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"Place in-Between" on John 11:1-45 by Michelle Ellis - March 17, 2024

We’re continuing on our journey towards the cross, and as we do, death features more and more as a reality on that journey. In this text in John 11, there is the awareness that the last time Jesus went to Judea, people wanted to stone him. Jesus, his disciples and his friends face the reality of the premature death of their good friend, Lazarus. Directly after the story,in John 11, the religious leaders meet explicitly to plan how they will kill Jesus.

Though this story is very much about resurrection, about Jesus eventually calling Lazarus out of the grave, John, the author of this story, really slows down in the story in the space between the sickness, and the death of Lazarus and his resurrection. The space in-between the death and the rising, the space where the characters in the story are grieving, where they are facing the reality of death, this is where John slows the story down, it’s where he lingers and gives us the most detail.

This seems appropriate because I’m going to venture to say this is where we live most of our lives—in the space in-between sickness and healing, in between the death of people we love and their rising, in the space in between the brokenness of our world and Jesus renewing the face of the earth. And I wonder if that’s why John lingers there, too. What the characters do in the story in this in-between place? How does Jesus respond? I want to notice these things together as places to ground ourselves and cling to as we live in our own ‘in-between’ spaces.

Let’s slow down with John and notice especially Martha and Mary, the sisters of Lazarus, and their interactions with Jesus. The story opens with a very simple prayer in the form of a message to Jesus from the sisters, “Lord, your dear friend is very sick.” There’s no explicit request. But we can all likely hear the implicit one—‘please come.’

And yet Jesus doesn’t come. John makes a point in telling us it’s not because Jesus didn’t love them, he loved them dearly. But Jesus doesn’t come. He stays where he is for two more days, days in which whole lifetimes were passing for Martha, Mary and Lazarus. Worlds of hoping, waiting, dying and then grieving. Jesus does give a reason for not coming right away, a reason for this sickness of his friend Lazarus. But it’s not one we can easily understand, at least it’s not one I can easily understand. Jesus says this happened for the glory of God. Just like back in Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in John 3, and the passage we looked at last week in John 9 when Jesus heals the blind man, there’s a tie that Jesus makes between sickness or death and glory, some kind of tie between what looks like places of weakness and death being transformed and turned upside down and inside out into places of life. There is a mystery here, one that we can’t fully grasp. But Jesus sees it and he knows it. He names these places as places where God’s glory will be shown. Let’s try to hold that with an open heart as we explore this story together.

Eventually, Jesus and his disciples make their way to Martha and Mary. Notice that Martha, when she hears that Jesus is coming, goes out on the road to meet him before he arrives. Martha runs out to meet Jesus and says to him right away, “Jesus if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask.” Martha goes out to meet Jesus with what I interpret as trust. She says, ‘You weren’t here, if you would have been I know Lazarus would not have died, but even now I know that you can do whatever you want.‘ It’s almost as though she’s saying, Jesus, you didn’t come when I wanted but I still trust you, I still bring you my trust and my hope, my hope both in you and that death is not the end. And Jesus blesses this trust in Martha. Martha’s brother has just died. He has been dead for four days. She is deep in grief. But Martha is also clinging to her hope and trust in Jesus. And Jesus confirms this hope in Martha and invites her into a deeper hope, a deeper trust. Jesus speaks something new to Martha, beyond her belief that all will rise on the last day. He says in John 11:25-26, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never, ever die. Do you believe this, Martha?”

In my imagination, Jesus asks this question of Martha in all sincerity, not as a test, but as an invitation. An invitation to examine her heart, does she really trust this? As an invitation to trust in him, to trust in his life and the promise of what she cannot see in this painful, in-between space. In this space where she is face to face with death itself. Maybe you can hear this as a question from Jesus to you, in spaces where you are facing the reality of death, whether it be physical death, or the death of a hope, a relationship, the death of an ability you once had but have no longer have. Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never, ever die. Do you believe this?” Do you believe this? Do you trust this?

Let’s turn now to Mary. Mary, when she hears Jesus is coming, stays at home. While we certainly can’t know for sure Mary’s heart during this time, I invite you to come along with me as I imagine a possibility for this posture. Mary, along with Martha had sent a message to Jesus that Lazarus was sick. Ever since she sent that message, she has been hoping that he would come. Everyday, multiple times a day she has been looking down the road, wondering when he will arrive. She hopes and she trusts and she waits. Hours pass, days pass. She still hopes, she still waits. Jesus doesn’t come. Lazarus dies. Jesus still doesn’t come. What she has hoped for doesn’t happen. Jesus didn’t come. He hadn’t come after day one, after day two, after day three, and now it’s day four. Mary isn’t so eager to run out to Jesus when he finally decides to show up. Mary, unlike Martha, doesn’t have it in her anymore to trust or hope. Her trust and hope dried up days ago, days which for Mary, have contained lifetimes.

When Jesus specifically asks for her, Mary comes to him. Listen to her tell Jesus the exact same words her sister Martha spoke earlier, but with the marked omission of the second half. Mary falls at Jesus feet in grief and says, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Mary doesn’t express hope or trust that even now Jesus can do whatever he wants as Martha did. Mary doesn’t have anything left for that. Her words read more like an accusation, an expression of deep grief and despair. “If you had been here, my brother would not have died!”

Watch how Jesus responds to Mary. He doesn’t tell her everything will be okay, even though he knows even now what he is going to do, what will happen. He doesn’t give her the words he gave to Martha. Instead, Jesus enters completely into her grief. Jesus surrenders himself completely to the emotional impact of this whole situation. The untimely sickness, the loss of his dear friend, the grief of Mary and Martha, his own grief, the injustice of a life cut short.

It’s hard to capture the strength of the expression of emotion, or to find an English word that does justice to this word in Greek that’s translated here as ‘deeply moved’ in v 33. This word in Greek has connotations of deep anger, even of snorting as in animals. If you can imagine the kind of noise a bull might make when deeply angered, that’s the powerful kind of emotion that is being expressed here in this word. Similarly, when our text says “Jesus wept,” there is a force in the Greek that isn’t quite captured. It might be better to say, Jesus burst into tears. Jesus isn’t just expressing a gentle empathy here. We are witnessing a response in Jesus of deep grief, but also being positively upset and even outraged at human suffering resulting from death. Jesus stands beside Mary as she faces death, Jesus himself faces this death alongside her and he meets and takes on the pain of this loss, he meets it with deep grief, with anger and with tears.

Friends, know that as Jesus invites Martha and us to trust that he is the resurrection and the life in the face of the reality of death, Jesus also stands beside Mary in her grief. He doesn’t just stand beside her, but he enters into the grief with her. This is his posture too, for you, for me, for all of us when we are facing death. He grieves with us.

We’ve slowed down and looked at this place ‘in-between,’ in between Lazarus’ death and what comes next. We’ve looked at what Martha says and does, what Mary says and does, what Jesus says and does. And now I want to notice together this last part of the story. This story is a little taste of the grand story that through Jesus we trust will be our story, too. Endings matter in stories. In the ending of this story, we get a taste of what is to come in the ending of our own story, in the grand story of God’s relationship with his people and his world. We get a glimpse of the reality that is sure to be our own, just as real as the grief and brokenness we know.

In these next moments in the story, I invite you to imagine the feelings you might have if you found a small child who had been locked in a closet by a bully, and turn up the volume on your feelings one hundred times. Our text says that Jesus was still angry as he arrived at the tomb. Imagine the anger you would feel at a child being locked in a closet, the eagerness to get them out and free them. This feeling, endlessly multiplied, is where Jesus is at as he approaches Lazarus’ grave. Jesus comes to the grave, he confronts it. He commands the people around to roll away the stone, commands Lazarus to come out and for the people to unbind him and let him go. Jesus confronts death in this story and commands freedom for Lazarus, who has been held captive. And death cowers. Hear in this story Jesus posture towards death. Hear Jesus’ sense of injustice, hear his passion for his people. Hear and know his anger, hear and see his power over this bully, death, who lets go of its prey at just a word from Jesus’ mouth. Hear and know that just as surely, just as powerfully, Jesus will one day call out from the grave all those you love who have been kept in death’s clutches and eventually you yourself—“Unbind him and let him go, unbind her and let her go!” he’ll call.

Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live and never die.” Do you believe this?”


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