Scripture: John 11:1-45
I have a friend that decided to walk across Spain for lent, and has been writing a blog tracking her experiences on the famous journey known to many as el Camino de Santiago, the Way of St. James, or simply as “The Way.” Many people have made this journey and it is actually one of the most walked pilgrimages in Europe. Even the actor Martin Sheen and his son Emilio Estevez have captured it in the movie, “The Way” released in 2011.
I have had a few friends that have made this physical and spiritual journey, and at times I would love to travel that path as well, but for now I will just enjoy reading about it and keep the blisters off of my feet. The interesting thing is that people walk this path for very different reasons, and as they walk they meet people from just about everywhere in the world also walking along “The Way.” Often they do not speak the same language, or maybe they began with different people, but no matter what they build a community and a friendship that crosses cultural barriers because each person knows that they are walking a spiritual journey and they realize that to make it to the end they often need help or will be needed to help.
Each of us walks through our own journeys in life. Sure they may not be as adventurous as a 513-mile hike through rugged terrain and quaint villages, but we walk a journey. Each of us have times where the path we are on is steep or our feet ache and we can hardly take another step, and other times we can look out before us and see the views of Spanish vineyards stretching as far as we can see. We each are on a journey with different life experiences and for different reasons, each one of us walking.
This pilgrimage in Spain has been active for centuries some would say it dates back to the 9th Century. It was a journey that was to encourage a closer and more dedicated life with God. Which is a shortened and symbolic version of the journeys that Jesus made with his disciples as he actively ministered in Judea. They would walk from Galilee to Jerusalem and back several times over the course of the three years, and along the way Jesus would teach and minister to those around Him. As they walked with Christ, many including the twelve Apostles, would learn how to live and walk in the ways of God, in the light. It is no wonder that the earliest Christians were originally called followers of “the way.”
It is on one such journey that we meet with Jesus in the passage we read today. A friend of Jesus’ is ill and this man’s sisters send people out to find Jesus. Jesus is out in the countryside teaching, around where John the Baptist was teaching along the Jordon. Now this man, Lazarus was a close friend of Jesus’, as were his sisters Mary and Martha. They are mentioned several times in the Gospels, and many of those times they were a host to the traveling disciples of Jesus. This family supported and encouraged the ministry of Christ, and were encouragements to others following Jesus in “the way.” Because of the closeness of their relationship with Jesus all kinds of theories have emerged some of them we have heard, like that Jesus was married to Mary, and others are not as common, like that Lazarus might have been the disciple Jesus loved mentioned later in John’s Gospel. These of course are theories that cannot be proven historically or biblically but make interesting conversation. But what we do know is that they were close, very close, almost like family to Jesus. They provided a place of rest and a place of meeting. Their home in Bethany, in many ways was Jesus’ home.
Lazarus is ill; Mary and Martha are scared and need their friend. They believe that Jesus is the chosen one, the Messiah, and has the power to heal their brother so they cry out for Jesus. Yet Jesus does not come immediately, instead he waits. Jesus, their closest friend, waits two days knowing that Lazarus is lying on his deathbed. Just take a moment to consider the tension within this story. In our contemporary culture, it is difficult to fully grasp just how tense the situation really is. Mary and Martha live with their brother, this is very important. This means that they are not married, because if they were they would be in the husband’s house not the house of their brother. This also means that Mary and Martha would lose everything, their entire livelihood if their brother were to die. The house they live in would go to their closest male relative and they would be at that man’s mercy. It is not like today. Today it is very common for women to have a career on their own without having to solely rely on men. Today we teach our daughters to be strong and self-reliant, we let them know that they are equal to men. With that being said women in ancient Israel were not as bad off as women in other cultures. The Hebrew women had much more liberty than we may think, even though there were so many laws in the Old Testament that appear to be so negative, but still Mary and Martha lived in under the care and protection of their brother.
Mary and Martha’s lives are about to be turned upside down. All they know and have are bound to their brother, yet their only hope is waiting. Imagine what might be going through their minds. Imagine how you would feel, and also imagine those times of struggle you have had.
How many times have we been walking though our lives and it seems like everything is going wrong. We cry out to God and yet it feels like He does not even care. I have been there as I am sure many of you have been as well. I have sat crying in the dark as a sibling of mine was lying in a hospital bed. I was sitting not knowing if my sister would live and all I could do was pray and yet all the reports our family received were filled with hopelessness. I have cried several times to God, placing all my hope in His hands seemingly only to get a dial tone on the line.
What do we do in those times? We can either continue to walk along the way, or we turn away. I have done both at different points in my life. In many cases the direction I walked had a lot to do with the relationships and the encouragement of the people around me. When my sister died although I claimed faith, I can look back and see that I turned from God. I turned from Him and ran toward anything that would help distract my attention from the grief that an adolescent is not equipped to handle alone. At times, I honestly wanted the faith I grew up with to be just a myth and at other times I clung tightly to the hope that faith gave me. Eventually my choices caught up to me and I realized that though I ran, God was with me all along the way as was the community of Friends that continuously encouraged me to seek God.
At times God seems far away and unresponsive. At times God seem down right cruel, because instead of coming quickly to our rescue He waits. We wait in this tension, we wait in this cloud, and we question everything about our faith. We perceive that God has left, and are unable to see the other side because in the midst of the struggle we desire only one solution, yet God waits and we wait with each other.
Those with Jesus knew the deep relationship with this family; they knew that Jesus loved this man and his sisters. Yet they too had their own issues and struggles. When Jesus announced that they would head to Judea they pleaded with Jesus to turn away. “Rabbi, The Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” they cried out. Each one Mary, Martha, Lazarus, and the twelve disciples were walking uniquely on the way with Jesus. Each one had an idea of who and what Jesus was or should do. Each one had a need and a desire for Jesus to fulfill. The disciples knew the love that Jesus had for Lazarus, yet they pleaded with Jesus to stay away. How often do we oppose the desires of God in our lives? How often do we know the right direction to walk yet in our own wisdom we plead that God just have some sense and go our way instead? And we respond like the disciples, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.”
I have justified many actions. I have used the things I have learned in school and the things I have experienced to rationalize various situations. There are times where I have walked full steam ahead without giving a second thought to God; I have tried to avoid leadings, and times where I have argued with God. At times God just does not make any sense, yet there are times where the message is very clear.
“Lazarus is dead.” The jaws of the disciples dropped, no longer could they rationalize or avoid the situation, because things just got real. Thomas then pipes up and says the bravest thing, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” We may think Thomas is being a wet blanket but really he is courageous. The leaders of the Jews want to kill Jesus but Thomas after hearing the full story says, “We must go to Martha and Mary even if it means we too may die.” I have been in those situations as well. Where the calling has been so strong even though the rational mind says this is stupid and will ruin me, yet I am compelled to follow Jesus even if it would cost me everything. Most of you do not know how often people advised against me entering ministry, or even moving here to Kansas City. In their minds it was not logical and it would be a waste, but the call was so strong that like Thomas I would go even if it killed me.
So they go and Martha runs to meet Jesus on the road. “Lord, if you had been here…” she cries. Mary too runs to meet him crying, “Lord, if you had been here…” This is the beauty of the story. Yes it is pretty cool that Lazarus gets raised from the grave and all but these two conversations are beautiful. We get to see just how much Jesus loves this family, and in the process I hope we can learn how to be better encouragers along the way.
Jesus lets both Martha and Mary talk. He listens to them and responds very differently to each. With Martha he speaks and teaches. But with Mary he keeps his mouth shut and weeps with her. Mary and Martha have two very different personalities and respond differently to the stress and grief they experience. For Martha she needed encouraging words and sound doctrine. Mary just needed someone to help her carry her emotions. Jesus met them where they were, and was with them through the pain.
Every one of us has, have had, or will have stress and pain in our lives. We experience and respond differently when those painful events happen. Some of us internalize the stress and others are more open to express. Just like those that walk el Camino de Santiago, each person is there for a different reason, but each needs encouragement and to encourage those around them to keep walking. As those people walk through Spain they talk and get to know each other. They learn about their families and hear quirky stories about their life. The church and the Christian life is like that journey, a path we walk down. Before we can be an encouragement we first walk with each other, hear the stories and eventually begin to go deeper. Friendship begins with our ears. Jesus let the women talk before he did anything.
Only after we really listen can we respond. But how do we respond? If Jesus had cried with Martha it would not have been an encouragement to her, and if he had blasted theology to Mary she would have been devastated. We all have different personalities and need different types of encouragement at different times. We may be uncomfortable with the type of encouragement someone else needs, but guess what Church, or the Journey we walk with Christ is not about us. True we are part of the church and the journey, but the most important aspect is about how we can become like Jesus to become an encouragement to others. There is a time to speak and a time to listen; there is time for teaching and a time to be emotional. There are times to be angry and times we need to let go, but our response should be tempered to the personality of the one we are encouraging. That is how we build community. That is how we build friendship. That is how we become disciples and Friends of Christ.
As we center down and enter into this time of open worship or holy expectancy let us consider Jesus’ responses to these very special women. As we pray and commune with God as Friends in the silence, let us consider how we can become a better encouragement to those around us. As we contemplate on the grief of these women let us be open about our own pain and struggles, releasing them to God and seeking encouragement from others because life is too big to walk alone. And as we imagine the excitement of that day when Lazarus walked out of the tomb let us remember that through it all there is power and hope in Jesus. Who came down from heaven to share life with humanity, who invested time showing us how to live a life with God, who took our sin and shame to the cross and buried them in a grave, and who releases us from the burdens and bondage of them as He rose on the third day. Let us become a people loving God, embracing the leadings of the Holy Spirit, and living the love of Christ with other.