Unbind Him and Let Him Go!

Meditation on John 11, Selected verses

Fifth Sunday in Lent

First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown

Pastor Karen Crawford

March 26, 2023

Audio file of Pastor Karen sharing her message:

Duccio di Buoninsegna (c 1255–1318), The Raising of Lazarus (1310–11), tempera and gold on panel, 43.5 x 46.4 cm, Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, TX. Wikimedia Commons.

 So many people came to our church beautification day yesterday! Thank you to all who came and worked! We gathered with a shared mission—to clean and de-clutter, throw away what was no longer useful and make room for a new age of ministry. Together.

I was also given a guided tour of the oldest parts of our building, dating back to the 1800s. Bill Russel, John Agostini, and I crept down to the basement under the sanctuary and climbed up ladders and narrow wooden staircases to the bell tower. It was quite an experience, watching as Bill turned the ancient gears that changed the clock hands on three sides of the tower so that the time was accurate to a couple of minutes.

They let me ring the bell!

It was an historic moment. We decided that I am not only the first female pastor to climb to the bell tower, but probably the first female and maybe the first pastor to do so.

But more important than firsts for our church history books, we were making good memories together—all of us who came to serve our church yesterday. It wasn’t just about the work, the tasks that we were doing. It never is! It’s about the stories that are shared. Strengthening relationships. Growing in faith and hope. It was an opportunity to care for one another and care for our building, our place of worship and ministry for nearly two centuries.

I was thinking about this last night. Just before my first congregational meeting with you, a year ago, when you confirmed my call to ministry with you, I shared a message on Mark 2 about the man with paralysis. His friends tried to bring him to Jesus for a healing. When they arrived at his Capernaum home, they couldn’t get to him, because of the large crowd. So, the friends removed Jesus’ roof and lowered the man down on a mat in front of him. Jesus commented on the remarkable faith of the man’s friends, forgave the man of his sins, and said to him, “Take up your pallet and walk.” And he did! He was healed!

If it weren’t for the man’s friends, he would never have reached Jesus. He would not have been healed.

 “We need each other,” I remember saying. We need each other. With the Spirit, we can do powerful ministry together. We will find our healing and wholeness when we serve Christ together.

In John chapter 11 today, we read of the raising of Lazarus. But most of the story is about the faith of his two older sisters, Mary and Martha. We met them in Luke 10, when the sisters were hosting Jesus and his disciples for dinner; Martha was doing most of the work of preparation and serving, while Mary was sitting at the Lord’s feet, hanging on his every word.

Martha says to Jesus in frustration, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her, then, to help me.”

Martha is experiencing different emotions in John 11 after Jesus delays for seemingly no reason coming to Bethany after he receives a plea for help from the sisters. By the time he arrives, Lazarus has been in the tomb 4 days! There is the stench of death.

 Martha confronts Jesus outside the town, saying, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  She’s saying, “It’s your fault Lazarus is dead!” But she hasn’t given up hope in Jesus’ power to heal. “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 

Most Jewish people during that time believed in the resurrection of the dead and peace on earth as markers of the messianic age, Amy-Jill Levine says.  Conservative and Orthodox Jews continue to affirm this belief in their daily prayers, and it is central to our Christian faith. But it isn’t enough for Martha at this moment. “She wants Lazarus with her now, not at the end of the ages.” (Signs and Wonders, 122)

Jesus says to her, “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?”

With Christ’s statement, “no longer does eternal life mean something later,” Levine says. “It means something now.” (122)

“Yes, Lord,” Martha says, even before he heals her brother, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

She brings Mary to see Jesus. Mary says the same words Martha has said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!”

The Jewish community has come to mourn with Mary and Martha. Sharing the burden of grief is a communal calling. We are not meant to grieve alone.

Jesus sees the people weeping with Mary—and he starts to weep. He orders the stone at the front of the tomb be removed. He prays and says in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 

 The man awakened from death will be forever changed from the experience—as will the community who will always see him as the one Jesus raised from the dead. Many people come to believe in Jesus because of the raising of Lazarus.

He comes out of the tomb still wrapped from head to toe in his graveclothes.

I used to wonder why Jesus tells the community, “Unbind him, and let him go.” Couldn’t the One who raised him from the tomb after four days do the final unbinding? Jesus doesn’t really need help, does he?

But then I remembered how this is true of ministry, in general. The Lord never needs our help seeking and saving the lost! Christ claims us as his own and chooses to invite us to join him in his ministry. Follow him!  He wants to be in a close relationship with us! He wants to help us be in close relationship with one another!

It’s so easy to become burdened with the graveclothes in this world. That happened during the worst of the pandemic; church buildings closed, and we could only do virtual ministry. With congregations separated, we were vulnerable to division, fragmentation, and hopelessness!

We needed to be together in person, serving the Lord, helping each other live abundant and eternal lives by faith in the One who IS the resurrection and the life!

Friends, we are on the right path. And we will continue to find our own healing and wholeness, united in Christ, serving Christ together.

Unwinding and unbinding people of the graveclothes of this world, with the power of God’s love.

Let us pray. Holy One, thank you for this wonderful year of ministry that we have shared together in Smithtown. We have learned and grown in faith and faithfulness and have been abundantly blessed. We have loved, more and more. May your Spirit continue to empower us to do your will, serving and caring for others, seeking to unwind and unbind people of the graveclothes of this world. Help us to live new, abundant, and eternal lives, available to us right now through believing in the One who IS the Resurrection and the Life, our Savior, Jesus Christ, the Lord. Amen.

Published by karenpts

I am the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown, New York on Long Island. Come and visit! We want to share God’s love and grace with you and encourage you on your journey of faith. I have served Presbyterian congregations in Minnesota, Florida and Ohio since my ordination in 2011. I am a 2010 graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and am working on a doctor of ministry degree with Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. I am married to Jim and we have 5 grown children and two grandchildren in our blended family. We are parents to fur babies, Liam, an orange tabby cat, and Minnie, a toy poodle.

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