It may seem odd to read this story without the dramatic conclusion in verses 38-44 where Jesus raises the dead man Lazarus back to life. Verse 44 is graphic: The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to [the mourners], "Unbind him, and let him go." Verses 45-57 indicate that people had mixed reactions to this frightening miracle: it led some to joyful belief in Jesus while it led others to conspire to have him executed.
In our weekly lectionary, the story of the raising of Lazarus is a prelude to the events of Holy Week. It is another sign of the Lordship of Jesus, but it's also a revealing story about real people who grieve and cry and become angry because someone they dearly love has died. In all this, there are elements of hope, intimacy with God, and deep faith.
When Martha and Mary sent for Jesus to help their sick brother, Jesus did not rush to Bethany to sit at his bedside. In fact, Jesus didn't show up at all while Lazarus was dying. By the time Jesus finally arrived, Lazarus' body had already been buried; and the customary 30-day period of mourning prescribed by Hebrew law was into its fifth day.
Why did Jesus arrive late? Why did he allow his dear friends' emotions to be tried to the breaking point? The Gospel of John, the only place we find this story, does not give us a clear answer.
What the text does tell us explicitly is that the first sister Jesus met when he finally approached the outskirts of Bethany was Martha. She ran out and greeted Jesus with all the grief and anger and love of a close friend in crisis. She also courageously added a statement of deep faith: "But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him." When Jesus told Martha that Lazarus would rise again, Martha responded with more statements of faith. Then Martha ran back and summoned her sister Mary, who had stayed home.
In verse 2, Mary was identified as the same person who later would anoint Jesus with perfume and wipe his feet with her hair in the beginning of Chapter 12. Her relationship with Jesus was personal, like a close friend of the family. After the death of her brother Lazarus, at first Mary stayed home as Jesus approached; but when her sister summoned her, Mary got up and brought her own mixture of grief and pain out to meet Jesus.
Both Martha and Mary reproached Jesus as they embraced him, sobbing, "Lord, if you had been here, our brother would not have died." Even the crowd around them wondered, "Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?"
Jesus truly felt their anger and pain. He loved them. So it was naturally human for him to weep with them and for them. As the procession of family and friends and acquaintances walked to the cave where Lazarus had been buried, they saw Jesus, the Messiah, weeping with them.
It's important to note that although Jesus raised Lazarus' body back to life, Lazarus and Mary and Martha and everyone else in the story did eventually die and fade into history. Though we will all die as we must, we live in hope because Jesus gives us the courage, through his own death and resurrection, to die and rise again also. Scripture proclaims that whether we live or whether we die, we are in the presence of God, and nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
This was true for those gathered at Lazarus' tomb--and it is true today for us when we gather at the graves of those we love. Just as Jesus wept with Martha and Mary, Jesus weeps with us also. We hear Jesus say again, "I am the resurrection and the life;" and we try to believe in the midst of hurt and grief.
Often in my years as a parish pastor, I have stood at the graveside of a friend, dutifully reading the words of Jesus meant to comfort us in times of mourning, but knowing these words are felt only from a distance by many of us assembled at the funeral. While leading the burial liturgy, I have often privately wondered why the deceased suffered so long or died so young or left us so unexpectedly. Many of us privately want to beat our fists against Jesus' chest and cry out, "Lord, if only...!" as Martha and Mary did. Like Martha and Mary, we struggle to believe the Good News even when our hearts are breaking. Sometimes we are able to mix our feelings of hurt with statements of faith as Martha did, but other times we can only express the pain as Mary did. Either way, Martha and Mary's story reminds us that we do not need to hide our grief and anger from God. We can be honest with God, even if what we are feeling isn't pretty.
As a pastor, I often wish I could say something that would ease the pain in times of grief. I shake hands with the mourners, mumble some little benediction like, "God bless you in your grief," and I realize that my words seem very small at this moment. But then I remember the times when God has spoken to us very powerfully through the still, small voice of some little Scripture verse or a prayer memorized long ago or through the thoughtful companionship of a faithful friend or a generous stranger. Actually, the first miracle in the Lazarus story happens in verses 17-37, when Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, truly feels the pain of human grief and weeps with us.
Jesus allows us to be honest and intimate in our relationship with God, even to get angry in our times of death and loss. Martha and Mary and Lazarus and we too will die. Death, whether welcome or a cruel and outrageous interruption, is an inevitable part of life on earth; but the Good News is that God in Jesus Christ is here with us while we live and there for us when we die.
Let us pray. Loving God, comfort all who grieve this day. As we reach out or hide, hold us gently and lead us to healing. Help us to be faithful neighbors to those whose pain seems never-ending, and bring all of us at last into that eternal place where death can never again interrupt life, through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.