John 11: 1-7, 17-29, 32-44

It was my honor to have author, professor, and spiritual mentor Henri Nouwen speak at the Commencement Ceremony as I graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary. In his book Turn My Mourning into Dancing published by the W. Publishing Group, on page 25 he writes these words. I thought of them when I heard an ad three weeks ago for Nick Wallenda, famous son of the Wallenda tightrope team, as Nick prepared to cross an active volcano on a tightrope with no net. Talk about daring! Anyway, here is what Nouwen wrote:
For years I have watched trapeze artists….I am constantly moved by the courage of my circus friends. At each performance they trust their flight will end with their hands sliding into the secure grip of a partner. They also know that only the release of the secure bar allows them to move on with arching grace to the next. Before they can be caught, they must let go. They must brave the emptiness of space. Living with this kind of willingness to let go is one of the greatest challenges we face. Whether it concerns a person, possessions, or a personal reputation, in so many areas we hold on at all costs….The great paradox is that it is in letting go, we receive. [Nouwen, 2001]
Even the wonderful Prayer of St. Francis embraces the benefit of letting go: “For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.”
This is one of the great lessons of life, and in a world-wide pandemic, people everywhere are being separated by illness or death. Hopeful migrants get separated at borders, and hopeful travelers remain separated from others as they fly into a new country. I imagine some people flying into another country might find themselves in a situation like Tom Hanks’ character encountered in “The Terminal,” where he couldn’t clearly make himself understood to others, his passport was seized by US Customs, and he was stuck in a virtually deserted airport terminal. People are being separated, even by six feet. It is a different world.
Jesus’ travels were in a small region. As he made his way back and forth from Galilee to Jerusalem, it is clear that he often stopped in Bethany at the home of his friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. It was away from the prying eyes of Pharisees, and it gave him the necessary respite before he plunged into the perils of Jerusalem or made his way back to his home region of Galilee. It was a wonderful connection of friendship between all of them. So these people not only knew Jesus as a friend, they had heard of his powers too.
In our passage, the friends decided to ask Jesus for help. Mary was the one who had “anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair.” [11:2] She clearly not only cares about Jesus, but may have known that act was a burial ritual that foreshadowed what was coming for Jesus. Certainly Mary, and likely Martha, had been involved in Jewish burial rituals, the kind of actions that the women intended to perform on Jesus’ dead body at his tomb when they found he was not there. The ritual always included costly oils, and perfume, and spices. Mary may have offered the sacred ritual to Jesus as a tribute to him. So Mary honored and cared about Jesus; as did Martha; as did Lazarus, but certainly Mary exhibited her honor the most. Now it was time for a request. Their brother Lazarus fell ill, and Mary hoped Jesus would come and heal him. Martha hoped he would come too, but was surprised when he stayed away for two more days! Did Mary and Martha feel hurt? Or slighted? Jesus arrived in Bethany so many days later that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Had they anointed their brother in his tomb? The text does not say. But rabbi’s for ages had declared that a person put in a tomb who did not move for 3 days could be declared dead. No one had clear scientific ways to prove death. So three days meant one was dead. I hope some bells are ringing in your head about our own Lord being in the tomb three days! But here, Jesus came in four days. Charles Dickens might have said Lazarus was “dead as a doornail!” Jesus wanted that. He didn’t need anyone saying “Lazarus was just sleeping, and Jesus woke him up!” Many Jews had come to console Mary and Martha on the death of their brother. Such attention to grief was an important practiced ritual. Did you hear that Mary, the one who clearly honored and loved Jesus, stayed in the house when she heard Jesus was coming? I wonder what was going through her heart? Instead, sister Martha chose to go meet Jesus. She confronted him, not calling him “Jesus,” but “Lord.” “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” [11:21] And Jesus said, “Your brother will rise again.” It’s clear from her reply that Martha had a belief in a life beyond death, even before Jesus died and rose again! Amazing! She said, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Wow! Jesus must have been not only a friend, not only a Rabbi to them, but truly their Lord by his teachings. Perhaps Martha believed she would see her brother in the resurrection, but she wanted a miracle, like most people want. Everyone reads this passage, and reads the passage in Luke chapter 8 when Jesus brings a girl back to life, and wants the same results for their loved one. “Lord, you did it before! Do it again!” How often people focus on one incident, hoping it will be repeated, and pray, “Do it again, Lord!” And that’s understandable. But as Nouwen described the work of circus workers, they have to let go of the bar in order to fly through the air into the secure grip of a partner. A tightrope walker has to go out on the wire to let go of any terrifying fear that would grip him, or her. And as St. Francis prayer reminded us: “It is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.” This time, however, Jesus had a different purpose for bringing Lazarus back to life. As Martha started to cry after confronting her Lord, her Lord himself started to cry. The shortest verse in the whole Bible, according to the King James Version, is here: “Jesus wept.” [John 11:35.] Here I would want to ask Jesus the question that the founder of our Presbyterian Counseling Center, the late Dr. Dan Taylor, used to ask in counseling sessions. “If your tears could speak, what would they say?” Did the tears indicate sorrow, frustration, or exhaustion? Jesus pulled himself together, but not entirely. As the text says, “Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It is clear that everyone believed Lazarus was dead. It was believed that his body was already on its way to decomposing. But Jesus instructed that the stone to be rolled away, and then they saw the miracle for which everyone else hopes. But Jesus’ actions were not just to comfort others. It was to let them hear his prayer to his Heavenly Father as a kind of announcement: “Father, I thank you for having heard me….I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.” Jesus had a real and present purpose in raising Lazarus. It was not a forever purpose, described by Jesus to Martha when he said “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, though they die, shall live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” [11:25] That is our forever plan. Those are the timeless words and the timeless promise, even amidst the separations we encounter in life and in death. Certainly we are temporarily separated from others for now. But our forever promise, according to our Presbyterian Brief Statement of Faith, is “In life and in death, we belong to God.” And Paul, in his letter to the Romans, Chapter 8: affirms that “neither life nor death nor angels nor rulers nor things present nor things to come nor powers nor height nor depth nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God, in Christ Jesus our Lord.” This is our eternal comfort. For now we will lean on one another, and on the everlasting arms of God.
Jeffrey A. Sumner March 29, 2020