Today we read another long gospel story like the ones we’ve read the last several weeks. As a mainline Christian church, we read these gospel stories in a pre-assigned 3-year cycle. What has surprised me about the last couple weeks of Bible gospel readings, is that they really fit into this very strange time we are living through right now. Yet really, this shouldn’t come as any surprise at all – because we Lutheran Christians believe that the Bible is God’s Living Word, so of course, this word will make connections to our lives today.
Let’s start with Jesus’ best friends; Mary and Martha who are sisters, and their brother Lazarus. We meet these 3 in other stories from Jesus’ life, but this is their big story. The introduction quickly tells us that Mary, Martha and Lazarus are stuck at home together. They’ve been together for days – in fear and in love – because Lazarus is sick, and his sisters are tending to him.
Honestly, in all my years as a pastor, this is one part of this gospel story that I’ve never previously given much thought. Who among us in our wildest dreams would imagine that right now we’d all be at home, sheltered down with our loved ones, concerned about illness and trying to protect ourselves and each other? We’re home, tending to each other as best we can. For the most part, we’re healthy. We might be driving each other a little bonkers, but we’re managing.
But others among us do have a loved one, right now, at home with them who is ill. And among us all, just sneaking around the edges, there is a fear, unspoken but present, that some of the illnesses we are facing, or have yet to face, of loved ones could end in death.
Pointing to Resurrection
Now this story of Jesus’ friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus, isn’t some prediction of what is to come for us with Covid-19. It is, however, a simple story of a family that loves each other tremendously – a family that would do anything for each other – even in illness, even in death, even in grief. As they remain together for each other, they call for their friend Jesus to come.
Next, we’re told, Jesus purposely delays his arrival. This is where our contemporary comparison breaks down for now. This is not a story about Jesus rescuing everyone from every illness, magically arriving right on time to keep us all safe and sound. This is a story that foreshadows something bigger – it foreshadows resurrection and eternal life. It points to Jesus’ own death and resurrection that is yet to come. This story IS the biggest gospel story this side of the Easter story – that reminds us that Jesus is OUR resurrection and life. So, if we go down the rabbit hole of wondering about any other reasons why it took so long for Jesus to arrive at his friends’ house, we miss the other big points of this story.
Actually, Martha and Mary each give Jesus a piece of their own minds about his delay. Each, in their own way, confronts Jesus saying, “If you had been here in time, my brother would not have died.” Then each woman has her own additional reaction in Jesus’ presence.
Martha follows her confrontation of Jesus about his delay, by professing her continued faith in Jesus. She says that she still believes God will do for Jesus whatever he asks on behalf of her family and her brother. She goes so far as saying that she believes Jesus himself IS the resurrection and the life.
As for Mary, she lets her words of confrontation with Jesus echo in his ears – with no further comment. “Where were you Jesus?” “Where were you?!” Then as she remains kneeling at Jesus’ feet, she weeps. This disturbs Jesus so deeply, he too weeps. This week, I identify a bit more with Mary. I feel like I’ve crumpled down several times at Jesus’ feet. While I may not have wept, my eyes sure have filled with tears, as I’ve felt the grief of others.
I’ve cried upon getting an email from a couple who are friends of mine. When we were much younger in our early years, decades ago, living in Madison, we socialized together every week. They now live out of state. Their email gave me word that there are no more treatments options and hospice care will begin for one of them. I’ve shed tears to learn that our co-workers wife can’t go in person daily to be with her spouse as he experiences a long hospital stay. I’ve teared up talking to a woman in her ‘90’s from our church, as she repeated several times on the phone, that her daughter has cried while telephoning her because she’s not able to come to her senior residence in person right now.
There are tears we shed together, even though we are apart. To know someone not only acknowledges your pain but feels it alongside you, is so consoling. There is incredible solidarity, compassion, power and love shared when we weep with those who weep. When Jesus arrives, he sheds tears and cries alongside his friends and everyone else.
I especially take comfort in this part of gospel – our Lord Jesus himself, upon knowing that his friend Lazarus was dead, wept. That’s one of the shortest verses in the Bible. Yet one of the most powerful. Jesus, the Son of God, felt grief. Jesus’ tears validate ours.
But today’s gospel story takes its biggest turn right at this moment. This weeping Lord brings something new by his shear presence. A devotional writer this week stated it so beautifully when she wrote, “Hope returns – not because we have found a way out of the valley, but because God has found a way in.” (Jeni Grangaard, Luther Seminary, God Pause Daily Devotions, March 23, 2020) Let me repeat that, “Hope returns – not because we have found a way out of the valley, but because God has found a way in.” God always arrives. God came to dry bones in Ezekiel’s vision. God came to Mary/Martha and Lazarus. God comes to us.
Even in the lowest of the lowest points. And when God arrives, that’s never the end of the story. It is always the beginning of something new. Jesus Calls, “Lazarus, Come Out!” And Lazarus came out of the tomb, back from death to life. Very soon, Jesus too will be called out of his own tomb. Except, at Easter, the one who was dead and be made alive again by God’s call, will be made alive eternally. The Easter story, combined with what Jesus does for Lazarus, foreshadows, what will one day also be our reality. One day Jesus will call out our names and raise us to eternal life with him. And THAT great promise friends, liberates us from any death grip that this world holds us in, here and now!
Invited to bring about new life
Notice that something intriguing that happens when Lazarus is called by Jesus out of death to life. Jesus immediately “instructs and expects the crowd to PARTICIPATE IN and actually COMPLETE his miracle.” (“The Communion of Saints”, David Lose, workingpreacher.org, 2012) Think about that for a minute. Jesus calls, “Lazarus, come out!” And then he turns and says to all the people standing with him, “Unbind him and let him go”.
Let that image sit with you a minute. Jesus alone has the power to heal and bring new life. But do you hear, in that additional instruction from Jesus, that he also invites us “into these actions of his – and perhaps encourages us to complete them.” (The Communion of Saints, David Lose, workingpreacher.org, 2012) We are directed to help Jesus unbind any others who are constricted by the forces of death in this life! Jesus calls us to join him to bring about new life!
This is our directive from Jesus, our Lord, especially in the days and weeks to come. Who do you know right now who is bound so tight in difficulty that it is leading to their demise? Who, individually, do you think most needs Christ to call them out to a new, untangled life? Then how will you lend yourself to bring that new life of Christ to those people?
Called by Christ
We assist in the miracle of bringing new life to others in ways big and small; by how we listen, how we serve, how we love in Jesus’ name. We bring Christ’s new life into this world when we live as people of hope – bearing hope that shatters the fears that this world would have us cower beneath. We bring Christ’s new life into this world when we live as people of trust – trust that believes in the promise that God is always calling forth new possibilities and will never leave us abandoned to emptiness and darkness. We bear witness to the promise of resurrection when we each remember Jesus has called us out by name – called us out of whatever has sought to bind us, and bury us, and leave us for dead.
We serve a God who calls us to life. May you hear that call again today. And as you are able, may you turn to anyone around you who may need some assistance. May you help in our Lord’s work to unbind them and let them go. Thanks be to God! AMEN