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"Remove the Stone"
Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon - 11/4/2018
John 11:32-44
“Remove the Stone”
November 4, 2018
All Saints’
 
            The shortest verse in the Bible is John 11:35, “Jesus wept.”  I expect he wept often, and that he laughed often, too.  This time what happened was that his friend Lazarus had died and, if that wasn’t bad enough, his sister Mary suggested that it was Jesus’ fault for not getting there fast enough when they sent word that Lazarus was sick.  Was Jesus crying for Lazarus, for Mary, or for himself?  The answer is “yes”.
 
            When we lose someone through illness or through a painful death, we feel for what they may have had to go through, and we feel for the sadness of the other people who loved them, and we feel sad for ourselves, too.
 
            In one of his stories about ministering to a church in Evansville, Indiana, Walter Wangerin wrote about the way that one woman experienced the death of her husband.
 
     “’He always came back, you know,’ she says.  ‘When he worked for the L&N Railroad in the dining car – it took him all the way to St. Louis, but he came back.  When he worked at the Vulcan Plow Works during the Depression, he came back.  I used to pack a picnic basket and carry the children on over to Sunset Park, and even if we started to eat without him, well, he would come from work.  We would enjoy the scenery and then walk home and get there by bedtime.  He always came back, Douglas did, always untroubled.’
     ‘But he hasn’t come back this time.’
     ‘And he’s left an ache like stone in my stomach.’ …
     Miz Lillian says, ‘I’ve gotten used to the ache by now.  It’s all right.  It’s all right.  I call it a friend to me.  This aching reminds me all the time of Douglas. Mm.  There is a gravestone in Oak Hill Cemetery, on his grave, you know.  But it’s sort of a stone in me too.  The children and everyone else can mourn by that stone at Oak Hill.  This one is mine.  The widow’s stone.’”[1]
 
What is anybody supposed to do with that?  (Because everybody at some point loses someone and carries around some kind of grief.)  Sure, you live with the reality of loss, but what form does it take?
 
            When Jesus met that kind of loss, it touched him deeply.  Standard translations say,
 
“he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” [John 11:33] 
 
Peterson’s translation says,
 
“a deep anger welled up within him.”
 
That might, given time, have come to form a similar stone in his guts, a lasting and aching sorrow.  Before it came to that, however, he made them take him to the grave where Lazarus was buried and there he stood before a stone that had been rolled across its opening to seal it off.  How could Jesus not, on some level, have seen in that stone, the one that would seal his own tomb very shortly afterward?  How could all his emotions – love for Lazarus and his sisters, anger at the accusations being lobbed in his direction, fear about the pain he would himself be forced to bear, all that we ever feel around anyone’s death (including our own) – how could all of that not have formed one big stone inside his own chest, one big lump in his throat, one big weight heavy enough to crush him to the ground?
 
            And yet… Jesus said,
 
"Remove the stone." [John 11:39]
 
Martha, the practical sister, told him he was just losing it.  That kind of stone is there to wall us off from the decay that goes on, like the emotional stone walls off the strongest emotions so that even when there is grief, it doesn’t consume the rest of life.  There are reasons we do the things we do to get by.
 
"Master, by this time there's a stench. He's been dead four days!" [John 11:39]
 
You tell him, Martha!
 
“Jesus looked her in the eye. ‘Didn't I tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ 
Then, to the others, ‘Go ahead, take away the stone.’" [John 11:40-41]
 
Which they did.
 
“Then he shouted, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ 
And he came out.” [John 11:43-44]
 
They had to unwrap him and uncover his face, and I wish we knew what went through the heads of the people who did that.  We don’t get any description of what the rest of the reunion was like.  I imagine it was a weird mix of happy and creepy, disturbing and joyful. 
 
           In some ways it was like a rehearsal for Easter, which was even stranger, because there it was God who directly intervened and raised Jesus up, pointing to Jesus’ promise that it wouldn’t just be Lazarus who was restored, but that it would be all of God’s people who would have access to eternal life through Jesus.  He had told Martha when she had first met him coming into town,
 
“I am, right now, Resurrection and Life.  The one who believes in me, even though he or she dies, will live.  And everyone who lives believing in me does not ultimately die at all.” [John 11:25-26]
 
To live believing in Jesus is what we call “faith”.  And it is faith, not our good deeds or our religiosity or anything else, that lets Jesus set us right with God.
 
            William Butler Yeats said,
 
“Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven’s part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.”[2]
 
So if Jesus tells us that it is okay, that those who have died are alive with God, it is easier to roll away those stones that build up inside us, and when we name those people, the way he named Lazarus, we feel their life rather than our loss.  At times like that, what we celebrate once again are the good moments, the moments when through such people’s lives a little bit of God’s own grace comes through to us.
 
 

[1] Walter Wangerin, Miz Lil & the Chronicles of Grace (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988), 188-189.
[2] from “Easter, 1916”.
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