We are all familiar with grief.
It is the feeling that overwhelms us when we learn of a loved one’s death. Grief is the feeling of deep sorrow and remorse that someone whom we have loved is now no longer with us.
Grief creates different reactions in us. Grief makes us cry. It makes us think back to a cherished moment. It also makes us play the “what if” game.
You know about the “what if” game, right? We are all experts in it. This is the game where we assume that if something had changed, then an outcome would be different. Usually, what we think should have changed is our actions. If I had told them to go to the doctor sooner, maybe they would have been able to get help sooner. If I had called to check in on them more, maybe we would have spent more time together. If I prayed more, Jesus would have healed my friend.
The “what if” game is a coping mechanism. It helps to take our mind off our grief. Of course, we know there wasn’t anything we could have done. We just don’t want to think about life without this person.
Our participation in the “what if” game allows us to relate to Martha and Mary this morning. These two sisters are grieving the loss of their brother, Lazarus. In the midst of the grief, they do the very thing we do in our grief. They look around and ask “what if.” Perhaps like us sometimes, Martha and Mary’s questions are not inward-focused but outward. The subject of their question is Jesus. Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.
Both Martha and Mary ask Jesus this question. Unfortunately, the lectionary cuts Martha’s interaction with Jesus. Both interactions and sisters are important to understand. These two women are followers of Jesus who play an important role in His ministry. Luke 10 suggests that Martha is the more assertive, and Mary is more reflective. This comes out in Jesus telling Martha that it is acceptable for Mary to find herself at his feet. Of course, it is this Mary who anoints Jesus with perfume prior to his death.
The dynamic plays out in their grief. Martha is more assertive in her participation in the “what if” game. When Jesus arrives in Bethany, Martha goes straight to Him with her frustration at His delay. Mary falls at Jesus’ feet and expresses her tears. She uses the same words that Martha uses. However, Mary is more expressive of her love of the Lord and her grief. Both are truly in a state of worship in giving their grief and frustrations to the Lord.
We can relate to Martha and Mary, because we have asked Jesus the same question. In Martha and Mary’s case, it was their brother, but we could probably add a friend, a spouse, a child, a neighbor, or a family member to that statement. There is a deeper sense of grief that lies beneath this simple question that Martha and Mary and we ask of Jesus. When we ask Jesus this question, we are saying something else: Jesus, we trust and follow you, why didn’t you help us? Jesus, our loved one loved you and you loved them, wasn’t that good enough for you to help? Lord, what took you so long to get here? It’s too late for you to do anything now.
That last question is the hardest. It is the one that Martha and Mary are specifically asking of the Lord. Jesus knew of Lazarus’ sickness. John 11:3 says Martha and Mary sent a message for Jesus to alert him of Lazerus’ health. Upon receiving the message, Jesus chose to wait two days. Jesus’ delay is frustrating. We want Jesus to be the action hero who comes in and saves the day. We are wanting him to move to Lazarus, yet he stays where he is. When Jesus finally arrives, it’s not until four days after Lazarus’ death. Jewish culture of the time stated that \ four days was long enough to wait to see if a person wasn’t dead. All hope is now lost for Martha and Mary.
This might give us a reason why Jesus waited. In arriving four days after Lazarus’ death, Jesus came at the moment of Martha and Mary’s deepest grief. In coming at this moment, Jesus seeks to bring light in the darkness of grief. What we see is that Jesus experiences their grief and does something truly amazing. He performs a sign that is symbolic of a greater reality.
In the midst of their darkness, Jesus walks into Martha and Mary’s grief as a comforter. For Martha, comfort was expressed through a reminder of faith’s reward. He reminds her that in Him is the resurrection and the power to give life to those who believe. Jesus’ words allow Martha to recall and remember what she believes. She then delivers one of the deepest affirmations of Jesus’ identity by announcing Jesus is the Christ, the long-awaited Messiah.
With Mary, Jesus takes on the deep pain and agony that the grieving sisters are expressing. He embraces their pain. It is a deep encounter with the world that his children live in. In this moment, Jesus experiences the very things – sin and death – he came to defeat. Jesus knows this world was not as it was intended, because He was actively involved in its creation as the Word of Life. Here in this moment, Jesus feels the bitterness of grief and the tears of those who mourned.
It makes him angry, and it brings him to tears. The word angry is how the New Living Translation chooses to translate Jesus’ emotional state. The Greek suggests that Jesus was internally troubled by what he saw. Anger is appropriate. He is angry at what he saw and it brings him to tears. Jesus is angered by the presence of sin and death, because it is not what humanity and creation were supposed to experience. At the same time, he joins in the grief and sorrow felt by Lazarus’ passing. We do not worship a Lord who is detached from our pain. We worship a Lord who feels what we feel and has experienced the same emotional frustrations that we feel.
Jesus still feels this anger as he approaches the tomb. The tomb was likely a large cave with a huge boulder blocking its entrance. It is a tomb similar to the one Jesus would be placed in after his crucifixion at Golgotha. At this tomb, Jesus will perform one of the many signs that are found in the Gospel of John that express something of the magnitude of God’s power and love.
In this, Jesus desires to help us to understand that He is the resurrection and the life. He wants our doubts and fears to be replaced by the promise of everlasting life. Martha has no idea this is what will happen when she tries to stop Jesus from having someone roll the stone away. She expresses her doubt by saying that Lazarus had been dead for four days and the stench of death will overcome everyone. Martha doesn’t believe anything can be done for her brother.
Jesus knows this. He looks at her and says, “Didn’t I tell you that you would see God’s glory if you believe?” The stone is quickly rolled way. Jesus reminds her of something wonderful. As the Son of God, Jesus has the power to do the unthinkable. God freely chooses to express this power in loving ways to give everlasting life to those who believe.
Jesus is now in a position of being able to show the people what he means. This isn’t for his glory, but to give glory to the Father. This is what we take from Jesus’ prayer. He prays a prayer of thanksgiving and petition so that everyone hears him. This is so they will know the why and how of what is taking place. Jesus wants them to know the power to give life comes as a divine choice shared between the Father and Son and expressed through the power of the Holy Spirit.
After concluding the prayer, Jesus looks into the tomb and shouts for Lazarus to come out. We can feel the anticipation of the bystanders who wonder what will happen. As soon as we feel this anticipation, Lazarus comes out. He is not dead. He is alive! Lazarus’ life has resumed. This is not simply just another miracle. This is a grand expression of God’s life-giving power. Jesus chose to raise Lazarus from the dead to express the gift of a resurrected life that is freely given to those who claim Jesus as their Lord and Savior.
In Lazarus’ raising, we are given a foretaste of Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus shows the crowd that death will not be victorious. Jesus will be victorious over sin and death. The act reminds Jesus’ followers of his mission and purpose, and also gives them a preview of what is to come.
This act is also a glimpse of our resurrection. While Lazarus’ raising was a resumption of life, he will still experience death. We are given a preview of the resurrection to come at the Day of Judgment. With a loud shout that is symbolic of the trumpet’s call on Judgment Day, we are given an image of the resurrection we are promised in 1 Corinthians 15. Paul says we can have confidence we will experience a bodily resurrection.
Death is not the end of our story. We have the promise of an everlasting life, of being in the continual physical presence of our Lord at our resurrection. Just as Lazarus was raised from the dead, so will those who trust in the Lord with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength will experience the resurrection and the wonder of everlasting life with the Lord.
This is truly the gift of life. It is a gift freely given by our Lord. When we place our trust and faith and belief in the Lord, we have a hope of entire sanctification, of being in perfect heavenly bliss with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is the gift of life that Jesus freely bestows because He desires that all people come to repent of their sin, accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior, and live as faithful witnesses each day. If we do this, we can claim the prize that is before us of a life with Christ.
We can cling to this hope because the Resurrection is our promise that Christ is not dead, but he is alive. Because Jesus lives, we can trust that this world will not win us over. Because Jesus lives, we can look forward to the day that, like Lazarus, we will come out of our tombs and experience a life we never dreamed possible: a life with Christ that has no end.
On this All Saints’ Day, as we remember the lives of those we have lost, we are reminded of this promise. It is a promise we cling to. It is a hope that sustains us when we lose someone close to us. It is a hope that carries us forward when we are reminded of their memory. It is a hope that brings us to our knees in thanksgiving when we think of our own mortality.
Jesus gives us the promise that he is the resurrection and the life eternal. It is a promise that anyone who believes will not perish, but will experience everlasting life with the Father. This is the gift of life for us all.