“Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” That’s what the Gospel of John tells us right after Jesus hears the news of Lazarus’ death. This family is special to Jesus. So special that Jesus stays with them in Bethany when he travels to Jerusalem to face his death. If you map out that final week or so of his life, you see him walking back and forth from Bethany to Jerusalem, over and over. They gave Jesus the comfort he needed to face the most difficult time in his life. So, Lazarus, Mary and Martha are not anonymous people that are part of a crowd who follow Jesus. They aren’t even the disciples. Martha, Mary and Lazarus are Jesus’ friends, his tribe. Mary anoints Jesus. She is the only person in his life who seems to truly understand that death is in his future. In the Gospel of Luke we experience Mary and Martha as bickering sisters, but in the Gospel of John we see them both as women of faith, beloved of Jesus.
So, when their brother Lazarus dies, and Jesus does not come right away to heal him, both the sisters are understandably devastated. They have sent word to Jesus, Jesus could have come, but he doesn’t. Jesus has healed hundreds of other people’s brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers, but he won’t come to Bethany to heal one of his closest friends?
One of the most painful experiences after the death of a loved one can be this sense that God has abandoned you and your loved one. That, if God really saw your pain, heard your prayers, loved you, then God would heal the people you love. This pain and sense of loss can even mutate into a belief that God chose death for your loved one, chose suffering for you. We can come to believe that God is capricious and malevolent, or that you are somehow not holy enough to be worth his attention.
One of the great gifts of this story is that Mary and Martha ask our question to Jesus. Because they are two different people, in two different emotional spaces, Jesus answers them individually. When Jesus first arrives on the scene Martha runs up to him and tells him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Martha goes on to say, “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus then goes on to have a theological conversation with her. He explains to her that he is the resurrection and life, that he is the Messiah that has power even over death. When she and Jesus get to the house, he encounters Mary, who is still weeping. She also says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” But Jesus doesn’t give her a theological lecture. For a moment, he stops being the teacher, and simply weeps alongside of her.
This is our Jesus. He is both the power over death and the one who weeps alongside us.
There was a time when theologians understood God as impassable, so this moment when Jesus weeps alongside Mary was a real puzzler for them. Jesus must have been weeping as some kind of a show, to make a point, because if Jesus was God than Jesus could not be affected by deeper human emotions. But for all those of you who have been following along with us in the Old Testament, you’ll have noticed that God, as expressed by the Hebrew Scriptures, is the opposite of impassable. He is deeply connected to human beings. He loves them and is frustrated by them. And throughout the Gospels we have experienced Jesus as deeply moved by the humans around him and their suffering. He moves toward people, does not keep distance from them. So, Jesus’ tears seem completely in line with the God we are getting to know. A God who made us, but also identifies with us. A God who weeps with us when we face the limitations of our bodies, and makes a way for us beyond our bodies’ finitude.
Our bodies are part of Creation. And creation is by definition finite and imperfect. Only the Creator is eternal and perfect. Every human being dies. Ideally, we would all die peacefully in our sleep when we felt like we have wrung every drop out of the life we have been given. But because our bodies are created and imperfect, we can die young from any number of diseases, accidents, or acts of violence. These deaths are not God’s judgment on us as individuals; they are just what it means to be part of a broken Creation.
God does not always intervene in our illnesses and accidents, but that does not mean God has abandoned us. God has already proclaimed his love for us and our liberation from death through Jesus’s death and resurrection. Jesus is our ally not only in mourning the death of his friend, but in actually experiencing death. He engages with us on the deepest possible level, facing our fears head on and experiencing the very worst our lives can offer.
But his Father, our Creator, does not leave Jesus to face the consequences of death. Instead he pulls Jesus from the depths of death into the fullness of life again. And in that moment he offers all of us the same eternal life. You do not need to wonder if God has abandoned you, because God has already done everything he needs to do to ensure you and God and all the Saints that have come before us and will come after us will have eternal life together.
When Jesus chooses to resurrect Lazarus he is demonstrating the radical power of God over death. He is giving his close friends a front row seat to God’s new plan for humanity. No longer will we be limited by the imperfections of creation. No longer will we be banished for our sin. Jesus is making a way for Mary, Martha and Lazarus to be his friends eternally. Jesus is making a way for all of us to be united with God forever.
Wherever you are in relationship to your own mortality or the death of someone you have loved, know this: Jesus is with you, not against you. Jesus is alongside you as you grieve and Jesus is at work preparing a place for you and the ones you love in his heavenly kingdom.
Jesus loved ordinary saints like Mary, Martha and Lazarus and Jesus loves ordinary saints like us.
On All Saints day we celebrate this reality as we give thanks for all the Saints that have gone before us. We lift up their names in gratitude and in the deep joy that they are now living their resurrected lives alongside Lazarus.
Thanks Be to God.