Today’s lectionary Gospel reading is John 11: 1-44 – the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. For those of us who’ve spent any time in Christian circles, we’ve heard it all before; this is a familiar story, and sometimes when stories are familiar, we tend to tune them out.
You may be thinking, “So Jesus raised Lazarus, yeah, yeah, that’s great, but it doesn’t have anything to do with us, or our society today. Dead people don’t get back up and walk around, except on TV, and that usually doesn’t end well; for them or anyone else.”
Before you tune me out, consider this. The story isn’t even about Lazarus. I mean, Lazarus does precious little in this story. He gets sick, he dies, and then he stumbles out of a tomb. Lazarus is just a supporting actor in this story. In fact, if this were a movie, Lazarus would have a very short, walk-on part. He doesn’t even have any lines! People talk about him, but only Jesus speaks to him, and Lazarus isn’t on screen when He does.
No, this story is really about the tenuous, wavering, vacillating nature of faith.
The story takes place towards the end of Jesus’ three year ministry. All of the people involved had been with Jesus for the past few years; they knew who He was and had complete faith in Him. They had seen Him perform miracles, cast out demons, and heal people of diseases – sometimes from a considerable distance. So when Martha and Mary sent word to Jesus that their brother Lazarus was very sick, there was an implied expectation that Jesus would DO something.
But He didn’t. Jesus kept doing whatever He was doing, staying right where He happened to be. By the time Jesus finally decided to go to Bethany, Lazarus was already dead and Jesus was four days late for the funeral.
Clearly this irked Martha. Not only did Jesus insult the family by missing the funeral, but He let them down by not healing Lazarus when He had the chance. When Martha met Jesus just outside of town, the first thing she said was “If you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died!” I can hear the accusatory tone in her voice. Mary followed suit a little later, with the exact same words!
Mary and Martha’s faith was shaken. They had faith that Jesus would come help them, and He didn’t show up.
Jesus told Martha that her brother would rise and live again. She was probably thinking, “Well yeah, of course Lazarus will be resurrected on the last day, just like everybody else. Duh.”
Should we be surprised by her reaction? The reality was that her brother was dead. And dead meant DEAD! Or, to paraphrase Monty Python, Lazarus was no more; he had ceased to be. He had joined the Choir Invisible. He was pushing up daisies. He was a stiff; bereft of life, he had passed on. Lazarus had expired and gone to meet his maker! Lazarus. Was. Dead.
Of course having faith means believing in things that are not seen.
When Jesus asked Martha if she believed that “everyone who believes in Me will never die,” she said she believed Jesus was the Messiah. Technically that isn’t the same thing as saying she believed Jesus would bring her dead brother back to life, especially since hospitals, ventilators and life-support systems hadn’t been invented yet. It probably never entered her mind.
Martha was having trouble reconciling what she clearly knew (her brother was dead) and what she had just experienced (his burial four days ago), with her faith in her close friend Jesus who was too late to even attend the funeral and spoke in riddles. What did that even mean, “I am the resurrection and the life?”
I think this is perfectly understandable. If I were in Martha’s shoes I would be confused and disillusioned too.
So how are we supposed to have faith that Jesus will be there for us, when everything we see and know and experience is telling us something to the contrary?
When we look at everyone who was following Jesus, we see that faith by its very nature is tenuous, wavering, and vacillating. Not one single person in Jesus’ crew had a rock-solid faith, 100% of the time; not even Peter, whose name means rock. Martha’s faith wavered. Mary’s faith was weak. Thomas was doubtful. The Jews mentioned in the story who believed in Him were baffled, and Jesus’ followers were confused.
We are in good company when our faith gets a little unsteady and wobbles a bit. Like the man who exclaimed, “I do believe! Help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24) we may have faith and doubt in equal measure. The problem is we don’t see what God is up to. Jesus waited until Lazarus was good and dead before He even set out for Bethany. He knew when Lazarus died (v. 14-15) but He also knew the real reason He had to miss the funeral – so that everyone in Bethany would “see the glory of God.” (v. 40)
Even if we can’t see what God is doing behind the scenes, we have to trust that He always has our best interests in mind. Lazarus might argue that having to die and lie moldering in a grave for four days before Jesus called him out wasn’t in his best interests. Becoming one of the walking dead must have been terrifying and extremely unpleasant for Lazarus. The whole episode was certainly a miserable experience for his sisters, but Jesus made sure the end was worth it. They just had to have faith.
So how about you – how is your faith? Does it waver or wobble? What makes it steadier?