(Read the whole lesson here)…Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go… (Read the whole lessons here)
The prophet Ezekiel said: The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones.
We have have made our way through the season of Lent. 5 weeks, 5 encounters between Jesus and another aspect of the human condition. Temptation in the desert, Doubt with Nicodemus, Shame with the woman at the well, Refusal to see with the Blindman. We have journeyed through the Lenten wilderness, one where our flaws and sufferings have been put on display, where Jesus has met us with mercy.
But today, we take a turn towards Holy Week. Jesus still meets us in an aspect of the human condition, in grief. But the story foreshadows what is to come.
The prophet Ezekiel said: The Lord led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.
We begin with Jesus staying somewhere other than where he needs to be. His friends are in trouble, Lazarus is dying. They are hoping that he can come to help. But instead, he stays. And then after a few days of waiting, Jesus announces that Lazarus is dead and then decides to go to his friends in Judea. His disciples are puzzled, but his answer to them tells us that something is about to happen. “Let us go, that we may also die with him”.
As Jesus finally makes his way to Bethany, the real drama begins to unfold. News of Lazarus death is spreading, Jesus has arrived in time to grieve and mourn, but too late help. On is way to town, Martha, Lazarus’s sister comes out and meets Jesus on the road. Martha, the busybody, the one who needs to work goes to Jesus let her grief, her frustration out. “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died. But now I know that God will give you whatever you ask him.” Martha’s word are accusatory. They are desperate. She is filled with grief. She utters words that could very well be our words.
“Lord, if you… than this…” We have all been where Martha is. We have all suffered loss, felt grief, felt abandoned or ignored. We have all suffered and wished for God’s intervention. We know what it is like to be Martha. To want the past to be different, to even be desperate enough to hope that it can still be changed.
The prophet Ezekiel said: The Lord said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord GOD, you know.”
Jesus is gentle enough with Martha to let her make her accusations, to let her share her desperation. Jesus could have done something, maybe he still can.
And then Jesus answers Martha, “Your brother will rise again.”
Can we imagine hearing those words? Can we imagine the God of the universe, come in flesh, speaking to us, “Your loved one will rise again.” Can we imagine standing in front of God almighty as God declares that death is no barrier, that the powers of this world that we think are unassailable are a mere trifle to God.
Martha is too lost in her grief to really take in the moment, she doesn’t really get who is speaking to her and what Jesus is saying. She responds almost automatically,
“I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”
Martha gives a formulaic response, but one also resigned to death. Martha is clinging to the promise as best she can, but she does not see the immediacy of Jesus’ statement. And still Jesus stays with her, “I am the resurrection and the life”
And the Prophet Ezekiel said: Then the Lord said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”
The God of the universe has just declared that Lazarus will live… But we don’t get the impression that Martha has really absorbed what Jesus is saying to her.
And so Jesus continues down the road, and this time Mary, Martha’s sister comes to meet him. She accosts Jesus with the same statement that her sister gave, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
And maybe this time it is Jesus who now understands something. These two women cannot see past their grief. They can only experience the rawness of their brother’s death. They can only painfully long for their brother to be alive, they can only see the empty hole their dead brother has left in their world.
This time, Jesus simply stays with these grieving women. He doesn’t try to remind them of who he is, he doesn’t try to buoy their spirits with what he is about to do. He simply shares in their grief. He weeps with Mary. He is moved by their fragility and their weakness. Jesus knows that is about to call Lazarus out of his grave, but still the deep grief that Mary and Martha carry moves him in spirit.
We have all been here. This is the essence of what it means to be human. To know that everything around us is limited. That we only have so many days on earth, we only have so much we get to do and be and experience. And so we grieve the rest, all the things, all the people that we didn’t get enough of.
Maybe this grief is a lesson. Maybe it isn’t the disciples, or Mary or Martha who need to see God’s glory. Just maybe Lazarus hasn’t died so that we can see, but so that Jesus, so that God, can live grief in person. So God can truly understand what it means to grieve.
And when Jesus finally knows incarnate grief, knows what it is mourn like we do, Jesus makes his way to the tomb. Jesus has learned grief, but Mary, Martha, the disciples, the crowds, us, we are about to see what it is like to be God, what death really means when it stands before the creator of life itself.
Ezekiel said: So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
As Jesus, Mary and Martha, the disciples and the crowds stand before Lazarus’ tomb, he declares,
“Take away the stone”
And Martha protests. Martha the one who has just confessed that Jesus is the resurrection and the life, says “There will be a stench for he has been dead four days”.
Martha, stuck in her grief, is telling Jesus there will be a stench. She is speaking to God, to the One who uttered the word “Let there be…” in creation. The one whom is the Word of God made flesh.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus rarely looses his cool, but at this moment, full of grief too, Jesus snaps are Martha, “Did I not tell you that if you believed…” Jesus has declared that he is the Resurrection and the Life, and we are about to see what that really means.
The prophet Ezekiel said: Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, `Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord.
And the stone is rolled away. And that very first promise that Jesus makes to Martha,
“Your brother with rise again”
That promise comes to fruition. Lazarus walks out of the tomb.
And we too are about to enter into Holy Week. Into a period of remembered and renewed grief. We know what is going to happen, we know that Good Friday is coming. We know that humanity is about nail Jesus, that we are about to nail God to the cross.
But we go with these words ringing in our ears,
“On the third day, he will rise again”.
And the promise rings true for also for us ,
“You will rise again”