This week's text is John 11:1-44 - The Confession of Martha and the Raising of Lazarus. Read the full text here.
A week ago, when I saw that this was the text slated for today I thought… that’s a pretty feel-good story to kick off this season of Lent, this time that’s supposed to be one of wrestling with our wilderness and woundedness. A week ago, all I could see was the seemingly miraculous outcome – life restored and they all lived happily ever after. That wasn’t really how the story goes anyway. But today, after the massacre in Parkland, Florida...I experience this story differently. Today I am keenly aware of the long wait, the gut-wrenching questions, and the shared tears. How did we get here? How long will this heartbreak continue?
Just yesterday we were sitting with Lazarus at the breakfast table, laughing about childhood memories, then all of the sudden…gone. Even Jesus was sure that this sickness was no big deal, it was manageable, everything would be fine, but then it wasn’t. Now, there must be a change of plans. We’re not where we thought we’d be, life is not going the way we envisioned, and we’re turning around.
Even then, we try and soften the blow. Jesus told the disciples that Lazarus was just sleeping and they’re going to wake him up. But inevitably, the hard reality must be spoken. Death has come for that which we cherish. Thomas articulates what many of us might feel in that moment, where we resign ourselves to death too.
By the time Jesus approaches, scripture tells us that Lazarus has been dead 4 days. Jewish tradition held that the soul left the body after 3 days, so basically we’re being told that Lazarus isn’t just mostly dead, but is all dead. We are meant to understand that there is no coming back from this. Martha comes out to meet her friend and her teacher and in a complicated mixture of faith and heartbreak, she cries out, “if you had been here….if you had been here…if only…” We too are prone to wonder, where is God in our time of pain and suffering? Like Mary and Martha, sometimes I wonder.
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." She is working on the assumption that God’s promises are for the hereafter, but Jesus proclaims that these promises are also for the here and now.
25 Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. 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, the Son of God, the one coming into the world." This is the point for the Gospel writer, John. That through Jesus we are given BELIEF, hope, and understanding.
Belief and understanding for this context doesn’t mean intellectual concrete knowledge, but knowing in the biblical sense….being connected in relationship, being fully seen and known, intimately loved….in our moments of joy and in hurt.
The gospel of John includes 7 signs that Jesus performs that bring about belief. The first sign, we remember from the beginning of the year, was as the Wedding in Cana and the transformation of ordinary water to the very best wine. The signs begin in a time of joy and celebration. Here, the 7th and final sign, 7 being a holy number of completion as at creation, this culminating sign comes in a time of sorrow. In both plenty and in want, Jesus is present and active.
Jesus calls for Mary and she comes forward with the same sentiment…”Jesus, ...if you had been here...” Jesus doesn’t offer her platitudes, niceties, hallmark hope, nor hopeless apathy while he remains safely at a distance. Rather, God is greatly disturbed and deeply moved. The original language is even stronger, essentially that God in Jesus is torn in two, ripped apart from the inside. Even though Jesus IS the promise, God weeps as God does and will continue to experience death and pain with us.
John doesn’t make it exactly clear where the full responsibility of this tragedy lies. One way of reading the text might sound like Jesus allowed this awful thing to happen in order to teach the people some sort of twisted lesson, but that doesn’t align with how the Gospek speaks to God’s character. What John DOES imply is that things are not yet right in the world. Death and destruction persist, but Jesus will work tirelessly to bring about life and life everlasting even in the midst of the valley of shadows.
Something significant happens even before we come to the tomb.
A couple of my seminary professors pointed out that, the promise doesn’t come at the end of the story, after the seemingly happy ending. The promise of life and resurrection come in the middle of the story, while Lazarus is still dead in the tomb. That’s when we hear the promise too, in the middle of our stories, in the middle of our grief, in the middle of pain. And that is precisely when the promise can give us hope to keep going. Healing is not only for Lazarus, but for Mary and Martha, for their community around them.
And then the loud defiant, insistent voice, “Lazarus, come out!”
Grace upon grace looks like God coming to the threshold when you are deader than dead, the shepherd who knows you and loves you, calling you by our name, and you are then able to walk out of that tomb unbound to rest in the bosom of Jesus.
Resurrection doesn’t stop with bringing life from death, but continuing to unbind us from the remnants of death’s grasp. We have much to unbind - our internalized self-disgust, our addiction to violence and harm as expressions of power – with our weapons and our words, our narrowed vision that puts winning arguments ahead of making a difference. We have much to unbind.
Jesus drops everything, comes through dangerous territory to be with us in the struggle, hears our hurt, shares our tears, call us out of death BY OUR NAME, and then invites the community to be the ones who take part in the unbinding. What’s next for Mary, Martha, Lazarus and Jesus? No easy road to be sure. But one that is powerfully changed because of the promise that persists day and night. Amen.