The Bible reads, “When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary, saying in private, ‘The Teacher is here and is calling for you.’ And when she heard it, she rose quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still in the place where Martha had met him. When the Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary rise quickly and go out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there. Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. And he said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus wept. So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?'” (John 11:28-37, ESV).
Today was a difficult day. I was entrusted by a family to officiate a memorial for a person whose life ended abruptly by tragedy. Here is a little of what I am learning about the gospel in such troubled circumstances . . . that Jesus is “the resurrection and the life. He who believes in [him] will live, even though he dies” (John 11:25, NIV). Life is full of division. This is not new to you or to me. It was those who loved Lazarus the most that were hurting the most. Mary and Martha had sent word to Jesus and his disciples of Lazarus’ declining state while he was teaching and ministering in Jerusalem. Even so, for some unexplainable reason, he seemed to take his sweet time in traveling to the village of Bethany. Often God is doing something in the midst of crisis – we just don’t when and we just don’t know how. Keep in mind, there was now a price on the Rabbi’s head. Doing anything at this time would only attract attention to someone who should have been flying under the radar. He went anyways (and what he was about to do for the family would be the straw that would break the camel’s back). Jesus, in the name of grace, takes risks that you and I will never understand (or appreciate).
But to Mary and Martha, his prolonged visit looked like nothing less than procrastination (or lack of compassion). He waited two days after hearing the news plus an additional two day journey just to arrive on location. There is this sense that Jesus cannot be pressured – even by our problems. That he is directed by the Father (and not people’s demands). But make no mistake . . . he made every effort to comfort his friends after their loss. Yes, Lazarus died. So here is this gathering of friends, family, and leaders. I am sure that the great majority of them were secretly wondering why Jesus had not come earlier. After all, they had seen him give sight to the blind, legs to the lame, and even life to one corpse already. You can only imagine the way that so many of them chose to express their frustration out of grief. To make matters worse, Jesus uses this tragedy for a teachable moment. Nothing worse at a bedside visit than bumper-sticker theology. But Jesus gave them so much more. Mystery. Foretaste. He actually promises the sisters that their brother would one day rise again. Of course he would . . . as good First Covenant People, Mary and Martha knew all the right things to say (even if they did not want to hear them at that very moment). They misunderstood his statement as referring to the final days. Bad times often produce bad theology. We are not thinking clearly. We are not listening keenly. Jesus was speaking of the new life that begins today. That very day. He was pointing to an even Greater Event that would occur in just a matter of weeks. He was about to give them the destiny that they were designed for.
Take note . . . Jesus could be found in the worst of circumstances. He wept. He was doing so much more than merely mourning the loss of and separation from a close friend. He was angry at the enemy who brings nothing less than sin and shame. So he approaches the tomb . . . his friend buried in a chamber cut into a rock and closed with a stone over the entrance. And he does something that no one would have ever allowed . . . he orders the cover to be removed (the modern-day equivalent would be for him to interrupt our graveside by demanding that family dig up the grave). The family of course protested this request as a slap in the face. No way they would expose a decaying corpse. And yet, they obeyed.
Then Jesus, as if he had not done enough already, addresses a man who had been dead for over four days. Could it be that Jesus did in fact have authority over death, hell, and grave? That he could direct a dead man walking even in the midst of a gloomy dungeon? That somehow and someway he could reverse the process of corruption? And there, standing before hundreds of witnesses, appearing at the entrance, was Lazarus completely wrapped in his grave clothes.
It is as if Jesus is forever asking Martha (and all of us), “Do you believe this?” He would use this sign to point to the incredible cross. Make no mistake, this miracle was temporary. Lazarus was alive. But not forever. He would die again someday. Jesus was pointing to a final day of victory over death (1 Cor. 15:54-57).
So how do you handle grief? Do you turn to Christ? Could it be that he is even more present in such terrible moments? Could it be that this is where we see him do what only he can do and what he has never done before? Are we brought to point of decision – to either mock him or cry out to him? So if Jesus is in such places . . . what makes us think that the church should not be there to? Let’s search out the those places of hopelessness and helplessness. Those people. And bring life where there seems to be only death.