St Michael’s, 2nd April 2017
Readings – Romans 8:1-11; John 11:17-44
As some of you know I have a brother. He lives in Shropshire and considers the Midlands to be his home. He is an electronics engineer. He loves DIY and putting things together. He doesn’t play a musical instrument, and he doesn’t write creatively. He doesn’t look an awful lot like me, although I’ve been told we both have a similar walk. In short, my brother is very different from me, although we are both family and even more importantly believers.
I do sometimes wonder quite why we are so different, but then again, I look at plenty of families and I never cease to be amazed just how unalike brothers and sisters can be. Maybe in the way they look, maybe in their character, maybe in their faith. Sometimes it can even be hard to believe that these two people are related to each other, and yet somehow they are.
Now in the pages of the New Testament we find two sisters who are also very different from each other – Martha and Mary. We first come across them in Luke’s gospel where Luke describes Jesus’ visit to their home (Luke 10:38-42):
As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
Do you get the picture? Here is Martha, the practical, efficient one, always on the go, always fussing about what needs to be done. And here is Mary, probably the younger sister, easily distracted, prone to forget what she’s supposed to be going. No doubt it wasn’t always easy for Martha and Mary to live together under one roof. And yet for all their differences, somehow their relationship worked. They were generous hosts. They made Jesus welcome whenever he passed through their village of Bethany – just outside Jerusalem. I can see Martha in the kitchen, clattering pots and pans, hoping Mary would get the hint, while Mary carries on entertaining the guests, pretending not to hear her sister.
And somewhere in the picture would be their brother Lazarus. We know far less about him, but of one thing we can sure – he was a very close friend of Jesus. We don’t know how or when their friendship started, but Jesus clearly cared very deeply for him. So when Lazarus fell dangerously ill, it was only natural for both sisters to send word to Jesus, in verse 3, Lord, the one you love is sick. Jesus would have immediately known who they were talking about, and he would undoubtedly felt concern and sympathy at this point.
Yet here’s the puzzle about this passage. Reading on to verses 4-6, When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. Yet when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days. Why does Jesus decide to stay where He is two more days? After all, if someone sent you word that your close friend was seriously ill, the chances are you would drop everything and go to be with him and his family. And what’s this about the sickness not ending in death? As you can see from the start of our reading today, Lazarus certainly does die and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of glory around when Jesus arrives. So how do we make sense of Jesus’ words? We’ll come back to these verses at the end, by which time hopefully we will be able to provide an answer.
Now we don’t know exactly where Jesus was when he received this message from Martha and Mary. We are told in John 10:40 that Jesus went back across the Jordan to the place where John had been baptising in the early days. If this is somewhere near Jericho, it would have taken Jesus a couple of days to arrive at Bethany, and it is not surprising that by the time Jesus arrives, Lazarus is already dead, and the whole village is in mourning. As we read in verse 19: many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother and if you know the funeral customs of the area, the place would not have been quiet. There would have been much weeping and wailing, even after Lazarus had been buried.
So how does the practical, busy Martha respond to the news Jesus is on his way? As ever, by confronting Him with the hard, cold facts of the case. Verse 21: “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Martha knows who Jesus is, and knows what sort of a difference He could have made. She has probably calculated the dates and realised that Jesus could have gotten there sooner. Yet what is remarkable, for all her grief and sorrow, is that she still clings to the hope that somehow Jesus can still do something. Verse 22: But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.
Would you, I wonder, have had such faith as Martha? Yet against hope Martha clung on to what she already knew of Jesus. She had welcomed Him into her home. She had heard His teaching, maybe witnessed some of His miracles. Even though personal tragedy had touched her deeply, her past experience of Jesus gave her some kind of hope in the present. She clung on to the logic that as the writer to the book of Hebrews would put it later on – Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever (Hebrews 13:8).
But Jesus wants her to cling on to more than logic. And so He begins to tease out exactly what Martha means about God giving Jesus whatever He asks. So reading on to verse 23: Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Now this in itself was not a remarkable statement. The Jewish people of New Testament times widely believed in the resurrection from the dead. So when Martha says in verse 24: “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day” she is not saying anything particularly revolutionary. She was repeating the faith which had been taught her ever since she was a child.
Yet here’s the rub. Like so many people of today, Martha had no real idea what resurrection at the last day meant, or indeed what fate awaited her brother. There was only a vague idea that at some point far off in the future God would meet everyone as their judge. Whether that meant Lazarus would receive eternal life or not, that was unclear. Just as it is so unclear to the many I meet who mourn today. They may have a sense there is more than this life, but what awaits beyond, or indeed how they will meet with God, is quite uncertain.
And if that is exactly how you feel this morning, then I want you to stop and listen very carefully to what Jesus says next in verses 25 and 26: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” Jesus is saying that if you want to know what resurrection means, if you want a hope that is strong enough even to deal with death, then come to Him. Don’t rely on what other people may have taught you. Come in faith and in trust and you will receive the certainty that you need to give you strength and comfort in the most difficult of times. So the question is: do you believe this?
Martha certainly did. Verse 27: “Yes, Lord,” she told him, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.” That surely has to rank as one of the most extraordinary confessions of faith in the whole of Scripture. We need to realise that at this point Martha hasn’t seen Jesus actually do anything. Yet Martha has the faith to take Jesus at His word. Jesus has declared that He is the resurrection and the life, and from all that Martha knows of Jesus, He cannot be a fool or a liar. The only conclusion can be that He is indeed the promised Son of God who has the gift of eternal life. So Martha quite simply says “Yes” to Jesus.
And if you are wondering today how Jesus can make a difference to you, maybe particularly if you have come with some kind of grief and sorrow, then the very simple answer is just to say “Yes” – “Yes, Lord, I believe you are who you say you are.” “Yes, Lord, I believe you have power over life and death.” “Yes, Lord, I believe you are the one who saves and rescues me.” It really is as simple as that.
Meanwhile back home Mary is still grieving. So when Martha goes back home what does she do? Well, for a start she doesn’t tell her to pull herself together or to dry her tears. Nor even does she recount her extraordinary encounter with Jesus. Mary clearly isn’t in position to listen to her testimony. She is heartbroken at the loss of her brother, and the pain of her grief is all too raw and real.
What, then, does Martha do? The only thing she can do, which is to invite Mary to meet Jesus for herself. Verse 28: And after she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary aside. “The Teacher is here,” she said, “and is asking for you.” Jesus, you see, knows what Mary is going through. He wants to call her to Himself, to speak with her, to give her the comfort only He can give as the very son of God.
But as we have seen Mary is very different from her sister Martha, and so the encounter between Jesus and Mary is also very different. Look at verse 32: When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet. Previously she had sat still at the feet of Jesus quietly listening to His teaching. Now in her grief she falls there in sorrow and sadness, and it is interesting that in the next chapter Mary will anoint those same feet with her perfume and dry them with her hair. But Mary is not just a drama queen. She is the sort of person who feels things deeply in her heart, and communicates not so much with words, as with her actions.
And yet on the one occasion that Mary does speak it is striking that her words are actually identical to those of her sister. Reading the rest of verse 32: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Somehow she still retains the faith that Jesus can make a difference, although how she cannot say.
So how Jesus respond? As we have seen, Mary is more a person of the heart than of logical argument. She isn’t up for the sort of exchange Jesus has had with her sister. In fact, Jesus says nothing to all her directly, because this is the sort of situation where words aren’t at all appropriate. What happens next though is equally significant, and again I would invite you to pause and read verses 33-35 through with me carefully and slowly:
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked. “Come and see, Lord,” they replied. Jesus wept.
Jesus wept. Think about that for a moment. When you explain the good news of Jesus it is so easy to portray him as some kind of superhero who enters history and deals with the problems of death and sin at one fell swoop. And indeed as we have already seen He is the Son of God, the resurrection and the life for all who believe and trust in Him. But He is also the Son of Man, who weeps with us, who sheds real tears at the sorrow of this world, who doesn’t stand remote from our grief and our pain, but in a very real sense understands and identifies with us, because He has lived as one of us, and shared at the deepest level every experience of being human.
Now I know that some of you are perhaps more like Martha. Maybe you have come today with all kinds of questions. Jesus is OK with questions, and he is able to give you the answers that you need. Take some time today to think and pray what it means to believe and trust in Jesus as your resurrection and your life and to confess Him as the Son of God. Some of you are perhaps more like Mary. Maybe you find it hard to put your feelings into words. That’s OK, too. Jesus knows you better than yourself and He is right there alongside you just waiting for you to come before Him and pour out your heart. Whoever you are, I hope you can see this reading shows how Jesus has the power and the love to meet whatever brokenness and pain you carry around inside.
And just one more thing before we finish – I said I would come back later to Jesus’ words in verse 4: “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” What did He mean by this statement? Well, the end of the passage gives away the answer. Verses 38-39: Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. “Take away the stone,” he said.
Now at this point it isn’t exactly clear why Jesus wants the stone removed, and so it isn’t too surprising dear old Martha pops up again in the story, fussing once more about the practicalities. “But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odour, for he has been there four days.” You see, for a moment Martha has reverted to type. Even despite her wonderful confession of faith, the realities of the situation seem at this point greater than Jesus’ claim to be the resurrection and life.
But then again, am I really in a position to criticise her? I know from my own experience I am more like Martha than I often care to admit. I know that even with a living faith so often I place a limit on what Jesus can do, that I would be there with Martha pointing out the health and safety implications.
Yet the thing about Jesus is, there really are no limits. So when Jesus calls out in a loud voice Lazarus come out, Lazarus does indeed come out. How often do we need to remind ourselves that Jesus really has the power over life and death, that with God all things are possible! So for those of you who can say you have already placed your faith and trust in Jesus, let me ask: when was the last time you really expected Jesus to make a difference? Or do the realities of the situation you currently face appear too great for Him to deal with?
Maybe we need to hear afresh Jesus’ words to Martha in verse 40: “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” Because that really is God’s promise to us, that if we believe, we will indeed see the glory of God. Maybe not in ways that we expect, maybe not in ways that are visible to other people, but we will see God act in ways that are greater than can ever possibly ask or imagine.
Now as some of you know I also had a sister. She died over twenty years ago, and if you want to hear later how Jesus changed my life in that situation, I would be happy to share my testimony with you. But I hope that wherever you stand before the Lord this morning, you can see that in this passage just what an immediate and real difference Jesus makes, that you can see how He alone can give us the hope that we all need. Let’s all of this morning, therefore, whether we are a Martha or a Mary, claim that hope. Let’s share that hope with all whom we meet so they too encounter Jesus, the resurrection and the life, who shares our sorrows and our tears. And let’s together claim Jesus’ promise that, if we believe, we will see the glory of God. For His name’s sake. Amen.