Encounter with Jesus: Jesus and Martha
Today, on our last Sunday in Lent before Holy Week begins, we encounter a strange scripture text. I call it strange not because of the story itself so much – after all, Jesus is always doing incredible things in the gospels – but strange, at least at first glance, because this text shows up for us as a Lenten reading. In two weeks, we’ll celebrate Easter Sunday, Resurrection Sunday. We’ll celebrate Jesus’s victory over death with irrepressible life. And yet, in our text for today, we seem to get an early start on resurrection, with Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Even some of the musical suggestions for the day in worship planning guides seem confused, with lists of hymns that fit with the text choosing some traditional Easter favorites that we won’t be singing for another two weeks. What’s with this resurrection before The Resurrection?
As with some of our other Lenten texts, there’s a lot to think about in these 45 verses. But it is Jesus’s encounter with Martha that catches my attention in this text. Our text from the gospel of John is another story that appears only in John’s gospel, although the players, the main figures, are somewhat known to us. John starts by telling us that a man named Lazarus, who lives in Bethany, is ill. His sisters are Martha and Mary. Mary had once anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume, and wiped them with her hair. We talked about Mary and Martha way back over the summer, when Jesus was having dinner at their home, and Martha was upset because she seemed to be doing all the work of the household, while Mary was sitting at the feet of Jesus, a phrase used to describe a disciple.
Now, their brother Lazarus is ill, and since Jesus seems to be friends with their family, they contact him to let him know. They tell Jesus via message, “Lord, the one you love is ill.” Their words reflect the closeness Jesus shares with this family. When Jesus gets the message, he says, “This illness doesn’t lead to death. In fact, it is going to be a way that God’s glory can be revealed.” So, John tells us, even though Jesus loves the siblings, he stays where he is for two more days. The word gives a sense of “lingering.” There is a decided lack of haste in Jesus’ actions.
Finally, Jesus sets out to see Lazarus. He tells his disciples that Lazarus has fallen asleep, and they take him literally, but Jesus explains that no, Lazarus has in fact died. Jesus says he’s glad he wasn’t there, so that through Lazarus’ death, the disciples will come to believe. Thomas says, “Let us go too – that we may die with him.” We usually think of Thomas only for his moments of doubt later in John’s gospel, but here, he shows himself a faithful friend.
By the time Jesus arrives in Bethany, Lazarus has been in the tomb for four days. Martha hears that Jesus has arrived, and immediately comes to greet Jesus, but Mary stays at home. Once again, Martha has a chance to tell Jesus what’s on her mind. But where last time, Martha was filled with hostility toward her sister, this time, in this encounter, even in the midst of her grief, things are different. Martha confronts Jesus right away, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Ouch. She doesn’t pull any punches. But she doesn’t stop there. Instead, she says, “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” It’s hard to say exactly what Martha means by this. Although we know what happens next, Martha certainly doesn’t suspect or think she can ask Jesus to raise her brother from the dead. In some ways, then, her statement is all the more remarkable. She’s in the midst of grief, in those first days of loss that are a blur of pain and sadness. She wishes Jesus had come sooner, to heal Lazarus. But even though he didn’t, she trusts him, and knows that God can do anything through Jesus that God wants to do. She may not have seen clearly before, but she’s changed.
Jesus says to Martha, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha response, “Yes, I know he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus’ words aren’t particularly comforting to Martha in the moment. It’s all very well that she might see her brother again someday at the end of the world, but that doesn’t dull her grief right now. But that’s not what Jesus means. He says, “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?” And though Martha might not know why Jesus is saying these things now, Martha again shows that her faith is deep, that she’s changed, that she has learned who Jesus is. “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” I love that last part – “the one coming into the world.” The way Martha phrases it, it isn’t a one-time event, Jesus arriving in the world. It is ongoing – Jesus is continually breaking into the world, continually arriving among us.
After this encounter between Jesus and Martha, Martha goes to get her sister Mary. When Mary comes to Jesus, she shares the same words as her sister: “Jesus, if you had been here, Lazarus wouldn’t be dead.” Unlike Martha, though, Mary doesn’t move beyond those words. Jesus sees her crying, and sees all the others who are weeping for Lazarus, and he’s deeply troubled. He too begins to weep. He knows what he intends to do, but he’s not untouched by the suffering he sees. He comes to Lazarus’s tomb, a cave with a stone in front of it. He orders the stone rolled away. Martha warns that Lazarus has been dead for four days – this will not be pleasant. But Jesus says, “I told you – if you believe, you will witness the glory of God.” Jesus offers a prayer to God, and then cries in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” And Lazarus, still bound up in the burial cloths covering his body and face, emerges from the tomb. Jesus orders some bystanders, “Unbind him, and let him go.” After this, many who were present come to believe in Jesus. After our passage concludes, others, like the religious leaders, find Jesus’ raising of Lazarus to be so troubling that they determine Jesus must be put to death. We don’t hear from Mary, or Martha, or Lazarus though. How must they have reacted to this incredible miracle? We can only imagine. How about us? How do we react?
I think of these three siblings, Mary, Lazarus, Martha, and I wonder if we can learn something in the way each of them responds to the events that unfold in this passage. Mary is so mired in grief, it doesn’t even occur to her to try to see anything else, to wonder about Jesus’ presence, to look for God at work even in her pain. I don’t blame her – her reaction is pretty natural! But I’m surprised too – Mary has sat at the feet of Jesus. She seemed to “get” it. But here, she hits a wall in her faith journey. Has that happened to you? Have you come to God saying, “God, if you had intervened, this bad thing wouldn't have happened to me!” Mary’s anger blinds her from hope for new life, at least at first.
For once, for a change from the typical pattern of the scriptures, we hear from the two women in this story, but not a word from their brother. We don’t hear from him in his illness, and of course not in his death, but we hear nothing from him after he is raised from death either. What we do get are some pretty vivid mental pictures. Jesus calls out to Lazarus who has been lying dead in a tomb for days, and when he emerges, he doesn’t just spring back to it. No, he’s still bound up in grave clothes, wrapped in the linens that prepared him for the tomb. He’s been resurrected, but he still needs to be unbound. I think I find myself even more likely to end up in Lazarus’ shoes than Mary’s. The promise of new life and resurrection put right into my hands, but I’m getting too caught up in the things I’ve wrapped myself up in to take hold of it. Out of what caves do you need Jesus to call you? What still needs to happen for you to claim the gift of new life Jesus offers? Have you been resurrected, but you’re still bound up in grave clothes, not yet living the new life God has given you?
Or maybe, maybe, we can be like Martha, who clearly listened to Jesus when he urged her to choose a better way the last time we saw them interact. She, like Mary, is immersed in her grief – but she trusts in God, trusts in Jesus, even if he didn’t do what she had hoped he would do. When Jesus says he is resurrection and life right now, Martha responds, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” Jesus is offering new life, and Martha says Yes as emphatically as she can.
As strange as it is for us to encounter this new life story right in the midst of Lent, it is also exactly right that we do so. Because the amazing news is this: We don’t even have to wait until Easter to experience resurrection and life, because Jesus just is those things – is resurrection and life all the time. And so even as we journey through the darkness and pain of Holy Week, we have the gift of resurrection already. Even as we grieve at the cross, we have the gift of resurrection already. Even as we wait for the light of Easter Day to shine, we are already Easter people, resurrection people, new life people. Jesus was already, is already, will already be at work raising us from death to new life. He’s already transforming us, so that our lives become like nothing we could recognize from before. That is resurrection, isn't it? It’s ours, now, from the one who is coming into the world, always. Jesus is resurrection. He is life. He is continually coming into the world to encounter us. Let our mourning be turned to gladness. Let’s tear away the bindings, discard the grave clothes. Let’s step out of the cave into the light. Jesus is ever-coming into the world, offering life. Amen.