Rev. Katherine Todd
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “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.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6 after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” 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. 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.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 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. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 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. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
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. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 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.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 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.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 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.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 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.”
This story was won my curiosity since childhood. This is an incredible story!
In reading the text anew, several details grab my attention. For one thing, the main characters are already known to us. This is the same Mary and Martha we’ve read about before, who hosted Jesus, teaching in their home. Martha was doing all the work while Mary sat at Jesus’ feet. And when Mary protests and asks Jesus to tell Mary to help her, Jesus instead commends Mary’s choice and encourages Martha to do likewise.
It is a counter-cultural exchange. Women are supposed to host and serve. They are not to BE served. Martha was fulfilling her social obligations and responsibilities, but Mary was coloring outside the lines, behaving more like a child than a grown woman of her culture. Jesus’ response to Martha must have come as quite a shock. This is very likely the reason this story got repeated over and over, making it into our scriptures.
These two women love Jesus.
So of course when their brother takes ill-unto-death, they reach out to Jesus, sending someone to summon him.
But when the messenger arrives, Jesus sends him away, saying the illness will not leave Lazarus dead. Jesus stays another two days where he is, before announcing to his disciples that they will return to Judea to waken Lazarus. And to his disciples, this makes no sense. Why on earth would Jesus return to a land so recently hostile to him, and why would he be needed to wake someone up? None of it made sense. And so Jesus speaks more plainly to them, explaining that Lazarus has died, and that he must go to him.
While Jesus is still in-route, Martha hears that he is coming and goes out to meet him on the road. Her first words are: “If you had only been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.” And this is perhaps both a profession of faith and a complaint. Martha knows that Jesus can heal anyone. In her approach to Jesus, she likely feels a mix of love, deep sadness, and irritation. Why didn’t Jesus return when they called for him?
But Martha does not leave it there. She continues, “But even now, I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” In this, we sense that Martha still has hope.
I have no idea what outcome she was hoping for. I doubt she would have imagined what Jesus would do next. Would she dream Jesus would bring her brother, dead for four days, back to life? I doubt it. For when Jesus asks for the stone to be rolled away from the cave, it is indeed Martha who protests, saying that there will be a stench since he’s already been dead four days.
It seems more likely that Martha may have been asking for God’s protection and provision for them. After all, it seems unlikely that these two sisters had husbands. If they’d had husbands, we would likely have never learned their names, or they may have been known as so-&-so’s wife. So these two have lost their entire means of a living. They’ve lost their security and standing in society. They didn’t have husbands or children, and without a man in their lives, they wouldn’t have access to any societal benefits or work opportunities. It was a hard world for women who weren’t under the protection and provision of a man. This family had survived by sticking together. And the two women left, were at risk of losing everything.
And this is the moment of crisis Jesus returns to.
Not only are these two women grieving.
Not only are they upset that Jesus didn’t return in time to save their brother.
Not only are they full of faith in what Jesus can do.
Not only are they full of love for Jesus.
But they are likely in a profound social and economic limbo.
Do any of you know what that feels like?
It kind of changes Jesus’ possible motives, does it not?
Jesus speaks often about caring for the poor, the oppressed, the widows and orphans. And here we have two friends of Jesus who have been left in a position of vulnerability. It makes me wonder all that may have been behind Jesus’ own tears, as he weeps in Mary’s presence.
Not only would Jesus’ next act – calling Lazarus to get up – to return from the dead – change the outcome for Lazarus himself. Not only would it profoundly bear witness to God’s presence and power. It would also change everything for both Mary and Martha.
And Jesus shows up for them
- Not when they thought he should have –
- Not before they experience deep pain and great loss –
But perfectly and profoundly.
Have you experienced this kind of deliverance before?
Late (in your estimation)
But perfect and profound, full of grace and love and goodness?
Quite often when God doesn’t show up in the moments we think God should, we grow discouraged and resentful. If you told me you had some beefs with God over things, I’d tell you that you are not alone; I do too. I wrestle with God over the presence and seeming victories of injustice. I wrestle with God over the pain and suffering. I complain to God about all the loss of color in my hair, the new streaks of white and gray.
But God has nonetheless, shown up in ways mighty and profoundly loving.
When Mr. Rogers was growing up, his mother used to tell him that in times of trouble, he should look for the helpers. There are always helpers, she would say.
And so I ask you: who have been your helpers?
I invite you to take 3 minutes right now and to remember and write the name some of these who have brought grace and provision, mercy and deliverance, love and compassion, healing and justice into your lives.
Please take a moment to actively remember.
Through-out the Old Testament, God is instructing the people to remember, to write of God’s acts on their doorposts, to tell it to their children and children’s children, to erect monuments, and to enact rituals and holidays of remembering. God knows how IMPORTANT it is for us to remember. God knows how very scatter-brained we each can be when it comes to focusing on our blessings and giving thanks. And God knows how easy it is for us to focus on our troubles instead of on our blessings, on our gifts, on our helpers.
Our God does not always show up when we think God should.
Our God does not always deliver us from pain and suffering.
But our God does show up.
And our God does deliver.
Our God does heal.
Our God does see.
Our God does weep with you and with me.
Our God does act, with righteousness and with justice, with mercy and with grace.
And our God does breathe life into the long dead, into dry, dry bones.
Heavenly Father, Holy Mother,
Help our unbelief.