The story is in John 11. If you're not familiar, take the time to read it. There are lots of details in this story that are worth comment, but I want to take a very narrow approach for the moment. In this sense, Jesus raising Lazarus is a foreshadowing or a metaphor for the new life that Jesus wants to give to each human being. Lazarus becomes a symbol of all those who are dead spiritually. He has people who love him who are pleading with Jesus to make a change in his life, to heal him of his disease. Their prayers are an important part of the equation, and Jesus acts in response to their prayers -- even though Mary and Martha both would have preferred that Jesus act sooner, he does respond to their requests, and their love for Lazarus moves him.
When Lazarus is laying dead in the tomb, he is beyond care. He does not ask Jesus to give him life. For all we know he is unaware of Jesus' presence until Jesus speaks to him: "Lazarus, come out!" Then, at Jesus' call, Lazarus shuffles out of the tomb. If you've ever watched a movie version of Jesus' life, Lazarus is more often than not a comic sort of character -- thoroughly wrapped up in graveclothes almost like a mummy, squinting in the sunlight, unable to move or function very well because he's wrapped up in all the bindings of death. Then Jesus speaks again, but not to Lazarus. Instead, he speaks to those standing nearby, to Mary and Martha, those who have already confessed him as Lord and been "raised to life" by him. "Unbind him, and let him go," Jesus says.
Lazarus doesn't free himself from death, and he doesn't free himself from the wrappings of death. That takes a community of believers who come alongside him and help him get unwrapped. Each person who comes to know Jesus, whom Jesus raises to life, is still wrapped up in graveclothes. Old habits, old beliefs, old sins, old strongholds all cling like a shroud to the new believer. The heart is alive and beating inside, but the bindings of death still keep that person from living as Jesus intends. So Jesus speaks to the community around that new believer and says, "Unbind him." This is why those who do evangelism must have some way to connect converts to a fellowship of believers. How else will these people get unbound? This fellowship doesn't have to be a traditional church, but we need others who are following Jesus to help us, to unbind us. Alcoholics Anonymous understands this quite well. Who can help an alcoholic who has hit bottom? Someone who has been there, who is in recovery.
What does this look like in the church? So often we want to do ministry in the area we are strongest. But in the economy of God, it is usually in the area of your weakness that God can best use you. Where you have been healed, you are able to unbind others. So the former addict starts a recovery ministry. The person who has endured the bitterness of a painful divorce sets up a ministry for those in the throes of a breaking marriage. One who has lost a loved one ministers to those who are grieving. Don't look for your strength -- look instead for the place you have been most wounded, where Jesus has brought healing to you.
And if you are still wrapped in graveclothes (as all of us are to some extent) don't make the mistake of thinking "I've got to get free before I can plug in to this fellowship." Bring your old stuff, bring your wounds, and let others help unbind you.
This ministry is a miracle that happens along the way anytime Jesus' followers live beyond the surface. As soon as we have authentic relationships, we begin to unbind each other. As soon as we start to pray together, as soon as we begin to serve those who are really in need, we start to see our graveclothes coming off. A group of people who just gather for an hour of worship on Sundays, who exchange polite "howareyouI'mfine" but do not relate beyond the surface, a group of people who are never in each others' homes or workplaces, who never pray together outside a worship service and who don't read and talk about the Bible together will not experience this unbinding. It happens as we invest time and energy and life in each other and God's Spirit works in the mix to bring freedom and strength to what was dead.
And if you continue reading in John 12, you begin to see what an impact this has on the world -- that those who have been dead are now alive and able to bear witness to all Jesus has done for them, and the world is fascinated. According to John, it was Lazarus being raised that really raised people's interest in Jesus to a fever pitch. So it is with us. How powerful it is to hear someone tell the story of what God has done for them! How inspiring (literally, the Spirit coming in) to hear, "I was dead but now I am alive" from the lips of strangers, let alone those we know and love. This power of testimony, of personal witness is a critical part of the church's task. The stories need to be told not only in church sanctuaries, but around the dinner table, in the car, at bedtime, at coffee shops and bars and restaurants. Tell them to your children and to your friends. (See Deuteronomy 6:4-9)
So today is Thanksgiving. Many are gathered with extended family, and often in these grand holiday celebrations we are confronted with our most difficult habits, relationships, and circumstances. So maybe this weekend is a good time to ask -- where do you need to be unbound? Where do the graveclothes lie heavy on you? What area of your life have you just given up, deciding that change is not possible? Then ask yourself, who do you know who knows Jesus, who can come alongside and help set you free?