Death is something of a problem! The Gospel today, taken from John chapter 11, tackles the very real question of the significance of death full on. Jesus is good friends with this family of Lazarus and his two sisters, Mary and Martha. So naturally, when Lazarus is sick, the sisters send Jesus a message to tell him the man he loves is ill. The first curious detail in this story is that at first, Jesus doesn’t move. He stays where he is for two more days. Perhaps so that he can pray and seek the will of the Father about whether this was now the time for him to make his final move and finally reveal his identity in this very public way, with all the risks that involved. Eventually Jesus makes his way to Bethany, to discover that his friend has died and has already been in the tomb for four days. Martha greets Jesus with a declaration that so many people have said over the years – ‘if only you’d been here!’ It’s a terrible thing to say – to have such regrets: ‘if only I left work earlier’; ‘if only she’d gone to the doctor sooner’; ‘if only the other party had been elected…’
Really it’s a kind of nostalgia, for a present that might have been, if only the past has just been a little bit different. But something like death is so final that we are prevented from allowing this nostalgia to take hold. Here we are told that when Jesus makes his way to the tomb and experiences the intense grief of the sisters and the crowd, he also bursts into tears. Love and grief is like this. This God will cry with the world’s crying. And still he will reach into the tomb of death and decay and speak life once more into the four-day dead Lazarus.
Nothing captures the reality of that death like the reminder of Martha that her brother will now stink. But even though so much of what we do and so much of what we say continues to stink, it will never prevent Jesus from shouting his commandment of life into every situation we face. Like every thought that holds us captive, Jesus will speak life and freedom this week into any situation we face. And the things that we are so afraid of – like death – will no longer stink.
Recorded at St Paul’s, 6pm Vigil (10’16”)
Sunday 5, Season of Lent, Year A. John 11:1-45
The text above is from the Journey Radio program. Audio is available here.