There was a man named Lazarus who lived in the village of Bethany with the two sisters, Mary and Martha, and he was ill. – It was the same Mary, the sister of the sick man Lazarus, who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair. The sisters sent this message to Jesus, ‘Lord, the man you love is ill.’ On receiving the message, Jesus said, ‘This sickness will end not in death but in God’s glory, and through it the Son of God will be glorified.’
Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, yet when he heard that Lazarus was ill he stayed where he was for two more days before saying to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judaea.’ The disciples said, ‘Rabbi, it is not long since the Jews wanted to stone you; are you going back again?’
‘Are there not twelve hours in the day?
A man can walk in the daytime without stumbling
because he has the light of this world to see by;
but if he walks at night he stumbles,
because there is no light to guide him.’
He said that and then added, ‘Our friend Lazarus is resting, I am going to wake him.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he is able to rest he is sure to get better.’ The phrase Jesus used referred to the death of Lazarus, but they thought that by ‘rest’ he meant ‘sleep’, so Jesus put it plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead; and for your sake I am glad I was not there because now you will believe. But let us go to him.’ Then Thomas – known as the Twin – said to the other disciples, ‘Let us go too, and die with him.’
On arriving, Jesus found that Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days already. Bethany is only about two miles from Jerusalem, and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to sympathise with them over their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus had come she went to meet him. Mary remained sitting in the house. Martha said to Jesus, ‘If you had been here, my brother would not have died, but I know that, even now, whatever you ask of God, he will grant you.’ ‘Your brother’ said Jesus to her ‘will rise again.’ Martha said, ‘I know he will rise again at the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said:
‘I am the resurrection.
If anyone believes in me, even though he dies he will live,
and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.
Do you believe this?’
When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary, saying in a low voice, ‘The Master is here and wants to see you.’ Hearing this, Mary got up quickly and went to him. Jesus had not yet come into the village; he was still at the place where Martha had met him. When the Jews who were in the house sympathising with Mary saw her get up so quickly and go out, they followed her, thinking that she was going to the tomb to weep there.
Mary went to Jesus, and as soon as she saw him she threw herself at his feet, saying, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ At the sight of her tears, and those of the Jews who followed her, Jesus said in great distress, with a sigh that came straight from the heart, ‘Where have you put him?’ They said, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus wept; and the Jews said, ‘See how much he loved him!’ But there were some who remarked, ‘He opened the eyes of the blind man, could he not have prevented this man’s death?’ Still sighing, Jesus reached the tomb: it was a cave with a stone to close the opening. Jesus said, ‘Take the stone away.’ Martha said to him, ‘Lord, by now he will smell; this is the fourth day.’ Jesus replied, ‘Have I not told you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone. Then Jesus lifted up his eyes and said:
‘Father, I thank you for hearing my prayer.
I knew indeed that you always hear me,
but I speak for the sake of all these who stand round me,
so that they may believe it was you who sent me.’
When he had said this, he cried in a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, here! Come out!’ The dead man came out, his feet and hands bound with bands of stuff and a cloth round his face. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, let him go free.’
Many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary and had seen what he did believed in him.
Lord, my brother sickens.
Abandoned by hope,
Pearls of desolation
Into empty hands.
In faith, I know
Your touch, Lord,
Your hand will save him.
Master, you have not come.
You have not watched
As life pours from him.
As he fades into
An obsidian maze of despair.
Raging against heaven
In torment at your absence.
One word, Lord; your Word.
Can it be, Lord?
His life, as naught to him
As it seemed to you,
Ebbed away leaving our
Hearts scalded by grief.
Were our lives no more
Than a storyteller’s plaything?
Was there a better story to tell?
How is it, Lord,
You did not come?
To a brother in love
To a friend in faith?
How is it he journeys alone
Into the Stygian depths?
Yet, speak Lord,
Your servant will still hear.
When I wrote this poem it was after the death of a friend. To be honest, it was a peaceful death of someone who knew they were going home. And the grief and suffering belonged, not to her, but to those who were left behind. Martha is often remembered as the 'too-good' housewife but I sympathised with her then as the woman who would stop at nothing to help those she loved. I admit that I put these words into her mouth - but maybe I am not as trusting as she is.
I have a great respect for Martha - she seems to be one of those women who can speak her mind and still keep her friends. Certainly the friendship with Jesus seems to have grown into a recognised relationship of affection and trust and extended to all the members of the family. I'm sure anyone would have expected Jesus to put these friends above almost anyone else - and he didn't.
Dealing with the 'why's' of suffering and grief is never easy. No matter where your faith is. No matter that you are absolutely sure that, when the time comes, Heaven's gates will open; no matter if you believe that this world is somewhere we pass through as part of our soul's eternal journey; no matter - because the suffering and grief is not about what happens next - it's about what is happening now. And Martha is wise enough to know it and brave enough to say it.
Why does Jesus wait? Is it really his intention to cause this tragedy? Or does he believe that the Father will give him the time he needs to do what he has to do and still care for his friend?
I don't believe in a God who treats us as puppets so I have to accept that Lazarus' illness and death were part of his life- not unusual in those times to sicken and die quickly and at a young age. When Jesus reaches their home, I believe that his grief is equally genuine - as human an emotion as any he has felt before.
But knowing - knowing - that nothing is impossible to God; even three days in a tomb - he can at least ask; he prays with all the faith that is within him; it is not he who brings Lazarus back but his Father who returns him to life, in the answering of a prayer.
Out of the greatest of hopelessness' Jesus has drawn hope. As a human being, Jesus has given everything he has. There are no more miracles left. Stones are being weighed in the hands of those who have judged him already. Perhaps, in its own way, the raising of Lazarus has not only been a challenge to those who do not believe but a reassurance to those who do. Perhaps, a reassurance to Jesus himself.