“Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.”
– John 11:27
My Dear Friends in Christ,
Every time I hear the story of Lazarus being raised from the dead, I think of Martha stomping out to meet Jesus. She’s hurt, she’s angry, she’s grieving, she feels the separation that comes in death, the death that took her brother from her. Jesus was their very good friend and would visit them, share their hospitality, teach them and speak to them of God’s love. As soon as Lazarus got sick, they had sent word to Jesus, fully expecting I am sure, that Jesus would at the very least come and spend time with Lazarus if not work one of the miracles He had so easily worked in other places. Nope, he hadn’t come even though he was in the next town over. And now Martha has received word that Jesus and His Apostles are coming, coming only NOW that Lazarus is dead and has been dead for four days.
But Martha has learned her lesson. Remember the earlier visit of Jesus to their house (Luke 10:38–42)? Martha wanted to show Jesus the extent of her love and so was working very hard to prepare the best that she could offer. But in trying to do too much, and focusing on what she wanted to do, even for the good of another let alone for Christ, she had lost sight of the bigger picture. In trying to be good, in trying to do great things for God, she had let her heart get hard, like the older brother in the story of the prodigal son. She was hurt and angered by her sister, the lazy slug who just sat there at the feet of Jesus and soaked in all that He was offering. She even cried out, “Jesus, tell her to help me!”
In her smugness, in doing what she thought was right she must’ve been shocked with the answer Jesus gave her. Remember, Jesus castigated her, telling her that she was anxious and upset about many things. And if that weren’t bad enough, Jesus even holds up Mary as an example: “Only one thing is required. Mary has chosen the better part and it shall not be denied her.” It must have stung her, a proud woman who sought only to serve but, in the process, hardened her heart to the presence of God in her midst. She was more focused on doing things than
on being present to God and, just as importantly, allowing God to be present to her. Yes, it must have stung, especially in the presence of her sister. But Martha did learn her lesson and learned it well.
Notice that Martha and Mary are receiving guests when they hear the Jesus has been
sighted and is on his way. In fact, they have a house full of guests and I bet both were active in making sure that their guests were greeted properly, made to feel at home, and given something to eat or drink. When Mary hears, she remains there in the house doing what she was before. But Martha having learned her lesson sets out to get close to Jesus. Jesus had told her to come, close, to remain close, to allow nothing to distract her nor let anything be a barrier for her. And so Martha storms out of the house to meet Jesus. I can almost hear the Imperial March that was played whenever Darth Vader came on the scene in the Star Wars movies. Even knowing that it’s only a piece of music from a movie soundtrack, that song evokes in me more than a modicum of fear just like the music from Jaws when the shark is near.
Martha is suffering. Her brother is dead and nothing will bring him back. Jesus didn’t come, couldn’t be bothered until now when it’s too late. And so, just as He told her, she is going to be close to Him and give him a piece of her mind. She knows that Jesus is her good friend, that she has a strong relationship with him. She has faith that he could have done something and she’s angry that He didn’t come. And when she gets to Jesus, there are none of the niceties that one usually offers to a friend one hasn’t seen in a while. There is no “Oh, Jesus, so nice to see you. So glad that you’re here and your presence means so much to me and to Mary. We’re really struggling with this one, not just the loss of Lazarus, but the fact that you didn’t come and you ignored us and our pleas for help.”
Nope! Martha dives right in: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” It’s a statement of fact offered without any hesitation, without any qualification. She knows that Jesus could have, and certainly in her mind and heart should have, done something for her brother if not for her. And her faith doesn’t stop there either. “Even now, I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” There are those words again… “even now.” It’s the title of our message series and we named it that to remind us that God always receives us. Here, though, Martha also reminds us that it is never too late to call on God. Despite the finality of her brother’s death, Martha calls on Jesus. “Even now, I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” In other words, “Fix it!” “Do something!” “I’m hurting, Jesus! Help me!”
Remember, Martha doesn’t know that Jesus will raise Lazarus from the dead. She doesn’t know what can be done. She only knows that she is suffering and in pain, that her brother is gone. She is sure that Jesus cannot only be with her in her pain and suffering but also do something to relieve it, and not just for her but for her sister as well. Jesus responds by reminding Martha that like all good disciples, Lazarus will rise on the last day, that Lazarus will be close to God and share in the eternal banquet. As good as this is, for Lazarus, Martha struggles with what seems so distant and trivial in the face of her loss and separation. “I know that he will rise on the last day,” Martha offers immediately with the implication that this isn’t enough at least for her at least for now.
What I love about the gentle response of Jesus is that He does not leave Martha in her suffering. Jesus had told her to remain close to Him, to come to Him and to offer to Him the gift of her presence. She has done that in coming out to meet Him. Jesus senses so profoundly her pain and loss that come with the death of a loved one. Jesus himself will be overwhelmed by this same pain in just a little while when He is reminded of the death of His good friend, Lazarus. He will weep as He feels the loss and separation of death. It is just this barrier that He came to destroy so that nothing would keep us from knowing God’s love even on this earth.
With all gentleness, Jesus works the day’s first miracle. It is not as cosmic or dramatic as the raising of Lazarus from the dead but, I would argue, is even more essential. Jesus allows Martha to see the presence of God for her, with her, close to her even and especially in her suffering, in her pain, and her loss. More than simply being present, Jesus helps Martha to understand the point he made with the apostles at the beginning of the gospel. Remember, Jesus said very clearly to the apostles as soon as word reached them of Lazarus being sick. In fact, Jesus knows that Lazarus is dead but does not immediately go back to Martha and to Mary. Jesus wants to bring good out of the suffering: the suffering of the sickness of Lazarus as well as the suffering of grief and loss in Martha and Mary.
Jesus wants to make clear that God is present, that God loves us, and that God always has a plan for our good, even and especially in our pain and our suffering, even and especially when times are difficult, even and especially when it seems that prayers go unanswered or that cries go without help. “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Messiah, the son of God, the one who was coming into the world.”
This is the first miracle and, as I stated before, I think the more important one on that day. Martha is brought to the realization of who God is and how God works. She comes to believe in and understand God who is close and gentle and kind and looking out for her and filled with love for her and, indeed, for her brother and for their sister. Just as Peter, James, and John did at the Transfiguration, Martha sees the divinity of God in the humanity of Jesus and how close God seeks to be, how much God loves her, how cared for she is. Martha knows that her faith in Jesus will be rewarded. She doesn’t understand how, and she doesn’t know when, but she firmly believes that Jesus is God, the one God sent to save not just her, but the whole world. More than that, she is safe in his hands. And she seeks to share this Good News even in the face of death, even though her suffering is not ended, even though her pain and loss have not yet been healed.
In a way that she never thought possible, Jesus will reward Martha’s faith even further, giving her and all those present an insight of all that God seeks to do for each of us. Jesus goes beyond simply helping Martha to come to a deeper understanding of who God is and how God works. It’s only after Martha has come to her deeper faith, Jesus takes her and Mary to the tomb of Lazarus. Here is where Jesus weeps, where he is overwhelmed by the awesome power of death. And Jesus brings all of this to His Heavenly Father, to our Heavenly Father. Jesus cries out over the despair and loss of death, cries out over the chasm that separates earth from heaven, “Father, I thank you for hearing me. I know that you always hear me; but because of the crowd here I have said this, that they may believe that you have sent me.”
In His Person, Jesus bridges these two worlds, these two realities. Jesus is fully God with the “mighty hand and outstretched arm” that brought Israel through the Red Sea as if on dry land, through the desert, feeding them and watering them the whole time, clearing for them the Promised Land and then gently placing them there as His people. But Jesus is also fully human, fully aware of the resounding and imposing barrier that death creates. So, Jesus moves beyond His weeping and cries out to God, not in desperation but in love and trust. “Lazarus, come out!”
All of our readings today speak of the realities of life and death, of the great chasm that separates earth from heaven, of the smaller but no less insurmountable obstacles that come in our sinfulness, our weakness, our confusion, our pain, our fear, our doubt. Like Martha, we are called to bring all of that Jesus and to do so with the love and trust that Jesus showed in the love and trust that he miraculously gave to Martha. God may not answer our questions and the way that we want. Scratch that, God most likely will not answer our prayers in the way that we want or in our timeframe. The way that God works may be inscrutable and unnoticed by us. It may seem that things are only getting worse and that God is ignoring us, or worse yet, punishing us.
Like Martha, we are called to bring everything to Christ even our anger and our hurt and our pain and allow God to be at work, to do only what God can do. As Jesus did with Martha, God seeks to bring us beyond our pain and suffering to recognize His Presence, His love for us, and the reality of His plan that will bring good even out of our suffering. When we allow Jesus to help us recognize how close God is and how much God loves us, we can begin to allow Jesus to move our hearts as He did for Martha, that we too might recognize, even in our pain-and-suffering, the Messiah sent to be with us, to help us, and to carry us over the chasm to our Heavenly Father. Only then, can we hear Jesus calling out to us as He did for Lazarus, calling us from sinfulness and death to new life and hope, Jesus telling the Church to untie us in the Sacrament of Reconciliation and to set us free.
Spend some time this week trying to be Martha. She is a strong woman with a powerful personality. In certain circles, her name designates a true Type A personality. She is active in seeking the Lord, in discerning God’s will and even in allowing God to correct her and to move her. When faced with suffering and anger and hurt and pain and loss, she storms out to meet Jesus. We can be no less active, no less forceful than she in approaching Jesus. This is what prayer is all about. Martha doesn’t go to Jesus with a specific plan of what God must do to ease her pain and alleviate her suffering. No, she simply goes out to Jesus to bring it all to Him. She makes herself vulnerable, unsure of what she needs, and open to what God is doing and will do for her. She goes to Jesus with a broken heart and a strong faith. With her, we can say, “Lord, if you had been here this never would’ve happened. But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” Like her, we can ask God to fix it, but like her, we must also allow God to work as God will rather than as we do. It’s not easy, but God can do it, will do it, if you allow Him to be at work. It’s hard to be vulnerable, to cede control, to appear weak, to feel helpless, but when we do, God can be at work.
Use what I call the 7/7 rule: Take 7 minutes each day over the next 7 days to pray. Objectively, it’s not a long time and surely you can find it. Spend the first minute telling God where you are, and the last minute asking God for what you need. But leave the 5 minutes in between for God. Allow God to delight in you and strengthen you. I guarantee you that God will make use of the time you offer if you can focus on your offer rather than the reward. Together, let us pray for one another and for all those who will come to encounter Christ during this Lent. Pray that through the intercession of Saint Joseph they might be cared for and watched over by the God who loves us and draws us close.