Unbound: Death

Unbound: Death
John 11:17-45
Rev. Louis Timberlake
April 2, 2017

John 11:17-45 17 On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18 Now Bethany was less than two miles[a] from Jerusalem, 19 and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.21 “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.” 28 After she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary aside. “The Teacher is here,” she said, “and is asking for you.” 29 When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 When the Jews who had been with Mary in the house, comforting her, noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn there. 32 When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. 34 “Where have you laid him?” he asked. “Come and see, Lord,” they replied. 35 Jesus wept. 36 Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

38 Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. 39 “Take away the stone,” he said. “But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.” 40 Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.” 45 Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. Many of you are familiar with Malcolm Gladwell. Author, speaker, journalist. Famous for a number of books, including The Tipping Point and Outliers. He also has a fascinating podcast called “Revisionist History.” A while back, I was listening to an episode. He was talking about the nature of genius, about the process involved in creating a great work of art, whether it be fine art, film, music, literature, or something else. It was fascinating. In just about every field, you can point to those who produce an incredible work in a very short period of time and at a young age. Then there are those who labor for years and hit their peak later in their careers. The genius is there in both, but the process is different.

He talked about the song “Hallelujah.” You know it, don’t you? Written by Leonard Cohen, but made famous by Jeff Buckley. And, now, it’s one of the most well-known and widely-covered songs of all time. But, it didn’t start out that way. Gladwell interviews Alan Light, who literally wrote the book on the song. It’s an incredible story. When Cohen first wrote the song, it literally took him years. It’s said that he had as many as eighty verses or variations. The version we know best has five. And, when he finally recorded it, with four verses, the album was turned down by the record company. He put it out on an independent label and it tanked. No one bought it.

But, he kept working on it. Tinkered with it. Changed verses. Until another musician, John Cale, heard it, liked it, and did a cover on a Leonard Cohen tribute album called I’m Your Fan. It still wasn’t a big seller, but one of the people that bought it was a woman named Jeanine, who lived in Brooklyn and happened to be friends with a young musician named Jeff Buckley. Buckley, while apartment sitting for Jeanine, stumbled upon the album and listened to it and decided to do a cover of John Cale’s cover of Leonard Cohen. Buckley’s version is the one that most people know, but it also wasn’t a big success at first. It didn't take off until after his untimely death a few years later. And, since then, it’s been one of the most covered songs of all time.

Now, it’s a compelling song. There’s joy. There’s pain. There’s beauty. Brokenness. Love. Betrayal. Loss. Redemption. And, woven throughout--this recurring word, or cry, “Hallelujah.” Cohen’s original version had this spectacular verse, “There's a blaze of light in every word. It doesn't matter which you heard the holy or the broken Hallelujah.” I love that. A blaze of light in every cry of hallelujah, holy or broken.

The producer of the song, John Lissauer, in an interview, said, "We didn't go for overpowering, hit-record-making strings and key changes, or any of the things that would've tweaked it. It got its strength from its sincerity and its focus. We just wanted it to be sort of everyman. And I still stand by that being what it was about – it wasn't about slickness or a gospel-y hallelujah; it was about the real hallelujah."

That’s why we do this, isn’t it? That’s why we show up on Sundays. We’re searching for the “real hallelujah.” Not something slick or overproduced. Something real.

Brene Brown is a well known author and scholar in the field of social work. She talks about going back to church following a difficult time in her life. A midlife crisis of sorts. And, she says she went to church for all of the wrong reasons. She went seeking something to numb the pain, the angst. She went seeking an epidural. But, she found a midwife. She found something that stood by her and said, “Push, it’s supposed to hurt a little bit. But, what’s on the other side of that pain is pretty spectacular.”

And, she talks about discovering a real hallelujah. She actually references the song. If you know it, there’s a line that goes like this, “love is not victory march, it’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.” The love that we encounter in the person of Jesus is not slick, it’s not self-aggrandizing. It is a raw, raspy hallelujah that rises from the brokenness of humanity and asserts the triumph of hope over despair.

What God offers to us and what we as the church are to be about is not numbing the pain and the struggles but embracing it as we push towards the hope of something spectacular.

Did you notice, in this passage, the contrast between Jesus’ interaction with Martha and his interaction with Mary? It’s fascinating. Lazarus is brother to both, but they respond in vastly different ways. As Jesus approaches the town, Martha comes out to him. Mary stays in the house. Martha says to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”

And Martha is a good church woman; she has the right answer. She learned it from the preacher and from the Sunday school lessons. “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”

But Jesus says, “No, you’re not getting it. ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.’ Do you believe this?”

She says, “Yes, I believe.” But, she doesn't feel it. It’s in her head, but it hasn’t seeped into the marrow of her bones. It is an intellectual belief, not a visceral belief. And, you see this when Jesus has them roll away the stone from Lazarus’ tomb and she says, “No, don’t do that. He’s dead. Dead things smell.” And, Jesus calls her on it, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”

Now, Mary’s different. She stays in the house until Jesus calls for her. And, when she finally gets to him, she just collapses at his feet. Sobbing. She is overwhelmed by grief. There’s no intellectual, theological conversation. Jesus sees her grief, and he is overcome by his own grief. Her pain isn’t numbed by religious platitudes or slick spirituality. It’s real. Jesus says one thing. “Where have you laid him?” And he weeps.

Friends, these are labor pains. Something spectacular is on the horizon, but it doesn’t lessen the pain. And God’s not an unaffected bystander. God is greatly disturbed. God is weeping.

And, all sobbing, they walk to the tomb. They watch with tears streaming down their faces as the stone is rolled away. And, in the midst of his own grief and surrounded by the grief of others, Jesus cries, “Lazarus, come out!”

And Lazarus does.

And Jesus just says, “Unbind him, and let him go.” 

To participate with God in bringing life out of death, we must first experience the fullness of grief. Only then are we able to realize the beauty and wonder of life.

The problem with Martha is she was seeking an epidural. She knew the right things and said the right things, but the hope was in her head, not her heart. There’s a difference between an ivory tower religion and a faith in Christ that affects you to your bones.

If we come here seeking an epidural to the pain and difficulties of life, we come seeking the wrong thing. God doesn’t offer the absence of pain and struggle. God offers to share in the struggles, to share in the labor pains, and to orient us towards a hope in what is on the other side.

There’s a poem by the English poet GK Chesterton that has resonated with me since I first read it in high school. It’s call “the Convert.” Let me end with it this morning.


After one moment when I bowed my head

And the whole world turned over and came upright, 

And I came out where the old road shone white. 

I walked the ways and heard what all men said, 

Forests of tongues, like autumn leaves unshed, 

Being not unlovable but strange and light; 

Old riddles and new creeds, not in despite

But softly, as men smile about the dead


The sages have a hundred maps to give

That trace their crawling cosmos like a tree, 

They rattle reason out through many a sieve

That stores the sand and lets the gold go free: 

And all these things are less than dust to me

Because my name is Lazarus and I live. 

May we not seek the numbness of an epidural, but the promise of labor pains. May we be oriented towards hope in the one who says, “I am the resurrection and the life.” And may our response be “Hallelujah,” because our name is Lazarus and we live.

Discussion Questions forApril 2: Death

Share your thoughts on the different responses of Martha and Mary to Jesus.

Share your thoughts on Jesus’ different responses to each of them.

Share the significance, to you, of Jesus’ display of grief and emotion.

Share where you find hope in this story.