It was a day like so many others that had gone before it. Surrounded by an insistent throng Jesus had spent countless hours healing the sick, teaching the spiritually unenlightened and encouraging the downcast. Perhaps it was just past mid day that he got the news or maybe towards evening. The messenger hurried into his presence, pushing his way through gawking multitude that pressed around him, elbowing aside his indignant disciples who always clustered closest to him.
When the messenger reached Jesus and got his attention he delivered his news in short clipped tones. It was a message from two of Jesus’ closest friends; “Lord, behold he whom You love is sick.” That was it, simple and succinct, without any further instruction. Mary and Martha didn’t feel the need to direct Jesus. They trusted him enough to believe that when he heard that their brother Lazarus was sick he would come immediately.
But Jesus didn’t rush to be by their side. Instead he simply said “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it”. Then he went on doing what he had been doing all morning.
HIs response might seem dispassionate or even cryptic. A pat answer pointing to the greater good that would come out of Lazarus' suffering without any tangible effort to relieve that suffering. It almost seemed like he didn't care. But Jesus loved Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Their wellbeing mattered to him. So what was happening here?
Jesus chose to make Lazarus' suffering both a moment of victory and a vehicle to establish his authority and identity as the son of God. Lazarus was going to be at the center of his greatest miracle but before the family at Bethany could experience the joy of deliverance they needed to pass through the valley of mourning.
Jesus waited two days before he decided to go down to Judea and visit Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. His disciples were quick to protest, saying "Rabbi, lately, the Jews sought to stone you, and are you going there again?"
The Jewish leaders were incensed about the influence Jesus had over the people. Consumed by jealousy and wounded pride they were ready to murder him. Jesus knew this but the threat did not phase him.
He understood the timeline of his mission and knew that the Jewish leaders were as bound by it as he was. His time to die had not yet come. It was close but it wasn't going to happen on this trip to Bethany. No one could lay a finger on him.
In reply to the disciples' concerns, Jesus merely said “Our friend Lazarus sleeps, but I go that I may wake him up.” Confused, the disciples replied “Lord if he sleeps he will get well”
But Jesus was talking about his death. It was the first time Jesus had explained to his disciples what happened to a man after he died. It confused them even more. They couldn't equate death to sleep, it was an unfamiliar concept. But its unfamiliarity didn't diminish its truth. Jesus plainly tells us all that death is like sleep; a pause before being woken up to welcome a glorious eternal morning.
Thoroughly confused by what he was hearing Thomas declared "let us also go that we may die with him." It was one of those moments when saying nothing would have been better than saying something as foolish as that. But Jesus' disciples often found themselves dumbfounded by the things he said. And in response, they often blurted the first thing that popped into their minds, even if it beggared belief.
In the minds of his disciples, Jesus seemed to inhabit an alternate universe. His conceptions of truth and reality were so far removed from their own that it seemed as though he was speaking another language. In many ways he did. The language of heaven is so far removed from the language of earth that sometimes translation seems impossible. Jesus had inhabited a world where sin didn't distort the truth. Where self-sacrificing love was the only constant. Where selfishness, injustice, brutality, and prejudice didn't exist. Where death had no place. He exchanged that world for ours and he tried, so hard, to get his disciples to catch even the tiniest glimpse of the world he had come from. More often than not, they couldn't.
So much of Jesus' mission and message was lost in translation because the gap between the His world and out is so wide and vast that briding it seemed impossible Yet Jesus did everything in his power to bridge it. When words failed, he used actions.
Which is exactly what he did in the case of Lazarus.
When they arrived in Bethany Jesus found that Lazarus had already been dead and buried for four days. Martha hurried to meet Jesus when he was still outside the town and brokenly cried out "Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died," then she bravely added "But even now I know that whatever You ask of God, God will give you"
Though she was grief-stricken and confused about why Jesus hadn't come sooner her faith refused to waver. She didn't berate him over his absence. She didn't even ask him why he hadn't come sooner. She simply stated the facts as she believed them; Jesus could have saved her brother but even now God could give him whatever He asked.
Did she really think Jesus could raise Lazarus from the dead? Her reluctance to let Jesus open his tomb later on in the story suggests that she didn't. Nevertheless, her faith in Him didn't waver, not even when she was faced with a terrible loss.
Facing her now, Jesus affirmed her faith with five simple words “your brother will rise again”
Martha nodded “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day” she agreed with tears in her eyes. Jesus replied “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me though he may die, he shall live. Do you believe this?” Again Martha nodded. With her whole heart, she believed that Jesus was the son of God and that He had the power to do whatever he wanted.
If only we all had the faith of Martha; unwavering, steadfast, and true.
Turning from Jesus, Martha hurried home to find her sister Mary. Mary was more sensitive than Martha was. She felt deeply and reacted emotionally. Jesus had saved her from the despair of prostitution and she loved him with a soul-deep devotion that influenced all their interactions.
When Mary heard that Jesus had finally come, she ran to find him. Thinking that she was going to weep at her brothers' tomb, many of the mourners who had congregated at the house followed her.
When she saw Jesus, Mary repeated Martha's words; "Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died." Again these were not words of reproach but of simple, unyielding faith.
They knew that Jesus could have healed their brother, but the test before them now was this; did they believe that Jesus could raise him from the dead after he had been in the tomb for four days?
Sometimes God allows us to go through trials that stretch our faith beyond the limits we have confined it to. We believe that God can do certain things for us, within the realm of possibility but do we really believe that he can do things that are beyond that realm?
Jesus asked to be taken to the tomb. As he stood staring at it his heart broke. Not because one of his best friends was dead. He already knew he was going to raise him. Instead, his heart broke because of the unbelief he could sense all around him. Everyone believed that Jesus could have healed Lazarus but not one of them believed that he could raise Lazarus from the grave four days after he had been buried. Their faith had reached the bounds of credulity and had petered out.
Their unbelief made Jesus weep.
When Jesus gathered up his emotions again he asked them to remove the stone that covered the mouth of the tomb. Shocked by his request, pragmatic Martha pointed out that the decomposing body would be stinking by now. Jesus faced her and said, "did I not say to you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?" Silenced by his words she agreed to his request and the stone was removed.
Raising his eye to heaven Jesus uttered a short prayer of thanksgiving for what he knew his heavenly father was about to do, stating “And I know that You always hear Me but because of the people who are standing by I said this, that they may believe that You sent me”
Then with a loud voice, he cried out “Lazarus come forth”
And Lazarus woke up from his sleep and lumbered out of his tomb.
You can imagine the scene. A loud, collective gasp, possibly a few cries of fear. Marcy and Martha lurch forward to help their brother out of the grave clothes that bind him. Then they grab hold of him to make sure that he is alive, truly alive. And then the jubilation and wonder. Lazarus was alive! Jesus had just raised a decomposing man from the dead. Not only was He God, but there was also nothing that He couldn't do.
There are moments in life when it seems like every shred of hope has died. When we find ourselves in a situation that seems too complicated to salvage and impossible to bear. Yet it is in those moments that we should turn to Jesus. It is in those moments that He is waiting to see if our faith is able to stretch far enough to grasp His power.
Jesus is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think. Are we willing to believe that?