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Ashes: Unbinding

Date: 26/03/2023/Speaker: Ps Pauline Ong

Ashes: Unbinding
John 11:1-45, Ezekiel 37:1-14
26 March 2023

Opening Prayer

As you met with me in the preparation, now meet with us in the proclamation.
Speak a word of life into your people. Speak a word of life over your people.
To the heart that is broken, Lord, speak a word of healing.
To the mind that is anxious over what is coming next, speak a word of peace.
To the body that is racked with pain and weariness and exhaustion, speak a word of new life.
Everything we need is in your presence.
And your Word is still a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path.
So speak, God, for your children are listening. Amen.

Have you ever felt like you irretrievably lost something or someone? Maybe you lost an important opportunity, or a career that you worked so long and hard for, or perhaps you lost someone you loved through death or a relationship breakdown. And the whole situation feels irreversible, unredeemable, and you are trying to come to terms with this loss.

There’s a story in the Bible that speaks about such loss. A loss that seemed irreversible, unredeemable. But we see how Jesus proves that with God, all things are possible.

John 11:1-45 (NRSVue)
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3 So the sisters sent a message to Jesus,[a] “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 

But 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.” 5 Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6 after having heard that Lazarus[b] was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

Question 1 (Open)
Why do you think Jesus chose to delay going to Bethany?
Well, I don’t know for sure why Jesus deliberately chose to stay two days longer before setting off to be with Lazarus, Mary and Martha. It would seem strange to us because if we hear that our good friend was sick and possibly dying, our first instinct would be to rush over to be by their side, right? Instead, Jesus waits two days before leaving for Bethany, a two day journey. I don’t know why Jesus waits before going, and I don’t particularly like it. But it seems Jesus has a plan.

7 Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 8 The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” 9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble because they see the light of this world. 10 But those who walk at night stumble because the light is not in them.” 

After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” 12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.”[c] 13 Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15 For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 

Jesus the Resurrection and the Life
17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus[e] had already been in the tomb four days. 18 Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 

Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But evecn now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of God.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life.[f] Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah,[g] the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

Jesus Weeps
28 When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 

And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet come to the village but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 The Jews who were with her in the house consoling her saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 

When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus began to weep.  

So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

In the shortest verse in the entire Bible, Jesus revealed one of the most important characteristics we can ever learn about the heart of God: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). When Jesus saw the sisters, Mary and Martha, weeping, as well as the people around them, John writes that he was “deeply moved in spirit and troubled” (John 11:33). When we see Jesus weeping, we understand that the God whom we worship is not remote and aloof. God cares for us, is close to us and tender-hearted, and God grieves with us when anything threatens our human well-being.

Not only that.

God doesn’t just empathize with our many pains and sorrows. God also acts. Jesus wept with Mary and Martha, and then he raised Lazarus from the dead. And this is his very last miracle before his own death and resurrection.

Jesus Raises Lazarus to Life
38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 Jesus 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 four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone.

And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 I 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.” 43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The 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.”
45 Many of the Jews, therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did believed in him.

Lazarus was so dead there was already the stench of decay. He had been dead for four days. He was really dead. There was no possibility that he was in a coma or just unconscious. In fact, the Jewish standard for being really, really sure someone is absolutely completely dead is only three days. So Lazarus is irrefutably dead. Without a doubt.

By performing the miracle on the 4th day after Lazarus death and burial, Jesus was demonstrating his power and authority over death itself, that even a dead person could be raised from the grave, even after rot and decomposition had set in the body.

It then becomes clear that Jesus had delayed going to Lazarus immediately because he wanted to wait until Lazarus was dead, so that Jesus could prove his divinity to his disciples and the people around, once and for all. At the same time, Jesus also proved that God has the power to undo death.

Undoing Death
The decaying stench is important to this story. Jesus not only resurrects Lazarus, he actually reverses the effects of death! He has the power to undo death, proving he is divine.

This is not the first time we see God bringing people back to life. Even in the Hebrew Bible (which we sometimes call the Old Testament), we see God bringing the dead back to life. Lazarus’ story parallels the story in Ezekiel 37, where God brings the prophet Ezekiel to the valley full of dry bones.

“Mortal, can these bones live?” the Lord asks Ezekiel.

Perhaps this is a question many of us are asking ourselves. Can we recover from this? Can what is dead be revived? If so, how and when will that happen? Can these bones live?

Ezekiel responds but he doesn’t answer the question. He just says, “O Lord God, you know.”

I think Ezekiel must have looked around at the sea of dry bones, and felt overwhelmed at the sight. So his response was very honest. Only God knows if these bones will live again.

God told Ezekiel, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5 Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath[a] to enter you, and you shall live. 6 I will lay sinews on you and will cause flesh to come upon you and cover you with skin and put breath[b] in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

“I will put breath into you, and you shall live.”

Throughout this passage from Ezekiel 37:1-14, God repeats 3 times:

“And you shall live”
“And you shall live”
“And you shall live”

By all human logic, Lazarus’ death was irreversible. He had been dead for 4 days and already decaying.

The valley of dry bones was the same. These were not just dead and decomposing bodies. These bodies were dead for so long there were only the skeletons left. They had completely dried out and there was no flesh left.

To the human mind, this kind of death is irreversible. But God proves again and again that even so, even with death that seems irreversible, God can breathe new life into them.

God can restore, revive, resurrect….nothing is impossible for God.

Is there something in our lives that we thought was dead? Hopes, dreams, a relationship, our connection with God?

Question 2 (Word Cloud)
What is something in your life that you thought was dead?

God can restore, revive, resurrect….nothing is impossible for God. But there’s an important caveat — if it’s for God’s glory.

John 11:4
But 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.” 

So I want to be clear that there may be some things in our lives that will remain dead. But if restoring or reviving that one thing is according to God’s will and for God’s glory, then God has the power to restore, revive, resurrect.

But ultimately, in the big picture, God desires to breathe God’s life into us, and we shall live…truly live.

In the Lazarus story, when Lazarus comes out of the tomb, Jesus tells the people standing there, probably in shock at what’s happening, to step up, to get involved, to participate in God’s work. He says, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

God is the one who brings us back to life. God is the one who breathes new life back into us, but there is a next step. We get to participate in the unbinding of ourselves and others.

What do you need to be released from? Are you bound by social pressures, the expectations of others or your own expectations? Are you tied down by the hurts and pain from your past, your inability to forgive or let go, or bitterness/resentment towards God? What do you need to be released from? What do you need unbinding from in order to become all that God has made you to be?

Question 3 (Word Cloud)
What are some things that require unbinding in your life?

Unbinding is not a solitary act. It requires the help of others, and vice versa.

First, we surrender to God who is Love and allow Love to bring us back to life. Then, we participate in God’s work of unbinding ourselves and each other so that we can step fully into the new life God has for us. Will you allow others to help unbind the things that bring death so you can fully come alive again? And will you help others to unbind the things that hold them back from experiencing the fullness of God’s new life for them?

The main point is this:

God is able to revive what seems dead in our lives and breathe new life into us, restoring all things to what they were meant to be. Our work is to help one another unbind what holds us back, so we can live fully into the life God gives, for the sake of God’s glory.

My Story:
Story about T
T was my senior in university and my team leader in Japan when I was serving as a missionary.
Our team was close because we lived and worked together.

At that time, I wasn’t out to my team and it was only years later during a debate over the repeal of 377A that I chose to come out to them.

Most of them were shocked but affirmed their friendship, love and respect.

I didn’t hear from T because she was serving overseas at that time.

I assumed she wouldn’t be okay with me, and that our friendship would die a natural death because I was not only lgbtq, but serving as a pastor in an lgbtq+ affirming church.

A few years later, I received a message from her saying that she was back in Singapore and wanted to meet up over coffee.
I wasn’t sure what she was going to say to me but I readily said yes because I wanted to know how she and her family was doing.

What surprised me was that we had a deep and meaningful conversation, and she listened carefully to all that I shared, and with an open heart.

As we were leaving, she asked me where I was going and I said I was going back to church.
She asked if she could come with me and see what FCC is like, and I said sure.

I gave her the usual tour, and brought her up to the hive. I knew she would be interested because she’s a worship leader at her church.

As we stood in the hive, she asked, “Can I pray for you and your church?” And she prayed the most beautiful and affirming prayer for me and our church.

I was stunned and I can’t explain how I felt at that moment. It felt like something came alive in me. Not only was our friendship alive and well, she also wanted to affirm me and my ministry, and that meant the world to me because not many people from my past life have done that.

God is able to revive what seems dead in our lives and breathe new life into us, restoring all things to what they were meant to be.

Are you ready to be released from everything that holds your back? Are you ready to be unbound and to help unbind others so we all can be released to be and do all God is calling us to?

Let us surrender to Love and allow Love to unbind us, transform us…from darkness to light…from death to life, for the sake of God’s glory.

Amen.