Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Strange Occurrence at Bethany: The Tale of the Messenger Who Carried News from Mary and Martha to Jesus That His Friend Lazarus Was Dying (John 10-11)1


https://freechristimages.com/bible-stories/lazarus-raised-to-life.html Carl Heinrich Bloch "Raising of Lazarus" c. 1870

Listen, the guy was dead!  Dead – I mean dead!  Kids, I mean, ahhhhhhh, blahhhh, dead!  I’m talking about find-a-cave-with-a-hole-in-it-stick-him-in-the-hole-seal-it-up-or-you’ll-be-sorry-next-Tuesday-dead! Dead! And we were all miserable.  

See, this young guy Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha were good people in our village. I liked them.  Everybody liked them.  They’d had enough misery in their lives, what with their mom and dad dying and them having to bring each other up.  But they worked hard.

Lazarus had always been a healthy, hardworking kid brother.  He was kind of a cross between his two sisters. 

Mary is really sensitive, thinking all the time and she contemplates stuff.  When you talk to her, she’s kind of quiet and thinks over what you said and then gives these really profound insights.

Whenever Jesus comes to visit – and he does whenever he’s in the area, because he loves them all as much as we do – she drops everything and just sits along with the guys at his feet like she was in school!  And nobody says anything.  Not anymore!

Martha, her sister, complained about it – once!  See, they had all this food to get ready for Jesus and his mob, because there’s always a bunch of people following him around.  And, of course, since Jesus was in town and stopping at their place, I showed up and the whole village too - everybody always turns out to see Jesus.  You know, we’d go mobbing over to their place to hear what he said and see if maybe he’d do a miracle or anything else happened, we didn’t want to miss.

 Well, here’s Jesus, sitting in front of their house,  teaching all this wonderful stuff about the nation of God coming to earth and how we should be changing our lives because of that and here comes Martha storming out from behind the house where they do the cooking in the fire pit and she bursts right through the group, points a ladle at Mary, and says something to Jesus like: “Lord, is it of no concern to you that my sister has left me all alone to do the serving?  Tell her to come and help me”[2] (which was really kind of snippy and bossy - ordering the Lord around - but, I guess she had kind of got stuck with us all, and, I mean, I could kind of see her point.  Why should she do all the work?).

 But, Jesus was so kind and understanding with her.  He didn’t yell back at her or anything, but just smiled kind of gently and said, “Martha, Martha, you’re worried and distracted about a lot of things, but only one thing is necessary.  Mary has chosen the good portion; it will not be taken away from her.”

Now, at first I thought he was talking about food.  You know, because he said “the good portion” and Martha was cooking and all, but Mary wasn’t eating anything – oh, and then I got it.  He meant another kind of nourishment.  Something for the spirit, you see?  Then we all got it and stopped just looking for a miracle and paid more attention to what he was saying.  And, after that, nobody said anything about Mary sitting in.

So, you get an idea of the kind of people they were.  Martha was the one who held the place together after their parents died.  And contemplative Mary and nice young guy Lazarus all did their part and they got along just fine.  That is, until bit by bit Lazarus started to get sick.

It wasn’t all that much at first.  We were in the fields and I was helping out and he kept stopping to mop his brow and drink something and then he sat down for a long while and pretty soon he was showing up later and later and then he couldn’t come at all.  In fact, he wasn’t getting out of bed.

 So his sisters did what every good woman does, because, as we all know, no guy ever wants to call in a doctor.

First, they tried some home remedies.  Then they called in the village healer.  Then, when it began to look serious, they called me in to take a message to Jesus, because that’s one of the things I do as the local odd-job specialist and utility fix it man.  I’ve got a really good donkey and reasonable rates – you’ve probably heard some of my slogans, like:

· “I never shirk your job of work,” and

· “If it’s busted, I can be trusted,” and, especially,

· “When you need to send word, I’ll make sure it’s heard!”

So, you’ll all want to keep that information in mind, you know, in case you need some help in the future.

Well, anyway, the sisters send this message by me to Jesus.  You can see Martha’s style in the first half – snappy, brief and to the point, but also Mary’s hand in the second, her roundabout and cryptic way of talking about their brother.  Their message was: “Lord, listen” (that’s Martha), “the one you love is sick” (that’s Mary).   Definitely a composite – from the hearts of both the sisters.  Well, that was the message, so off I go without delay!

Where was I going?  Where was Jesus?  Nobody knew exactly, but we all had a general idea.  Because, wherever Jesus went, he caused a stir.   And word would always come back telling of all the marvelous things he was saying and doing.  It seems like every other traveler had a new account to tell.  One amazing thing after another.

Ironically, he was up around the other Bethany – not our Bethany, but, you know, the one way up in Galilee, over on the east side of the Jordan about 30 miles just below the Sea of Galilee, right across from Aenon and Salim where John did his baptizing – in fact, where John baptized Jesus.

    Our Bethany, of course, lies down in Judea on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives about one and five eights’ miles outside of Jerusalem.

    So that put Jesus about 46 miles away from us. 

    There’s a mountain road from that Bethany directly through Jericho, but it’s kind of dangerous for a lone traveler, because the hills are full of robbers – and they don’t just take all your stuff – they beat you up and leave you for dead.    So, it’s best to go with a caravan.

  You cut north at Jericho and head across the small roads to Archelais.  These weave along between the flood plain of the Jordan and the hill country, but you don’t get anywhere near Mt. Ebal.  No, you stay pretty much in the fertile valley.  There’s a ford around Jericho, as everybody knows, but there’s not much on the other side, so I stayed on our bank and worked my way up.

     Now, I mentioned my donkey is still pretty strong and fast – it can actually out-gallop a horse and a camel when it’s scared – so I figure three days if we travel well to get up there and maybe another one to find Jesus and bring him back, so we can be back home in our Bethany in about a week, figuring, of course, an extra day in for the Sabbath.

  Praise God, the trip was uneventful, and, sure enough, the crowds were getting thicker as I’m approaching Aenon.  The name means “double spring” and it really is a pretty place, with a lot of lovely willows by the waters.  And the closer I get, the more people I see!  So, I find a place to cross the Jordan and there’s Jesus himself!

  Well, he’s kind of hard to get to, between the mobs and his disciples who are trying to keep people from swarming all over him – but, me, I’m not shy – I’m yelling, “Message for Jesus from Bethany!  Message for Jesus about one he loves!” and that got their attention.

Well, I shoulder my way through the crowd and, then, there I am before the man himself!

 He’s looking as healthy as always and strong like he always is from all that physical labor when he was a fix it man like me and all that walking since. 

 But, he’s also looking tired like we’re all taking a lot out of him, but he’s still got that smile just lurking behind his serious expression and he looks at me with those clear eyes like I’m the only person on the whole riverbank and he says hello to me by name!

     I’m, of course, astounded.  I mean, sure he’s been to our Bethany a bunch of times, having friends there and all, and I’ve listened to him, but I didn’t know he’d actually noticed me in the crowd -  I mean, knew my name and all.

 He listened real intently to what I had to say and then he said to me, but also to his buddies and to the crowd as well, “This sickness is not to death, but about the glory of God, in order that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”

Well, I’m thinking, that’s good news.  Lazarus isn’t going to die.   But, we should put a move on anyway because he is extremely sick – and why should he be uncomfortable?  

So, I water my donkey, pick up some food that’s always lying around when Jesus is there, and I’m ready to head on back in the morning – if not now!

I’m figuring we can walk the donkey, since so many of Jesus’ people are on foot – and they go everywhere he goes – and, of course, with this mob we don’t have to worry about bandits – this is like a race migration!

So, I’m figuring again, okay, if we push this crowd, we can cover maybe 12 miles a day max?   At least for the swiftest.  The rest that are going six, five, four, three a day, well, they can catch up.  So, we can be back in Bethany in, say, maybe four days for sure.  That’ll work.

And then a strange thing happens.  Jesus doesn’t pack up; he doesn’t say anything more; he doesn’t move.

That day passes.  The next day passes.  The next day passes.  Two whole days more he stays there preaching and healing and his disciples baptizing new believers and then he decides to set out.

I’m thinking – come on!  Come on!  Lazarus is back home trying to hold out – I mean he was really sick when I left him and that’s over a week ago now – and we still got a half week of travel to go.

Did I say a half week?  Now I realize, this is Jesus we’re talking about.  The Prophet of Nazareth himself.  He could be stopped to heal every leper along the road!  And I’m thinking, if I don’t deliver him in time, I may not get paid! Especially, if it takes us so long that Lazarus does end up dying.

 Plus, his disciples weren’t looking too pleased with me when I told him what was up at Bethany.  And, when Jesus finally says, “Let’s go back to Judea,” sure enough, they start objecting, “Teacher, right now the Jews are looking to stone you, and you’re going back there again?”

Then Jesus said something that went right over my head and I think everybody else’s too.  He said, “Aren’t days 12 hours?  If someone walks in the day, he won’t stumble, because he sees by the light of this world.  But, if someone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in it.”  

 Okay.  I had no idea what that meant.  Maybe he was trying to say we should travel by day?  That’s fine.  Camping out at night?  No problem.  I was planning to take us all back by day anyway.  In fact, we’d just wasted two perfectly good days not traveling!  But, never mind that.

Apparently, however, that wasn’t what he was talking about, because he went on to say, “Lazarus, our friend, is sleeping, and we go to wake him up.”

His disciples must have been thinking, what’s the matter, he’s got no rooster?  We’ve got to walk four days into certain danger to wake this guy up?  One of them says, “Lord, if he’s sleeping, he’ll get cured.”

But, Jesus is talking about a different kind of light, a different kind of stumbling, a different kind of sleep – and he clues us in.  “Lazarus has died, and, so that you may believe, I rejoice that I was not there, but let’s go to him.”

Then Thomas the Twin, who was a sour and skeptical individual, grumbles to his friends, “Let’s go so we can end up dead like him.”

And all kinds of things are racing through my mind, like maybe Lazarus isn’t dead?   Maybe it’s not true?  But, look, Jesus himself said it and he always seems to know this kind of thing without being told.  So, I’m thinking, if he’s already dead, we’re wasting our time.  As it was, we probably never could have made it back in time.  But – wait a minute - hadn’t I heard about Jesus healing some Roman Centurion’s servant with just a word – and at a distance?  Why can’t he do this for his dear friend Lazarus and save us all a trip?  I mean, what’s the point of him going home with me now if it’s way too late?        

Well, the trip back was pretty anxious for me.  It took us four full days even with Jesus striding purposely along in the lead and the rest of the people turning back or trailing behind, scattered along the road for miles.

 We hadn’t even arrived on the outskirts of town on the fifth day when we started meeting travelers who told us the bad news – Lazarus had indeed died and just at the exact time Jesus said he had.

Next, here comes Martha to meet him.  She doesn’t look at me, but goes directly to Jesus and he embraces her.  We can see she’d been crying, but she’s trying to keep control of it, though it’s obvious the tears are still ranked up in her eyes and they could come marching out at a moment’s notice.

Then Martha says to him with regret and just a little bit of reproach in her voice – which is so Martha – “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  And then she says something really strange, I don’t know why.  It was like some really bizarre hope was suddenly looking out from somewhere deep inside her – maybe it wasn’t even from her, but from someplace else, because what she said was: “Even now I know that whatever you may ask God for, God will give to you.”

  Jesus picks that right up and says to her, “Your brother will rise again.”

  Well, wherever that wild hope came from shut down and it’s the old Martha talking again, because she says, “I know that he’ll rise in the resurrection in the last day,” like she’s sitting at his feet like her sister Mary does, reciting the right answer as if she were in the school where the local rabbi teaches us boys our Torah lessons.

 But Jesus isn’t teaching a class about the last day.  Instead, he says to her one of those puzzling things he’s always saying, especially before something big comes down, “I am the resurrection and the life.  The one believing in me, even if dead, will live.  And everyone living and believing in me will not die forever.  Do you believe this?”

 Martha answers right back to him, “Yes, Lord, I have always believed that you are the Anointed One, the Son of God who has come into the world.”

 Jesus nods at her and he asks for Mary and she turns around without another word and hurries back to get her sister. 

 Jesus, however, doesn’t move.  He stays in the same spot and waits.

Me, I’m feeling really uncomfortable, because Martha hasn’t even acknowledged me.  I can’t help but think she’s blaming me for not getting Jesus back on time – but I’m not the one who wanted to wait two more days up in Galilee! 

 So, I kind of fade back a little into the crowd and then here comes Mary and says the exact same thing that Martha did.  These girls certainly think alike on some occasions!

Mary, of course, falls to his feet and she’s crying away, and I can see Jesus is really moved by her sorrow. 

One thing about Jesus, he has the most tender heart of anybody I ever met.  “Where have you placed him?” he asks really mournfully.  And then Jesus starts crying.  Given that we waited two extra days up north, I’m thinking maybe he’s feeling bad about that, you know, that he didn’t hurry here.    But I soon learn that that wasn’t it at all – not in any way.

 Given what happened next, I’ve puzzled over those tears for a long time.  I mean, he must have known he was going to do what he did – that in a couple of minutes he was going to turn all their hearts to joy and all their tears to laughter – and still he cries.

I wasn’t feeling too good myself.  I never cry, but I was getting pretty close to it.  Another hour of this great sorrow might just do it.  

Mary can’t even answer him, she’s so overcome with misery. So the women with her, friends and relatives who’d come in from Jerusalem to comfort her and Martha –because, like I said, everybody loved this family – they say, “Come and see, Lord.”

So, finally, Jesus goes at their invitation.  Me, I’m trailing along behind – and that puts me back with the grumblers who are saying, “Wasn’t he able – this one who opened the eyes of the blind man – to make it so this one wouldn’t have died?”

And these complainers got me wondering too.  Maybe Jesus was never actually able to heal Lazarus.  Maybe he’s only good on the small stuff; that’s why he didn’t hurry here!  So, I didn’t try to defend him or say anything.  I just shuffled along with the rest of the crowd.  And that’s when things got really strange…

Lazarus’s tomb was a cave in the side of a small rise.  The entrance faced east.  It had been carved into a rectangle and had a large stone fitted into place over it.   Martha and Mary couldn’t afford to have grooves cut on the outside and a rolling stone to cover it.  So, friends had simply laid a stone across the entrance.   It was very sad to see the tomb.

Jesus arrived and he was obviously filled with emotion.   Then he says something astounding.  “All of you, remove the stone!”

Now, you see, Lazarus had been buried for four days.  Some of the folks standing around were superstitious, as country people are.    Some of us believe the soul hangs around the body for three days in hopes it could return to it, but, after four days, see, it gives up.  This was the fourth day, so Lazarus was unsalvageably dead.  That’s why we all mourn so heavily for three days and there’s a perceptible shift on the fourth day.  Some of us feel that’s the time when our loved one is now completely and irrevocably gone. So, Martha spoke for us all, when she said, “Lord, there’ll be a sour odor, because he’s been there for four days.”

 But, Jesus stays steadfast and he reminds her of what he’d said on the outskirts of Bethany, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believe you would see the glory of God?”  And he looks at her.  And then he glares at the crowd.   His face was full of certainty and power.  

 On impulse I just turn around and grab a corner of the rock.  Samuel, who owns the big wheat field, and John, my neighbor, who keeps a grove of almond trees, grasp hold of it too. A couple of other guys pitch in and we slide it off the front.   I know it sounds risky.  Sure, the body had been washed and anointed with perfumes and oils and even wrapped up in linen that friends had brought in from Jerusalem, but it had been four days, and none of that scented stuff was going to help it now.   But, see, we weren’t thinking about that.  We were just responding to Jesus and his commanding certainty.

So, I’m staring only at him, but he’s not looking back at us anymore.  No, he’s looking up to the sky and he’s talking to God – like God is right there in front of him.  He says, “Father, I thank you that you heard me.  And I had already known that you always hear me, but for the sake of this crowd standing around I spoke, so that they will believe that you sent me.”

 Now I’m holding my breath – and not just because I’m worried about what might leak from the tomb.  No, it’s that kind of breath-taking moment when anything might happen.

 Suddenly Jesus shouts out in an enormous voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 

   I jump like four feet in the air.   And then I hear this stirring behind me.   I’m gaping into the darkness.   I see something moving.   It’s cloth.  It’s moving!  No, it’s the dead man!   He’s still got the shroud cloth wrapped around his face and hands and feet.

My mouth drops open.  And out he stumbles.  Lazarus – alive again.  We gape at him.  We gape at Jesus.

And Jesus looks at us the way you’d look at a bunch of five year olds, as he says matter of factly in his normal voice, “Untie him and let him go.”

You know, since that strange day in Bethany, I’ve been thinking a lot about this whole incident.  I know it’s changed me.  I don’t look at things exactly the way I did before.  I still work – and I work hard – but my life is not all about wheeling and dealing for money anymore.  Jesus changed that.  He’s opened my eyes to a few things:

 like the fact that, whenever Jesus shows up, I should expect he’s going to turn things upside down, doing big actions like maybe even raising the dead (!) and other surprising things, like, for example, with the women – he encourages them to join right in and learn with men. He takes what they say seriously.  He doesn’t think the main thing they’re supposed to do is cook!

And, another thing, he cares about everybody – even people like Lazarus and his sisters and me – unimportant, everyday people.  To him, our lives are as important as anyone’s and he cares deeply about us – all of us.

  In fact, you can expect to be in a community whenever you get in with Jesus.  There’s always going to be a crowd around him, because he’s the kind of person that makes things happen.

  And don’t expect Jesus to be afraid of the stuff we’re afraid of.  He’s used to going into dangerous places and he’s apt to drag you in there with him.  So be prepared for danger!

  Also, his timing won’t necessarily be ours.  We might expect to get rescued long before we really do, because Jesus is operating on a whole different timetable than ours.

  Also expect him to say a lot of cryptic things about which you aren’t really sure what he means.  So, stop and think about them.  He’s couching spiritual truths in everyday illustrations.  They’re going to take some thought.  You’re going to have to think a little deeper.  And don’t expect the people closest to him always to know what’s up either – sometimes nobody knows what he’s up to! 

See, Jesus is always working on another plane than we are.  He doesn’t just snap to it, when we’ve got a problem or we ask him to fix something.  He’s got a mission to glorify God and be revealed himself as God’s Anointed One!  He does things so that we’ll believe that God sent him to raise all of us on the last day, if we trust in him and obey him.

Sure, he helps with our present needs, but even more so, he’s working to ensure our eternal safety.  He has a whole higher plane of concerns and values in addition to what we have and we need to focus in on them and not just on what we want out of him.

 Remember also, sometimes he waits to be invited.  He’s not just going to barge in and change everything.  He may not act if you’re not reaching out to him in your life and thoughts and values and actions.  He might just stay out there on the outskirts of your town.  So, if you want him in your life, go to him!

 And when you do, expect to be changed yourself– maybe to learn something eternal you didn’t know that will impact your life here and now - and to see miracles in your life that you never really expected (not to mention miracles all around you in other people’s lives too!).

Remember, he’s got the power of life and death in his hands.  As he said, he is “the resurrection and the life” and he proved it by making our dead friend Lazarus alive again!  So, when things look hopeless, you never know when he’s going to suddenly yell, “Lazarus, come forth!” and your whole world might right itself.

 Also, remember, he’s got the tenderest heart you ever met, so don’t give up too quickly on anyone or anything – Jesus has a way of bringing new life when you least expect it!

  Look at me – all I was concerned about was whether I’d get paid or not for bringing him a message.  Then I saw he was the One who is himself God’s Message, who holds the power over life and death in action!  Now that certainly changed me forever!  Gave me a whole new perspective on things! 

For one thing, it certainly changed my attitude toward life.  I’m less concerned about what other people think now.  Especially the grumblers.  I realize, there’ll always be people dissatisfied with what Jesus is doing.  My advice:  Ignore them.

  But, if Jesus tells you to do something – get to it!  Never ignore him.  Even if it sounds crazy – like rolling a stone away from a dead guy.  If it’s really Jesus talking - and not your own wishful thinking – jump out of that safe and selfish circle of what’s good for me, and what I think should be going down, and the way I think it’s supposed to go down, and take a chance to help some other guy who’s tied up – because Jesus may just be setting him free! 

Finally, remember this last and most important thing:  Jesus knows God’s heart and God’s will.  If you follow his example and his leading, you’ll never go wrong.  In fact, you may just find yourself in the life-giving business with him – and that’s a good one to be in!

Oh yes, and Martha paid me – and well! Thank God for a good businesswoman!



[1] This first person narrative was presented as a sermon during Lent at Pilgrim Church, Beverly, Massachusetts in March 2011.

[2] Bible verses are translated by the present author.

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