CLOSE ENCOUNTERS WITH CHRIST
MARY, MARTHA, AND LAZARUS
Southminster, March 2012
OT: Psalm 23
NT: John 11:17-44
In the Gospel of John there are many examples of close encounters with Jesus including the first disciples, Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman, the man by the pool in Bethsaida, the man who was born blind and today… we are looking at Mary, Martha, and Lazarus’ close encounter with the person of Jesus, the Christ.
Mary and Martha had a close relationship with Jesus prior to the setting of our story today. Think for a moment how Jesus related to this family. What he found in their home.
It is one of the most precious things in the world to have a home into which one can go at any time and find rest and understanding and peace and love. That was undoubtedly true for Jesus since he had no home of his own. In Bethany, Jesus had such a home. There were three people who loved him and they knew how to offer Jesus rest from the tension and challenges of his daily life.
The home at Bethany was one of some refinement and even wealth. It is also a fact that between the two sisters and brother there was the tenderness and affection. Perhaps more importantly in addition to this familial affection their happiness was enhanced because they shared the love of the Lord – for we are told “Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus.”
There had been a day in Jesus’ journeys to Jerusalem when Jesus lingered by a door in Bethany and a woman with a kind, motherly heart offered the young, devout, Galilean stranger the grace of an unquestioning Eastern hospitality. Think of the scene that night – for the first time – Martha received Jesus into her house. Time slipped by swiftly and twilight had gone, the lamp had been lit and set upon its stand, and when the meal was over, the young stranger, with the calm eyes, began to speak. Jesus put into words all their longings and their hopes and even fears.
As the hour grew late and the talk became good; of God and his holiness and faith and its power became the supreme realities. One young man heard words that he felt but never had been able to express. One busy woman forgot the anxieties of her toil in the home and one deep and brooding spirit had a vision of the angels of God. Such was the home at Bethany for Jesus and Mary and Martha and Lazarus and we have lessons to learn from them.
As we look closely at this loving home, we recognize that their lives were governed by spiritual values. Mary and Martha loved God and they rejoiced in the service of God – they were sure that God’s loving-kindness was better than any luxury or reward that they could imagine. So, when Jesus spent his days of controversy in the Temple – face to face with the secular-minded Scribes and Pharisees, he went to Bethany in the evening to soak in the atmosphere of the home of spiritual peace.
By contrast – if we were to look at our own lives – where would we find our value center… in the Lord? We live in a world ruled by materialism, not spiritualism; therefore it is a greater challenge to keep our focus on the Lord. The objects of our desires are more often rewards to our senses than to our spirits. Men and women world round live to fill their “personal” needs rather than be concerned with the value and ethics of their doing. It wasn’t so different in Jerusalem and Bethany in the days of Jesus… therefore, it was at this wonderful home of Martha, Mary and Lazarus that Jesus found solace… peace.
So we must question ourselves –Would Jesus find such an atmosphere in our home? If not… what must change?
In today’s story of this home we witness a very intimate (if I may say so) encounter between Jesus and this family. Upon arriving in Bethany, after a too-long delay, Jesus is immediately confronted by Martha. It is hard to know the tone of her voice but it could have been scolding. IF you had been here... Lazarus would not have died. Martha believed in the healing power of Jesus and God so much so that she had sent him word of her brother’s illness… come and save him!! And she seems to now state the obvious – you lingered, my brother is dead!
Martha’s relationship with Jesus was so close that she was able to immediately make the insinuation that Jesus just might have failed her family. There was no hesitation on her part!
I don’t know about you but this takes my breath away! Does this model for me that I can be angry with Jesus?! We need the rest of the story for our answer.
Jesus could have chosen any number of reactions to Martha’s accusation. But he remains calm and offers a very deep theological precept as if it is a statement of fact: "Your brother will rise again." Martha doesn’t quite “get” the connection – of course he will rise in the resurrection of the last day! Martha answered. But Jesus doesn’t give up.
Listen again: Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
Because of our retrospective, it is easy for us to gloss over this incredible exchange. When Jesus asked Martha if she believed, her statement of faith was clear, "Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world." But she really didn’t have a clue as to what this was going to mean to all people of faith, in not so many days.
Jesus and Martha may be talking past each other at the moment but the lesson is surely not lost on us. Can you imagine looking the straight in the eye and exclaiming from the depth of your heart, I believe? I may not understand but I believe!
It is an extremely intimate encounter where Martha is able to confess her total trust in Jesus, to move into a far deeper faith that she might have previously imagined was possible. I believe that there was peace in her soul. At the same time Martha could feel that Jesus has let her down and also have the most incredible spiritual encounter. Faith can be “both/and.” We suffer but we also believe that Christ is the answer and that Christ walks with us.
Like Martha, we can (and do have) such an encounter with Christ. We can invite Jesus into the home of our hearts, a home that hides nothing, not even our frustration with unanswered prayers.
Though we don’t hear the request, Jesus asks to speak with Mary as well. And what were Mary’s first words to the Lord? "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." Then she looses her composure and weeps uncontrollably. That would be Mary.
Oh I can just imagine the conversations between Mary and Martha in the days since Lazarus has died… We thought Jesus was our friend, why didn’t he come when we asked. It wasn’t so far for him to travel what was so important that he hasn’t come, etc.?
Jesus is so kind. He doesn’t scold either of the women, his friends. Instead, he is deeply moved. Had he caused so much grief because he wanted to use Lazarus’ death for his own sake? Is this the way friends treat friends?
Jesus doesn’t answer Mary has he did Martha; at least it is not recorded. Instead he moves into action. He sighs in a way that reveals his deep emotional distress in the moment; he demonstrates the intimate friendship that is shared.
Though Jesus is the Son of God, when he became human he was so completely human that he felt every emotion that we feel, and this is one of the times it showed.
Then Jesus does the practical – though it seemed to the crowd and especially to Martha to be foolish. Roll away the stone? After four days? The stench would be over powering!
And poor Martha still does not grasp the full import of what is happening. Did I not say to you that, if you believed, you would see the glory of God? At that moment I am sure that Martha gave a discrete nod to the men and the tomb was opened.
The rest of the story is almost anti-climax. We know, of course, that Jesus gave thanks to the Father so that those watching would know/understand the source of the power of the event, which was about to take place. We know how he spoke in a loud voice. We know how the man who had died slowly came out, groping his way out of the tomb because he was wrapped head to toe. We can imagine the astonished onlookers, as the grave cloths were unwrapped so to allow Lazarus to go unencumbered, likely into the arms of his astonished sisters.
But in my way of thinking this is anti-climax.
I think that the climax came in the sister’ moments of deepest grief and despair when Jesus shared all of the emotion with the women; listening to them, sharing with them, making it clear that God does enter into our suffering with us, rather than standing aloof and letting us endure it alone.
What a beautiful picture we have of Jesus where time and eternity intersect and overlap so that we might experience both at the same time. Because we have faith in Jesus, we already participate in the conditions that will exist at the last day.
An encounter with Jesus is an encounter with what is waiting for us in eternity. William Blake spoke of holding “infinity in the palm of your hand, and Eternity in an hour.” This is what happens when we have a close encounter with Christ.
Perhaps a postscript: this close encounter from today’s reading plays a critical part in the events of the last days of Jesus’ life. Many who witnessed the encounter with the raising of Lazarus reported it to the Jewish High Council in Jerusalem… the rest of the story is to come as we look forward to the cross.