Take it off

John 11:41-44

So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 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.”

When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 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.”

It’s taken me awhile to be ready to write this post.  Of all the lessons God has been teaching me through this passage, this one is by far the most personal.  Even after it’s taken me so long to work up the courage to sit down and write this, I still am wrestling with what to say.  So for your sake, and mine, I’ll just cut to the chase.

The very last verse in this passage, carries the punch.  After raising him from the dead, Jesus’ final words and action in this passage is to tell them to “take off the grave clothes and let him go.”  Do you remember earlier in this journey when I asked if there was an area that you needed to roll the stone away and allow Jesus to have access to what was behind it?  No matter how offensive or smelly…  It has been my experience that the most difficult part of allowing Jesus into those areas is not the initial step, but the final step.  After allowing Jesus to access the grave, and move powerfully in her situation, Martha (and Lazarus) still had one more step to go.  They had to literally remove the clothes that were binding him in death so he could be free.  Sounds easy enough…. right?

Well not for me.  You see, back in the beginning of 2013, when Elliott was not even a year old, we discovered that I was pregnant with our daughter, Samantha.  We were very excited, as we wanted our kids close together (although looking back now it seemed crazy!).   However, it wasn’t long before I started experiencing some pretty brutal headaches.  I had struggled off and on with migraines in college, but never had I experienced such bad headaches.  It literally kept me on the couch all day and night.  It can happen, the doctors told me, and as my pregnancy went on it would get better.  Well it didn’t.  Five weeks in, Andy left for an almost 2 week ministry trip (with my Dad) to the other side of the world- so Elliott (who just turned one and I couldn’t even sit up for his first birthday party!) and I moved in with my mom for the two weeks.  And she was determined to find a cure.  We tried everything… I mean EVERYTHING.  And I want to clarify that we were not reluctant to ask for prayer.  I had asked and received prayer multiple times a week for the entire time the headache was happening.  Nothing was helping and it was only getting worse.  So finally one night, it had gotten bad enough that my mom ended up calling 911 after finding me unable to respond, laying on the floor (indecent I might add, since I had fallen while using the restroom).  Well, several hours later I was being transferred to the ICU because after running tests and scans, the ER doctor had found a blood clot in my brain.  I was in the ICU for several days, and then was on another floor for a few before I finally got released.  And it took Andy a little less than 4 days to make it home from the other side of the world.

I could go into a lot more detail, and spend a lot more time sharing with you all the ways that the Lord intervened in the situation to protect both me, and Samantha (who was born completely healthy).  And trust me, God deserves lots of praise and credit for everything He did.  But I don’t want to focus on that part of the story right now.  Have you ever heard these incredible people share stories about how they had a near death experience and because of that they take all these risks? They make a huge difference in the world around them because they make every minute count, knowing how easily it could all be gone.  Well, that wasn’t me.  It still isn’t.  I wish it was, but it’s not.

After this experience I really struggled.  There are days that I still do.  I struggled with feeling like I didn’t have a future- I was probably going to die before I got to do anything anyways.  And so I stopped dreaming, and I stopped planning.  In a sense, I stopped living.  I didn’t have any motivation to start anything or do anything because I was convinced that I would die before I ever got to finish anything.  Even writing about this now (for the first time) is really hard.  I can feel the lump growing in my throat and the tears growing in my eyes.  I can feel the anxiety and fear close in on me.  Jesus powerfully walked into my tomb and miraculously moved in the mess and stink in my life.  He intervened on many occasions and saved me.  Literally, from the grave.  Just like Lazarus.  I’m overwhelmed with thankfulness and gratitude for what He did for me 3 years ago.

But you see, even though He gave me the miracle I needed and brought me out of the grave, I didn’t take off my grave clothes.  I walked around for 2 years still bound up in strips meant for death.  I no longer needed them, but I couldn’t take them off.  I couldn’t dream of plan for a future.  I couldn’t look ahead to when my children were older with joy because I was still wrapped up in the perspective that I wouldn’t be there.

And about a year ago, a group of fellow believers loved me enough to tell me that I didn’t need to stay in the grave clothes, and help me start the process of taking them off.  They gathered around me and prayed for me while I sobbed.  They hugged me while I dripped snot all over their shirts.  They knew that the Lord had not saved me from the grave to only keep me in the grave clothes.  God saved me and kept me away from death so I could have life.  Real life.  Abundant life.

I don’t want to write a novel here tonight, but I do want to share with you a couple of things that I have learned through the experience.   First, we all go through hard things in life.  You have lived through things that I could never imagine walking through.  God gives us the strength and grace we need to walk through it.  It’s not about comparing our challenges.  But no matter what hard thing you’ve been through, God never desires you to stay in your grave clothes.  It will become a part of your story, and a part of who you are, but the healing and power that Jesus brings to the situation changes the outcome.  You’re not meant to live like Jesus wasn’t there.  You’re not meant to continue on, being bound up in what things would have been like if Jesus hadn’t been there.  I was living that way.  Some days I still struggle with it.  But I know it’s not what He desires for me.

Secondly, Jesus asked the others to help Lazarus take off his grave clothes.  Lazarus wasn’t asked, or meant, to do it alone.  I knew Scripture.  I knew the verses.  I knew that I wasn’t supposed to be struggling, but I couldn’t fight it on my own.  I couldn’t move out of that mindset on my own.  And so I would like to challenge not only myself but you also to be more open and share.  Whether you’re at the point where you need to take the first step and roll the stone away- share.  If the stone has been moved, but you’re waiting for Jesus to speak- share.  If Jesus has spoken and touched your situation- share.  If you’re coming out of the grave, but still have on the clothes- share.  I largely kept my struggles to myself.  I was honest and would tell someone that I was having a hard time, but I was not even close to vulnerable.  And I not only made things more difficult on myself but wrestling alone, but I also kept silent the testimony that God was giving me throughout the situation.  I so wish I could go back and not miss that opportunity. I pray you don’t miss yours.

 

Part 4

There have been times in my faith walk where the Lord points something out to me, and instantly I just know that it is more than a passing lesson.  It resonates with such depth and strength that I can almost feel it digging into my soul and putting down roots.  These are the faith lessons that become more like faith themes or anthems in my life.  As I chew and meditate on these lessons for years, they become an integral part of how I approach my faith and walk with the Lord. I instantly knew that the next piece that stood out to me in our passage was one of these lessons. And I know that what He showed me was just a corner of where to start digging to uncover those ancient ruins.

John 11:41-44

So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 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.”

When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 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.”

I will be the first to admit that when I read passages with such amazing miracles, I tend to almost unfocus and glaze over the magnitude of the miracles because I don’t even have a grid for it.  The raising of Lazarus is no exception.  I can’t even begin to comprehend what happened here.  But while I was reading this passage, the Lord didn’t choose to help my mortal mind comprehend this, but instead He showed me how even more incredible this was than I originally thought.

Did you notice the method Jesus used to raise Lazarus?  He didn’t walk up to him, shake him, or lay His hands on him.  He spoke… Spoke. That’s it!  Talk about incredible.  Jesus not only raises some one from the dead (after 4 days!), but He does it only with His words.

I tend to think in my own life, that I need God to come into my circumstances and move things around so everything works.  And when God blew my mind by showing me that all Jesus needed to do was speak, it convicted me because it revealed that I had diminished who He is and what He is capable of.  Just like Jesus didn’t need to DO anything to raise Lazarus, He also wouldn’t have to do anything to move miracles in my own circumstances.  All I need is for Him to speak.

In addition to the mental exercise of trying to grasp this new realization, the Lord is so good and never lets His lessons stop there.  There is never a lesson just for the knowledge and interest, but they all have some personal application.  So the next big question is, “what does this mean for me?”  Honestly, I know I’m just on the starting line of the journey into the power of God speaking, and so I won’t pretend like I have it all figured out.  However, my first thought instantly went from the words of Jesus having such power to the Word of God, the Bible.

You’ve already heard me talk about how I love experiencing the Word being living and active, but this takes that to a whole new level.  I’ve always believed that the Word was powerful, but I never linked it to the same amount of power that raised Lazarus from the dead.  And moving forward, I can only imagine the impact it will have on my reading of the Bible. Like I’ve said, this is just the beginning of a long journey of learning and discovery, but I wanted to share with you just the first taste of how powerful it is when God speaks.  I hope it has encouraged and challenged you also.

Part 3

John 11: 40-44

Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”

So they took away the stone.  Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me.  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.”

When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”  The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.

I feel like we’re in a process of excavating ancient ruins.  We’ve uncovered the top of something special.  We’ve seen just a hint of what is beneath and we have no idea the depth and breadth of what we will find.  It’s one of the most beautiful things about Scripture.  No matter how much you dig, there is always something to uncover.  And the more you read and study, the better you can grasp the larger picture and how everything fits.  These verses today uncovered several pieces that we will see fit together in a way that shows us the progression of a faith walk.

In the middle paragraph of our verses, Jesus is talking to His Father.  He’s essentially praying.  He starts off by thanking the Father for hearing His prayers, and then mentions that He always knew that the Father hears His prayers.  But He prayed this “for the benefit of people standing here.”  This is not the only time that Jesus does something partially to set an example for the people around Him.  But if you notice, while He was setting an example, it was not His reason for praying this.  He clearly states that His reason is so that “they may believe that you sent me.”

The point is the Gospel.  The point is always the Gospel.  Jesus wasn’t raising Lazarus from the dead to show off that He could perform miracles.  And He wasn’t just proving that He was special.  The point is not Jesus Himself, but that people believe that Jesus is sent from the Father.  Jesus prayed so that they could hear Him, and then when Lazarus is raised the people around know that it didn’t just happen by chance. The point of the miracle was for people to believe.

But do you remember that we’ve already seen in this passage an emphasis on belief?  Just before this, Jesus spoke to Martha and told her that if she believed, she would “see the glory of God.”  Both are working together here.  Martha needs to believe in order to see, but Jesus also does this so that people will believe.  The Bible makes it very clear that there is a strong correlation between the presence of belief and faith, and miracles happening.  It reminds me of the passage that talks about how the smallest amount of faith can move mountains.  We’ve seen that already in this passage.  Martha had to take the step of faith and be a willing participant in what God was doing.

Belief in Jesus as the Son of God is the beginning and the end.  Like Martha, if we believe, we will see the glory of God.  And when we see and experience the glory of God, two things happen: we believe even more deeply and more people believe.  Again, the point is the Gospel.  The Gospel is not a philosophy of life to be acted out, but is a saving relationship, through Jesus, with the Creator of all.  Our true belief and faith in Jesus can not be separated from the kind of belief and faith that He asked for from Martha.  A belief and faith in Jesus, omitting the ability and presence of miracles is not a belief in Jesus as the Son of God.  It is a belief in Jesus simply as a role model and nothing else.

This passage uncovers for us that faith is not just required to “see the glory of God”, but it is also why God reveals His glory.  This is the cycle for faith and evangelism that the Bible lays out.  Faith and belief in Jesus, especially in desperate situations, gives us the opportunity to see how a divine and all powerful God can tangibly intervene and impact things.  And when this happens, it of course challenges others to believe because no other religion or philosophy can offer that!

This then begs to ask the question… if our faith and belief is void of this kind of “glory of God”, then is the ‘religion’ we are offering people any different than the others?  Or are we just living life with Jesus as our biggest role model?

 

Part 2

John 11: 38-40

Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb.  It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance.  “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.”

Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”

After being so struck with the first sentence in the passage, I continued to read unsure of what I would learn next.  I was still digesting the significance that Jesus was deeply moved on the behalf of people in general, but also that He would be deeply moved on my behalf.  Sometimes, I admit, it is easy for me to forget that God has emotions.  That He could feel that deeply. And so, this first verse made a lasting impression on me.  It was one of those moments where something clicked at a much deeper level.

As I continued to read, still partially distracted by what had just happened, the next few sentences struck me as odd.  As I read and attempted to listen to what God had for me, I felt like a few things became clear.

First, Martha desperately needed and wanted Jesus to intervene in her life.  She needed a miracle, and she needed something that only Jesus could do and provide.  But the stone was literally standing in the way between Jesus and the miracle she needed.  Jesus could have removed the stone Himself.  We know that He is more than capable of that.  But instead, He asked someone else to remove the stone.  Why would He do that?  Now without getting into some huge theological debate, I would argue that while God is capable of doing things without us, He chooses to work with us to accomplish what He wants.  And so, it is our choice to cooperate or not.  Just like Martha had to cooperate to remove the stone, we also must cooperate to move the stone away in our own lives.

I would bet that each one of us has something that we’re holding onto.  Something that we need God to intervene in, something we need Him to touch or to change.  And in these situations, I would also bet that there is something standing in the way.  An obstacle that needs to be removed.  God has the power to remove whatever obstacles are there on His own.  But I think He asks for our cooperation in the process.

I found it interesting that Martha’s response was that she shouldn’t roll away the stone because of the smell.  I can totally relate.  I can’t tell you how many times I justify having that obstacle because I don’t want to offend some one, or God Himself.  I’m afraid that whatever is behind the stone will be too much for someone, including God, to handle.  I’m afraid of rejection.  I’m afraid of how I might look.  And so I keep the stone protecting my hurt, pain, frustration and desperation.

Or at least I want to.  But I love the last verse out of these few.   “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”  I have my fears.  I have my justifications.  And my stone can bring me some comfort because as long as it’s there, I won’t hope and then be more disappointed.  But.  What an incredible word.  It challenges me to come out of my comfort zone and hope.  Because how can Jesus touch the dead areas of my life if I don’t give Him access?  If I don’t cooperate in the process?  But if I believe, and if I take the step of faith to roll away the stone, and give God access to every piece of my life, then I can see His glory.

I don’t know where you’re at.  I don’t know what you’re going through.  Life is messy.  Life is hard.  BUT... But Jesus is deeply moved for you.  Jesus is deeply moved and wants to touch what is dead, and smelly, and hurting.  Jesus wants you to roll away the stone and give Him access to whatever is behind it.  It probably won’t turn out like you plan.  BUT if you believe, you will see the glory of God.  What do you have to lose?

Lazarus Part 1

I got some unexpected and much needed time with the Lord this afternoon.  Most of the time when I sit down with my Bible I have the same routine I go through.  I start off prayer journaling and sharing with Him all of my worries, struggles and requests.  This helps me read and not be distracted with all of these thoughts, but just focus on what the Word says and what He has for me.  Then I move on to read whatever book I’m studying or to work on the homework for whatever study I’m attempting to follow along with.  So when I sat down today, I pulled out my journal but didn’t feel compelled to unload all of my worries and requests.  So then I grabbed the workbook for the study I just started, but didn’t feel like doing the homework.  So I started to flip to a passage in John I had been studying awhile ago.  While I was flipping through the pages I felt compelled to stop in John 11:38-44 where Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead.  For many reasons, this quiet time broke the usual routine, one of which being that I knew so strongly what I was supposed to read.  But the main thing about this time that stands apart is that from the first moment of the mere 30-40 minutes that I was sitting there reading, the Lord began pouring out what He had for me.  He crammed more into that half hour than I typically receive in several hours of studying.  As weird as it may sound, it felt like it was almost a downloading process.  Every second He showed me something, but with so much more depth and understanding than I could humanly process in that amount of time.  I don’t know how else to explain it, and as always- take it with a grain of salt.  But I’m going to break it down into a short “series” to share.

John 11:38-44

Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb.  It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance.  “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.”

Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”

So they took away the stone.  Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me.  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.”

When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”  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 your grave clothes and let him go.”

Not long ago, when our daughter Samantha was around 2, there was this stretch where she would tell you “I love you possible”.  It all started because we would tell our kids that we love them.  And Elliott (who had a larger vocabulary) would say, “I love you more”.  Sometimes it would involve stretching our arms out to show how much we love each other, and, of course, our arms would stretch farther.  So it would go back in forth this way, including “I love you most” and finally ending with us telling them, “That’s not possible.”  Samantha, being wired more like me in personality,  eventually hit the point where she just wanted to cut to the chase.  Instead of the process of going back and forth, she would just begin and finish with “I love you possible.”  Four simple words communicated many, many more.

The first sentence of our passage is like this.  And I find these sentences so beautiful because it is proof that the Word is living and active like the Bible tells us.  The words almost jump off the page with the emotion of a living being.  And like Samantha, communicate way more than the words themselves could ever say.

“Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb.” Jesus wasn’t just sympathizing with Martha that Lazarus had died.  He cared deeply.  Lazarus, Martha and Mary were all very close friends with Jesus and He was deeply moved not just because His friend had died, but because Martha and Mary were in so much pain.  Compassion can be a very strong emotion, and an even stronger motivator.  It is an emotion that requires action in order to be.  And this is no different.  This is not just Jesus feeling an emotion, but being moved to action from the emotion.  And in this sentence, the action is the physical movement to the tomb.

I shared another time that one of the things that is so different and beautiful about Jesus and Christianity is that they run into the mess when everyone else is trying to avoid it.  One of the reasons Jesus was drawn to the tomb was because He cared deeply.  It reminds me of the verse that talks about if you draw near to Him, He will draw near to you.  Jesus wants to be with us.  But I would argue from this passage, that unlike everything else- Jesus isn’t drawn to our cleaned up and brushed off selves.  We like the put together version of people, it’s far less messy.  But Jesus is drawn to the messy because He knows that He can clean it up.

If nothing else, please hear this.  Jesus is coming for you and wants to have relationship with you in the midst of your pain, suffering, and junk.  He is life and was drawn to the place of death to rescue the ones He loves out of it.  While your pain, suffering and junk might push others away, it draws Jesus to you because He cares more deeply than you or I will ever know.  I pray that today, this hits your heart as deeply as it has mine.