The Fifth Sunday in Lent – April 6, 2014
Preacher: Anne Marie Roderick, Seminarian Intern at St. Michael’s Church and Master of Divinity Student at Union Theological Seminary
There is a problem in this story about Lazarus. The sisters, Mary and Martha sent a message to Jesus: Lazarus, our brother, whom you love, is ill. Jesus did love Lazarus—the scripture says he loved all three of these siblings. Yet when Mary and Martha alerted Jesus to Lazarus’ illness, what did he do? He did nothing. He stayed right where he was for two days. Scholars and commentators have long been perplexed about this delayed response. Why didn’t Jesus rush to raise Lazarus as soon as he heard the news, as he did with Jairus’ daughter? Why didn’t he heal him from a distance as he did for the Centurion’s servant?
When Jesus first hears of Lazarus’ plight he says: 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. It is tempting to accept this statement as an explanation for Jesus’ slow reaction—in fact, many people do. Jesus didn’t rush to save Lazarus because he wanted to perform a spectacular miracle. Jesus wanted to wait until Lazarus’ body was long dead; until everyone in the community was weeping and wailing, so that he could sweep in and perform a miracle that would glorify…Himself? That doesn’t seem right to me.
I wonder what Mary and Martha did while they waited for the message to reach Jesus, and then while Jesus tarried by the Jordan River after he received it. I wonder which one of them found Lazarus dead; perhaps they were both there, kneeling beside his bed, pressing wet towels on his forehead, feeding him broth and herbal remedies, praying. Or, maybe they were doing chores around the house, or in the field; maybe they thought they had more time.
I wonder what they did after they found him. Did they throw themselves over his body? Did Mary cling to her brother’s tunic as Martha pulled her away? I wonder if they thought of Jesus: where is he? Didn’t he receive our message? Why didn’t we send word sooner? When Jesus does arrive Martha and Mary both say, “Lord, if only you had been here.” How many of us have made that same plea to God, to ourselves after a death? If only you had been there. If only I had done something different. If only.
After Lazarus was wrapped in cloth and sealed in the tomb, what did Mary and Martha do while Jesus sat with his disciples by the Jordan? Perhaps they held each other while they slept so that they wouldn’t have to feel the emptiness in their home. Maybe they tried to console each other with stories from their childhood—remember that time that Lazarus…and, I’ll never forget when all three of us… Or, maybe they each sat alone, too heartbroken to meet the other in her sadness. Maybe they couldn’t sleep and so they counted stars all night long, just hoping that morning would come…feeling like it never would. We all deal with death differently. What would you have done? What did you do?
At some point the neighbors came over to mourn with the two sisters, Mary and Martha. I wonder if they wanted the company. Perhaps these neighbors tried to console them with empty words. Were the neighbors like so many of our friends, like us perhaps? Wanting to help but not knowing how. Perhaps they brought food and comfort.
Jesus waited two whole days. In our normal lives two days is no time at all, but in our grief, time can no longer be measured only endured.
When Jesus finally does arrive in Bethany he finds that Lazarus has been in the tomb for four days. Martha comes out to meet him and she talks with Jesus. She affirms her faith in him even though he has not saved her brother. When Jesus tries to explain the resurrection he is about to perform, Martha, in her sorrow and hopelessness, just nods: Yes, Lord, I believe. How many of us have uttered similar words? When we are told that our losses are part of God’s plan, or that things are better off this way—perhaps we have also nodded and said, yes, I suppose it must be true—even though on the inside we scream that it cannot be.
When Mary arrives on the scene she can’t keep it together the way her sister can. She gets up and goes quickly to Jesus. I imagine she is running and pointing at him: Lord, she yells, if you had been there my brother would not have died.” She wants to tell him how angry she is, how alone she has been feeling…where were you, she wants to know, but she can’t get the words out through her tears.
The rest of the Jews who have followed Mary out to Jesus begin to weep as well. And this is the key moment in the passage; I think this is the climax of the entire story. Jesus looks at Mary’s red, tear-stained face, and he looks at her neighbors who are also crying and he begins to feel the weight of their suffering. He sees their pain and he feels it too. Jesus began to weep. In the Greek, this verse is just two words. It is the shortest verse in the Bible. Jesus wept. In these two words we can see reflected a key part of our relationship to Jesus. Jesus understands our suffering. He suffers and mourns with us. He weeps when we weep.
We may not know this weeping Jesus very well. Many of us know the image of the tortured Jesus on the cross, or the triumphant Jesus of the resurrection. Perhaps the Jesus we know best is gentle and kind, as he is during the Sermon on the Mount; or maybe he is fierce, as when he overturns the moneychangers’ tables at the Temple. But when we read this story, we have to see Jesus weeping. Can you imagine that scene? You and your sister are weeping, your friends have gathered and are weeping with you; and then the living God comes to your home and he doesn’t make everything okay, he doesn’t say, how could you cry over such a small loss in the scheme of things; he sees you and he weeps with you.
Jesus goes to the tomb of Lazarus. The scripture tells us that he is still deeply disturbed and he commands that the stone in front of the tomb be rolled away. You can imagine the crowd standing watch as the stench of death begins to fill the air. Perhaps some covered their mouths and nose. Perhaps others turned away completely, not wanting to see a decaying corpse. Then Jesus yells: Lazarus, come out! The crowd looks on in complete silence; even Mary and Martha are holding their breath. And then they see him. Could it really be? It is Lazarus.
The power of this story is not only in Jesus’ miraculous healing; perhaps there is power in the fact that the Son of God met Mary and Martha in their deepest time of grief and wept with them. Why did Jesus wait two days before going to Bethany? We may never know for sure. But I think he wanted to show Martha and Mary that his relationship with them was more important than his supernatural powers. Remember, Jesus was en route to his own death. He wouldn’t be around much longer to perform healings, to cure the sick and raise the dead. What hope would these sisters have left after Jesus died? Jesus waited until Mary and Martha were immersed in mourning, and then he showed up. And yes, he raised Lazarus from the dead—an amazing display of power—but this act is not the bulk of the story. Jesus does not raise every person he loves from the dead; if he did, no one would ever die. He doesn’t keep us from suffering, but he does mourn every loss—he shows up when we need him. He comes to the funeral. And if he can’t heal our illness, or raise our dead, or pay off our debts—then he weeps.