Text: John 11:17-24, 38-53
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Martha was a good student of Jesus. She knew her doctrine. She could trace Jesus’ teaching through the parables. She knew about the forgiveness of sins. She had heard Jesus teach about the heavenly Father and the coming kingdom of God. She even knew about the resurrection to come on the Last Day, when the kingdom would be made visible for all who trusted God for salvation. But now, standing in front of Jesus so close to the cold tomb of her brother Lazarus, all of that felt so far away. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Jesus looked at her with such compassion. “Your brother will rise again.” So, this again. He’d taught all of His disciples—Martha, Mary, and Lazarus included—about the resurrection at the end. This was what He would offer her as she grieved her brother. She knew that answer by heart, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” She knew the answer, but it wasn’t what she wanted. Intellectually, in her head, she knew the truth about the resurrection waiting for Lazarus—and for her, for that matter—on the Last Day. But it wasn’t doing much for her at the moment. She had been hoping something would happen now; something to console her, something to make things better right away.
We know these conflicting feelings in Martha well, don’t we? We also intellectually know about things pertaining to the faith. We know the teaching. We can recall words and phrases from the Catechism. But how often, when we’re faced with a big invitation to dive in and really believe in something Jesus promises, how often do we, like Martha, put it further off in our minds or hearts? How often do we know what God has said He’ll do for us, but we think there must be a catch, or that if it doesn’t happen now that it won’t ever happen? How often do we have a hard time grasping it right here and now, in the face of challenge or heartbreak? How often do we create that psychological distance so that we refuse to let our hearts be comforted by what we know is the Way and the Truth and the Life?
Our account of Martha’s tragedy colliding with Jesus’ promises continues. Jesus arrives at the empty tomb—a literal confrontation of life with death, promise standing face-to-face against fear. “Take away the stone,” Jesus says. Don’t be afraid to open it up, though it may be hard, though it may seem impossible. Martha, ever the pragmatic one, still has that psychological distance between what Jesus has said and what she could dare to believe. “Lord, by this time there will be an odor,” she realistically points out, followed by a reminder of the reality of the situation, “for he has been dead four days.”
But Jesus won’t be deterred. Life must confront death. Faith must look fear in the eyes and answer. “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”
This question could be asked of us. Has Jesus not told you that He will never leave you nor forsake you? Yes, Lord, we say—we know all that. We know you love us more than your own life. We know what you’ve done to save us. But we have reality to deal with. We have practical things to worry about: money, reputation, status, what everyone else around us doing. We have heartbreak from situations we can’t control or understand. We have sorrow over things that are inevitable—death, disease, for ourselves and those we love. We believe, Lord, like Martha; but like Martha, it’s hard for us to allow this belief to touch our lives here in this world. We’ve compartmentalized our faith, what we believe, from the way we know the world works in a pragmatic, so-called realistic way.
“Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” Repent, believer. Jesus has told you that your entire life is under His care. Your good days are not the only days He’s interested in. He isn’t only smiling at you when you’re feeling blessed or happy or peaceful. Rather, the glory of His promises go with you even on the bad days, the unlucky days, the days when you feel like you’re being punished, the days when you wonder if God is still there at all. Repent of keeping at arm’s length what you know by faith to be true. Repent and let those promises, as comforting and shocking as they may be, as joyful and terrifying to believe as they might seem, let those promises flow through your everyday, “real world” life.
For Jesus has prayed for you. “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe you sent me.” St. John, the eyewitness author of this gospel account, has this beautiful knack for recording the words of Jesus, especially His prayers, that not only apply to the people that first heard them, but also apply to all Christians, everywhere. Jesus’ words here at Lazarus tomb apply also to us. He has prayed them so that we may believe that Jesus has been sent by God to defeat death, to stand toe-to-to with all that threatens and harms us. He’s come to this world and He’s spoken timeless words so that you may believe.
Faith is an important thing to Jesus. That sounds obvious and even a little trite, but it’s true on a deep, foundational level. He speaks so that you, here and now, you sitting in the pew, would have trust in His promises, applied to every single hour of your life. Your faith is important to Him, because it’s the only way you’ll receive all His gifts: forgiveness, life, eternal healing, fellowship with God and one another. So He prays for the people gathered that sad day at Lazarus’ tomb—“that they may believe that you sent me”—and He prays for you, right now. He speaks and prays for you so that now, in the midst of your struggles and disappointments, your joys and celebrations, your doubts, your fears, your moments of clarity and your times of mental distancing—that in the midst of it all, you would believe.
And in that, He closes the distance we create between what we believe and how it affects our lives. He draws us close to Him, as close as possible. He may draw us close to Him through a miracle, like the miracle of resurrection at Lazarus’ tomb. Or He may draw you close to Him through another answered prayer, things happening the way you needed and wanted them to happen. He draws you close by coming to be here with you in His true body and blood, given and shed for you, to be closer to you than anyone else ever could be, sharing His own life, death, and resurrection with you at the Communion rail, in your Baptism, through His beautiful promises in His Word.
And He may draw you close to Him, closing the distance, even by showing you that your prayers weren’t quite big enough—that He’s had something even better in store for you all along, something you wouldn’t have even known or dreamed to pray for. Because it’s often that the things we envision God doing for us, the things we want, aren’t big enough at all. Think about our Gospel reading today. At first, when Lazarus was sick, Mary and Martha’s prayer was for Lazarus to be restored to health—a good prayer, and one we should offer for our own loved ones. But that prayer, even that miracle of healing, was about to be eclipsed by something even greater. Jesus would not only conquer Lazarus’ sickness. He would conquer Lazarus’ death. Through this greater miracle that they didn’t think to ask for in the beginning, Jesus would give them a foretaste of what’s coming on the Last Day. But they’d get to taste that here and now, in their “real world” life. He would bring eternity so close to them through this greater gift that from then on, it would be impossible to psychologically distance what they believed in faith from how it affected their day-to-day life. You can trust that Lazarus and his sisters would never be the same in their daily lives.
We’re closing in on Holy Week. There will be the temptation to distance ourselves from all that happens that week. We have our workweek with its demands. We have practical concerns that week. We’ll get that emotional insulation that won’t let us feel the full power of the events of the week, as we have all the same pre-Easter stuff all over again. But hear me when I tell you, don’t distance yourself. Holy Week is an invitation to have everything Jesus has done for you—conquering sin, disease, death, hell—and everything He will do for you—resurrection on the Last Day—it’s an opportunity to have all of that brought right in front of you, held so close that you can’t distance yourself: emotionally, physically, psychologically, spiritually. And He does all of that so that you may believe. Has He not told you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God? So come. Draw near. See the glory of the cross, the glory of forgiveness, the glory of salvation. Let His miracles pull you in. See that glory anew. Have eternity touch your life now, as a token and promise of all that is to come. In the name of Jesus, the Crucified One, Amen.