There are a lot of different ways we hear this admonition: being in the moment; living in the present; being mindful; launch yourself on every wave; find your eternity in each moment. Since we don’t know how long we’re given, or even what the quality of our lives will be, we are encouraged to live our lives as though there is no tomorrow.
We’re reminded of this everyday. A brother dies in a car accident. A neighbor has a heart attack while gardening. A classmate takes her life. An argument gets out of hand and one man shoots another. Even a long illness or a long life isn’t long enough to fully prepare us for the finality of death. And yet, we are asked to live our lives as if death could come at any moment.
Lazarus, and his sisters Mary and Martha, were great friends of Jesus. They lived in Bethany, a suburb of Jerusalem. Whenever Jesus had business in Jerusalem, it was likely that he stayed with his Bethany friends. So when Jesus gets word that his close friend has died, he stays away two more days! He had his reasons.
I know this is another long scripture passage. As you read it to refresh your memory of the story of Lazarus being raised from death, pay attention to the undramatic parts. See if something new and fresh peeks out.
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home.Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done. ~ John 11:1-46
There are so many powerful messages in this passage that we often overlook the most simple and profound.
When my brother died unexpectedly sixteen months ago, my parents, sister and I were loosely comforted knowing we each had talked with him that day. Of course, we went over every nuanced detail looking for signs of what we might have missed, but in the end, we knew there were always going to be unanswered questions.
Martha is looking to Jesus for those answers about her brother. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” What could have been done differently to give a different outcome? What strikes me is how asking the questions and expressing those regrets is really a sign of love. Jesus doesn’t try and talk over her or dismiss her comments. He gives her the space to ask her questions and express her grief.
Jesus tells her that her brother will rise again and Martha even comes back with a religiously appropriate response about a future resurrection. I hear Martha acknowledging resurrection as some abstract concept that happens so far in the future that it has no meaningful impact on her in this moment. Maybe I’m wrong about Martha, but that’s how I often think about the resurrection. “Yeah, I believe in the resurrection and that I will see my brother again one day, but so what? By then, it will be out of my hands and I’ll be dead too, so what?”
But Jesus isn’t talking about some abstract doctrine that has no bearing on this moment now. I imagine Martha is looking behind with some measure of regret and forward with some measure of hope. But Jesus cups her face in his hands, looks directly into her eyes, and says, ““I am the resurrection and the life.” I am here and now the resurrection and the life.
The point is Jesus and the Gospel make a tangible difference now, make things possible now, open up opportunities and options now, transform relationships now. The promises of God are present tense, not just future. As we journey through Lent, let’s remember that we journey in the company of the resurrection and life now, even when we journey through grief, regret, or forlorn hope.