John 11:1-45 – The 5th Sunday of Lent – for Sunday, April 6, 2014
“Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’” (John 11:39)
Jesus had left for Ephraim with his disciples.
Mary was tending to Lazarus, by his bed while he slept. (And ate and slept and ate a little more.)
The crowds had dispersed. So many of our neighbors, along with the curious and suspicious, had traveled from the tomb to our home. They’d asked questions, whispered and schemed. There were those that loudly boasted they’d now follow Jesus to heaven or hell or Jerusalem or wherever he led. There were those already exaggerating my brother’s rebirth, telling of Jesus’ casting magical spells or seeing bolts of lightning before the rock at the tomb was removed or hearing angelic mutterings. And there were those who silently watched, never joining in the backslapping and cheering. They skulked away after they’d witnessed Lazarus emerging from the darkness. I knew they despised my brother and resented Jesus. I knew where this last group would go. They may have been close-mouthed here in Bethany, but a few hours later—mark my words—they’d conspire with the priests in the Temple or the Roman soldiers . . . and more likely both.
There was no safe place. Not in Bethany. Not anywhere.
But there was one place where I could be alone. I needed to think. Needed to pray. Needed to ask for forgiveness.
And so I’d returned to my brother’s tomb. Now empty, the hordes gone, and with this long, disturbing, divine day coming to a close. I reassured Mary I’d return before dark. Tonight, I’d stay by Lazarus’ side and give my sister a chance to rest.
In the cool shadow of the tomb’s threshold, its wide opening like a mouth forming a shout, I recalled the last days.
I told everyone, especially when the night of the third day came, that the stench from the tomb was a dead animal. A rat. A mole. A bird dragged inside by a feral cat. The stench was not my brother Lazarus.
I swore it on the day we anointed him with myrrh and wrapped him in the swaddling clothe and gently laid him in the tomb . . . Lazarus has not died! I repeated it moments before Jesus arrived four days later . . . Lazarus had not died! Everything I said, I wanted to believe. If I said it enough, wouldn’t I believe?
And yet here in the afternoon stillness, in the baked air of the tombs of bones and memories, remembering these past days and the last words I spoke with Jesus, I am a pillar built of doubts. Of fears. Of dread.
I believed Jesus would come to Bethany. He did (eventually). I believed Jesus could beckon my brother back to life. He did (amazingly). All of that I believed, and more. I believe in God. I believe in Moses’ Holy Commandments. I believe in yeast causing bread to rise for our daily meal. I believe in the morning sun and the new day. I believe in the healing sound of a child’s laugh. I believe in the blessing of seasons, of the cycle of rain and drought, of winter cold and summer heat.
But I don’t believe in myself.
An awful fragrance lingers. Even as the warm breeze of the waning day swirls in and through this stone cave, the faint odor reminds me of my dread.
Lazarus lives, but he will die. Some day. There will be a final breath.
Mary, younger but so much wiser than I can ever become, will also die. Some day. There will be a final breath.
But they seem ready. Lazarus, who claimed the gift of silence and listening as a child, doesn’t fear death. Mary, who long ago learned the gift of asking the right questions and an eagerness to learn, doesn’t fear death.
How has my life mattered? Like those before and after me, I cook, clean, mend, tidy, sweep, bake and a thousand other chores that keep a household running. I like doing them all. I like serving others. But I want everything to continue as it is. I want Lazarus to praise my soup or tell about the events of his day. I want Mary to vow she’ll set the table soon (though she never puts out a dish) while she asks her endless questions. How does leaven work? Where does the sun go at night? Why can’t women be priests?
I want nothing to ever change.
It already has.
Like this tomb: filled, now empty.
A thousand blooming flowers wouldn’t cleanse the stench souring every breath. But the odor isn’t from rotting flesh. It is my dread.
Just before he left for Ephraim, I grasped Jesus’ arm.
“Thank you,” I said. “For Lazarus.”
My dearest friend nodded.
“Some say you plan to go to Jerusalem . . . again . . . for Passover.”
I told the one who knew me better than any what happened after Lazarus rose from the tomb. I told him of the heartless men that scurried away, with devilish plans filling their hearts, soon to scheme with the Romans and the Pharisees.
I said, “Before Passover, please visit, at least for a meal. You’ll want to see how Lazarus is doing, won’t you?”
“Of course, Martha.”
“When Passover ends, come back here. This is your home too. Stay a spell. Rest. And you know Peter and Andrew and the others are welcome. Please . . . come . . . after Jerusalem.”
My dearest friend gently released the grip of my hand on his arm. He kissed my cheeks. He brushed hair from my eyes. And then he whispered in my ear, his breath like a thousand blossoms. With a gaze that still haunts me, he looked at me one last time before turning toward Ephraim. His disciples closed around him. In a few heartbeats, he was gone. Down the path. Over a rise. On his way. The only evidence of his presence was stirred dust; the breeze swept that away in seconds.
Jesus kept every promise he made. I can still feel his breath as he whispered farewell to me. He never promised to return here after Passover.
In the tombs, for the first time, I wept.
Everything was about to change. The worst I could imagine would be worse than I could imagine.
I prayed, asking God to forgive me . . . for I wanted nothing to change. It was my sin.