Prepare to Listen. This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. (Psalm 118:24)
Prayerfully Read Matthew 28:1-10
After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5But the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7Then go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” This is my message for you.’ 8So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. 10Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’
“Greetings!” According to Matthew, this was Jesus’ first word after his resurrection. A simple greeting to two faithful women racing back to Jerusalem with their message from the angel for the disciples—Jesus was alive and going ahead of them to Galilee. They had no proof of that claim. In fact, there were no witnesses to the actual resurrection. The most significant event of the Christian faith and not a soul witnessed it as it took place; not the soldiers guarding the tomb; not the women waiting opposite the tomb and not the male disciples. Not only that, the only people to see the resurrected Jesus in Jerusalem were these two women when Jesus suddenly met them on the way back and said, “Greetings!”
On hearing the angel, the women “left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.” On seeing and hearing Jesus’ single word, “they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him.” What more could they do?
Today we celebrate, once again, the remarkable news, “He is not here; for he has been raised.” In this, the strangest Easter probably for all us, shouting a joyous ‘Hallelujah, Christ is risen,’ will take courage and faith. Imagine being with the two women as they ran back and imagine hearing Jesus’ one word spoken to you, “Greetings!” What’s your gut emotion and first thought?
Respond to Jesus
I bow before you, risen Lord, take hold of your feet in all humility and worship you in joy, anticipating that joy when the virus as finally passed. Amen.
Go live obediently in the world. Keep waiting in hope for the day when you truly can, Take up your tambourines and go forth in the dance of the merrymakers (from Jeremiah 31:4b) because the pandemic is over.
Prepare to Listen. You are my rock and my fortress; for your name’s sake lead me and guide me. (Psalm 31:3)
Prayerfully Read Matthew 27:57-66
57When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. 58He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. 59So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth 60and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away. 61Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb. 62The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate 63and said, ‘Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, “After three days I will rise again.” 64Therefore command that the tomb be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, “He has been raised from the dead”, and the last deception would be worse than the first.’ 65Pilate said to them, ‘You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can.’ 66So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone.
‘“So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone.” End of story, as far as the Pharisees were concerned. There’d be no last deception worse than the first as no one would be enter that tomb, steal the body and then claim Jesus had been raised to life as he’d foretold. It’s fascinating that the people who were determined to kill Jesus were the only ones who remembered that he’d said, “After three days I will rise again,” and were afraid he would. Whereas his disciples, who’d repeatedly heard Jesus’ claim to rise again after three days, neither remembered nor expected it to happen. The male disciples went into hiding and didn’t even know where Joseph of Arimathea placed the body. But two women knew. “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary” followed Joseph and remained “there, sitting opposite the tomb.” Did they remember Jesus’ words? Were they hoping to witness his bodily resurrection? What did they talk about as they sat opposite the tomb and waited? I wonder.
Matthew’s lesson ends ominously with Jesus’ body securely sealed in the tomb. Take a moment to imagine sitting with the two women opposite the tomb. What might you be thinking, especially as you’re experiencing global suffering and sorrow today?
Respond to Jesus
Lord Jesus, may I be like the two courageous women who remained with you to the end. They knew where your body was laid, and entered into your suffering, waiting and watching outside the tomb in grief. On this Holy Saturday give me patience to wait in faith, watch in hope, participating with you in the suffering and aloneness of so many around the world today. Amen.
Go live obediently in the world. Sit and wait for resurrection.
Prepare to Listen. But you, O LORD, do not be far away! O my help, come quickly to my aid. (Psalm 22:19)
Prayerfully Read Matthew 27:45-56
45From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 46And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ 47When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, ‘This man is calling for Elijah.’ 48At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. 49But the others said, ‘Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.’ 50Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. 51At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. 52The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. 53After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. 54Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’ 55Many women were also there, looking on from a distance; they had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him. 56Among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.
Jesus’ first loud cry at 3 o’clock is a gut-wrenching quote from Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The curious onlookers failed to understand; thought he was calling for Elijah (from the Aramaic ‘Eli, Eli…’). Did they deliberately misunderstand to avoid noticing the extent of Jesus’ suffering? I wonder. The second cry has no words. “Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last.” The end. Was it a final cry of excruciating agony; one last plea to the Father? That too I wonder.
As people listened, without hearing, and watched, perhaps without seeing because of the early darkness, Jesus “breathed his last.” The death of Jesus, the most momentous redemptive event in Christianity, is mentioned in three simple words and no more. But, immediately the world was changed forever. First, the curtain separating people from God was ripped apart, giving free access to God’s loving presence. Second, in the rather strange story of the dead being raised (which only Matthew tells and which can’t be verified) there's a hint of what’s to come—the raising to life of all people.
Jesus’ willingness to remain on the cross, his refusal to call down angels to save him or tell his disciples to fight for him, resulted in the fulfillment of God’s grand plan of salvation for all creation. Jesus’ death changed the shape of the world then and continues to control its shape today. it may not seem like it today as we live through the worst pandemic of our lifetime. It takes courage to keep believing and taking the next tiny step.
Jesus breathed his last and we now can breathe new life.
In this familiar passage, what struck you the most reading it again? How does it speak into the world that's now living with an insidious enemy, covid-1?
Respond to Jesus
Lord Jesus, you died utterly alone, totally committed to the Father’s plan of salvation. Help me today reflect your commitment to your world by being as committed as I can today to you and this suffering world. Amen.
Go live obediently in the world that changed when Jesus breathed his last.
Note: Because we’re in Holy Week, there is a devotion scheduled for tomorrow, Holy Saturday. Stayed tuned to this space.
Prepare to Listen. Be assured of God’s nearness as we walk a road of restrictions and suffering with Jesus: I love the LORD, because he has heard my voice and my supplications. (Psalm 116:1)
Prayerfully Read Matthew 27:27-37
27Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole cohort around him. 28They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, 29and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ 30They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. 31After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him. 32As they went out, they came upon a man from Cyrene named Simon; they compelled this man to carry his cross. 33And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), 34they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. 35And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; 36then they sat down there and kept watch over him. 37Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, ‘This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.’
I wonder about Simon of Cyrene, the man compelled to carry Jesus’ cross. Was he merely passing by, the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time? Did he refuse to take the cross that Jesus carried? Was that why the soldiers compelled him? Or, perhaps trying to get away, did he catch Jesus’ eye and see the exhaustion, weakness and also the compassion in it? Did it change his mind so that he willingly lifted the weight from Jesus’ wounded back? What went through Simon’s head as he took up what Jesus could no longer bear?
Many of us today, especially those of us who live with prosperity (if not wealth), which is most of us in the Western World, talk about carrying the cross as though it were no big deal. We’ve known little unremitting suffering and hardship. Until covid-19. Like Simon of Cyrene, we’ve been compelled to take up the cross and walk beside Jesus, sharing his burden, his pain and grief for the world. It is the way to resurrection and life.
An unknown stranger was the only one at Jesus’ side, bearing his burden; the only one walking with him to Golgotha, the Place of the Skull. Was Peter still following at a distance? Did he want to rush in to help or did his fear keep him out of sight? Simon (interestingly, the same name as Simon Peter) took up a cross not his own; the cross of man he didn’t know. I wonder whether that changed him and whether he remained at the cross and saw Jesus die?
Today we’re compelled to carry Jesus’ cross, which may mean carrying a cross for a suffering stranger. What do you think you need today to walk this way of the cross with and for Jesus?
Respond to Jesus
Thank you, Lord, for Simon of Cyrene who, however reluctantly, carried your cross. Help me today, however reluctantly, take up a cross of another who can no longer bear it. May I walk the way of the cross with and for you and thereby find life and freedom even in these restricted and painful days. Amen.
Go live obediently in the world. Carry the cross you’re compelled to carry.
Prepare to Listen. In a silent stillness, offer this prayer for the world today: You are my help and my deliverer; O LORD do not delay (Psalm70:5b).
Prayerfully Read Matthew 26:57-68
57Those who had arrested Jesus took him to Caiaphas the high priest, in whose house the scribes and the elders had gathered. 58But Peter was following him at a distance, as far as the courtyard of the high priest; and going inside, he sat with the guards in order to see how this would end. 59Now the chief priests and the whole council were looking for false testimony against Jesus so that they might put him to death, 60but they found none, though many false witnesses came forward. At last two came forward 61and said, ‘This fellow said, “I am able to destroy the temple of God and to build it in three days.”’ 62The high priest stood up and said, ‘Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?’ 63But Jesus was silent. Then the high priest said to him, ‘I put you under oath before the living God, tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.’ 64Jesus said to him, ‘You have said so. But I tell you, From now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.’ 65Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, ‘He has blasphemed! Why do we still need witnesses? You have now heard his blasphemy. 66What is your verdict?’ They answered, ‘He deserves death.’ 67Then they spat in his face and struck him; and some slapped him, 68saying, ‘Prophesy to us, you Messiah! Who is it that struck you?’
The mockery of Jesus’ trial is clear in Matthew’s account. False accusers recall (and misquote) Jesus’ words about the temple (see John 2:19). That got the religious rulers attention because they were terrified that Jesus would take away their authority which resided in the temple. But, as Caiaphas knew, those words of accusation would never warrant the death penalty Caiaphas wanted. In frustration, he put Jesus under oath, asking him to plainly tell them whether he is or isn’t Messiah. A ‘yes’ response would be all he needed to take Jesus to Pilate, accuse him of sedition and get the death penalty he wanted. Jesus admitted little (“You have said so”) but added words Caiaphas concluded were blasphemous and warranted death according to Jewish law: “But I tell you, From now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” He’s quoting a combination of two OT passages—Daniel 7:13-14 and Psalm 110:1. (It’s worth reading them to gain understanding for Caiaphas’ excitement and anger.) Jesus had condemned himself.
In this familiar story, I was intrigued with something that’s often overlooked—Matthew’s brief comment about Peter that has nothing to do with the trial in the house of Caiaphas. Peter “was following at a distance,” seated with the guards outside the trial, waiting “to see how this would end.” Peter, one of Jesus’ inner three, followed at a distance; waited outside the trial. He was there, but he wasn’t there. Jesus was alone, no friends and no defense. Peter remained at a distance, waiting to see how it would end.
Jesus had the wisdom to remain silent when falsely accused and the courage to speak truth into lies when required. How might this guide you in your response to a culture of lies, distortions, injustice, selfishness that continues even during the deadly covid-19 pandemic?
Respond to Jesus
Lord Jesus, your response when under attack never ceases to amaze. Sadly, often like Peter I follow at a distance, waiting to see what will happen. Grant me courage to stand up for you and follow you more nearly and speak truth into lies. Show me how to follow you today in these unchartered waters of a deadly pestilence. You are our help and our deliverer; O LORD do not delay. Amen.
Go live obediently in the world, courageously following Jesus closely, not at a distance.
Prepare to Listen. Take a moment to breathe deeply, before praying: In your righteousness deliver me and rescue me; incline your ear to me and save me. (Psalm 71:2)
Prayerfully Read Matthew 26:47-56
47While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; with him was a large crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. 48Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, ‘The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him.’ 49At once he came up to Jesus and said, ‘Greetings, Rabbi!’ and kissed him. 50Jesus said to him, ‘Friend, do what you are here to do.’ Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and arrested him. 51Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. 52Then Jesus said to him, ‘Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. 53Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? 54But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?’ 55At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, ‘Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me. 56But all this has taken place, so that the scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled.’ Then all the disciples deserted him and fled.
Most of us are quick to defend ourselves and those we love when under attack. Some use words, others resort to weapons. Wanting to defend and protect ourselves is understandable, a natural and sometimes necessary reaction. Jesus’ disciples thought violence was needed that night. One of them (whom John’s Gospel identifies as Peter), carried a sword and was quick to unsheathe it in defense of Jesus when Judas’ men attacked. Jesus was equally quick to stop the attacker. “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” Violence, as Jesus knew, begets violence and rarely, if ever, proves anything, a lesson our increasingly violent world desperately needs to learn. Even as we struggle with this covid-19 pandemic, sales of guns and ammo in the U.S. have skyrocketed, as fear takes control and dictates behavior.
Jesus neither needed (he could appeal to the Father for legions of angels) nor wanted protection from his followers, not even against a man he still called ‘friend.’ As that night progressed, Jesus was tortured, insulted, mocked, spat upon. He never once reacted, never once sent out a vindictive and hateful tweet, never once let fear control him. He remained calm, silent, accepting. He knew he was part of a greater script laid out in the scriptures and willingly followed it.
Jesus warned his disciples they’d be hated by the world and persecuted just as he was (John 15:18ff). How should we respond when under attack or when fear creeps in? I think Jesus’ example in Gethsemane and during his trial is our standard. Always choose the way of non-violence first, trusting yourself to God’s safe-keeping and love.
Jesus’ response to Judas is remarkable: “Friend, do what you are here to do.” It has the sense of, “Do you really want to go through with this?” (Matthew for Everyone by N. T. Wright 2004), showing Judas compassion he didn't deserve. How can Jesus’ non-violent and compassionate way guide how you respond today in this era of an international pandemic and the fear that accompanies it?
Respond to Jesus
Lord of Peace, let me fear nothing more than I fear you and love nothing more than I love you, for then I shall fear nothing in this world. Amen.
Go live obediently in the world as an instrument of peace.
Note: the devotions during Holy Week don't follow the Lectionary. I have chosen instead to focus on Matthew's story of Jesus' last days.
Prepare to Listen, offering this prayer: For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light. (Psalm 36:9)
Prayerfully Read Matthew 26:36-46
36Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I go over there and pray.’ 37He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. 38Then he said to them, ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.’ 39And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.’ 40Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, ‘So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? 41Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.’ 42Again he went away for the second time and prayed, ‘My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.’ 43Again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. 44So leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words. 45Then he came to the disciples and said to them, ‘Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 46Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.’
“I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” As Jesus entered his greatest battle yet, all he asked of his disciples was to stay awake with him. He didn’t ask them to pray for him; just to stay awake with him. They couldn’t do it.
As I read this story again, a few weeks into the coronavirus pandemic, it seems too close to what we’re all experiencing now, some worse than others. Daily I light a candle as a reminder to stay awake and pray. But then I get distracted. I’m awake, but I’m not awake. I pray and then move on to something else. I’d be lying down, fast asleep in Gethsemane with Peter, James and John, too overwhelmed with a multiple of emotions to stay awake and pray. How about you?
Jesus returns; finds them sleeping and addresses Peter. “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Pray for yourself, Peter [Jackie/your name]; you’re going to need it, because, while the spirit is willing, the flesh is weak. Pray as Jesus taught us, “Do not bring us to the time of trial” (Mt 6:13). Pray as he did in Gethsemane, “yet not what I want but what you want.” Just as Jesus was not preserved from his trial, so too we’re in this trial now; we can only pray, ‘not what I want.’ Every time I hear another tragic story, read about further incompetence and lies from our nation’s President, see the shocking statistics of the virus around the world, I realize my flesh is weak even though my spirit is willing. I pray for myself that I may not crumble under this trial so that I can stay awake and pray but for the world in dire need.
A second time Jesus returned to his disciples and found them all still fast asleep. “Stay awake with me,” was all he asked of them. They couldn’t do it. What about you?
What most affected you in reading this passage today in light of living in a time of severe trial? Plan a time when you will stay awake and pray for our pandemic afflicted world.
Respond to Jesus
Lord Jesus, I pray for those around the world who are experiencing intense suffering, especially for those suffering hardship and pain because of covid-19. Give them strength; give them grace to receive whatever comes; give them the assurance of your compassionate presence. Help me stay awake, alert and in prayer for the world Jesus died for. Amen.
Go live obediently in the world. Stay awake and pray.
Prepare to Listen. In silence and stillness prepare to receive the Word and pray: Save us, we beseech you, O LORD! (Psalm 118:25)
Prayerfully Read Matthew 21:1-11
When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2saying to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3If anyone says anything to you, just say this, “The Lord needs them.” And he will send them immediately.’ 4This took place to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, 5‘Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’ 6The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!’ 10When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’ 11The crowds were saying, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.’
Imagine growing up frequently reciting the words of the prophet Zechariah: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! … Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (9:9). If you lived in a covid-19-induced lockdown or, as the Jews did then, under the oppressive rule of hostile Rome, perhaps you’d zoom in on two words: ‘triumphant and victorious.’ You’d long for the Messiah to come and defeat the occupying forces (think global pandemic) and restore your nation to prosperity and freedom. Now imagine being one of the crowd as Jesus rode into Jerusalem on ‘a colt, the foal of a donkey.’ Like Matthew, you’d think of Zechariah’s words and hail Jesus as the promised Messiah, excitedly crying out with the crowd words borrowed from Psalm 118:25-26: “Hosanna (meaning ‘save us, we beseech you’) to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” And, no doubt you too would expect great things, like the removal of the enemy Rome or the deadly pestilence of covid-19 to happen right away.
But nothing happened that day nor the next and in the end Jesus died the ignominious death of a criminal. This wasn’t what the people who regularly recited Zechariah expected. And, let’s be honest, it’s not what we expect or want either. Interestingly, a few decades later when Matthew wrote this story in his Gospel, he omitted Zechariah’s promise of triumph and victory, thus warning us readers that Jesus’ victory wasn’t one anyone wanted or expected. Jesus’ way isn’t our way. It takes courage to take the humble way of Jesus and resist the arrogance of political leaders who think they know best in these times. The triumph and victory will come, in its time. But it won’t be what we expect.
Jesus didn’t fulfill people’s expectations then. How about your expectations of what Jesus is like and will do today? How do they match up with Matthew’s picture of Jesus in this passage?
Respond to Jesus
“Save us, we beseech you, O LORD! O LORD, we beseech you, give us success!” Lord I pray this, but sometimes I have false expectations of what success is like for you and thus for your people. Help me keep learning and letting go my false expectations. Amen.
Go live obediently in the world, humbly submitting to Jesus, the coming king.
Note: Devotions for Holy Week will begin at this same site tomorrow (Monday) and will appear everyday until Easter Sunday, including Holy Saturday.
Prepare to Listen. In anticipation of the resurrection, be still and pray: Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.
Prayerfully Read John 11:38-44
38Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ 40Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ 41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ 44The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’
‘Lazarus, come out!’ These are the only words Jesus spoke to Lazarus. It’s a command that the prophet Isaiah prophesied Messiah would give to prisoners (Is 49:9). Lazarus was a prisoner, imprisoned in death and burial cloths. Jesus’ command brought him out of the tomb, back to life. Jesus then turned to the watching crowd and commanded, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’ Unbinding was one thing; letting go another. It would be tempting to hold onto Lazarus; ask him about life on the other side, turn him into a money-making celebrity. But this would only put Lazarus into another prison. Jesus’ command prevented the people from putting him back there. His family and friends were to help set him truly free. They weren’t to hold him close and impose their wills on him.
It’s a lesson we too need to practice. We’re not to hold people so close they feel imprisoned, but instead, let them go. Offer them, as Henri Nouwen once suggested, free and friendly space so that they can go their own lonely way. This doesn’t mean living isolated and individualistic lives, especially in times of trouble such as in today’s global pandemic crisis. Rather, it means recognizing that each person must travel their journey on their own; no one can travel it for them, only alongside, supporting them. We all need free and friendly space so that we travel well, confidently shouldering our own responsibilities.
As this pandemic worsens, I keep wondering what it looks like to unbind and let people go.
In today’s world currently defined by a pandemic, many people are needing free and friendly space to travel this journey on their own knowing you’ll support them. Imagine what that looks like in today’s changed world.
Respond to Jesus
Jesus, you called Lazarus forth and then commanded others to set him free. Help me be a person who sets others free so they can go the way you have chosen for them, living into the joy of your salvation. Amen.
Go live obediently in the world; unbinding and letting others go.
Prepare to Listen. In anticipation of the resurrection, be still and pray: Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.
Prayerfully Read John 11:1-6
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ 4But when Jesus heard it, he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ 5Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
If I were the editor of John’s Gospel, I think I might rewrite this story, at least the bit that makes Jesus seem uncaring. John makes a point of emphasizing the love between Jesus and Mary, Martha and Lazarus, yet Jesus deliberately delayed going to their help, causing them to experience further suffering and grief. If you love someone, surely you would rush to their aid? Instead, Jesus delayed, justifying it with a theological claim that this illness was ‘for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ I doubt the siblings would have been comforted by that claim. It’s not something we want to hear today as we live with coronavirus-induced limitations and sufferings. We want to be told that the situation will be resolved quickly, and life will return to normal immediately, which is what some politicians and preachers have claimed.
There was no miraculous resolution for Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Jesus intentionally put his friends through increased suffering. We can’t write their suffering out of the story, and neither can we write it out of our lives, be it a result of the pandemic or some other issue. ‘For God’s glory’ doesn’t mean suffering will be avoided; that God will magically poof it away. God will be glorified as we own our limitations and lack of control in this crisis; admit we’re mere mortals not gods; turn in humility to God the Lord. The pandemic has given us all an opportunity to discover the positive redemptive gifts that come from painful experiences. Martha learned and made the most complete confession of faith/trust in Jesus of anyone in the Gospels (see v27). The crowd learned, as Jesus stood outside the empty tomb and wept (v35), that our God laments with us in our sorrow. God takes us through it, rather than lifting us out of it. Could Jesus have arrived in time to heal Lazarus? I suppose so. But he didn’t, on purpose.
How does this story support or change your views on what ‘God’s glory’ means? What redemptive lessons are you learning in these difficult days?
Respond to Jesus
Lord of Comfort, you alone can give the breath of life to our dry bones and weary souls. Through your Spirit, may I live today with whatever comes in hope of resurrection and new life for your glory. Amen.
Go live obediently in the world, alert for God’s lessons that display God’s glory.
Because I believe that Scripture is food for our soul (our entire being) I seek to read it and encourage others to read it in ways that nourish and transform our beings. I invite you to read the Bible with me during Lent and into Easter. I am a Bible teacher, spiritual companion and retreat director. I know the Bile and how to read it for spiritual formation.