Someone sent me a short film clip recently of a barn owl caught up in a barbed wire fence. Now, I love barn owls – perhaps it has something to do with living in rural Dorsetshire for five years, or perhaps it is their cute faces – although if I were a small vole or field mouse I probably would not be so keen on them! There was something incredibly sad about such a magnificent creature seemingly so hopelessly bound, unable to get free, unable to fly as it was meant to! Fortunately, the story had a happy ending because a farmer, discovering the owl’s plight, was able to cut it loose and set it free to fly as it was meant to!
This incident reminds me of the Raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-44). Jesus, in response to the news that his friend Lazarus is gravely ill, travels to Bethany only to discover that Lazarus is already dead. Miraculously, Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, despite the fact that he has been dead for four days already. It is an amazing story which draws the reader right in – the unforced delay in going to Lazarus’ aid (vs. 6,7): the anger of Martha at her brother’s death (v. 21); the heartfelt compassionate tears of Jesus (v. 35); the authority with which Jesus speaks into the tomb – ‘Lazarus, come forth!’ (v. 43). Indeed Jesus spoke with such authority here that (as someone once suggested) it was a good job he named Lazarus … otherwise the whole cemetery would have risen from the dead!
The thing that strikes me about this story however – and the thing I would like us to take to heart now – is something that often escapes us but which is vitally important! When Lazarus emerged from the tomb he was alive but remained ‘wrapped in burial clothes binding his hands and feet, with a cloth over his face’ (v.43a). He may have been alive but he couldn’t walk, he couldn’t use his hands, he couldn’t speak, and he couldn’t see where he was going. In my mind I have a picture of Lazarus wrapped in bandages (rather like an Egyptian mummy) hopping out of the tomb! Jesus has to tell his disciples to ‘Cut him loose, and let him go!’ (v.43b).
Sadly, this state of affairs could describe many Christians today. We have been ‘born again’ of God’s Spirit (John 3:3). We have been ‘made alive’ in Christ (Ephesians 2:5). But too many of us, like Lazarus, remain bound by the trappings of death that hold us back from truly following Christ in the liberty and power of the Holy Spirit (2 Timothy 1:7). Too many of us are bound by ‘stuff’ that prevents us going anywhere in God, doing anything significant for God, speaking out the good news of the Gospel, seeing the plans and purposes God has for us.
What is this ‘stuff’ that binds us? We are familiar with the old adage that the Christian’s three great enemies are ‘the world, the flesh, and the devil’ and there is some truth in that. Even as Christians we can still allow the ways of this world to ‘squeeze [us] into its own mould’ (Romans 12:1,2 J B Philips). We can still be slaves to the flesh life – addicted to pornography or gambling or gossip, and the like. We can still ‘play devil’s advocate’ sowing seeds of dissension and chaos in both church and community (in Christ’s name, of course) without acknowledging the true source of our actions or words.
For the Apostle Peter, however, the thing that he is most grateful to God for saving him from is none of the above, but saving him from ‘an empty or wasted way of life’ (1 Peter 1:18). Peter is thinking here of the ‘emptiness’ of being genuinely religious but possessing (or being possessed by) just an empty Jewish religious tradition. The kind of thing the Apostle Paul (who before he was set free in Christ also suffered from) described as ‘holding an outward form of religion but without God’s real power’ (2 Timothy 3:5). How many of us, I wonder, are bound by our religious traditions (even Baptist tradition) failing to distinguish between what is a godly heritage (a good thing) and what is mere tradition (a bad thing)! As has been often pointed out, the last seven words of a dying church are, ‘We’ve never done it that way before!’
Take a moment to think about your own life? Take another moment to think about our own church? Is there anything that is binding us? Anything stopping us from going the way God wants us to go? Doing the things God wants us to do? Seeing the things God wants us to see? Saying the things God wants us to say? Being the people God wants us to be? Jesus came to set us free from all the ‘stuff’ that binds us, that holds us back, from being the people God wants us to be. Jesus said, ‘If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed!’ (John 8:36). The Apostle Paul tells us that ‘Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom!’ (2 Corinthians 3:17). But Jesus also told us that, if we want to enjoy this kind of freedom, we need to face up to the truth – ‘the truth shall set you free’ (John 8:32) – the truth about the dangers of falling foul of the ‘Lazarus syndrome’, the truth about ourselves maybe, and the truth that we need Christ himself to truly set us free!
In the film clip about the barn owl caught in the fence, the kindly farmer was able to set the owl free – but it was not without a struggle. Even though the farmer was trying to free the owl, the owl fought him all the way, attempting to claw him and peck him viciously at times. Just like us with Jesus perhaps, when he puts his finger on something in our lives, and wants to set us free … but we make it a fight instead of welcoming the freedom.
Some years ago I knew a man called Albert Rose. He was a large man, somewhat rotund, a Pentecostal-Christian, who always wore his Sunday-best three-piece suit to church complete with a button-up-the-front waistcoat. His favourite hymn was Charles Wesley’s And can it be which Albert always sung with great enthusiasm. I remember him for two particular reasons, both associated with this particular hymn. Firstly (remember his surname was Rose), when it came to the verse that ends with the line ‘I rose, went forth, and followed Thee’, he would turn round and face the rest of the congregation (not being a Baptist he always sat in the front row) and point to himself as he sung that line – ‘I Rose … went forth, and followed Thee’. Secondly, he had a fondness for repeating this particular verse of the hymn. The special occasion I especially recall – it is eternally sketched on my memory – is the time when he did this and, singing with such gusto in his tight-fitting waistcoat, got to the line ‘My chains fell off, my heart was free’, and suddenly all the buttons on his waistcoat burst off rather like bullets from a machine gun, and Albert Rose’s corpulent stomach was truly set free in that moment!
We smile at Albert Rose being finally set free from his tight-fitting waistcoat. We reflect of Lazarus’ need (despite the gift of new life) to also be set completely free. And we ask ourselves if there is anything we too need to be set free from in order to be truly free in Christ in order to serve God and our generation?
Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray –
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
~ Charles Wesley (1707-88)