Grief and Glory
(by Rev Paul Graham)
Read John 11
The story today introduces us to some of those who will play significant roles, not just in the coming verses, but in the events that will follow. We meet a family of three: Lazarus and his two sisters, Mary and Martha. Living in the village of Bethany, some 6 miles or so outside Jerusalem, they are known to Jesus, but previously unknown to us, the readers. As the sole male in the house and likely main bread-winner, Lazarus’ sickness would place the whole family in a potentially dangerous situation; their very future hangs in the balance while he is ill.
This makes Jesus’ seeming lack of urgency all the more puzzling. If those who are now calling on him refer to Lazarus as “the one you love”, why doesn’t Jesus drop everything and hasten to his friend’s sickbed? Jesus, who has shown himself to be the willing healer of the stranger, must surely be more motivated for his good friend and his family.
But no, Jesus resolutely remains where he is, staying put for 2 more days. I wonder if his disciples breathe a sigh of relief at this news; after all, in that direction lie most of Jesus’ enemies. However, any sense of relief is short-lived as Jesus then announces his intention to go and visit the family. His disciples are quick to point out the very present threat of death hanging over him and all who associate with him, but Jesus is adamant, if a little vague on the details. His disciples assume they are to take on the role of mourners, but what comfort can they bring as the question would always hang over them, “why didn’t you come sooner?”
On arrival, Jesus is met by Martha, who pours out a mixture of grief and faith. This must have been a desperate emotional tussle for her; if Jesus can help now, why didn’t he help before Lazarus died? Talk of resurrection is all well and good, but that doesn’t help today when the promise is for some unknown future “last day.”
Mary stays at home. Could she not face the one who could have saved her beloved brother? Could she not trust herself in front of an audience? Or was she too numb, unable to think for herself in the depths of her loss?
Finally though, Mary does go to meet Jesus on the outskirts of the village. Replay that moment in your imagination: Jesus standing with Martha and his disciples; Mary, followed by the crowd, making her way towards him. How does she approach? Is she resolute, fixing Jesus with an accusing glare whilst angry tears flow freely? Or is she stumbling, barely able to keep upright as waves of grief seek to trip her up? Or is there a glimmer of hope as she makes her tearful way towards the one who can lift her spirits as well as her brother?
“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Is there anger, bitterness, accusation in this statement? Is there despair, grief and emptiness in these hollow words? Or is there the recognition of Jesus’ ability following his long-awaited arrival?
Jesus’ response? He weeps. Faced by the reality of the tomb and the stone shutting off the dead from the living, the tears flow freely. Whether they are tears for his friend or for the sisters or for his future interment is up for debate. Maybe Jesus weeps for all these reasons and more.
The fact remains that Jesus weeps. Jesus joins those in mourning in the rawness of their grief. Public spectacle reflecting private anguish.
And then Jesus does something unexpected. He shocks those around him by asking for the tomb to be uncovered. Not only is the anticipated smell an offence, the very act of touching the stone goes against everything that is held dear. And yet such is the authority and the promise that he offers, the stone is moved and the tomb’s entrance is uncovered. Then Jesus commands the impossible. He summons Lazarus to show himself.
Pause a moment.
Pretend that you don’t know the rest of the story; that you haven’t just read it and have never read it before. Consider the implications of what Jesus is asking.
It’s a generally accepted medical fact that the senses die with the body. So how could Lazarus be expected to hear this word of command? Muscles, sinews and tendons don’t work very well after someone has been dead for four days. What was Jesus thinking by asking him to walk out of the tomb?
Of course, in the normal course of life and death, these words of Jesus would just echo in the darkened chamber beyond and nothing would happen save for the shocked murmurings of those around him. Except we should know better because this is Jesus.
With a shuffling and a rasp as muscles and lungs are called back into use, Lazarus does as Jesus’ commands and the whole world shifts slightly on its axis. Such is the impact of this moment that from now on there’s no disputing that all those clustered around the now empty tomb are in the presence of someone very special.
So special that those who feel most threatened by Jesus expedite their plans to put a stop to it and to him. Plots and schemes are put in place to rid the world of this nuisance once and for all. Or so they think.
For this is the heart of the story of Lazarus. Jesus is rehearsing for Easter, demonstrating the transforming power of God’s creativity a week or so before the main event.
For love, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead; to be a direct challenge to the religious rules on how life must be lived and that death must be the ultimate end. The religious leaders had to face up to the reality that Jesus meant business, that he was willing and able to upset a lot more than a few tables. From now on the gloves are off; this moment marks the shift in gear for both Jesus and his enemies. The whole institution of the temple is at risk; if those in charge don’t deal with Jesus soon, the Romans would do it for them, not caring who was caught up in the slaughter.
For love, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead; not just a miracle of resurrection power but a demonstration of resurrection hope. Death is not the end; whether as a reunion between brother and sisters outside the tomb or in eternal glory with all those who have gone before.
But where could we place ourselves in this story? Do we see ourselves amongst the grieving and the broken? Do we count ourselves among the onlookers and supporters of those who are suffering? We might be asking the question “Why did you take so long?” in the current climate of Coronavirus and lockdown, addressing God or government in our distress and worry. As they met Jesus in Bethany, we meet Jesus today wherever we are, just as we are.
This story reminds us that amidst the clamour of voices raised in concern, anger and grief comes the sound of our Saviour sobbing, weeping for all who suffer today just as he wept outside his dead friend’s tomb. We are reminded that with Jesus is the hope that at the end of all our suffering, he is to be found.
Whether we meet him in our grief or in glory, Jesus is our constant, our deliverer, our saviour and our friend.