Death is almost always a topic we shy away from. We are not comfortable with it. Some of us fear it for ourselves and our loved ones. As a hospital chaplain, I sat with many people as they passed from this life to the next. Some resisted death bitterly. But there were others who found comfort at the prospect of meeting their Savior. These believers realized that God is with them even in death.
I have often wondered what Martha and Mary must have felt when Lazarus died. After all, they were close friends with Jesus. He had come to their house to eat with them and teach at their table. They sent Jesus a message telling him that Lazarus, their brother and his friend, was gravely ill. And then they waited. One day. Two days. Three days. Four days. And now it was too late. The funeral had already taken place.
In fact, the seven days of intense Jewish mourning was already past the half-way point. It was beyond the point of no return when Jesus decided to go to Bethany, their hometown.
When Martha heard that Jesus was nearby, she quietly and discreetly left her house and sister. Her friends had come to mourn with them and console them. I can just imagine Martha’s state of being as she ran. Oh, yes! I am confident that she ran to meet Jesus. Her heart was aching and almost ready to burst. Martha wanted to lash out. And she did. The moment she saw him, she spewed out, “Where were you Jesus? You know, if you had been here, Lazarus would not have died.”
Her words to him were indeed stinging. She had been holding in all of her pain. Jesus calmly and lovingly told her, “Your brother will rise again,” to which she sarcastically replied, “Yes, Yes, I know that!” But with every beat of her heart, she was really saying, “I wanted you here to prevent this horrible thing from ever happening.”
Meanwhile, Jesus continued saying, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me even though they die will live.” Then Jesus asks her a very pointed question, “Martha, do you believe this?” To which Martha responded, “Yes, Lord I believe.”
The next scene has Martha whispering into Mary’s ear. Martha tells her sister that she had just met with Jesus and now he was asking to see her. Without a word, Mary jumps to her feet and bolts out of the house. This is what she had been waiting for. It’s not as though Mary had no regard for the house full of friends. Rather, her heart and her soul, troubled as they were, needed tending. They needed relief. She needed to see Jesus. Their friends naturally assumed that Mary must have left to go to the tomb. So they followed her. When Mary encountered Jesus she dropped to her knees right in front of him. I can just imagine her tears coursing down her already chapped cheeks as she looks up at Jesus and boldly states “Lord, IF you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Her pain causes her to blame Jesus for Lazarus’ death. Both she and her sister believed that their brother’s death could have been prevented. He died, so they lashed out.
One of my father’s friends, Dr. Tomas Rivera, wrote about his migrant life in the 1940’s and 50’s. As a young boy, Tomas and his family would travel from our hometown of Crystal City to where ever field hands were needed. In spite of his later success, he never forgot the challenges of his formative years. In his book, Y no se lo Trago la Tierra, (“And the Earth Did Not Devour Him”) he talks very personally about the topic of death in his family.
Tomas blamed God for their troubles. In fact, he cursed God for his father’s near death due to sunstroke. Even when he learned that his father was on the road to recovery Tomas stubbornly refused to repent. “I looked towards the ground and I gave it a strong kick and said, ‘Not yet, …you cannot devour me yet.’”
What Tomas, Mary, and Martha did not realize was that God is present with us at all times, even during our times of pain and grief. St. John records that Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus. Jesus was saddened to see his friends in such agony. He asks the question that any of us would ask when a loved one or a friend dies. “Where have you laid him? Where is he?” When Jesus walks with Martha and Mary to the tomb he experiences a personal time of turmoil. Bystanders openly declared, “See how he loved him!”
The tomb was really nothing more than a cave with a very large stone lying against the entrance. Jesus tells them, “Remove the stone” Martha, being the practical sister, starts to fidget and worry and then when she could no longer keep silent, she asks Jesus, “Do you really think that we should do that? Lord, by this time there will be a stench, for he has been dead four days.”
There is as much life in that cave as in Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones! Yet, Jesus speaks words of life with a loud commanding voice. “Lazarus, come forth!”
I am confident that Mary and Martha must have all stood with baited breath not knowing what to say. Their unblinking eyes must have been fixed on the opening of that cave. Was it possible? Were their ears deceiving them? Did they really hear the shuffling of bound feet? Some of the onlookers must have fainted. Others must have stood with mouths agape, their eyes as large as saucers while others screamed with delight as they witnessed their once-dead friend walk out of the darkness of the tomb into the sunlight.
I can imagine the first words out of Lazarus resonating from the mouth of the cave, “From the depths I cried out to You, O Lord!” Whatever happened, they were all in shock! Not a single one of them even thought of running to Lazarus to unbind him. What a scene that must have been! Death, at the command of Jesus, released its claim and Lazarus was restored to life! The earth did not devour him!
In our darkest moments, we can live our life filled with resentment stomping the ground and shaking our fists at God in a heated rage. Or, we can put our faith in Messiah’s lordship over life and death. We don’t have to witness a resurrection, as did Mary and Martha. We have the assurance that God is with us. We can put our trust in the words of Jesus who said, “I am with you always, even to the end of the World.”
Rev. Thelma Herrera Flores, MAR is an ordained United Methodist Deacon. She teaches World Religions in the Department of Philosophy at Tarrant County College in Fort Worth, Texas.