Setting the Stage

On His arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the toumb for four days.  Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother.  John 11:17-20.

I might have to revise my timeline a bit.  If Lazarus had been the tomb four days already, then he must have died five days before, since embalming wasn’t the Jewish way but preparing the body was a tradition.  Whatever the timeframe we have a dead body that has been sealed in a tomb by a stone so the smell won’t escape too much…not that it worked flawlessly.

Jesus waits on the outskirts of town after sending word to the sisters.  I often wonder why He did it this way, though we have the Scripture to suggest after the Jews’ efforts to stone Him and a couple of specific miracles, He couldn’t enter a town without causing a stir.  I’m going with it being consideration on His part for their grief rather than self-preservation.

His first contact comes with the ever practical Martha.  She must go rebuke Him for His tardiness, bordering on a lack of consideration for those He claimed to love.  Yet even as she remonstrates Jesus, she shows more faith than most.  “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.  But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”  She believed her Master could resurrect the dead.  I’ve heard a lot of criticism for Martha because of the cooking incident but really we must admit this woman’s faith in her Lord held firm with all doubt staring her in the face.

Jesus told her,  “Your brother will rise again.”

Martha answered,  “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”

Jesus said to her,  “I am the resurrection and the life.  He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.  Do you believe this?”

“Yes, Lord,”  she told Him,  “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”

Jesus just challenged her assumptions then asked her the ultimate question of faith, which she passed with flying colors.  No wavering or hesitation; Martha’s faith stood firm even in the face of the ultimate disappointment.

Contrast this with Mary, you know, the one who sat at the feet of Jesus, who irritated Martha for her lack of work ethic and whom He praised for getting her priorities right.  Martha goes back to the house to tell Mary Jesus asked for her.  It’s significant that Mary didn’t go the first time, don’t you think?  Here’s the one who is so emotional and demonstrative hanging back from seeing the very one she loves so much.  But from the context I get that Mary was either angry with Jesus for letting her brother die or very hurt and resentful, thinking her family had been slighted, so she did what any passive aggressive person would do:  nothing apparently.  That is until Jesus asked for her personally through Martha.

Mourning in NT times would seem to be a show to many of us.  I think modern Western people would be embarrassed by the display of grief these people demonstrated.  In fact, some of the wealthy would actually hire mourners to emphasize how much they missed their loved one.  Mary really felt the agony of the loss and being a person who lived out loud whatever she felt, she would have been openly weeping, wailing and beating her breast—even tearing her clothes.

When she leaves the house, the Jews from Jerusalem wanted to continue comforting her so they went with her thinking she was headed for the tomb.  I’m pretty sure the fact Jesus was in town was unknown to them because both the sisters would be aware of the animosity of the Jews toward their Master.  Finding Jesus waiting for Mary on the outskirts of town probably surprised and troubled them.

Mary rebukes Jesus the same way Martha did but without the statement of faith her sister declared.  Tragedy brings out the nature of our belief.   Mary might still have believed in Jesus but her resentment, grief and sheer emotional upheaval left her bereft of anything else other than her immediate state.  Jesus, on the other hand, handles both sisters differently without missing a beat.  At first I thought to criticize Mary for her lack of faith, but reading Jesus’ reaction to her pain I thought better of it—because He did.  He didn’t intrude on her grieving with pious instruction or a well-earned rebuke, instead He felt her pain radiated in the people around her, who from what John says in this account, were friends of the family.

Jesus wept.

Much has been made of this.  The explanations vary in the same way the of Jews’ reactions.  “See how He loved him?”  came from one side of the spectrum, whereas,  “Could not He who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”  The contrast is more personality than belief.  In fact, I would go so far as to say we can’t tell from these statements who would believe and who wouldn’t.  Those who declare the most doubt, hubris and vehement opposition many times become ardent, enthusiastic and dedicated followers.  So concluding anything from the dividing line of reactions here would be as effective as assessing Martha or Mary.  Both women believed in Jesus, they just had different reactions to pain.

This makes me think that I and many other believers have reacted to other people’s pain or loss in an inappropriate matter.  Instead of instructing Mary as to His power, Jesus simply wept with her in simpathy, though not in grief, for He knew what He was about to do, so grief had no place in His heart.  We forget because of our own view of death how God views it.  It is a state not that much unlike what we were before we were born—which is to say merely a possibility though not an actuality.

The situation now sets the stage for one of the most unforgettable, irrefutible and wonderful miracles the Bible ever records.  Like any good story the mystery of what will happen next deepens, the conflict needing a resolution is set up and the moment of truth where we find out who wins the day is upon us.

But that’s not the end of the problems facing the Master.  No, John records one more to heighten the anxiety of the moment.  The moment Jesus said,  “Take away the stone.”  Our practical Martha, bless her heart, objected with,  “But, Lord, by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.”  I can almost see her wrinkling her nose in anticipation.  Jesus’ answer must have exploded in her heart like a fireworks display of hope, for He said,  “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”

I don’t think anyone but Martha and the disciples undestood what He was saying, though knowing the disciples, probably few of them had any idea what would happen next.  Yet I think Martha did for they rolled away the stone.  Mary, lost in her grief, couldn’t really register what Jesus said.  The cloud of agony weighed heavily on a spirit with her personality type.  This is not to put her down but merely to point out God deals with each of us differently.  He didn’t expect her to grasp what was going on because her grief would soon be turned to joy.  No rebuke or instruction would have reached her anyway, so Jesus left her alone knowing that as soon as her brother walked out of the tomb, she would be back on track again.

Oh, the wisdom, love and sheer patience of our Savior with all of us.  He considers us even while knowing we are living in futile circumstances and unnecessary emotional trauma.  He doesn’t clamp down on our feelings or hurt us more, instead He works on our behalf despite us and with love to bless us.


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