“The Uncertainty of Mortality”
In the series, “Embracing the Uncertain”
Rev. Becky Schofield Motter
Martha and Mary experience what many of us would love to happen in our lives. They are given additional time with a loved one who has died. I wonder if some of you can relate to my feelings at different times in my life when I would have loved to have one more day with my father, who died when I was eleven years old. I would love to know him as an adult, ask him questions, hear stories of his childhood, hear silly stories about my mom, talk about faith and belief in Christ, and have one more hug. I think living without a loved one is one of the hardest things we experience in life.
The scripture we heard this morning is part of a larger section, actually one of the longer stories in the gospels. We have an extended exchange between Jesus, the disciples, Martha and Mary. And the climax of the story in the raising of Lazarus from the dead is actually a very small part of this story.
It all starts with Lazarus, who is a very good friend of Jesus, being ill. His sisters, Mary and Martha, know that the illness is serious and he is not likely to get better. So they send word to Jesus that he is sick, knowing he would come to be with them. Even though we know that Jesus and Lazarus are tight, Jesus does not depart right away. We don’t know what keeps him from leaving, except that he says more than once that this event will help those who experience it to believe in him and in God.
The disciples are stunned that he would be returning to Bethany because they just had a less than positive experience there, they were afraid if they returned the Jews would kill Jesus. And yet, he tells them that they must go and proclaim that he is the light of the world. In this exchange with the disciples we find Jesus referring to death as sleep. We do that sometimes, we are afraid to talk of death so we give it other names so we don’t have to say the word that is filled with so much mystery and sorrow.
Then we pick up the story where we heard the scripture read today. Jesus arrives four days after Lazarus’ death. When Martha hears that he is coming, she quickly gets up to go to him and the first thing she says to him is not, “it’s so good to see you, I’m so glad you came, or thank you friend for being here when I need you the most.” No, she says, “If you had been here, this would not have happened.” She knew Jesus’ power and ability; she wanted nothing more than to have Lazarus alive again. By the end of the conversation Martha makes a bold statement about her belief in Christ. She said, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” It is important for all of us to have that kind of belief, especially in the face of death. Jesus life, death and resurrection is what affords us grace, connection and new life with God.
With that Martha goes back to the house to get Mary. It is time for her to encounter the Messiah. Mary immediately gets up to go see Jesus, the family and friends who have come to console her and mourn with them think she is returning to the tomb and they follow her. Mary’s first words are the same as Martha’s, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
This experience is rather emotional for Jesus as well. He is feeling the loss of his friend, but also struggling with the lack of faith and belief in what his abilities are in this situation. He asked to be taken to the place they have buried him, so the friends and family take him and yet wonder why he did not keep Lazarus from dying because they know of other healing miracles by Jesus.
When they get to the tomb, which is a cave with a stone covering the entrance, he tells them to take away the stone. Martha instantly protests saying, “Lord, you can’t do that it’s been four days and the smell, oh the smell will be awful, please don’t do that to us.” (Yes, that is the Becky modern translation of the Greek.) Jesus responds to her with, “I already told you that if you believe I would reveal the glory of God.” So the family and friends respond by doing what Jesus asked and they roll the stone away. Jesus looks to heaven and prays to God offering thanks that God hears him as usual and that God is working through these circumstances to help all those present to believe. And in the climactic moment he calls Lazarus out of the grave.
Can you imagine the faces of the people present? Looking at the grave, Jesus, the sisters and then back at the grave. I imagine it took at least a few minutes for Lazarus to emerge and the waiting had to be unbelievable. But then when he emerges from the grave; their faces would have changed from unbelief and dismay to awe, excitement, belief and relief. Lazarus was indeed alive and stood before them. They would have extra time, they would value every moment, conversation and embrace.
Dealing with our mortality is so hard, so much so that when we talk about death we even struggle to say the word. We say someone passed, we lost them, they are no longer with us, pushing up tulips, or bought the farm. Part of the reason it is so hard is because there is so much uncertainty in what is next. What will happen when we die? What will our spirit or new bodies be like? Will there be someone to greet us? Will St. Peter really be there with a book checking for our name? What will God’s judgement be like, will we be able to say anything, will we want to say anything when we stand before God? Is heaven as peaceful and tranquil as we imagine in our minds? Will I be youthful or the age I died?
Death really is a transition from this life to the life to come. And it is hard for us because we are the ones who go without. We are not experiencing the glories of heaven and being with our Creator and we simply miss the one who meant so much in our lives. The loss for us is so much greater than the one who died.
Imagine Mary and Martha encountering their brother as they tear off the grave cloths, see him breathing, hear him talking and embrace him with a hug filled with relieve and hope. I wonder what that was like for Lazarus. In the Jewish tradition it is believed that the soul leaves the body on day three, that is why it was so significant that it was day four that Jesus made it to Bethany. He was not just dead, his soul had departed his physical body. So Lazarus had to leave the presence of God to return to his physical body, all so that God could be glorified through this miracle. I wonder if that was hard for him; to, like Jesus, leave the presence of God and the grandness of heaven to return to an imperfect body with aches and pains and sorrow. I’m sure he was grateful to be with Mary and Martha, but maybe struggled with the return to this life.
The last thing Jesus says to the people gathered that day with Mary and Martha is, “Unbind him, and let him go.” Lazarus has been raised to life, and yet he still has the graves clothes that bound him to death. That happens to us as well. We know that we have new life in Christ both in this life and in the life to come and yet sometimes we allow death to keep us bound up in sorrow, sadness and grief. There is a grief process that we all go through that helps to unbind us from the death, but sometimes we keep ourselves wrapped in the grave clothes of death.
When I am with families that are grieving and filled with sorrow, I encourage them to share the stories of their loved one and friend. Sharing the stories of their lives always helps us to mourn and is part of the process of being unbound. When we find ourselves filled with sadness of a loved one, the best things we can do is to share stories of their life. That is part of my encouragement at funerals because when we share about that person’s life, we allow them to live on in ours and others hear the impact they had on our life. In these stories we realize that their significance was not in their job, bank account, how many sports they played, how busy they were or the number of cars they owned. Their significance was in the relationship they had with us and others; the way they shared their life, love and care for others.
In those moments when I long to be with my father again, and I am able to consider where he is, I’m not sure I would ask him to leave the presence of God. Partly because I have the belief that one day I will join him in heaven and I will be beside him praising and glorifying God. And as much as I wish he didn’t died so soon, I know that this life is not the end and I cling to the hope of resurrection.
That is what we understand from this passage of scripture, it is what we hear Jesus say to Martha. He is the resurrection and the life. Because Jesus lived, died and was resurrected we have the confidence and the hope that we will have new life when our mortal bodies are not able to go on. This life is not the end and as much as there are uncertainties about what is next, we have the one confidence that makes all the difference in the world because it fills us with hope and peace: Jesus is the resurrection and gives us life both now and in eternity. Thanks be to God. Amen.