Three times this past month I have heard the story of the raising of Lazarus (John 11). Each preacher has offered a different angle on this story and each one has opened the Word of God in this text for me so that I have heard what I don’t recall hearing before. This, of course, is part of the miracle of preaching.
It is hard to hear this text repeatedly however and not wonder about a few things. First, although I know the end of the story, and I know Jesus’ stated reasons for not heading to Bethany straight away to heal Lazarus, the characters in the story don’t know anything of what I know. And the characters that intrigue me most are Mary and Martha.
They send for Jesus to come and heal their brother. The text says that Jesus loves them. Then the English version I am looking at today then says this: “So, when he heard Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.” What a strange verse! If I put it into my own terms it sounds something like this: ‘So, when she heard that her child was ill, she stayed away.’ It makes no sense. Even his disciples can’t make sense of what he is doing. The next thing we are told is that Lazarus has died.
So the second thing I wonder about is his arrival in Bethany. Twice we hear this line: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” First from Martha’s lips (v. 21) and then from Mary’s (v. 32).
I read the words so easily. But the simple sentence belies the painful reality. It is likely the words sounded much more like this: Martha or Mary sobbing…Lord….more sobbing….if you had been here….more sobbing, grabbing Jesus’ robe…..my brother….choking back more sobs….would not have died…..completely breaking down.
I can imagine this, because at a certain level I have lived this. More than twenty years ago now, I received a phone call early in the morning that my older sister had died. This was completely out of the blue. Unlike Lazarus, she had not been ill. In fact, she had gotten married just four months earlier. She apparently had suffered a major seizure at home while her new husband was at work. He came home and found her dead.
When the shock finally wore off, my question was a variation of Mary and Martha’s. “Lord where were you? You could have saved her, couldn’t you?”
I heard lots of answers from lots of people. None of them mattered. In fact, I could find a hole in every reason people attempted to give me for my sister’s death. It made no sense to me and most of the time it still doesn’t. Like Martha, I could say I believe in the resurrection of the body. But like Martha, I wanted her back – then and there.
Ultimately, I had to learn to hear and believe those astounding words of Jesus. “I am the resurrection and the life.” Gradually I came to understand that this was no idle promise. This claim was the reality that interprets all other realities. If I couldn’t embrace this claim – that Jesus is life, the very embodiment of life – then as Paul writes, my faith was in vain.
In an age where salvation is under constant threat of being watered down to public activism, there is nothing more important than remembering this core of the Christian faith. Christian conceptions of salvation cannot be wrested from the necessarily eschatological framework in which the Christian faith is embedded. The promises are ours now, but await a future time for their fulfillment. As long as we live between Good Friday and Easter, we live as people of hope, longing for the day when our faith will be sight.
In memory of Judith Rae DeJong-Clousing