The Raising of Lazarus by Van Gogh
Image: The Raising of Lazarus – Van Gogh
Last week, a friend was speaking to some of the leaders of our church about the story of Jesus raising Lazarus of Bethany from the dead. Among the recorded words of Jesus, once Lazarus has walked out of the tomb, linen cloths around his hands, feet and head, is this line: “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.” (John 11:44)

The command struck me as incisively relevant to our own situation today.

Up until last year most of us had never heard of PPE – apart from some highly educated types who half remember, though a blur of Pimms and punts at Oxbridge, studying for a degree with these initials. Now PPE is our modern-day equivalent of the bible’s grave clothes. Rather than strips of linen we have face coverings, gloves, and plastic aprons to shield us from the presence of sickness and decay. Instead of vast weights of myrrh and aloes to antiseptically cover the stench, we have thousands of small bottles of hand sanitizer. And where the stone sealed the tomb shut so no one could get close, we have track and trace, social distancing, isolation and the Covid 19 app.

Like the family from Bethany, we are expert now at protecting, avoiding, shielding and wrapping up the infection so that it won’t spread. Our fear remains, and our grief and anger, just like it did for Mary and Martha, but we know we are doing the right thing, even in the face of uncertainty, so that those around us will feel safe, respected and surrounded by a culture of protection.

Not only are we now vigilant and responsive in this pandemic, but many of us – certainly my church – are also passionate about bandaging and protecting those around us through times of grief, mental ill health, financial desperation, addiction and loneliness. Like Mary and Martha we are called to care, to grieve with those who are sad and to offer hospitality that demonstrates the kindness of God.

And so, with all this in mind, I was struck by the command of Jesus to undo all this PPE, this social distancing, this sympathetic and tear-filled bandaging. Not that he does not care – in fact the bible explicitly talks about God as one who bandages our wounds; and Jesus himself was bound in cloths and shut away in a tomb. But I was convicted that in all my care, grief and empathy, I so easily forget that Jesus is the risen one who speaks life even to the most infected and deathly situations. I realise that my human compassion may even block out any glimmers of heavenly salvation that God wants to break into the graves of people’s situations.

Jesus faced the illness and death of Lazarus with reality, emotion and pain. He honoured the way his friends had dealt with this awful tragedy. But he also rose above it and spoke directly to it. We can get so used to the protective safety measures that we then find it hard to live more freely and expansively. And the reality of the personal difficulties around us, and the broader bewilderment and anxiety that is national and global, mean that we forget that Jesus heals and sets free, that bondages are loosed and that Lazarus himself walked out of that tomb.

I want my own attitude to continue to be one of compassion and care, of honour and safety. But I also want to have an attitude like Jesus that faces all this anti-Kingdom of Heaven stuff we see around us, and speaks life to it. There are times when I am called by Jesus to take off the grave clothes of those around me, to unseal the tomb of the dream, the vision, the heavenly destiny; and to declare that people, situations, families, organisations, and peoples should break out and be set free. Our world needs compassionate people who also breathe life back into the bones and see something fresh emerge.

Take care that these carefully bound linen cloths don’t suffocate your faith and hope. Lift your eyes to heaven, even if like Jesus they are wet with tears of grief, and thank God that he is bigger than all this. Dare to raise your voice in addressing the reality of these fears and hurts with the reality that Jesus is Lord of heaven and earth and he speaks life to dead bones.

Martin J Young


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