Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
As Americans, we have grown to trust the US Postal Service’s unofficial motto, “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” Surprisingly, the phrase is actually 2500 years old and was written 500 years before the birth of Christ. It comes from the book The Persian Wars by Herodotus, a Greek historian. During the wars between the Greeks and Persians, the Persians operated a system of mounted postal couriers who served with great fidelity. When the firm of McKim, Mead & White designed the Manhattan Post Office in 1914, one of the firm’s architects, William Mitchell Kendall, the son of a classics scholar selected the inscription to be etched into the entrance of the building as a tribute to the history and integrity of the courageous couriers. Hence the US Postal Service motto, “Neither snow nor rain.”
I am sure that Mary and Martha assumed that Bethany’s own courageous couriers would complete their appointed rounds, placing into Jesus’ hands the message they had written, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” They trusted that he would immediately abandon all other activities to come to them. So when, he didn’t show up in Bethany, they were convinced that the letter had been lost in the mail. After all Jesus loved them and not just as a family, Jesus loved them individually as Mary, and Martha, and Lazarus. Yes, and the two sisters believed in Jesus and confessed that he was the Messiah, even before he had raised their brother from the dead.. How could it be that Jesus knowingly stayed away from their family in their hour of greatest need?
Today’s gospel reading is often referred to as the raising of Lazarus, but if St. John had merely intended to portray the dramatic raising of Lazarus from the dead and restoration of Mary and Martha’s beloved brother to their lives he could have edited the passage down to a few verses. No, I rather suspect that reading is really about Mary and Martha’s confidence of faith, that in spite of the deep pain, trauma and death they experienced, that Jesus could restore life again.
We don’t know why Jesus loved Mary and Martha and Lazarus. Seldom do we know or understand why a person draws a connection to our heart. But Jesus knew that he could always find a quiet and inviting place in their home in Bethany. While the nation gathered at the royal court of Herod to devour the eloquent words of political and religious pundits, Jesus trusted that in Bethany, Mary would listen contently at his feet to his gentle teaching. While the Pharisees and scribes feasted in the Jerusalem’s banqueting halls surrounded by servants, in Bethany, Jesus welcomed the anxious but effective Martha who would prepare meals for her honored guest. While Rabbis sought the affirmation of the masses in the Temple’s portico, Jesus counted on the companionship of his unassuming friend Lazarus in Bethany. Yes, they were Jesus’ loving and steadfast friends. He could count on them for loyalty, support and gracious love. So, isn’t it surprising, that when Jesus and his disciples heard word from Mary and Martha that their brother Lazarus was ill, that Jesus would stay where he was teaching two days longer? But that is what he did. Remember that when your Pastor doesn’t show up at your doorstep when he hears word that you’re sick. It’s because he loves you so much. And so we read that only after Lazarus had died, did Jesus travel on to Bethany.
Obviously, God doesn’t prevent bad things from happening to good people- even those he loves. Martha and Mary were not spared pain. That is, of course, the main criticism of the Christian faith. Why doesn’t an all-powerful God prevent these thinks from happening. Why does it seem that our prayers go unanswered, and that our messages to God are lost in the mail. Bad things do happen and God doesn’t prevent it from happening. In these moments, our thoughts and cries echo those of Mary and Martha and the crowds who surrounded them in their time of loss. Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. Lord, if you had come two days earlier he would still be alive. Apologetic Christians try to explain these things away and defend God, but their explanations often only make things worse.
In spite of the death of her brother Lazarus, Martha trusted Jesus. He said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” Jesus never told those who believed in him that they would not die physically. Clearly, all will die and will need to be raised from the dead. Some theologians argue that Jesus was focusing on the hour of death, when we breath our last breath, and arise in the newness of life. It is a discomforting thought, and as the saying goes “Everybody want to go to heaven, but no one wants to die to get there.”
There was, however, something about Jesus’ presence that inspired Martha to tell her sister Mary that, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” When they met, Jesus saw her pain, and he began to weep. And why did he cry, certainly not for his friend Lazarus? He knew what was to happen. No, he wept because of his friends’ sorrow. This is the empathy, the sympathy, the tenderness, the kindness of God manifested in Christ. It is a reminder to everyone that God has compassion and empathy for you in your time of loss.
But know that there is a promise for you as well. God is there all along with you, in your sorrows, and in your tears. That is the nature of God’s love that the miracle of Lazarus reveals. We trust in a God who is with you and will not leave you, a God who empties himself in love for you, a God who weeps and suffers and dies with you, promising that you are never alone.
My friends, be patient with God. Waiting for Jesus is the lesson we learn from Mary and Martha. Even though all hope was lost, and Lazarus had died, they still waited; for what? They did not know. And yet it was in the midst of this waiting that God’s power and glory entered. God’s timing is different than ours. Yes, even when all seems lost, hold on for a while longer and allow God to act on your heart in his own good time. That is the truth that we glimpse even more clearly at the hour of Jesus’ own death on Good Friday. Be patient with God. Even if the courageous couriers have been stayed. “He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?” Watch Jesus and wait. For those who place their trust in God- Jesus’ resurrection at Easter and the promise of life everlasting is not a surprise, but it will be a promise fulfilled. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep you hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.