03/26/23 “Encounter with Martha”

John 11:1-12:3, sel.

The story of Mary and Martha, the disciples and the Jews, Jesus and Lazarus is a very long one. We read just a few excerpts from it today. In many Bibles, this story is subtitled “The Raising of Lazarus,” but the raising of Lazarus takes up only two of the passage’s forty-five verses. The verses we read focus on Jesus’ encounter with Martha, because their conversation is at the theological heart of John’s Gospel and, consequently, at the heart of our faith.

Jesus and his disciples have a long conversation after Jesus receives Mary and Martha’s message that their brother Lazarus is ill. These three are dear friends of Jesus. John tells us repeatedly that Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. But, upon hearing that his beloved friend is ill, Jesus says something perplexing. “This illness isn’t fatal. It’s for the glory of God so that God’s Son can be glorified through it.”

These words can be troubling. Is Jesus suggesting that God caused Lazarus’ illness, just to prove a point? And if that’s true, does that mean that God causes bad things to happen in our lives, just to serve God’s purposes? No. God loves us too much to exploit us or manipulate our lives so they can be used as teaching tools. Instead, Jesus’ words are a prophetic observation about what he knows will be the consequences of this particular death and what he will do in the face of it. Jesus knows that the events that are about to unfold will be the catalyst that will lead to his own death and resurrection.

Knowing what he does, Jesus extended his stay in the place across the Jordan for another two days—a stay that will ensure that when Jesus finally goes to Bethany, Lazarus will be well and truly dead. But, the disciples are completely at sea about what is happening. When Jesus tells them that Lazarus is asleep, and that Jesus will awaken him, the disciples take him literally. They assume he’s using the words in the most common sense, not as a metaphor for death. They assume that, if Lazarus is just napping, all will be well. They assume that Jesus’ lack of interest in going to Bethany (which is in Judea) has more to do with the fact that Jesus had just been stoned in Jerusalem and narrowly escaped being arrested.

Finally, Jesus says plainly that Lazarus is dead, and that he and the disciples will be going to Bethany. Jesus knows what this will ultimately mean for him, but he has hopes for what it might mean for the disciples. He hopes that, when they witness what is about to happen, they will come to a true belief in who Jesus is, not based on signs and miracles, but based on the fact that Jesus and God are one, and that God has given into Jesus’ hands God’s own power over life and death.

Jesus and company arrive in Bethany, and John is quick to remind us that Lazarus has been dead for four days. There’s no mistaking this for a coma or a long, healing sleep. Lazarus is as dead as a doornail. Four days dead sounds pretty dead to us, but it would have meant even more to John’s original readers. Jewish tradition of the time maintained that the soul would keep coming back to the grave for three days, hoping to return to the body. But, by the fourth day, when the body had reached an advanced stage of decomposition, the soul would abandon the body. “Aha,” John’s readers would have said. “Lazarus has literally given up the ghost.”

Since Bethany was only two miles from Jerusalem, John tells us that many Jews had come to console Mary and Martha. Remember that, as I shared with you last week, for John, “the Jews” are those Jewish people who have not accepted Jesus as the Son of God. So, from this we know that what is about to enfold won’t be just for the benefit of Mary and Martha and the disciples, but will be witnessed by an assembly of people who are not followers of Jesus.

But Jesus doesn’t encounter them right away. First, he encounters Martha, who goes to meet him. She cries out, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died!” John doesn’t tell us what Martha’s emotional state is, and it’s natural for us to read into Martha’s words what our own feelings would be. We would be grief-stricken at the loss of someone we love and desperate to be in the company of someone who could comfort us. But maybe we’d be really upset and angry, too, if we were sure that our loved one would still be alive, if only that person would have come when we called. Maybe we would feel a sense of betrayal, because that someone we had thought was a loving friend let us down.

Martha’s words don’t tell us whether she felt all or some or none of those emotions. But what her words do tell us is that she had faith in Jesus. She believed that he had the power to work miracles, and that this power came from God. Even now she believes. “Even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him,” she says. Even now, in her grief or her anger or her disappointment or whatever feelings she has, Jesus is still her Lord. Even now, her faith in Jesus endures.

But, her faith is still an immature faith. It rests on what Jesus has done rather than who Jesus is. She’s unable to see beyond what she can observe to the truths of God that are revealed in Jesus. She’s in good company. She’s in the company of Nicodemus, who couldn’t wrap his head around a new birth. She’s in the company of the Samaritan woman whose name we don’t know and who was puzzled by Jesus’ offer of living water. She’s in the company of the man who thought his only hope for healing was in a bubbling pool, when the Great Physician was standing right in front of him. She’s in the company of the disciples, who repeatedly just don’t get who Jesus is. And maybe she’s in the company of us, when we struggle to comprehend who Jesus is.

But, the thing about Jesus is that he never gives up on us. He didn’t give up on Martha. In response to Martha’s declaration, Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha responded with the understanding that her Jewish upbringing had given her: she knows that her brother will rise again in the general resurrection anticipated by some Jews. She hasn’t yet broken out of her understanding of the world as it was to an understanding of the world as it is—a world where God has broken in, in Jesus.

The importance of Jesus’ next words to Martha cannot be overstated. Have you ever ridden a really tall roller coaster, like the Millennium Force at Cedar Point? You climb up and up and up, with the tension building as the car crawls forward. And then you reach the very top, and for a moment you feel like time has stopped as you are poised there in midair, with the unknown stretching before you.

That’s what Jesus’ next words to Martha represent in John’s Gospel. Everything that has come before has been building to this point—the healings, the teachings, and the misunderstandings, the growing number of believers and the increasing opposition. Here, in this encounter with Martha, Jesus is poised between the end of his public ministry and the beginning of his journey to the cross. Scholars say that this passage divides John’s gospel into two parts—the book of signs, which has been leading us to the pinnacle of this roller coaster, and the book of glory, which will carry us toward Jesus’ Passion.

Here are the words that stand at the pinnacle of John’s gospel—the words that should take our breath away like no roller coaster ever can: “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.”

“I am the resurrection and the life.” We say those words as though they are synonyms, but they’re not. Jesus is the resurrection. Believers in Jesus will still experience the death of their bodies. But their lives will not end with their physical deaths. Believing in Jesus assures us that we will live on, eternally. But Jesus promises more than existence after physical death. Jesus also has a promise for now. Because Jesus is also life—the life that every believer can enjoy now, in an unending relationship with God through Jesus in the present.

Jesus says to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. Do you believe this? Do you believe that I am not just a worker of signs, but the one who has the power of God over life and death? Do you believe that I am one with God?” Jesus asks Martha—and us, “Do you believe that I am the One who can give you not only resurrection life after your body dies, but also full and abundant life now? Do you believe this?”

Martha answers, “Yes. Yes, Lord. I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” She could have continued, “I believe that you are God, incarnate in a human body, the Word made flesh, the giver of life in all its forms.”

But as certain as Martha sounds, she’s not quite there yet. After a conversation with Mary, Jesus goes to the tomb with Martha, her sister, and the Jews who had come to console them. But here, Martha shows that she’s not quite certain of exactly how far her friend’s power can go. When Jesus asks that the tomb be unsealed, she reminds him of the physical reality of death: “Lazarus is dead, Jesus, and he’s been dead for four days.” Martha calls his attention to the stench of the decomposing body inside the tomb. But, rather than chastise her for her still-too-small faith, Jesus reminds her of something he had told her before—something that John didn’t share with us: “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”

And then, Jesus prays. His prayer is not a plea that Lazarus will be raised, but a prayer of thanksgiving for what he is about to do. He prays in thanksgiving that this will be an opportunity for the people gathered there to believe in him—Martha, Mary, the Jews and the disciples. He prays in thanksgiving that this will show that God’s own power over life and death is Jesus’ own. He prays in thanksgiving that those gathered before the tomb will witness the exquisite oneness of Jesus with his Father.

And, indeed, this happens, at least for some of the witnesses. Jesus call Lazarus to come out, and he does, still bound in cloth. As a result, John reports, “Many of the Jews who had come to the tomb and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.” But, John also reports that “some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done.” After discussing the threat that they believe Jesus poses, the chief priests and the Pharisees plan to kill him. The roller coaster tips over the top and begins to hurtle toward its destination.

Every funeral service I do includes the words that Jesus spoke to Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life.” It’s appropriate, of course, because when we are faced with a loss, we long to be reminded of the gift of an unending future spent in the arms of God. But it’s also unfortunate that we tend to associate these words only with death. Because, the life Jesus offers us now is just as great a gift. John Wesley described this life this way: it is “a participation in the divine nature, the life of God in our soul, Christ formed in our heart, happiness and holiness, heaven begun on earth.”

God came to us in the human body of Jesus to show us how to live this life. Jesus showed us that we participate in that life when we are connected with him, not just because of the things he did, but because of who he is. He is the vine which roots us in our relationship with God. He is the living water and the bread that nourish us all of our earthly days. He is the good shepherd on whom we can rely for his love and care. He is the light that illumines our path. As Paul said to the Athenians, it is in God that “we live and move and have our being,” and we find our way to that life through Jesus.

In our passage today, we hear of how Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. This wasn’t the resurrection Jesus promises; Lazarus would die again. But what happened after Lazarus’ miraculous release from death is an example of what it looks like to have a life in Christ. In Chapter 12 of John’s gospel, we meet up with Lazarus again. After a brief stay in Ephraim, Jesus returned to Bethany, where Lazarus, Martha, and Mary gave a dinner for Jesus. Their roles at the dinner exemplify life with Jesus. Lazarus was literally lying next to Jesus at the table, practically in his arms. Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with costly perfume and wiped them with her hair—an act of both intimacy and reverence. And Martha served him—both in the sense of welcoming him into her home but also in the sense of serving him in ministry. The roller coaster was speeding toward the cross, but Martha and Mary and Lazarus were secure in the life that is Jesus.

We hear nothing more about Martha after this. I’ve wondered whether she had more moments when the limits of her faith were tested, and she had to stretch to accommodate what she now knows. Did she, like the father of the boy whom Jesus cured of epilepsy, cry out from time to time, “I believe, help my unbelief”? Were there moments when the new reality of life in Jesus ran headlong into her old reality—her old beliefs, her old habits, her old assumptions—and she had to rethink everything she thought she knew? I wonder if, during the hard times she would surely face later on, she both believed in Jesus’ power but couldn’t quite picture how he could use that power in her life.

I think she probably did. I know I do. Maybe that’s why I like this encounter with Martha so much. I’m so much like her, and maybe you are, too. We see the tragedies that happen in the world—cities buried under the rubble of earthquakes or bombs, lives torn apart by unavoidable accidents or avoidable acts of violence, the daily struggle of people trying to survive. We suffer our own losses and hurts and challenges—illnesses that go on and on, grief we carry every day, our concern for the safety of our children and grandchildren. We may hear ourselves saying with Martha, “If you had been here, Jesus, this wouldn’t have happened.” When we do, Jesus reminds us, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Then he asks us again, “Do you believe this?” And we have yet another chance to anchor ourselves in his promises: “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

Like riders on a roller coaster, we’ve arrived at the top of the hill. From here we can see the landscape we’re about to enter. Jerusalem is nearby, and the time of the Passover has come. Jesus’ public ministry is behind him. The raising of Lazarus has set the stage for what lies ahead. And what lies ahead is the cross. John ends his book of signs, leaving us with no doubt about who Jesus is, and what we can find in him. When we encounter Martha, we may encounter ourselves but, in our encounter with Martha, we also encounter the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who came into the world. Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young