In one of my former monk communities, we had a typical Friar Tuck. He always mixed up his words without realizing. When opening a new aged-couple facility, he addressed the Governor and Archbishop and us plebs, “It is a wonderful thing that the Sisters have built. Now, these aged couples can spend their reclining years in peace and seduction.” Of course, he meant to say “their declining years in peace and seclusion.” This may well have been an example of the facility that Martha and Mary may have run at Bethany, where the sick poor could find peace and care in an oasis of quiet, in their declining years, especially for Lazarus, their ailing brother.
With his life ebbing away, the sisters, who were the family closest to Jesus in his ministry, sent Jesus an urgent SOS, “Lord, the one you love, is sick, come and heal him.” But, Jesus did not rush to the bedside of his dying friend. Instead, he spent time exploring his next move in prayer. Far from denial, his delay was so that God may be somehow glorified through the sickness. Full well he knew that, if he chose to be most loving and life-giving to his dear friend, it would be a death invitation from the priests intent on killing him [John 11.46-57], and Lazarus, too [John 12.10-11]. Even gloomy Thomas realized the danger, saying: “Let us go that we may die with him.”
Without email or phones, you can imagine the fretting sisters dashing repeatedly to the front gate, calling to one another, “Is he coming?” Then, Lazarus died. The pair had held off anointing him with expensive spikenard, because Jesus would come, wouldn’t he? But, in the heat, and without any ice, he had to be put down quickly. Mary would find a use for the oils, when, later, she gave Jesus the only anointing that he would receive before he was killed.
You can imagine the pair groping in the bewildering darkness of bereavement, clinging to one another, and, with the quickly gathered assembling of friends, not one keeping the four-foot distance, the sadness was reinforced with whispers “If only he really cared about us, if only he had been here he wouldn’t have allowed this to happen. He could easily have prevented this pain and heartache”
Jews then believed that the soul left the body after the third day. It was the fourth day when Jesus came to prove that his friend was truly dead. Stoically concealing her true feelings, Martha blustered “If only you had come…” She caught herself in mid- sentence, “I know that nothing is ever too late for you, Jesus, that, whatever you ask of Father God, it will happen. Even in my grief for my dear brother being in the grave, I still trust you, Jesus.” And Jesus responded ‘Your brother will rise again.”
There are so many “if only” moments in our lives, where we become stuck in bitter memory and cannot move on: “Lord, if only you had warned my late hubby who worked unprotected with asbestos. Lord, if only you had talked my daughter out of marrying that louse of a husband. Lord, if only I could turn back the clock, but all I can do is to remember the might-have-beens.” My own mother bore her regrets as a widow for fifty-four years, “if only Daddy had not smoked sixty a day. If only he had taken off some weight. If only he had got rid of that damn car that caused him so much stress. If only he had not been taken so soon…”
We St. Philippians may have been here, storming heaven at times: the tears we shed, the prayers we said, were awful, wild, despairing for Jesus to intervene quickly, as our own hope-corroded tombs closed darkly.
Martha had only her good Pharisee belief that her dead brother, with all death’s disfigurement gone, would emerge transformed into a glorious creature, but not until the Last Day. Jesus had to pull Martha up to the next level of deeper faith, to move her from a future view back to the present, that “I am the resurrection and eternal life. Here and now, I can raise up your brother. Do you believe this?” Bless her, against all evidence, Martha professed her confession of faith, the main theological statement in the whole Christian scripture, “I believe that you are the Messiah of God, come into this world.”
At this point, Martha darted off to find her sister, Mary, and to give us time to think “Who are you really for me, Jesus, here at St Philip’s? Can I truly trust you as my saving Lord?”
Mary was still where Martha had been: “Lord if only?” Mary was still lost in grief, in a place that she and we cannot stay. Unlike the gods of ancient time, who showed no emotion and no messy involvement in base humanity, our God in Jesus felt loss, could weep with the world’s grieving and show intense compassion and concern. The moment that Jesus saw heart-broken Mary, her tears struck deeply into his heart. His human flesh and blood broke down and he wept tears of anger at the power of the last enemy, death.
Then from the very core of his heart, Jesus let burst forth a groan of grief, such that the mouthed “See, how he loved this man. Could not he, who opened the eyes of the blind, have kept this man from dying?” A shudder of presentiment passed through Jesus’ frame, for shortly, pinioned to the cross, he will hear it said of himself, “He saved others. Himself he cannot save. He trusts God, let God deliver him.”
Then, through misty eyes, Jesus asked “Where have you laid him?” And folk cried “Come and see.” Come and see should be our constant prayer as we direct him to our places of deepest grief and need. Why is Jesus weeping? Surely, he trusts the power of God. He trusts that the sisters will get back their brother. He trusts that he will hug his friend again. Why is he weeping? Because he can already hear his enemies saying “This man works many signs and miracles. If he can raise the dead, everyone will believe in him.” Why is he weeping? Because only five verses after the raising of Lazarus, corrupt High Priest Caiphas let the cat out the truth bag “It is better to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.”
At the tomb, Jesus called “Lazarus, come out.” Then, “unbind him and let him go.” The dead man walking was speechless; perhaps, having returned from heaven, he was little interested in earthly conversation about the virus.
Is anything keeping you in your tomb today? At times, the pitch black night may be very dark and our tears of life are very bitter. We need you, Lord, to transform the darkness into light, and the despair into hope. What is holding us back from being all that God has called us to be? Like the sheep who hears the shepherd’s voice, he is calling us today to come out of our tomb of emotional distress, to come out of the tomb of low-esteem, of fear and inadequacy, to come out of the tomb to healing hope, health, goodness and joy, to come out of the tomb to really experience life and the miracle-working power that Lazarus found. At our earthly ending, he will call us out saying “Come and see,” and we, too, will make Martha’s leap of faith. Though we must walk through the valley of the shadow, in faith, we will know that where there is shadow, there must be light to make it so, and Jesus, the Light of the World will be close by to take us by the hand to lead us safe towards the breaking day in the lone east. Thanks be to God who gives us the victory.
Sermon by – Fr.(Rev) Walter McEntee