Take Away the Religious Rocks

By Greg Albrecht—

Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. “Take away the stone,” he said.
—John 11:38-39

Religious rocks create barriers in our relationship with God. Notice the “red letter” words in our passage in John 11:39, the four words in this verse that Jesus actually spoke. Take away the stone….

The background for our passage begins in the first verse of chapter 11 of the book of John. Lazarus was sick. As the chapter unfolds we discover that Lazarus eventually died. His sisters Mary and Martha were overcome with shock and grief.

Our message begins at the house of mourning, in a place where we all have found ourselves. If you have not yet visited the house of mourning, it’s a place where you will eventually find yourself.

To be human is to be frustrated and confounded with our human limitations. It’s our human dilemma. We cannot continue our humanity, our life in this flesh, forever. So here in John 11 God is meeting us in a place of loss and despair.

Mary and Martha are going through the same pain that all humans go through, and have gone through—the shock, heartache and grief at the loss of a loved one. Mary and Martha’s Bible, of course, was the Old Testament. The Bible as we know it today was not available to them, and they certainly didn’t have individual copies in their homes. Scrolls of the Old Testament, copies of originals, were read in synagogue.

One of the Old Testament passages Mary and Martha may have remembered at this time of loss is a passage about human frailty, about human exasperation with the finality of death, a passage many refer to as Ezekiel’s Valley of Dry Bones.

In Ezekiel 37 God takes us into the middle of a valley filled with bones, and we “see” nothing but dry bones all around us. As we see the remains of people who once were energetic, productive and filled with life, we join with Ezekiel and ask “Is that all there is to life? Does life merely consist of a few decades, 60-70-80 years—and then after that brief sojourn here on earth, do we too become a bunch of dry bones?”

In Ezekiel 37, God presented Ezekiel with this question after showing him bones that were dead. These bones, by the way, were so dead that they were dry. They had been dead so long that they contained no moisture. God asks about these really dead bones: “Can these bones live?”

God’s question in Ezekiel 37 is rhetorical, the answer is implied within the question. Of course, God is saying, these bones can live again, but no human effort or procedure can restore life to these dry bones. Only God can make those bones live.

I’m reminded of the story of two friends who met on a well-traveled trail in the mountains as they were both hiking. One man was an atheist, who happened to be a research scientist (and of course, I must note before going on with my story that not all research scientists are atheists). The other man was a pastor.

They exchanged pleasantries, they asked about each other’s families, and then the atheist asked the pastor if he was still ministering to people. The pastor assured him that he was.

“Well,” said the atheist, “I hope you are not still telling far-fetched stories about how God created everything. As you know, science has now discovered that it can do virtually anything that the Bible claims God has done.”

The pastor smiled, and said, “Really? Why don’t you just make a human being then—just like God did?”

The atheist-scientist reached down by the trail to pick up some dirt.

The pastor stopped him, saying, “Oh no, you can’t use God’s dirt. Use your own dirt.”

God alone is life-giver, he alone is creator of all that is. Not only can he create humans out of the dust of the ground, dust that he also created, he can restore life to humans once they die. He can even restore life to humans who still have physical life but are spiritually dead.

The story in our account today is about a resurrection, the bringing back to life of Lazarus. This is no Jack and the Beanstalk fairy tale. This is about Jesus, Creator of the universe, using his own dirt. Jesus was the God-man, he didn’t need to resort to cheap tricks.

The resurrection of Lazarus is not simply a story about Jesus the magician, the miracle-worker. Jesus did perform miracles. Jesus raised people from the dead as our scriptural passage today testifies to. Jesus healed people. But the point of any and all of those miracles was not merely the physical result.

Many within Christendom still miss that point today. Traveling “healing evangelists” with their “healing crusades” fill huge stadiums and auditoriums around North America. Going from city to city they appear to heal some, or so it seems, if you believe the televised event, as produced by employees of the so-called healing evangelist and his organization.

This kind of circus atmosphere was not staged by the disciples as part of the healings and miracles of Jesus. Jesus didn’t heal in front of the first century equivalent of his own television cameras, with camera angles and final editing done by his disciples. That kind of production is far from the point of our passage today.

With many of his miracles Jesus said to those involved, “Don’t tell anyone about what happened!” Ever wonder why?

Jesus didn’t want crowds following him because they were curious about his next magic trick. When he did perform some extraordinary, supernatural miracle there was a deeper lesson.

The lesson of the resurrection of Lazarus, and of our brief passage in John 11:39, where Jesus tells the disciples to take away the stone, is found in verses 25 and 26:

“I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

Here’s the point, not just of this passage but of our lives as followers of Jesus Christ. Here’s the way to understand the resurrection of Lazarus. Here’s what Jesus meant when he said to take away the stone.

Jesus himself IS the resurrection and the life. He lifts up the spiritually dead so that they may come alive.

Let’s think, for a moment, about the story of the man who was born blind. That account appears only two chapters earlier in the gospel of John, in chapter 9.

What’s the point of that account? That Jesus gave a man who never could see his physical sight? That happened, but that’s not the lesson. The man was given sight for the express reason that the gospel of the kingdom of heaven could be proclaimed. This healing happened so that God’s grace might be revealed.

The point of the story about the man who was born blind, and then healed by Jesus, is not that the man was now able to see clouds and trees and flowers and animals, color and texture with his new, now seeing eyes.

The point is that when Jesus touched him the previously blind man not only was given physical sight, he was given spiritual insight and vision.

Jesus performed two miracles. He healed the man’s physical sight and he delivered the man from spiritual darkness. Because Jesus touched him, this man now knew that Jesus was the Great Physician, the one Source and giver of life, God in the flesh, Savior, Messiah, Lord of all.

The point of John 9 and of John 11 (where we find our keynote passage), and all of the other healings and miracles of Jesus, is this:

• As amazing as a physical miracle may be, as unbelievable as it may be for us to think that Jesus could, out of a few loaves of bread and fish, create enough food to feed thousands,
• As mind boggling as it is for us to consider Jesus calling Lazarus out of the grave,
• As incredible as it seems that Jesus walked on water,
• As hard as it is to suspend natural law, and to physically heal a human being, spiritual healing and restoration is just as complex and involved, in fact more so, than physical healing and restoration.

With that in mind we think of those four words that Jesus said to his disciples, as they stood outside of the tomb of Lazarus. Take away the stone is a command having to do with physical stones and we link that with the title of our message, Take Away the Religious Rocks. We’re using Jesus’ physical command and the subsequent breathtaking miracle of the resurrection of Lazarus that followed to focus on spiritual boulders that keep us enslaved and spiritually separated from God.

You know, Jesus could have just as easily taken away the stone which guarded the entrance to the tomb of Lazarus himself. But he didn’t. He invited his disciples to help.

Did Jesus need his disciples to help? Of course not. Since Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, a mere stone would have been a minor impediment. He could have moved it himself, he could have caused it to move without Jesus even touching it, or Jesus could have, like

Superman, caused the stone to disintegrate on the spot, reducing the stone to nothing but smoke and ashes.
But Jesus invited the disciples to help. Jesus doesn’t need our help in rescuing us, nor does he need our help as he rescues others. But he doesn’t do everything himself either. He invites us to help, to participate in his work.

Why? Because he needs us? No, he doesn’t need any of us. In another biblical teaching about stones that involved a spiritual principle, John the Baptist was once confronted by religious leaders of the day, Pharisees and Sadducees, who thought that they were spiritually superior because of their religious traditions.

John the Baptist told them that God didn’t need their spiritual pride and arrogance or their so-called “superior” spiritual traditions. John the Baptist told these religious leaders that God could raise up children for his work out of stones (Matthew 3:9).

The stones that Jesus asks us to help him take away are spiritual obstacles that have been placed between him and humanity—stones of religious tradition.

Here in John 11 Jesus asks his disciples, and, by extension, you and me, to help take away the stones of death. Jesus asks us to roll away the religious rocks that represent impediments and stumbling-blocks between humanity and God.

After the disciples had taken away the stone, after Jesus had commanded death to give up its grip on Lazarus, Lazarus obeyed the voice of God. The voice of Jesus, God in the flesh, commanded, Lazarus, come out! Lazarus came out of the tomb of death, with death hanging all over him, with his grave clothing clinging to his now resurrected body.

After that, Jesus once again invited his disciples, and he invites you and me, to whom he has given spiritual life, in whom he lives his new, resurrected life— to, as verse 44 tells us— take off the grave clothes and let him go.

Some translations of verse 44 say “unbind him”—a reference to the fact that bodies were wound up with grave clothing—picture the old mummies you may have seen in horror movies.

Jesus invites us to be his hands and feet, to be his tools, to help people who have been spiritually mugged, beaten, and left for dead to shed their old religious attire. Jesus invites us to help those who were spiritually dead, but now, by God’s grace, are alive in Christ.

Jesus invites us to help those who were doing time in spiritual prisons, to help them get rid of the smell and impact of spiritual death that still lingers, permeating their clothing, as they come to more fully realize what it means to be free in Christ.

The miracle of giving life to those who are spiritually dead belongs to Jesus alone. But once he decides to give life, he invites us to help roll away the religious rocks that keep people in spiritual death traps. Jesus invites us to help those who were once spiritually dead to remove their foul-smelling, putrid, decaying religious traditions, ceremonies and rituals which amount to nothing but death. As Paul says, put on the clothing of Christ (Colossians 3:12).

Our passage in John 11 begins with Lazarus having died, and the suffering and anguish of his sisters Mary and Martha.

Our passage begins in darkness, in the pit, in places of spiritual death and desolation, places of spiritual captivity where there is no hope, in the valley of the shadow of death.

And what is the Solution? The Solution is Jesus. The Lesson is that God is not distant, he is not far away. God is near, he is intimate, he is close.

Jesus, God in the flesh, is willing to meet us in our dark places. He is even willing to hear us blame him for our anguish, as both Mary and Martha did—willing to share our pain with us.

God does not treat our suffering as something to which he is immune. He does not keep his distance from the pain and ugliness of our lives. In Jesus he came near, even to the point of the Cross. He came to serve us.

That same Jesus is alive today—that same Jesus comes near to you and me. That same Jesus is willing to be present in our lives and the president of our lives. God, who enters into our suffering, creates new life out of death.

This story in John 11 is about God setting you and me free. This story about the resurrection of Lazarus is about Jesus drawing close to us. This story about taking away the religious rocks is about Jesus involving us—once he has given us new life—in his work of helping others.

To all of us, to you and to me, Jesus issues the invitation to help him take away the religious rocks. He invites us to help him take off the grave clothes of spiritual death from those to whom he gives new life.

Helping to remove foul smelling, decaying garments of spiritual death that are still wrapped around someone who has been given new life can be a dirty business. Death, and all that is associated with it, stinks! We may get our hands dirty when we help remove the grave clothing of those who have just left the tombs of death. But it is a privilege and a blessing to be used as one of God’s tools to Take Away the Religious Rocks.