Unbind them. Let them go.

the Fifth Sunday of Lent
March 29th, 2020

Today’s readings are:
Ezekiel 37:1-14
Psalm 130
Romans 8:6-11
John 11:1-45

If you don’t have a Bible in front of you, click here for these readings. 

           “Unbind him.”
            “Unbind him, and let him go.”

            These are some powerful words. And they’re powerful words in a powerful story. Really, I think this is up there in the top five best stories in the Bible. There are those deeply good and important stories – stories like Jesus’ birth and his Passion – and I think this one ranks up just below these.

            For here is a story of Jesus, the Messiah, who comes to the world to destroy death but who still weeps for his friend who has died. Here’s a story where the God, the author of Life and Love, meets death face to face; God, who will overcome death on the cross, stands before the grave of one he loved. For Jesus here is no armchair theologian, sitting back in a comfy chair, merely thinking about things like death and salvation; no, Jesus is standing before the grave, his hands the source of life and love, yet still with a body four days dead laid out before him. This is, in a way, one of the reasons why God came to us as Jesus Christ – so that he could know our grief firsthand, so that he could know what it feels like to lose someone that we love, firsthand.

            For in that one, small verse, the shortest of the Bible – Jesus began to weep – there is a world of grace in this tiny little verse, enough grace to fill a lifetime. Jesus, God Almighty, the Creator of Heaven and Earth, knew and knows the pain of deep and soul-rending grief.

            This personal touch is so important, but often we overlook it. Because, I mean, God didn’t need to do this. God didn’t need to come down to this Earth, to walk through this dusty world, and to face the death of those he loved. He understood, he knew what death was and, as we hear so often in the Bible, he hears the cries of his people. They touch his heart.

            But walking with us, feeling that same pain that we feel, that does something else. It’s not just head knowledge, it’s not even just heart knowledge, it’s lived knowledge. And we know this, right? Some things you can’t teach; you’ve got to do them to know what they’re about. I faced this while learning how to teach. You can fill your head with a lot of important things – essential things – about how to teach, but there comes a day when you’ve got to put it into practice. Until you’ve got a student sitting before you, who’s dealing with something in his life that has nothing to do with you, who’s mind is in his parents fighting, or who’s still on the football field training for the state championship, or who’s grandma just died, and you need to harness that student’s attention and interest, until you have to do that, and still care for that student’s heart, you won’t really know how to teach.

            Now, God knew us in and out, but he took the extra step. He said something like, “Yeah, I know you. I’ve known you since birth, since before you were born, but I want to know you more. Because I want to love you more.” And so he was born as a child into this world, worked for those in pain and suffering, stood before the grave of someone he loved, and even died on the Cross, just so that he could know us, just so that he could save us.

            “Unbind him.”
            “Unbind him, and let him go.”

            This is at the heart of it, isn’t it? We are bound, we humans. We are bound to grief, to worry, to anxiety, to hatred, even to evil. And I don’t mean that we experience grief or worry or anything, but that we’re bound to it. Our sin is not that we experience grief or worry, or that hatred rises in our hearts. These are human, so very human reactions to a tough world. And we know that grief is not a sin because Jesus, who was without sin, wept at the death of his friend.

            No, grief is natural, and in many ways it is holy. We grieve because we love. Grieving for love honors that love. Worry and fear are also natural. We should certainly be concerned about our health, the health of our loved ones and the world. Anger is also natural, when it is not expressed to hurt and belittle others. The terror, and the sin, comes when we are bound to our grief, to our fear, and to our hatred. That’s when it begins to eat us up inside and to tear us apart.

            Have you ever been bound to something that you just can’t escape? It can be something physical, like food or alcohol or drugs, as with those who struggle with addictions. We can be bound to things mentally, too, where we can’t free ourselves from things that others have said to us, or done to us, or things that we ourselves have said or done. I know I often struggle with things I’ve said in the past, and I play them back in my head and beat myself up over them each time. I’ve heard people with addictions say that, when they were drinking or abusing drugs, they just couldn’t see life without them. Life was a dark circle, moving in and out of self-hatred and guilt. They were caught, they were trapped. They were bound.

            And Jesus says, “Unbind him” and “let him go.” And while he says this, here, about Lazarus and his funeral wrappings, he also says this to us, today, as well. Have you ever heard this word from God? Have you ever experienced it? Have you ever looked at something that you were once bound to and known that you were free? Have you ever looked back at something that you’ve regretted and known, deep down, that that’s just not you anymore? Have you ever been healed from grief, from abuse, from hatred or pain or suffering? This healing, this lifting of us up and out and beyond is the healing work of Jesus Christ, saying to our sin and the sin done to us, “Fall away, dark fetters. You have no power here.”

            I am being a bit vague here, I know. And that’s because that sin we were bound up with and that we’re still bound up with is personal. I could tell you a story about something awful I’ve said or done, but that’s my story. I could tell you about someone I know who was addicted to drugs or alcohol (and I know many) but who is now clean and clear, back with their family, breathing life and living good, honest lives – but those aren’t my stories, they’re the stories of others. And what about you? What stories do you have, where you’ve been bound but are now free? What shackles and fetters are you binding your own heart that you can give to the Lord to be healed? These are personal stories, but stories are made to be told. Spend time this week, even today, praying with those stories, and maybe find someone trustworthy and loving to whom you can share them.

            But in all things, remember this: Jesus came not to just hang out with us for a while, but to set us free. Jesus came – God came to us chains and fetters and break them asunder. And those chains are not only our sin or the sin done to us, but Death itself. Death, which seems the end, is not the end, for Jesus was born for us, lived for us, died for us, and was raised for us, all to snap death in two, break it apart, and cast it away. This doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt – oh how it hurts. But God wept, too, over the death of his friend, and then he raised his voice and called him forth alive again. So too does God weep for us, then will he raise his voice on high and call out with a voice as clear as sunshine: Arise my beloved! It is time for you to come home!

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