Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
It is said that sisters never quite forgive each other for what happened when they were five. That may be true. Others add, “More than Santa Claus, your sister knows whether you’ve been bad or good.” That is most definitely true- at least in our family. Charles Schultz, the creator of the cartoon strip Peanuts once said critically, “Big sisters are the crab grass in the lawn of life.” I would never say such a thing- in front of my sisters.
Unfortunately, sweet Martha of Bethany has always been portrayed poorly as the dominating older sister, all because of the scene in St. Luke’s gospel where she pressures Jesus into sending her younger sister Mary back into the kitchen where she belongs. Even in the dramatic, closing scene from St. John’s gospel of Jesus raising of Lazarus from the dead, we see only the awkward and nervous, hand wringing sister Martha pleading with Jesus, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” It’s too bad that that is all we see. The full story reveals a very different older sister who is faithful, trusting and confident, and who Jesus chooses to offer one of his most beautiful and powerful sayings, “I am the resurrection and the life.”
The story begins simply enough, “Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of the Mary and he sister Martha.” Jesus was told that his friend Lazarus was ill, and near death, but for some unknown reason Jesus waited to visit him. He waited so long, that when he arrived, Lazarus was already dead and in the grave for four days. When Martha heard that Jesus was at last on his way to Bethany, she went out to meet him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” If only, yes, if only.
How many times have those words been on your lips these past 19 months? If only we had known how long this pandemic would last. If only we had taken advantage of the time we had and the opportunities that we had available to us. How many families this past year postponed a wedding, a funeral, a baptism, a family gathering, only to find themselves playing the “if only” game instead.
Surprisingly, even with her brother’s death Martha went on to say, “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” And Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” And without flinching Martha voiced the right theological response, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Isn’t that why we are all gathered here this All Saints Day. We know the right theological response. We believe in the resurrection. It is the word of comfort and consolation that we offer friends when a loved one has died. We say, “They’re in a better place.” We take our beloved family members into a warm embrace and whisper, “It’ll be alright. They’re with God now.” It is a word of hope for those who believe that death is not end. And it is the promise of life everlasting that nurtures us until our own death is near. The words, however, also painfully recognize that death is the final enemy that disrupts our lives and turns the once familiar and life -giving patterns upside down. It creates a chasm between our loved ones and us. Yes, death is hard- especially for those who are left behind. But Martha’s faith held another conviction. She was confident of the resurrection, but like a good and wiser older sister, she also knew that there was something more now.
When the younger sister Mary finally came to Jesus, she too sighed “Lord, if only.” And she wept, and we read that Jesus wept. No doubt, there were skeptics who chided Jesus for not arriving earlier. As he wept beside the tomb of his friend Lazarus, they whispered curiously., “See how much he loved him!” While others remarked, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” With these words, Jesus became angry and disturbed in spirit.
So why was Jesus angry? Was he angry at himself? After all, he had chosen to wait until Lazarus had died and then told his disciples that he was going to Bethany to wake Lazarus from his sleep. To Martha, he had already spoken one of the most cherished and important promises. “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, though they die, will live. And everyone who lives, and believes in me, will never die.” He asked her, “Do you believe this?” And she confessed unflinchingly, “I believe you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”
Was Jesus critical of the crowd? Was he so deeply distressed over the failure of those around him to believe his message of eternal life? Perhaps foolishly, he had assumed that his followers would not grieve like others who had no hope. Certainly, Jesus was angry with death. Maybe he had underestimated the power of the final enemy even on his most faithful followers- including you and me. When death strikes we can be shaken to the core. Death can make us feel alone in our angry thoughts at God and ourselves and we are robbed of joy.
My friends, if that has been your experience this past year. Let me share with you this good news Jesus first shared with the anxious but trusting older sister Martha. He is both the hope of the resurrection for the future and the promise of renewed life now. When all the world seems to be crashing down around you, God will give you new life again. When sin and evil overtake you, God will breathe a new spirit into your life again. Even though your dreams and hopes have been shattered, Jesus will enter your life bringing you new dreams and new hopes again. And it Jesus’ promise of new life that will ultimately sustain you until the promised day of resurrection when you will gather together again God will wipe away every tear from your eye.
The story of the raising of Lazarus teaches us that there is something worth celebrating this All Saints Day. In Bethany Jesus was surrounded by watchful eyes. Some were doubtful, and others were quite hostile. Some hoped to see a complete failure and a ridiculous collapse. Jesus lifted his eyes and heart to heaven in thanksgiving for what he knew that the Father would give him. “Father, I thank you for having heard me.” And then Jesus said, “Come out.” And Lazarus came forth alive. The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him and let him go.”
That is the powerful message of new life that Martha trusted. “Even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” It is true for us today as well. Jesus is standing near the broken, stenchy, exhausted lifeless places, and calling forth an unimagined new life. It may not be the life you envisioned, but let me assure you God is calling you out of death into a new life he has envisioned for you. Like the dutiful Martha, God is freeing people from death and the fear of death now, not simply so that they can be on their way to heaven, as wonderful as that may be, but he is also raising us up from our own sorrowful graves so that you and I we can serve him, enjoy him and his life and be his living witnesses to his life-giving power. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.