wrapped with a cloth.
Jesus said to them, "Unbind him and let him go!"
One of the most intriguing accounts of Jesus is found in John 11. He had close relationships with a brother who had two sisters who are familiar to us. The sisters were Mary and Martha. We remember them because Martha was a doer who was frustrated with Mary and Jesus because Mary sat down at His feet listening to Him teach instead of helping Martha serve their guests. Mary had also anointed the Lord with oil and wiped His feet with her hair, which was a radical act of worship. They had fist hand knowledge of Jesus' healing miracles and when Lazarus got sick they're first response was to send for Jesus. He didn't do what we would have expected Him to do. He tarried for a couple of days and waited for Lazarus to die. When the time was right He declared to His disciples that Lazarus was dead and that He was glad He wasn't there so that they could believe.
It seems like such an odd statement from someone who was known to love this grieving family.
Mary and Martha showed faith in sending for Him, but He still didn't respond right away. He waited.
He waited because He wanted to deepen their faith so that they could face what was would soon to take place. Jesus knew people were already plotting to kill Him.
When Jesus and the disciples arrived in Bethany, they found a crowd of people had come to mourn with Mary and Martha. The news spread of Jesus' arrival and the confused Martha immediately came to question His delay. He talked to her about the resurrection, in which she believed and then He declared a truth that probably at the time was just as confusing as His delay. He said, "I am the Resurrection and the Life!"
Martha then brought Mary to Jesus. Mary felt the same confusion about Jesus' delay and when she saw Him she fell at His feet weeping and questioned Him through her tears -- even in her grief and with her questions she took a position of worship. Then on the way to the tomb Jesus begins to weep with them, aware that His delay had caused them such pain. Some saw love behind the Lord's tears, while others scoffed at His tears claiming He could have prevented the pain. A part of me wants to judge them harshly, but I can't. They saw the situation with human eyes and interpreted what they saw with a human heart just like I so often do.
When they got to the tomb, Jesus asked that the stone be rolled away which exposed the stench of Lazarus decaying body. Standing in front of the open tomb He prayed and then He called Lazarus out of the death-holding tomb. And Lazarus came. He came out still wrapped in the stinky cloths of the grave. Jesus instructed others to help him remove the wretched cloths. The thought of touching those smelly cloths makes me cringe, but I know those who loved Lazarus did so. I can't help be wonder if the joy they experienced seeing Lazarus come from his grave was greater because of the grief they bore. Jesus needed them to understand that He was not just someone who had the power to raise the dead, He was the resurrection and the life for everyone who believes. This is a lesson they could have found such comfort in when Jesus was crucified had they remembered.
There are many details in this account, but the last one is what I want to focus on. The stinky grave cloths. Jesus could have spoken a word and the cloths would have fallen away, but He didn't. A few years ago I wrote a curriculum we use in women's eating disorder support groups. Anyone dealing with an eating disorder knows disorders are difficult to treat because they're shrouded in denial. I used this story of the grave cloths to represent the layers of denial women use to avoid the fact that they have sinful eating pattern that are slowly killing them. As I was reading this story this week, it hit me that Lazarus' grave clothes are a great analogy for all our sin.
After all, isn't it true that any sin we do has the potential to choke the life out of us? Doesn't it chisel away at our relationship with God? Doesn't it cause the self-centeredness that kills relationships God has called us to? Doesn't it lead to patterns of addictions that literally kill the body and suck the life out of us long before we die? Doesn't it lead to shame and then despair which kills joy and our purpose for living? Doesn't it lead to the abuses that kill the soul of every victim? Sin is a plague -- a horrible stinking plague for which Jesus died to set us free.
The Scriptures make it clear that when we accept Jesus by faith we are raised from spiritual death to spiritual life. They also teach us that we then spend a life time working out our salvation through a process of sanctification that weeds out our sinful actions, our sinful thoughts, the lies that we believe, and our prideful attitudes. It also exposes self-protective behaviors so that we can become more like Jesus and reflect Him to a world still plagued by sin.
Maybe the reason God tells us to meet with one another is so we can help each other remove our stinky grave cloths, the cloths representing our old lives. The cloths that bind us and keep us from becoming more like Him. The cloths that remind us of what we once were, not what we are in Him. The cloths that keep our faith shallow and shaky. The cloths that distort the truth with the enemy's lies that render us helpless and useless in God's Kingdom. The cloths that rob us of the joy that we have at our finger tips as His chosen people. The cloths that keep us from giving thanks and enjoying the life in Him. With His help and with the help of others, we can take off the stinky cloths of our past that keep us in bondage and put on the armor of God and live in the truth He has given us. Its a stinky job and sometimes we don't want to rub shoulders with others who stink like we do, but it is what we are called to.
There is something else that I love about grave cloths and what they tell us. Fast forward to John 20:6-7, "Simon Peter came following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, and the face cloth that had been on Jesus' head, not lying with the linen cloths, but folded up in a place by itself." There is One who needed no help getting out of the grave cloths -- Jesus, the One who knew no sin, the One who became sin for us, the One who made it possible for us to be shrouded in His righteousness instead.
I want to remember Him who needed no help out of grave the cloths when I battle temptation or when the enemy tries to wear me down with his lies. I want to hold tight to the One who needed no help out of His grave cloths when life is hard and feels shaky. Oh, that I would remember that the sinless One who died in my place slipped out of the grave clothes because His perfect life was the perfect sacrifice for my imperfection. The One who has the ability to lay aside His grave cloths aside like that has my heart and the right to call me out of mine.